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Posted June 12, 2008

Former Dominican general
tells Canadians vocations still vital

By Benedictine Abbot Peter Novecosky
Catholic News Service

Though religious congregations are passing through a difficult time in Canada, "our vocation as religious is more important than ever before," Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe told leaders of Canadian religious congregations.

The former Dominican general spoke to 400 leaders of religious congregations from across Canada June 6 at the biennial general assembly of the Canadian Religious Conference, which represents more then 21,000 religious women and men.

Father Radcliffe said he believes the vocation of religious is more important than ever before.

"We are called to be signs of hope for humanity. We religious may be passing through a moment in which we have doubts about our own future, but the whole of humanity is facing a severe crisis of hope," he said.

He contrasted the optimism of the 1960s when society believed in "a wonderful future" to the crises society faces today: ecological decay, the spread of religious fundamentalism, terrorism, the AIDS pandemic, a growing gap between the rich and the poor, states in Africa on the brink of collapse, and a disastrous drop in the birthrate.

"People fear to bring children into a world without hope and without a future," he said.

A vocation as a religious is "an expression of a deeper truth," Father Radcliffe said. This is the truth that "every human being is called by God. God calls us into existence and he calls us to find our happiness in him." Religious embody a fundamental and hopeful Christian conviction about the future of humanity, he said; they are "an explicit sign of what it means to be a human being."

He compared the risk religious take living in community to the risk Jesus took at the Last Supper when he "placed himself in the hands of his fragile disciples. God dared to be vulnerable and to give himself to people who would betray him, deny him and run away. In religious life, we take the same risk. We place ourselves in the hands of fragile brothers and sisters, and we do not know what they will do with us."

Father Radcliffe said religious will be a sign of hope to a world in crisis only if they face their own crises and uncertain future "with joy and serenity ... as moments of grace and new life."

The temptation in our society today, he said, is to search for community only with like-minded people, but the kingdom of God embraces both the joy and the pain of community life. Religious communities, he said, "should be like a good casserole, in which it is the different tastes that give the savor."

He also told the religious that Jesus offers the world a new model of leadership.

"If we look to the Gospels, then the model that Jesus offers us is that of service," he said. "My theory is that Christian leadership is the service of God's grace. We serve people by serving the happening of God's grace."

Father Radcliffe used the parable of the prodigal son to explore the "happening of grace" in people's lives. It is not only the father in the parable who is a model for leaders, he said, but the two sons also model leadership.

"The parable is about the loss and restoration of the unity of the family," Father Radcliffe said. "Unity is the fruit of grace and the primary task of leadership." The primary task of leaders is to nurture unity -- within their community and with the universal church, he said.

The father resists "the culture of control," he said. "The father lets things happen, even though he does not know what this will lead to." Leadership is about not having to know in advance where things are going; it is being unafraid, however much chaos threatens, he said.

For religious leaders, this means letting what exists now die, so that something else may happen, he said. Leadership is, in part, "the art of dying so that the future may break in. It is creating the space for the young to do what we cannot imagine or anticipate, loosing the grip of the present, stirring in a bit of unpredictability."

The younger son models leadership by stepping out in faith.

"Christian leadership is fundamentally about stepping out in front, going ahead, as the prodigal son steps out to go and seek his father, and his father steps out to go and greet his son," Father Radcliffe said.

This means leaders must not fear "stepping out into vulnerability." Leaders are ready "to shed the macho images, to let fall the armor, to offer apologies knowing that we may be rebuffed," he said. He cited Pope John Paul II as modeling this in reaching out to Islam, asking for forgiveness, exposing himself to rejection.

"This is not the loneliness of the great leader," he said, "but the vulnerability of the cross."

The elder son models the jealousy religious leaders may feel. They can be jealous of those who have given in to their "wildest fantasies and still come home and get the best robe." The elder son "is angry because he dreamed of running away and did not have the courage."

Leaders who serve "the happening of grace" need "tremendous flexibility and a refusal to be stuck in predetermined roles," Father Radcliffe said; they need to share in Jesus' spontaneity.

"Grace is God's spontaneity," he added.