Sunday, January 23, 2011
The Future of Religious Life and God’s Preferential Option for the Motley
It is popular today for people inside and outside of the Catholic Church to wring hands about the future of religious life. The number of religious is decreasing, the average age is increasing, fewer men and women are entering religious life to become sisters, brothers, priests. The word crisis is used frequently and a lot of ink is spilled about what to do and what it all means. But perhaps the lens through which we need to look at this “problem” is Scripture.
A number of years ago the Catholic bishops of Latin America said that it is clear from Scripture that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” I suspect that there is an even larger principle at work if we look deeply into how God works in history and the lives of people. God seems to have a preferential option not just for the poor, but also the motley, the unworthy and unexpected. People who seem to be at the top of the social pyramid according to the standards of the world seldom appear as key characters in salvation history.
If you look at key people in the Bible you see people like Sarah who was old and barren with some denial issues, Moses was a cowardly, stuttering murderer, David a murdering adulterer, Mary an unwed teenage mother, Peter, impetuous, cowardly and clueless, Paul had a serious anger management problem, and the list goes on. God doesn’t choose the people who have it all together to change the world. Indeed it seems that God prefers people with significant limitations through whom God can demonstrate divine power and transformation.
If this is the case then there may be hope for religious life. According to the world’s way of looking at things religious life is in trouble. But perhaps according to a divine plan this may be a time of God working to bring about something new and unexpected. Such an idea definitely seems crazy enough to work. Religious are a small group of increasingly elderly people who have intentionally given up a lot of what society thinks is important, family, money, autonomy, and chosen to live at the margins, focused on God above all, living a life of faith.
As people of the margins perhaps we can see more clearly and have something unique to offer from our vantage point. When we look around and see the motley crew that makes up each of our communities we also see that throughout history small groups of religious have made a disproportionate difference in society. Spreading the good news of the gospel, providing education, establishing health care systems, bringing about social change, demonstrating what it means to seek God in everyday life, these are all gifts of religious. These are the gifts of ordinary people who are far from perfect (a fact to which their sisters and brothers in community will readily attest) who have banded together to do extraordinary things by relying on the power of God rather than being an elite group of the powerful. Religious are people who can readily identify with the Apostle Paul who said “my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
So perhaps the reports of the demise of religious life are somewhat premature. This may be a time for a necessary demise of some aspects of religious life. This may be a time for the death of complacency, for the end of a reliance on large numbers, security and easy answers. The future of religious life may be about embracing the difficult paradox of faith, that limited, motley, unexpected people are often or even usually the one’s God chooses. The future of religious life may involve a tremendous freedom of having nothing to lose, of being able to risk new exciting things since the world seems to think we are dying anyway. Perhaps the members of religious life need to say that if everyone is so sure that we are dying then at the very least we can go out in a blaze of glory, creating new visions and new ways of building the Reign of God. Perhaps the future of religious life means embracing the reality that as religious we may finally be marginal enough, motley enough, small and powerlessness enough to truly be instruments of God’s radical healing of the world. After all, it is only through death that resurrection comes.