MONTREAL — Leaders of religious communities from across Canada gathered here May 26 – 29 to share what gives them hope amid the challenges they face today. The Canadian Religious Conference (CRC) also elected a new team to lead them for a two-year term.
Challenges religious communities face include smaller communities, aging members, fewer vocations, downsizing, changing ministries and changing perceptions of religious life in today’s society.
Guest speaker Benedictine Father Simon Pierre Arnold of Peru noted that Catholicism has played a leading political and cultural role in Canada, especially in Quebec. “That explains why this church has long been a power of Christendom, linked to power, but also to the battles of your people, especially of the poor farmers.”
Today, he said, in countries where Catholicism has long been confused with national identity, an anti-clerical and anti-ecclesial reaction has arisen. In countries like Spain and Poland, he said, these “anti” crises “have sparked a defensive withdrawal or turning inwards, even in religious life, that is dangerously reactionary.”
He noted that, from the outside, “with European eyes,” Canada is seen as a model of secular democracy. In this context, Belgian-born Arnold lauded religious life in Canada which has “changed with the times to fit this new situation, despite the ‘anti’ currents it must face.”
Comparing religious communities in Canada with those in Latin America, he said many of them “still dream of the glories of the past.” Canada, he said, “seems to have abandoned those illusory nostalgias . . . to courageously explore new paths that have ecclesial and societal presence and impact.”
He lauded Canadian religious, for example, for lobbying against Canadian mining companies operating in the Global South who generally “have little respect for cultures, people and ecology.” He also praised religious communities for the psycho-spiritual care they give their members facing crises and women religious who are developing a new theology of women in the church.
Arnold noted that the model of Christendom based on a “Christian Europe” no longer exists. The church’s challenge is “to find new ways to move out of this pattern, which is inconsistent with the reality and emergencies in the world.”
“We need to reconnect with the Gospel,” he emphasized, and with “our origins as minorities, as marginal and as martyrs; we need to be prophetic.” This seems to be the path that Pope Francis is proposing for us, he said.
In this area, he said, “Canadian religious have a head start” compared to other countries. “You are in a process of emerging from the European Christendom model,” he said, and taking “the first halting steps of establishing new presences as a prophetic minority, a process that is certainly painful, yet enriching.”
The process we are living in, he said, “is simultaneously both paschal and apocalyptic.” Our lifestyle is paschal because it has to die in order to resurrect. It is apocalyptic “because we are called by the God who makes all things new to welcome the New Jerusalem, our church and our religious life.”
Religious have to become more “mystical,” he said. “We can’t repeat and teach the words and motions in which we no longer believe or which are no longer life-giving for us.” Mystical experiences nourish faith, he said. Our top priority “is to relearn how to believe, to pray and to live in God’s presence.”
Religious “are not the masters of the world,” he emphasized, “but the soul of the world.”
Arnold believes the future of religious life lies “in small, pluralistic communities that are intensely connected.” They have to become “human network specialists.” They have to be able to dialogue about their differences “both for their own members and for those to whom they are sent.”
Religious need to reclaim “the lost spaces on the stage of the world’s destiny through art, science, politics, thought and poetry.” Where are the Fra Angelicos, the Luthers, the Teilhard de Chardins of our time? he asked. “The major challenge of our time for believers is in recreating a language of faith consistent with the requirements of today’s new paradigms,” he said.
A new administrativae council was chosen at the assembly. Officers are: Sister Michelle Payette of Montreal, president; Sister Rita Larivée, of Lachine, past president; Rev. Louis Cinq Mars of Montreal, vice-president; and Sister Joan Cronin of Pembroke, treasurer. The council also includes representatives from the four regions of Canada.
There were 90 communities represented at the assembly, which included 252 women and 25 men.