Does religious life have a future?

Those of us who entered religious life just after Vatican II will probably remember it in the words of Wordsworth after the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”.

Those were exciting years. In February 1968, aged 19, I entered an Irish Cistercian monastery. It was just three years after the Council ended and a few months after the Cistercian general chapter met to implement the decisions of the Council.

I left six years later, in 1974, just before I would have made my solemn profession. But I still regard the community as friends and brothers.

By the time I left some major changes had taken place: the adoption of English in the liturgy, the end of the very strict silence (we had communicated by sign language), the move from sleeping in dormitories to our own rooms, and a more relaxed attitude towards trips outside the monastery.

Then there was the introduction of newspapers and even the radio (later television and the internet were also allowed).

Those were the years of “dialogue” (encouraged by Pope Paul VI): with each other, with the superior, with the outside world.

The question was: how to be monks, true to the original charism of our order, in the 20th century?

Undoubtedly some of the changes were necessary (eg the rule of silence); others were adopted too hastily and carelessly (the loss of the Latin liturgy and Gregorian chant – the Council had asked monks especially to preserve this).

As the Church’s Year of Consecrated Life has just ended, it is worth reflecting on what has happened to religious life in general in Western countries over the past 50 years and whether it has a future.

At first sight it is a rather grim picture. Most religious orders in the West are declining numerically and ageing. This makes them less attractive to young people.

Since most of the active orders no longer wear the habit, they have become almost invisible to wider society. Continue reading

  • Professor John Loughlin is a Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford. This article was first published in The Catholic Herald.
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