Living the pattern of Mary's life as 21st-century religious

As a vowed religious with nearly 40 years of profession, I cannot speak for the newest generation of religious in apostolic congregations. But I feel impelled as one called (and privileged) to accompany novices to share some reflections on the next coming age of religious life.

My context is Marianist, one of the plethora of religious institutes born out of the challenging times of the French Revolution. Our mission is to continue Mary's mission of bringing Christ into our own day and time and to challenge religious indifference by creating, living in and fostering communities where faith is lived with the daring of the apostles. So it is natural for me to look at the pattern of Mary's life as a model for the new forms of religious life needed in our world today. Looking back 50 years on, I suspect we will see this as a Joshua moment, similar to when the Moses passed the mantle of leadership to the next generation. My hope is that we recognize this as a time when young religious carried the flame into a new time and new places.

Walking with our youngest Marianists is an extended reflection on the specific ways that the challenges Mary faced can enspirit and enliven us to face our own. But I start in the middle of Mary's faith story — with her standing at the cross. If there is one thing I've been sensitized to by my Marianist sisters and brothers embarking on this and their peers in the intercommunity programs we've been part of — it's their distaste for the focus on diminishment. I call this a "narrative of decline" which often is mentioned in discussions of religious life and the future of our educational institutions. And yet, this is a particular cross at which young religious stand. They attend more funerals than professions and they are just as likely, if not more so, to close or leave institutional ministries as to open new ones. They truly, with Mary at their side, are standing witness to a kind of death of religious life as it was lived and institutionalized in the 20th century.

But they are here, and they are standing up! At the summer meeting of LCWR, it was reported that there were1,200 women in initial formation programs in U.S. congregations in 2015-2016. These candidates are not deterred by what they see but stand hopeful about what religious life can be in today's world. They are ready in faith to trust that God's promise will indeed be fulfilled in their lives as it was in Mary's. Though hard to see and feel while standing at a cross, the call and promise that God is still making things right in the world is real to them and must be to us all. They hold to a Magnificat spirituality that sees God's saving action, even in situation that cry for justice. Which brings me back to the beginning of Mary's story.

Mary was invited by God to be open so the Spirit that God could take root in her flesh and the Christ could be born into our world. Her "yes" was God's permission to be present in a new way to the world God created. The newest generation of vowed religious faces the same challenge. They are called, like her, to give flesh to God's Spirit in a world both blessed and broken by globalization. Blessed to be able to communicate and partner with people from all parts of the globe. Broken by economics and politics that exclude and oppress many by virtue of race, class, ethnicity, geography and religion, and a whole host of other identities.

Christ still needs doorways into the world God loves — to have flesh and blood still given for the life of the world. To say "yes" to giving Christ flesh in our own day and time and to set in motion a lifetime of pondering the meaning of life's events is a daily challenge. Intergenerational groups of religious men and women ponder together what the future of religious life can and must be.

Surely, it will not look like it has in the most recent past with individual congregations living and working largely as silos in large institutions. Perhaps it will resemble some earlier forms with novices mentored and apprenticed rather than programmatically socialized, and with ministries adapted more spontaneously based on immediate needs of the culture, place and time. Collaborations among groups with different charisms will be the norm rather than the exception with brothers and sisters sharing the strengths of their charisms in co-sponsored ministries.

Discernment as a skill and deeply engrained practice is something we must all learn, cultivate and teach to others. We need to know when to speak up as Mary did at Cana, in order to set things in motion for Jesus to act in our world again. And we need to know when silent presence standing in the face of suffering is being witness to God's great action when everything points to the contrary.

What we know about Mary's life is that she was present at the great moments of the Spirit breaking in. She carried Christ in her person to the silent Zechariah's house where Elizabeth and John recognized and acclaimed it. She facilitated the disciples' first belief at Cana and was united with them in prayer at Pentecost.

Young religious at the beginning of this century must be free to use their energy, insight and knowledge of their world to meet and respond to their Canas and their crosses. As elders, like the apostles in the early church community, we need not place unnecessary burdens on the shoulders of those whom God has also called (Acts 15).

Many of the structures of earlier forms of religious life which are culturally bound need not be seen as intrinsic to religious life. As Religious of the Sacred Heart Sister Juliet Mousseau noted in her address to the International Union of Superiors General in 2016, younger religious are graced with the capacity to let go of some structures in order to be more responsive, as the Spirit will prompt.

This is my second go-round as novice director. I was a young religious myself the first time and then my focus was how to offer rootedness in Marianist life. This time, almost 30 years later, I am keenly aware that the task has evolved. We are "forming" young religious for a life whose future shape remains unknown.

Taking the Gospel out to the edges, as Pope Francis has charged us, will re-shape our institutions and communities and our very selves. So a life that is rooted, yes, but a life on the road with Jesus and the apostles also. Meeting up with Samaritans and lepers and tax collectors of our day, giving people food from our own stores, blessed and broken open, has to be our daily engagement. Jesus learned to offer his own flesh for the life of the world from his Jewish mother, Miriam, who first offered hers. Discerning how best to do that, in this time and place, is the task of vowed religious of any age.

Being faithful to this task and walking with our young religious on new roads with unfailing trust, if we follow the pattern of Mary's life, will bring us to our own Pentecost moments. On a windy day, she recognized that in all those years of holding on to an angel's promise, God was drawing near, and now was bursting forth. We can see the Spirit moving in the amazing men and women who are being drawn to religious life today. I pray that we make sure we do our best to fan the flames.

[Dr. Laura M. Leming, F.M.I. (Marianist / Daughters of Mary Immaculate) is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton and serves on the Board of Trustees of St. Mary's University.]

1397