Our mantra has become "Religious life will continue but it will look different." I know, I've said it. But how will it look?
To answer that question I first had to think about answers to these: What makes religious life "religious life"? What, if any, are the defining, fundamental elements without which it would cease to exist? What is the core around which any new forms of religious life might grow?
I turned to Sandra Schneiders' three-volume work on Religious Life in a New Millennium for a historical, theological and cultural overview. The quotes below from her more than 1,600 pages of scholarly work can do no more than pique your interest, but I found her work a great help to my evolving understanding of religious life, past, present and future.
"Religious ... are not part of the hierarchical structure of the Church," Schneiders writes. "Religious are not agents of the institution. It is not their task to represent or protect the institution or to guard doctrinal purity or orthodoxy. The work of Religious is to seek God with the whole of their being and life, to pursue that quest wherever it leads, and to do so to the exclusion of any other primary life commitment or work."
And this: Religious life is "a personal lifelong commitment in response to a personally discerned vocation within the context of a particular community. The two constitutive and structuring relationships of the life [are] the relationship to Christ in perpetual consecrated celibacy and the relationship to the members within a community life that forms the primary affective horizon of its members."
Over the centuries, the meaning of religious life has at times been clouded by internal church (theological) and external (cultural, historical) misconceptions, misunderstandings and manipulations, which Schneiders demystifies and situates in context as she grounds us in new understandings. For example, religious life, once seen as a "higher call," we now understand to be but one particular way of incarnating the call of all Christians.