To religious: Don't 'wait for death,' be 'spirit-led' people

by Joshua J. McElwee

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There's only "one question worth asking" about religious life today, Holy Spirit Fr. Anthony Gittins told a crowd of some four hundred gathered for the Religious Formation Conference's congress here this morning.

Amidst continuing talk of diminishment of religious orders, and worries about how ministries will continue with fewer numbers, the professor, social activist, and hospital chaplain put it bluntly:

“Numbers and age are of little consequence," said Gittins. "The only question worth asking…is whether we are running, standing still, or just twitching nervously as we wait for death.”

Instead, Gittins, who is a professor of mission and culture at the Catholic Theological Union, said “now is the moment for religious to stand up and to stand fast." Otherwise, he said, “it remains a serious danger that the church of poverty and prayer will disappear.”

Offering concrete examples for how to do forward, Gittins said members of religious communtities must seek out the markings of "spirit-led" people to answer their call, including "looking for trouble" and leading lives that are "full and worthwhile and never boring."

Those lives, he said, should be primarily concerned about the needs of the poor, and should "fear at all times they are becoming blind to the poor."

Gittins' remarks came in a keynote session at the conference titled "They will know who we are by how we live: Prophecy or pretentiousness?”

The Religious Formation Conference, which was founded in the 1950's as the Sister Formation Conference, is dedicated to supporting initial and continuing formation of religious in the U.S.

Amidst the changing atmosphere of religious life, Gittins encouraged religious to "live God's reign" in their lives with seven suggestions:

  1. Sum up the common common question of "If not now, when?" as "It’s now or never." Amongst the changes of religious life, especially with many mergers between orders, Gittins said the question is "What inventions will religious mergers produce?" Those inventions, he said, may indicate the orders are either emerging or submerging.

    Citing the example of bamboo which is cut to be used for irrigation in rice fields, he said orders must consider how they might change their lives in unexpected ways to bring new life. “In it’s dying," Gittins said, "bamboo gives life to the community.”

  2. Strive for "liminality" -- for living between the margins where Christ is found. The margin, Gittins said, "must be the center of the mission."

    “People who live there are who Jesus seeks out," he said. “Jesus didn’t just tell other what to do, he did it. So must we.”

  3. Don't focus on the dwindling populations of religious communities. "Numbers," Gittins said, "are almost inconsequential." In the face of new realities, he said orders have two options for how to orient themselves: either towards mission and risk, or maintenance of the current situation.

    Calling for those in the audience to choose the former option, Gittins asked: "What do we have to lose?" "The challenge is to think and to act together and now," he said.

  4. Remember that organizations with "long and noble" common histories can do great things. If perceived as a "Godly irritant," Gittins said, religious life will comntinue to do great things.
  5. Be "resurrection people." Resurrection is not just for Easter, but for everyday, Gittins said.
  6. Do all four acts of Jesus' ministry: Encounter, table fellowship, foot-washing, and boundary crossing. Ask "with whom do we gather? Who washes our feet? Whose feet do we wash? What boundaries do we cross?
  7. Find the marginalized and work with and for them. "“Go from this place, seek, find and encounter marginalized and muted people within and on the fringes," said Gittins. "Listen carefully to them, repent and think and act differently.”

Over the weekend hundreds of members of different orders are gathering to discuss issues of formation. Keep following NCR for more coverage of the congress.

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