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Religious life not business as usual

By James Buchok


WINNIPEG — Religious life has a future, but it’s not going to be “business as usual” according to an American nun, attorney and canonist. “We can’t reinvent the past. We’re not going back to having a thousand members,” said Amy Hereford, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet from St. Louis, Mo.

But having fewer numbers is not a bad thing, said Hereford. “Smaller groups of men and women religious have more energy and ability to take what they have received and bring it forward.”

Hereford spoke in Winnipeg April 26 at the National Conference on Vocations sponsored by the National Association of Vocation/Formation Directors. She has been in religious life for 25 years and holds degrees in spirituality, communication, and civil and canon law. She consults with many religious institutes on a variety of legal matters.

Hereford reminded her audience that it was small groups of religious that came from Europe to North America, just as her order did with six sisters sailing from France to America in 1836. “They came and did what they had to do and they made it happen through the tradition of handing on, the giving over of our charism. In the old days they started a hospital. Today, religious are helping other groups, they are collaborating.”

In her 2013 book, Religious Life at the Crossroads: A School for Mystics and Prophets, Hereford explores the current situation of religious, re-imagines the meaning of vows, community, and mission, and examines how the emerging forms of religious life will fit into an emerging church.

“We don’t know where we’re going: I hear that a lot in religious life,” Hereford said. “But we know what is, is not sustainable, it’s passing away.”

She said religious orders in North America experienced 100 to 200 years of growth, with a peak in the 1960s followed by years of steady decline. “By 2050 we’ll be back to where we were in 1800,” she added, meanwhile the U.S. population and the Catholic population have been growing. The notable garb of the religious was once a uniting factor, but those days too are long past. “Now, we’re just not visible.”

“Maybe we need a marketing makeover,” suggested Hereford. “Maybe we need risk takers.”

Hereford asked how vocations can be promoted “and who would form newcomers if they come? Is it time, for now, to not accept vocations. Is it time to be inviting new people?”

Hereford asked how a group of elderly women can welcome a young novice. “How does she find a place in the community and how does the community find a place for her in their hearts and in their homes? Can we support the person? They’re not coming to stay in our guest room, we are welcoming them for life, but who will be around for her 50th anniversary?”

She said communities have told her nobody has entered and stayed for the past 10 to 20 years. “It might be more helpful to say ‘we have been unable to attract and retain,’ instead of, ‘it was their problem, there was nothing we could do.’ But if we say ‘we have been unable’ then we are taking responsibility.”

Hereford said it’s sometimes best that not the whole community do the inviting but there exist “pockets of energy to attract sisters and brothers. It is the work of a few, not the whole community. Communities are founded by a handful and renewed by a handful and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Hereford said In the U.S. one-quarter of a million women have seriously considered religious life. “Where are these women? They are probably not hanging out in our comfort groups. There are young folks out there fascinated by religious life. They work in soup kitchens and in the community and they want to commit to something bigger than they are. It’s a matter of connecting with them. People are sensing that call from God.”

Hereford said the best advertising “is our communities. How many of us were brought in by those in the community?” But, she added, recruiters have to be willing to reach out of their comfort zone.

“The folks that come in and shake us up offer a chance for renewal. They provide the opportunity to tap into a tradition and bring it forward, to reinvent religious life for a new age and a new church.”

In her book, Hereford writes that the disappearance of religious orders is not to be mourned but honoured. “They are not giving up but are letting go of ministries and of many of the works and institutions they have served admirably for a century or more. They know the time is right for this; it is not defeat but rather a completion of an impressive chapter in the history of religious life. It is not denial of the dream but affirmation that the dream is fulfilled. It is not dying; it is really living.”

Hereford likened modern-day religious life to a trapeze act. “We don’t know what all the tools are going to be, to let go of what we know, what is familiar, to let go of one bar trusting there will be another bar to grab, can we trust? Can we let go?”

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