Sunday 7 June 2009

A View from the Pew – Is there a future for Religious Communities?

View from the Pew is a regular column I write for Newslink, the Limerick & Killaloe Diocesan Magazine. This article appears in the June 2009 issue.
I recently stood in the rain on the beach at Juan les Pins on the French Riviera in the company of Brother Anthony Keane, the forester from Glenstal Abbey. He pointed out to me on the horizon the island of Lérins, with its famous monastery founded in 410 AD, where St Patrick is said to have studied. The monks now share the island, so he told me, with a nudist colony, which must make for some interesting encounters!

Waves of Community
For two millennia the worldwide Church has seen successive waves of enthusiasm for life in religious communities. Passionate Christians have felt drawn to live their faith in community with like-minded people, sharing everything in a common life of worship and service. Their communities are traditionally governed by a Rule – a sort of constitution, and each individual takes a vow - typically of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The first great wave began in the 4th Century, when Christians increasingly chose to withdraw from the world into enclosed monasteries. In part they sought stability: the times were turbulent, as Christians took over the institutions of the Roman Empire, and classical civilisation began its long descent into the dark ages. In Ireland, St Patrick’s successors were so inspired by monasteries like Lérins that the Irish Church came to be dominated by them. Irish monks like Columba, Aidan, Columbanus and Gall travelled across Western Europe in the 6th century founding new monasteries on the Irish model, in which learning was preserved through the dark ages.

By the 13th Century, the old enclosed monasteries had become rich and ceased to attract passionate newcomers. People like St Francis were inspired to found a second wave of communities, unenclosed and focussed on preaching and service to the poor. These orders of friars included Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans and Augustinians. Soon every town of any size in Western Europe, including Ireland, had one or more friaries.

By the 16th Century most agreed these communities in turn needed reform. When the Western Church split at the Reformation, the protestant reforming party suppressed both monasteries and friaries where they could, which included Ireland. But where the catholic party gained the upper hand, a whole new wave of communities, notably the Jesuits, formed and flourished alongside the older ones in their own Counter-Reformation.

The 19th Century saw yet another wave. New RC communities began to work in education, health care and the relief of poverty – for example, the Christian Brothers. And in the Church of England, under the influence of the Oxford Movement, the first Anglican religious communities were founded in the mid-Century, and later spread widely through the Anglican Communion.

We don’t do monks and nuns in the Church of Ireland. Or do we?
For whatever reason – I suspect sectarian prejudice - religious communities did not catch on in the Church of Ireland. Perhaps those who wished to devote their life to God were attracted instead to the foreign missions, to which the Church of Ireland has made such a great contribution. Yet many Church of Ireland men and women did feel called to live in community - they had to move to England to do so.

Among them was Ada Waller, a distant cousin on my mother’s side, the eldest daughter of Sir Edmund Waller of Newport, Co Tipperary. In 1859 aged 22 she joined the Community of the Holy Cross started by Elizabeth Neale, the sister of the hymn-writer J M Neale. As Sister Adelaide, she was clothed as a novice in 1860 (in this photo), professed in 1862, and remained in the Community until her death in 1923. She undertook mission work in London Docks from St George’s Mission House. What a change of life it must have been for this Tipperary girl, coming from such a privileged background, to serve the poorest of the London poor. The Community still exists, though it has moved to the East Midlands and is now Benedictine and contemplative. As part of their 150th anniversary celebrations one of the Sisters contacted me for details of Ada’s birth family and I was able to supply photographs. It is lovely to think that so long after her death she is still remembered by her Community, who in a very real sense became her true family.
And we do indeed have nuns in the Church of Ireland, as I discovered on the web. The Community of St John the Evangelist is a group of Sisters formed in 1912 to live a hidden life of prayer and service. Never officially recognised by the Church of Ireland, they still run a Nursing Home in Ballsbridge, Dublin.

What of the future?
Here in Ireland we have been shocked by reports of child abuse in Industrial Schools run by a few religious communities, and their superiors’ complicity in hiding it, just confirmed by a Commission of Enquiry. Numbers choosing to join traditional religious communities have collapsed dramatically over the last 50 years across the western world, including Ireland (though not in the 3rd world). We constantly read of communities withdrawing from their work and selling their houses, as their members dwindle and age. It must be so very sad for dedicated brothers and sisters to see their life’s work besmirched by the sins of a few, and their religious families petering out.

So is this the end of the 1500 year ideal of Christian religious community?

Perhaps – but I for one very much doubt it!

We are becoming familiar with new kinds of communities, such as the Taizé Community in France, the Iona Community in Scotland, and the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland, from which Bishop Trevor came to us. All these are ecumenical, with strong emphases on working with youth, on peace and justice, and on protecting our planet. From a small base of committed members they reach outward to the world, involving lay people, and creating a global presence through new communication technologies.

Brother Roger, founder of the Taizé Community

Some of the older RC communities, too, are reaching out. In our own diocese Glenstal Abbey does so through its recordings and annual ecumenical conferences – this June the topic is ‘A Change of Climate – breaking bread on a fragile earth’.

In the last few years a bewildering variety of new non-denominational communities have formed under the banner of ‘The New Monasticism’. Many come from evangelical protestant backgrounds, some are dispersed but linked by new technologies, and some include both men and women, and married couples. They take inspiration from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words written in 1935:

“…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…”

These are surely signs not of the death of religious community, but of the birth of yet another new wave!

As our global industrial civilisation begins to reach its limits and falter, we should not be surprised if more and more Christians choose to find stability in these new communities, as their predecessors did in the 4th Century. Those the Lord prospers will grow and flourish, probably alongside continuing traditional communities. We should see them as spiritual resources to draw on, as beacons to help us navigate our own turbulent times.

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