We continued our exploration, with Xavier Manavath, of how religious orders are formed, flourish, stabilise and die (or are revitalised). The history of Christianity furnishes us with cycles of approximately 300 years, before a crisis sets in and new forms emerge. Each order, too, follows a similar cycle, with our times witnessing perhaps the most dramatic decrease in membership (27% globally, since 1960). Xavier is careful to underline the three dimensions of religious life that persist through this turmoil – our consecration (relationship with God), our mission (relations with the wider world, including the whole Earth) and our communion (relations with the wider Church).
Diarmuid O’Murchu, skyping us from his home in Ireland, led us into the role of prophecy, relying heavily on Walter Brueggemann’s scholarship and literary skill. He warned about calling oneself ‘prophetic’, but was clear prophecy involved ‘holding together criticism and energising’ of the dominant cultures. He stressed how prophets articulate alternative futures, keep alive the ministry of imagination, empower others to engage in history, and keep hope alive in the face of the numbness of the dominant culture. He then offered us the charisms of religious orders (stressing that charism, in the Second Testament, is more often a group process than an individual one) as embodying the work of prophecy.
Xavier ended the day with a set of conclusions we can draw from the cycles in religious life we are moving through. These include the importance of the ‘double movement’ in all forms of consecrated life, which we have often called contemplative and active movements, and the utter radicality of consecrated life, of which the vows are an expression. The questions we put to both speakers suggested that these inputs will shape our own discernment and communities in the months to come.