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Posted February 20, 2006

Vatican official: Spiritual reform must begin
with religious orders

By John Thavis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI is seeking to revitalize the faith life of the church, a "spiritual reform" that must begin with the world's men and women religious, said Archbishop Franc Rode, head of the Vatican office that oversees religious orders.

That means religious congregations must take stock, recover their "apostolic dynamism" and shed the excessive secularism of the post-Second Vatican Council period, Archbishop Rode said.

Archbishop Rode, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, spoke with Catholic News Service about the challenges facing religious life and the directions being set under Pope Benedict.

The 71-year-old Slovenian, a member of the Vincentian order, said the vitality of religious orders has always been essential for spiritual reform in the church.

"Throughout the history of the church, religious orders and congregations were always the ones pushing forward, bringing dynamism and a call for holiness. They were always on the front lines," he said.

For that reason, the "in-depth reform of consecrated life" is one of Pope Benedict's goals, as it was for Pope John Paul II, he said.

For some congregations, such a reform will include the recovery of their original charism and the refocusing of apostolic energy, the archbishop said.

Since the Second Vatican Council, he said, some orders have abandoned their traditional fields of apostolate, only to lose themselves in uselessness or unproductive activities. The result is stagnation, he said.

Archbishop Rode said he's already seeing signs that the church is responding to the challenge with fresh energy and new forms of religious life.

He said he met in January with the pope to present a list of 25 requests for pontifical approval from new religious congregations and secular institutes. They shared some key characteristics, including the wearing of a religious habit as a visible sign of identity, significant time reserved for daily prayer, and an emphasis on fraternal and community life.

"Far from the kind of dispersion that was widespread after the council, they are taking great care to promote cohesion of the religious community," he said. "The pendulum is swinging from, shall we say, a secularist euphoria back toward a certain severity. But note that this is not an imposed severity -- these young people want it and demand it."

Another positive sign that's receiving considerable Vatican attention is the growth of lay movements, many of which are tied to religious orders for their spiritual formation. For example, the Legionaries of Christ, with about 600 priests, has a companion lay movement of more than 60,000 men, women and families.

This type of lay-religious cooperation is not entirely new in the church, but there's been a significant flowering in recent years, Archbishop Rode said.

"They are attracting a lot of people. They are really mass movements that grow through spontaneous communication and the enthusiasm of their members," he said.

An associated phenomenon is the birth of new forms of religious life, institutes whose various branches may include men who are ordained, men who take vows, women who take vows and families. So far, six of these institutes have received pontifical approval, Archbishop Rode said.

The form is so new that the Vatican is not sure which department should oversee them -- Archbishop Rode's congregation or the Pontifical Council for the Laity; most likely, an interdepartmental commission will have to be created.

"All this demonstrates the great vitality of the Catholic Church. New things are continually springing forth," he said.

Archbishop Rode was named prefect of the congregation in 2004. He heads a staff of 40 people, most of them men and women religious, who closely follow the life and work of religious institutes on every continent.

The archbishop said the global picture of religious life is quite diverse. In Western Europe, the United States and Canada, the statistics are frankly depressing, he said.

In Canada, for example, he said it is "mathematically certain" that, if things do not change, by the year 2040 the majority of existing religious congregations will disappear. He said that would be a shame, considering the important role of religious orders in Canada's history.

To illustrate the situation in the United States, the archbishop pointed to the two conferences of women's major superiors -- the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, considered more traditional, and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which he said "goes more in the direction of secularization."

The archbishop said that, according to the information reaching him, the more traditional council accounts for the vast majority of new vocations, although their membership comprises only 10 percent of the women religious in the United States.

He said the real increases in religious vocations are coming in the Third World, as "Catholicism moves toward the South and toward the East." Asia has enjoyed a boom in vocations, up about 40 percent in recent years, he said. If China loosens restrictions on church activity, that number could skyrocket, he said. Among religious orders, he said, "everyone is more or less preparing for this, either in neighboring countries or already inside China."

"Certainly the church is aware that it wants to be ready for the day China opens up. The church is awaiting this moment and preparing for it," he said.

Archbishop Rode said Africa has witnessed a tremendous increase in religious vocations, but with the higher numbers have come "huge problems." At present, the Vatican is carefully studying the situation there.

"The error, if one can speak of error, is that we simply transported our structures of formation and programs of study to Africa. But they are not appropriate to the situation in Africa, to the African person," he said.

He said it was not that Africans were less suitable for religious vocations, but that formation needs to be tailored to the cultural, economic and psychological situation of Africans.

Across the globe, Archbishop Rode said, the challenge facing religious orders is to move away from relativist and secularist currents toward greater "evangelical authenticity."

He said this means rejecting misinterpretations of Vatican II, as Pope Benedict said in his talk to Roman Curia officials in December. Above all, religious must not understand the council as "an invitation to go uncritically toward the world," the archbishop said.

He said education remains an important field for religious. The shrinking of some religious orders and the loss of their teaching apostolate has had severe repercussions, he said.

In France, for example, for centuries the country's leaders typically passed through church-run schools and thus had familiarity and at least cultural appreciation of the faith.

"Today we see the emergence of a generation of politicians or cultural leaders who are completely ignorant of the Christian tradition," Archbishop Rode said.

He said that while it is unlikely that older religious orders can return to teaching on a large scale he thinks some of the new congregations and institutes will recognize the importance of education and make it their primary field of activity.