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