Bishops Meet Religious Life at Crossroads: Pope Is Still in Favor of the Old 'Control' Model

By Hebblethwaite, Peter | National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 1994 | Go to article overview

Bishops Meet Religious Life at Crossroads: Pope Is Still in Favor of the Old 'Control' Model


Hebblethwaite, Peter, National Catholic Reporter


"Many religious feel," said Jesuit Fr. Howard J. Gray, former provincial of the Detroit province, in an address to the U.S. Catholic Conference summer meeting, "that if the unexamined life is not worth living, the over-examined life presents an equally unattractive alternative."

In the late 1960s and 1970s every regligious congregation held its "chapter of renewal" or the equivalent. In 1983 there was a special investigation of U.S. religious by the Vatican's Pontifical Commission. The roots have now been shaken out again and inspected as a prelude to the present synod.

Too many words chasing too few ideas. Too many theories fussing over a dwindling number of religious. Maybe the best course would be to declare a moratorium on discussion while we all meditate on Sr. Joan Chittister's article, "Religious life is still alive, but far from promised land" (NCR Feb. 18). If any article deserves to be called "prophetic," that one does. But no one expects articles on the synod or speeches at it or advice to it to abound in prophecy. The humbler task here is to ask what is its main theme. What, in the end, is it for?

The broad purpose of the synod is to ask: How are religious faring after the renewal of Vatican II? This places it in the whole series of synods since 1985, when the "extraordinary synod" asserted the permanent validity of Vatican II 20 years after it concluded. In 1987 and 1991 the question was: How are the laity and the priests faring? So religious are next in line.

That it is not just the firing line can be shown by two simple facts.

First, the working paper from which the synod debates will start represents an enormous improvement on the lineamenta that formed the basis of the earlier consultation. This consultation process was serious and has had healthy effects.

Though there is talk of "lights and shadows" (Latin-speak for positive and negative aspects), the document boldly declares that "everyone expects the synod to offer encouragement on the path opened up by Vatican II."

That this is not just moonshine is confirmed by the second fact: Cardinal Basil Hume, archbishop of Westminster, will be the relator. It will be his task to give the initial position paper and to sum up at intermediate stages. Hume, 71, was formerly abbot of Ampleforth Abbey in the north of England. His whole concept of religious life is based on the Rule of St. Benedict. That implies an authority style that listens to the most junior members of the community.

Hume likes to quote Chapter 62 of St. Benedict's Rule: "The abbot must so arrange things that while the strong have something to strive for, the weak are not crushed."

Hume impressed his fellow bishops at the 1985 synod when he said: "Implementing the decrees of Vatican II has placed a heavy responsibility on priests and bishops. Where they have been open to change, this has enabled the renewal to take place; where they have not been open to change, the process of renewal has been hindered."

Religious can feel good about Hume. One thing is sure: He will write his own speeches and not read curial handouts. More generally, the Benedictines, after the council when Rembert Weakland, now archbishop of Milwaukee, was abbot general, illustrated the triple movement that shaped religious life from then on.

There were three basic criteria for renewal:

1. The closer following of Christ in a continuous return to the sources of all Christian life, especially the gospel.

2. A reappropriation of the "charism" or special grace of the founder.

3. A sensitivity to the needs and hunger of the contemporary world.

Yet these three criteria were not enough to tell any particular religious congregation "what to do next." Gray rightly asked where to locate the following of Christ.

"Is it with Christ in solitary prayer? Is it with Christ preaching and teaching the multitudes? …

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Bishops Meet Religious Life at Crossroads: Pope Is Still in Favor of the Old 'Control' Model
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