The Past and Future of Ministerial Religious Life: These Women Follow a Form of Discipleship That Reaches Back to Jesus

By Schneiders, Sandra M. | National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Past and Future of Ministerial Religious Life: These Women Follow a Form of Discipleship That Reaches Back to Jesus


Schneiders, Sandra M., National Catholic Reporter


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In the distressing ferment generated by the Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious one question has arisen repeatedly, in various forms, and has been "answered," sometimes quite dogmatically, by people who have no lived experience of or academic competence in regard to religious life.

Since the question is important, misinformation is not helpful to religious themselves or to their many concerned lay friends, colleagues and associates. The substance of the question is "What is 'apostolic religious life'?" But the question often takes the form of a three-pronged query about lifestyle: "Are culturally conspicuous, uniform garb (habit), a fixed group dwelling from which members exit only by necessity and from which non-members are excluded (enclosure, cloister), and a daily schedule that includes shared meals, work and especially the oral recitation of prescribed texts and vocal prayers, e.g., divine office, litanies, at several fixed times a day (horarium) essential to Catholic religious life as such?" The short answer is "no." But this answer requires historical, biblical and theological expansion and support.

Historical overview

Habit, enclosure and horarium are not characteristic (much less essential) features of religious life as such but of one form of religious life, namely monasticism. Virtually. all literate religious/spiritual traditions throughout history and across the world include some form of monasticism, which itself predates Christianity by millennia. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism (e.g., the therapeutae), some classical Greek philosophical/religious traditions, and Islam (Sufism) all include some form of monasticism, as do Protestantism, Anglicanism, Orthodoxy and some ecumenical Christian movements as well as Catholicism. In all instances of monasticism the purpose of such features as habit (whether saffron robes, veils and scapulars, dervish tunics, shaved heads), enclosure (monasteries, convents), and horarium (involving chanting of sutras or psalms or recitation of devotional prayers, common meals, work and the like), as well as such spiritual features as meditation and prayer, poverty, asceticism and celibacy, is to promote the spiritual perfection of the monastics, which is variously defined as enlightenment, nirvana, sanctification, contemplation, mystical union with God, return to the One, through withdrawal from secular involvement and the practice of religious/spiritual observances.

Monasticism developed in Christianity from the fourth to fifth centuries C.E. in the East (under Pachomius in Egypt, Basil in Asia Minor, Cassian in Gaul) and in the sixth century in the West finder Benedict of Nursia (480-547). Probably sometime after 530 Benedict wrote the great Rule from which most Western Christian monasticism derives. Prior to the development of the monastic life in Christianity there were other forms of consecrated life that were non-monastic, e.g., professed consecrated virginity lived non-monastically within the early Christian communities and solitary hermit life in the desert.

Once it developed, the monastic version of Christian religious life was the predominant form in the Western church from roughly 500 to 1500 C.E., but other forms also developed during that period, notably the military and Hospitaler orders in the earlier Middle Ages and the mendicant form in the High Middle Ages. Neither of the latter were strictly monastic because an important feature in these new forms of religious life was itinerancy in the service of what we today would call apostolic work or ministry, i.e., the expression of love of God through the service of the neighbor outside the monastic enclosure. Monastic stability, fostered and expressed by enclosure and horarium, was relativized by these newer forms to allow the religious (e.g., the Templars, Franciscans) to travel about ministering in a variety of ways, including nursing the sick, sheltering pilgrims, teaching in the new universities, advising at court and counseling the laity, preaching in the cities and countrysides, confronting emerging heresies, converting "pagans," etc.

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