Catholic religious life in a new millennium

As I walked across the lush green campus of St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., at a seminar on Catholic religious life in 2014, I thought of the campus across the street, the University of Notre Dame, where I received a master’s degree in 1969. For me, these two sites and times served as bookends describing the life of women religious that I have known. Between these two dates, the ground had shifted from a basically male-defined interpretation of religious life to a different understanding of the vows, which had largely been worked out through the lived experience of U.S. women religious.

Sandra Schneiders, IHM, who was the principal speaker during the week’s seminar at St. Mary’s, described in clear terms the current understanding of religious life. Ministerial religious life, she explained, was “a Christian mystical-prophetic life-form, given to the church by the Holy Spirit and constituted by a perpetual profession of consecrated celibacy, evangelical poverty and prophetic obedience, lived in transcendent community and ministry.”

I found myself wondering, “What will religious life look like during the next 1,000 years?” Are we on the precipice of such dramatic changes in religious life that we and our forbearers in the first 2,000 years of Christian history would not recognize it? While no one, of course, save our loving God, can know the future, it seems to me that future religious life will look radically different from the present as well as the past.

I do not believe that the three traditional vows will be the centerpiece of religious communities in the next millennium. Rather, ministry or mission will be the compelling force that draws a group of Christians together. Communities will be formed by those with an intense longing to follow Christ’s mission of doing the works of mercy and justice. Those following this Gospel mandate will need support and want to give support to others. Religious communities, identified as Christian through their prayer life, will be sanctioned or recognized by a central Christian body, but that authority will not be the Vatican.

Gospel mission, prayerful community, and formal recognition – these are the marks, I believe, that will characterize religious life in the next millennium. The traditional vows will be replaced by a simple commitment to follow the Gospel.

Gender, sexual orientation, marital status of members – all these factors seem inconsequential in a community where each one strives to live in just and right relationship with others. The witness of Catholic married couples and Protestant husband-wife missionary teams shows that celibacy is not essential to service or community. For the most part, Catholics have overcome, or will overcome in the next millennium, the long-standing Christian bias against sexual diversity. Sexuality will be appreciated as a beautiful gift of God, to express intimacy and love in relationships. This more holy and wholesome approach to sexuality will precipitate a decline in the number of celibates, although there will always be some individuals, I believe, who remain perpetually celibate.

There will be no formal vow of poverty. Far from a virtue, “poverty” is an evil that must be eradicated. Following the Gospel, those in religious life will strive to live a simple lifestyle and share their goods and gifts so that everyone’s needs are met. Of course, there will be practical, economic considerations because each member will need to contribute financially to support a modest administrative structure of the community.

Obedience in religious life in the next millennium will be the same obedience that is expected of all Christians seeking to follow God's call. There will be no formal vow to church “superiors.” The people of God will see and understand the need to be obedient in following one’s own convictions, whether or not those convictions are in sync with the rest of the Christian community. Of course, decisions need to be made in the interest of the common good. One needs to accept the consequences of one’s decisions, especially when they are in conflict with those in more powerful positions. Unless all Christians are faithful to following their conscience, God’s Spirit will be blocked.

Most religious communities will have no common ministry. Each member will strive to discern the will of God for the common good of humanity and the entire universe. While their lifestyles will be diverse, members will be united in their desire to support, and be supported by, each other in the manner of St. Augustine’s community of friends.

Distinct religious communities will come together in a federation or national body, similar to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious or the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. The federation will serve as an authorizing body to recognize new religious communities that wish to give Christian witness in the world.

In order for this new form of religious life to emerge in the next millennium, the polity of the Catholic church will need to become more collegial and democratic. Women and laymen will need to be included in all areas of church life, especially in decision-making positions. This factor alone will enhance the numbers of educated, intelligent women and laymen who want to band together to serve humankind in the name of the Christ’s church. I am hopeful that the papacy and the Vatican bureaucracy will become sufficiently decentralized in this new era ushered in by Pope Francis.

I would love to bury these thoughts in a time capsule to be unearthed in the year 3000. Will this conception of religious life ring true?

[Sr. Jeannine Gramick is a Sister of Loretto who has been involved in a pastoral ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics since 1971. She co-founded New Ways Ministry and has been an Executive Coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns since 2003.]