Continuing the Charisms: 'Every Culture Enriches the Church, Enriches Religious Life'
Fr. Thomas Cassidy, provincial superior of the U.S. province of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, is the current president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, which represents some 19,000 vowed priests and brothers in the U.S. In a January interview with NCR, Cassidy spoke about the challenges of shrinking congregations, and how new vocations from Asia and Africa give him a "better window into the God we all try to serve." Following is that interview, edited for length.
NCR: What's on your plate right now?
Cassidy: I'm in my second year as president, so my term will be coming to an end this coming August. We do have a presidentelect who will take over when I'm done. One of the big things that is coming up will be our annual board meeting, which takes place in February in the Tampa Bay [Fla.] area. That's also at the same time that [the Leadership Conference of Women Religious] meets. We meet separately and then have a couple of meetings together as well. We also have a meeting coming up in March with the heads of the Canadian religious conference and the head of the group which represents all of the religious conferences of Latin America.
Your predecessor as president of the conference spoke several times about how male religious congregations aren't quite the same size as they used to be--notably much smaller. How has that been shaping up? What does that mean for individual orders?
I think the biggest thing that's taking place right now is that a number of orders who have more than one province in the U.S. are joining provinces. Even though they're of the same community, there are different cultures that have grown up in different parts of the country. It's not as simple as one might think to join provinces together. Various communities are going through that process. I know the Conventual Franciscans are in the process--probably a three- to four-year process. They're not alone. The Jesuits are going through that process as well.
As provinces merge, how are communities continuing their respective charisms and traditions?
What a lot of communities are doing too is looking at their institutions and asking--particularly as their numbers grow smaller--how do we continue to inculcate our charism? How do we ensure it continues at this institution?
There are different ways communities have approached that topic and different ways that they're trying to implement that. I would particularly say probably religious orders of women have been ahead of the curve on this. They've maybe faced the issue earlier and have certainly made significant efforts in trying to ensure that the charisms of their communities continue, as institutions are not able to staff like they once were.
What kind of trends do you see for lay involvement in religious communities?
Certainly a number of communities now have, I wouldn't want to call it lay branches, but people who follow the charisms of the community--people who may work with the community in one of their ministries, people who hold important roles in their communities. In my own case, for example, we do what we call mission awareness about every other year in our major endeavors as a way of trying to inculcate our own spirit among the people who work with us. That's a common experience for many communities of getting people to experience the charism of the community and, in a sense, to carry that on in many and varied ways.
As the numbers of people joining religious communities slow, how are older brothers and priests dealing with the workload?
Well, it's as you said. With smaller numbers, many of these men are older--they're not young men anymore--and there are more responsibilities that have been thrown their way. People seem to soldier on as best they can. A lot of religious communities have instituted sabbatical programs that are available to members--for three months, six months, some even grant a year. …