BY NYAMADZAWO SIBANDA
Looking around and experiencing the good work the Church is doing through different religious congregations and orders, it seems superfluous to ask whether religious life is still relevant.
And as a member of the Congregation of Missionaries of Mariannhill and as a product of a school run by the Christian Brothers, I clearly do believe that religious life remains relevant.
Different religious orders are tirelessly working in schools, hospitals, various charity and social institutions, and some are fully involved in the secular corporate world. Their commitment is there for anyone, Catholic or not, to see. Many people still prefer religious-run schools, colleges and hospitals.
And yet, people are still questioning the relevance of religious communities today.
One of the reasons may be attributed to the accomplishments of the Second Vatican Council which empowered the laity to participate in Church activities which previously had been the preserve of religious men and women.
Now lay people could run Catholic orphanages, schools, and hospitals, give catechetical instructions and so on.
Leaving aside cloistered and contemplative religious, who offer something that is unique and inaccessible to the laity, the question of whether religious orders are still needed naturally arise?
Another reason might be that some religious congregations and orders, besieged with contemporary challenges, are now focusing more on reaching out to the People of God in a Christo-centric manner. As Vatican II’s council fathers put it, “it is not clear [anymore] that the Spirit who continues to evoke new spiritual movements in the people of God is also constantly urging those religious who already have dedicated their lives to a certain type of service in the Church” (from the Introduction of Perfectae Caritatis, the council’s “Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life”).
Vatican II was geared to propose a renewal of the various organs of the Church, and helping them adapt to the modernising environment in which the Church found itself.
The other task of the council fathers was to help define certain organs which whereby then clouded in disorientation and lack of identity. That is what the Perfectae Caritatis, as one of the conciliar documents, was aimed at doing in the lives of different religious institutions.
Starting with, or even preceding, Western monasticism, “men and women have set about following Christ with greater freedom and imitating him more closely through the practice of the evangelical counsels [vows], each in his own way leading a life dedicated to God”, Perfectae Caritatis notes.
The Church has always valued this kind of commitment and treated it as part of the economy of the Church and its vehicle of redemption.
The Church aims at all times to renew, under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, all those who freely choose to respond to this special vocation, towards the “perfection of charity” as part of the Church’s conviction that this kind of life is still relevant and has a necessary role to play in the circumstance of the present age, for the greater good of the people of God.
However, for different religious orders and congregations to remain relevant and be that much-needed part of the Church, there is need for constant renewal and adaptation.
They cannot afford to recede deep into the confines of their traditional practices which have lost their impact in the Church and world of today.
Adaptation and renewal, however, do not only entail the adjustment of our religious dress, or modernising the architecture of our convents and monasteries. It requires the constant maintenance of our proximity to the Gospel values and the constant striving of faithfully living the evangelical counsels and the constant reflections on the spirit of the founders, which gives each institution its particular identity and charism in the Church’s salvific activities.
That constant inner renewal provides the road map of operation and precludes unintended consequences of irrelevancy and fruitless novelties.
Let all we do “spring from the interior encounter with the love of Christ” and help posit religious profession as a true and “fuller expression of baptismal consecration”, as Pope John Paul II put it in his encyclical Redemptionis Donum (1984).
This kind of renewal will water the contours of religiosity in our societies, even in our present day which is afflicted by relativism and scientism.
Through active works and prayer life, the religious are devoted primarily to the welfare of the whole Church, which as a body has many parts that ought to be sound.
It is a challenge that religious orders, who may be tempted to hibernate in the present hostile socio-political climate, be renewed and continue (or resume) to offer that special message which the Church needs to offer to the world of today.
When orders and congregations run institutions, they must do so in a Christo-centric way; when they offer a public service, they must give priority to the Gospel values and thereby renew the face of the earth.
Religious communities must promote among their members awareness of the contemporary human condition and of the needs of the Church, and not act as though they exist on their own accord and for their own good.
Of course religious life remains relevant. Indeed, the Church and our world need even more religious to attest to the presence and love of Christ and to the Gospel values through their deeds and their witness.
Nyamadzawo Sibanda CMM is studying at St Joseph’s Theological Institute in Cedara, KwaZulu-Natal.