Speakers: Religious’ future hinges on relationships, smart outreach

Consecrated Religious sisters speak to members of other congregations during a break at an April 21 conference on religious and consecrated life at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Novi. Mike Stechschulte | The Michigan Catholic

Study author reports findings on millennials, global influence in religious life

Novi — Religious communities might not ever return to the “good old days” of the 1950s and ‘60s, when convents and friaries were stocked with novices and new recruits and bustling with activity.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a bright future for consecrated life in the Church.

Approximately 150 sisters, brothers and priests gathered April 21 at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Novi to reflect, commune and share with one another during a statewide conference dedicated to exploring ways for religious communities to combat contemporary challenges and move forward in faith.

“Envisioning a Future for Consecrated Life” was the theme of the conference, during which members of dozens of religious communities heard from speakers and exchanged ideas on the current state of religious life in the United States.

Sr. Patricia Wittberg, SC, research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University and co-author of the study, “New Generations of Catholic Sisters,” presented findings from her study, which touched on myriad aspects of religious life comparing millennials and older generations of Catholics.

Sr. Wittberg’s study found significant shifts in how millennials view religious life versus their older counterparts. For instance:

  • Millennial women are more likely to be attracted to a religious community based on the institute’s prayer life (80 percent), and are more likely than any other generation to cite daily Eucharist, Liturgy of the Hours, common meditation, adoration and devotional prayer as “very important” to them.

  • While all generations of new entrants to religious life said the common lifestyle and joy of current members were important factors in their decision, millennial women also cited wearing a habit and “loyalty to the Church” as attractive qualities.

  • By contrast, millennial women are less likely than previous generations to choose religious life based on an order’s ministry type, mission or out of a “desire to be of service.” However, Sr. Wittberg said, this isn’t because millennials are less interested in volunteerism — in fact, millennials volunteer at a higher rate than any other generation.

“The problem is, many millennials don’t see a connection between the activism that they do — from helping the poor to recycling to getting rid of guns — to the spiritual life. So it doesn’t occur to them to draw a line from that to the apostolic congregations,” Sr. Wittberg said.

Religious congregations can do well to tap into millennials’ natural sense of volunteerism by offering opportunities for involvement, but must also appeal to millennials’ more spiritual side by emphasizing prayer, reflection and community, Sr. Wittberg added.

Bro. Peter O’Loughlin, CFC, adviser to the Religious Brothers Conference, said the Second Vatican Council called for religious communities to return to the charisms of their founders as a way to distinguish their unique gifts, which for many communities means changing current practices and refocusing on their original mission.

“Change does not come easily or smoothly. There is something very comfortable about the old ways of doing things,” said Bro. O’Loughlin, who also represented the Congregation of Christian Brothers at the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Synod 16.

One of those changes for the Congregation of Christian Brothers — which operates schools around the country — was a renewed emphasis on interpersonal intimacy, he said, especially among the members themselves.

“Communities of three are not optimal,” Bro. O’Loughlin said. “We’ve had to learn what it means to live in smaller communities. But the good news is, smaller communities mean greater accountability, and that means being open and honest with each other as brothers.

“In the old days, it was easy for a brother to get lost or slide into addictive behaviors. As long as he was up for morning prayer and in his classroom teaching his courses, he was a ‘good brother,’” Bro. O’Loughlin continued. “It is much harder to hide in smaller communities, and it is much harder to ignore those who are suffering. In a sense, our communities have become much healthier places.”

Fr. George Smith, OSB, superior general of the Congregation of St. Basil, which operates Catholic Central High School, said one way smaller religious communities can continue their ministries is by partnering together and pooling resources.

For instance, Fr. Smith cited the collaboration between the Basilian Fathers and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to establish Detroit Cristo Rey High School as an example of a ministry that neither congregation could accomplish alone.

“This is the first time the Basilian Fathers have partnered with another religious community to serve an apostolate, and I can’t tell you what a source of pride that is,” Fr. Smith said. “This has been for us a truly life-giving collaborative partnership and ministry.”

While American religious congregations continue to dwindle in numbers, they’re also becoming increasingly multicultural, Sr. Wittberg said.

Asking participants to raise their hands, Sr. Wittberg pointed out the diversity of those in the room, with sisters, brothers and priests in attendance from Ghana, Vietnam, Albania, Nigeria, Australia, Ireland, Canada and Mexico.

Religious come to the United States for a variety of reasons, but many are sent by their congregations to minister as missionaries in a country that originally evangelized their homelands, Sr. Wittberg said.

“Whereas Europe and the United States sent missionaries to Africa and India to lead them to the true religion, now religious communities from African and south Indian countries are returning the favor because there’s a belief that the United States has lost its religion,” Sr. Wittberg said. “To a certain extent, there’s some truth to that, especially when we consider that among millennials, 40 percent are religious ‘nones.’”

While international sisters face their own sets of challenges, including immigration, language barriers and formation resources, most report feeling satisfied and welcomed by their communities in the United States, she added.