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Renewal Takes Time; Conversion Is Constant

Sister Louise Hembrecht on the State of Religious Life in North America

MANITOWOC, Wisconsin, FEB. 1, 2004 (Zenit) - Young people discerning a vocation to religious life have to experience the Church's esteem for the life in the encouragement of family and friends, says a Franciscan.

Sister Louise Hembrecht, community director of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity and assistant chairwoman of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious in the United States, shared that view and others on the state of religious life.

We approached her on the occasion of the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, observed this Monday.

Q: What is the overall trend in religious life in North America?

Sister Louise: I think it's difficult to pinpoint a trend in religious life in North America. If the question refers to the number of vocations, I think there is more than one trend in communities of women religious.

While many newly founded communities seem to be attracting significant numbers of young women, others are not growing as rapidly.

Some communities founded in the 19th or early 20th centuries, or whose historical ties go further back than that, have not had a young person join in quite a few years. Others have had and continue to have many new vocations. Still other communities, like my own, have only one or two come each year. In many cases, it is not easy to point out the reasons for the variations.

If the question refers to religious life in general in North America without getting involved in number counting, I'm not sure that the trend is any different than any other time in the history of the Church or any other place.

The trend among religious is to continue to enter into an ever-deeper relationship with the Lord through a life of vowed commitment expressed in prayer, community life and a missionary spirit of service. The way this is lived out may be a little different than in the past and differs among congregations, but the essential desire, I think, is to live the Gospel in a radical way.

Q: What attracts people most to religious life today?

Sister Louise: I think people are attracted to religious life by Jesus and the Gospel. They want to join and live in community with others who are passionately in love with the Lord and dedicated to living Gospel values and bringing that Gospel to others.

Q: Some religious orders have experienced a significant decline in recent decades. What do you see as key factors that can play a role in the renaissance of religious life?

Sister Louise: There are many factors that have contributed to the decline in religious orders -- changes in values within the larger society, the breakdown of the family, confusion within religious orders, breakdown of identity, etc. The list goes on.

Some of the decline in religious life might also be attributed to positive factors. The renewed awareness of the universal call to holiness and the recognition of the role of the laity may be factors. Many of those who left religious life continue to serve the Church as dedicated laywomen.

It may well have been that the initial call had been to service within the Church but not necessarily to religious life. It may have seemed that religious life was the only way to serve the Church at the time. Obviously, religious life is about service, but it is more than that.

I believe that a renaissance of religious life depends somewhat on whether or not religious life is seen as valued. Over and over again, the Church proclaims its esteem for religious life, but young people discerning a vocation to religious life have to experience that esteem in the encouragement of family and friends.

It is obviously essential that we as religious give witness that we value and treasure the gift of our vocation. Contemplating the face of Christ, we need to continue to embrace all that he embraces -- the cross, the poor, the joys and sufferings of everyday life. We need to live our vowed commitment fully and with evident joy. We need to give witness to the life of the Trinity.

The postsynodal apostolic exhortation "Vita Consecrata" of our Pope John Paul II states it this way: "To the extent that consecrated persons life a life completely devoted to the Father, held fast by Christ and animated by the Holy Spirit, they cooperate effectively in the mission of Jesus and contribute in a particularly profound way to the renewal of the world."

I think that sometimes we take the gift of our vocation for granted. We don't speak about it enough or share the wonder of its mystery. We don't let others know and see in us that we daily experience the love and goodness of a most gracious and generous God. We need to proclaim that we live lives of generous ...

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