Not a crisis of vocation but of culture: Formation for religious life today

Gemma Simmonds CJ writes on recent research into the reasons for entering religious life and the challenges which new entrants face on joining new communities.

‘If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away’ (2 Cor. 5.17).

A recent research project on the experience of British and Irish women who explored a vocation to religious life in the years between 2000 and 2020 makes clear that, despite the drastic fall in numbers of those joining religious congregations, the guiding story or ‘myth’ that religious life represents is still strongly attractive to many today.1 In this sense, there is no crisis of vocation as such. Women and men of widely varied ages and life experience are still hearing the call to join religious communities. The crisis that appears to exist is one of culture, where perseverance in a religious vocation can depend on the ‘fit’ between the individual and the community entered and the understanding on both sides of what religious life is. This requires effective vocations strategies but also an understanding of the kind of religious formation that is fit for purpose in the face of the radically different landscape of today’s religious life from that of previous generations.

Those who respond to the primordial baptismal vocation through religious life live it in relationship with the rest of the people of God and the world in general. Learning to live the life of the vows within community requires formation in both the private and communal dimensions of religious life. This involves personal conversion but also the acquiring of the skills and instinctive virtues needed to negotiate community life and develop a new identity as a person given over to this way of being one’s truest self. In that sense, it isn’t far distant from the way in which marriage is not just about two people coming together and negotiating each other’s living patterns but about a fundamental change in identity, through which an ‘I’ becomes a ‘we’, although for that to happen successfully, neither ‘I’ needs to be entirely subsumed by the new ‘we’.
This growth into a new identity within religious life can be a powerful draw with its connotations of starting afresh, healing, personal renewal and a different way of constructing society in a desired and deliberate rejection of today’s consumerist secular culture. It is inevitable that when a person gives up some of the standard markers of adult, autonomous life such as their own home, freedom of movement and of determining their finances, work, lifestyle and relationships, they will feel a strong initial sense of disorientation and dislocation. A formation which encourages an autonomy predicated on freedom in Christ is essential if the new religious is to become a mature, integrated and fully rounded person.

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