Religious Life: Reading the Signs of the Times

by Maureen Fiedler

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I read with great interest Mary Ann McGivern’s blog on the future of religious life. She offers a great message, but I do think there is one development that most commentators are missing: the explosion over the last 20-30 years in “co-membership” or “associate membership” in women’s religious communities.

For those who may not know, these folks are people (not necessarily female or Catholic… although most are both) who simply want to be associated with the ministries and community spirit of the congregation in question. Many want a “home base” for works of justice and peace. In Loretto, that is certainly the case. Our co-members are active in opposing nuclear weapons, closing the School of the Americas, promoting environmental sanity and promoting women’s rights and GLBT rights. Many serve on community committees and are active in our “community groups,” which are our most important vehicle for coming together to discuss issues.

Generally, co-members sign a “contract” with the community outlining a mutually agreeable and reciprocal sharing of life and ideals

I suspect the same is true in many other communities. But if we “read the signs of the times,” as Vatican II called us to do, what does this say? I suspect it means that religious life is indeed viable, as long as we are relevant to the pressing justice and peace needs of our day.

And it suggests to me that we need new and flexible forms of membership… not a return to the rigid models of the pre-Vatican II past. I have nothing against the young women are choosing such models in some conservative communities (“let many flowers bloom!”), but I don’t for one minute believe that this is the future of religious life for most.

I see the future in our co-members every day… they inspire me with their ideals, and they are integral to our community.

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