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Reinvent Religious Life Urgently

Reinvent Religious Life Urgently

At least a dozen priests and nuns who ended their lives in the past few years: says a recent article in Matters India. Disturbing news, yet the issue is not discussed in any forum within the Church. Unfortunately, no introspection or analysis is done to find the answer to the question, “Why” in the religious congregations.  

For the last 30 years, I have been in contact with various Religious congregations in different parts of India as a resource person for training, workshops, seminars and guiding chapters. This has given me an opportunity to interact with many women and men Religious individually and collectively. I wish to share with the readers some of my observations and analysis regarding the disenchantment of a good number of women and men Religious with Religious life. There could be many reasons for the vacuum or emptiness experienced by the Religious.

Reasons for the Disenchantment in Religious Life

1. A good number Religious, especially women Religious, have the feeling that they are being used to build and maintain institutions without contributing much to their personal growth and fulfilment. The result is discontentment and disappointment.  

2. The priestly and religious formation does not equip a person to face the challenges in life. It does not help a person to evolve personal vision, goals and policies that provide purpose in life and enable a person to withstand obstacles and failures. When the candidates join Religious life or priestly formation their goal is to become a Religious or a priest. Once that goal is achieved, then there is no further goal in life that creates passion and enthusiasm in them. They often lead a routine life by following the routine time-table and activities. When confronted with critical situations some of them are not able to withstand. The routine prayers and devotions do not equip a person to face crisis with courage and positivity. Contemplation, an appointment with God and oneself and reading inspirational books, especially biographies of persons who faced crisis have the capacity to bring out strength and energy from within. Reading serious books and reflection are neglected due to the overload of work. 

3. The outdated lifestyle followed in many religious congregations is another reason for the discontentment. Theoretically many Religious are taught that they are radical disciples of Jesus to continue the mission of Jesus. But in practice, the old concept of aspiring for perfection by keeping a negative attitude towards the world is prevalent in a good number of religious congregations.

5. The most important reason for discontentment and alienation of many Religious appears to be lack of a sense of belonging. Two opposite tendencies are observed in the religious communities. Members are becoming more and more individualistic in many men congregations, and community exists for namesake. There are individual members who do not appear even for common meals. On the other hand, in many women Religious congregations, uniformity is imposed and individuals do not have any freedom. Many childish rules like not allowing individuals to have a mobile phone, depositing mobile phones with the superior after 9.00 pm, not allowing individual members to have their own e-mail id etc exhibit lack of trust in the members. How can a person love a community that does not trust him/her? Will anyone feel any sense of belonging if he or she is suspected and treated as a thief? Many rules and regulations reflect a lack of trust in the members.

Need for Reinventing Religious Life

Religious life in India is facing a serious crisis. The symptoms are plenty: drastic reduction in the vocation, erosion in the quality of the members recruited, increasing trend of suicide among the Religious, accusations of sexual abuse, growing discontentment among the Religious, increasing trend of individualism and over-institutionalization that leads to alienation from the people. Often the Religious congregations fail to introspect and do a critical self-analysis. Instead, they adopt easy routes like introducing new rules and regulations, increasing pious exercises and focusing on spreading the Gospel without living the Gospel etc. If the Religious life in India is to survive the crisis, it has to reinvent itself.

Reinventing requires letting go of outdated rules, regulations, traditions, rituals etc. “If you let the past control you, you will have no future”, says Peter Drucker. Reinventing Religious life also demands adopting relevant lifestyle and effective ministries, being faithful to the vision and mission of Jesus and the founder. Regarding Religious life, reinventing requires rediscovering the Jesus of the Gospels. Hence there is an urgent need for going back to the Jesus of the Gospels.

How to Reinvent Religious Life?

1. The very concept of Religious life has to undergo a radical change. It is a call not to become a devotee of Jesus but to become a radical disciple of Jesus to continue his mission of building the Kingdom of God, a situation in which God is accepted as the loving Father or Mother and all human beings as brothers and sisters with equal rights, opportunities and dignity. It is a call to become a prophet.

2. The role of the Religious has to change from service providers (Education, Health Care and Social Welfare) to leaders, animators and facilitators if they are to be relevant in the years to come. The over-institutionalization has alienated the religious from the people. The Religious have to be in the midst of the people and transform the society by being salt and light. Hence new ministries are to be initiated that will bring the Religious out of their comfort zones and take them to the midst of the people.

3. Love has to replace the innumerable laws. Jesus gave his disciples only one law, the law of love. He told his disciples that love will be the sign of discipleship and not the colour and the shape of the dress they wear or the shape of the cross they hang on their necks. A life based on rules, restrictions, rituals and devotions should be changed to a way of life that’s based on love and freedom. The formation process should equip the Religious to use freedom with responsibility. Those who are not able to use freedom with responsibility should be guided to discontinue during the formation period. The practice of treating adult Religious as children should go. Reading the constitutions of the religious congregations daily will not make any difference if the law of love does not become the foundation of Religious life.

4. The madness for institutional expansion and using individual Religious for building institutions should stop. Investment should be on the individual Religious to build them as mature Religious with character, spirituality, competence and creativity. The ministries the Religious undertake should be the flowering of their creativity and initiative as teams.

5.  The Religious communities have to undergo a thorough overhauling. Not only the Religious but also the co-workers and the domestic staff have to become part of the community. There should be common meal, common prayer and common planning and evaluation, involving all members of the community. Then the religious communities will be able to witness to Jesus and his message like the early Christian communities.  

6. The above-mentioned changes can be brought about in Religious life mainly by changing the formation system radically. The formees should be convinced that the Religious life is a call to become prophets to the nations and to continue the mission of Jesus. The formation process should transform the formees as persons with self-discipline and self-education. The formees are to be assisted to evolve personal vision, goals and policies. Developing self-discipline and self-education in the formees should be the focus of the training. They are to be persons with character and competence. They should be able to say like Mahatma Gandhi, “My life is my message”.

Religious life is practically becoming extinct in many European countries. This can happen in India in the near future. The drastic reduction in the vocation, especially from the southern states of India and the increasing incidents of suicide among the Religious are the indicators of the impending tragedy. The solution is to reinvent Religious life without any further delay.  


(Published on 23rd December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 52)