“The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” Pope Francis states in his first apostolic exhortation. “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” These words stir something in me, a sense of hope and yearning. Haven’t we all been praying for a fresh wind to grip the hearts of people, turning them to God?
Bold headlines announce that, nine months into his papacy, Pope Francis was chosen as Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” and that he attracted 6.6 million visitors to the Vatican in 2013. Could the world’s response to this new pope be the beginning of a spiritual renewal? Pope Francis radiates a genuine love and faith; his example of humility and service are inspiring. But will his words actually impact people’s lives, leading to radical change?
Most reports tell a different story: “Despite the popularity of Pope Francis, the latest figures from the Vatican show that there are 300,000 fewer nuns and priests in religious orders than there were 40 years ago with a marked decline in Europe, the U.S. and Oceania” (Daily Telegraph, June 6, 2013).
Of course this isn’t news; in Catholic orders both in the United States and Europe, most of the remaining members are growing old. Many orders seem to be dying out in Western society. Monasteries and convents that once brimmed with life, fostering hundreds of young novices, now stand like vacant shells, housing the last remnants of these once-flourishing communities.
The nine months I spent with an order of nuns in Massachusetts changed my life, and reaffirmed my own decision to make a lifetime commitment to “poverty, chastity, and obedience” as part of a lay community, the Bruderhof. I have a deep respect for the Catholic orders and think it is a shame that so many are fading.
This trend would seem to reflect a weakening moral pulse in society at large. And yet, based on my personal observations and conversations with members of religious orders on both sides of the Atlantic, I believe the tide is turning. There’s a quiet change taking place – a tender shoot of new life springing into being. The world’s response to Pope Francis shows that millions of people are indeed hungering for a life filled with the joy of Christ – a life of service, humility, and love.
A sister from the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal recently attended a three-day prayer vigil in London for Catholic youth. The event, held to welcome in the New Year in a spirit of prayer, had 300 attendees, mostly from universities across the United Kingdom. Speaking to some of these young adults, Sister Carol found that many of them are looking for something different from what modern society has to offer. Her community is constantly approached by young women who are attracted to the religious order because of the sisters’ joy and countercultural way of life.
Statistics from the last few years, which show budding growth in some religious vocations in the U.S. and Europe, encourage my optimism. A major 2009 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University found that “while most religious institutes in the United States are experiencing aging membership, diminishing numbers, and few, if any, new vocations, some continue to attract new members and a few are experiencing significant growth.”
People continue to consider a religious life, driven by a desire for prayer and spiritual growth, service and community. Respondents to the CARA study said they were drawn to religious orders because of some aspect of the communal dimension of religious life. “Some mention living, praying, and working together while others focus more on the sense of common purpose and being part of something larger than themselves. Many respondents identify some aspect of the spiritual dimension of religious life such as the sense of following God’s call and deepening their relationship with God and with Christ.”
The early- to mid-1900s saw a wave of growth in both religious life and social reform. Young people of those generations assumed that life involved sacrifice. You risked your life in service to your country in the armed forces. You committed yourself to marriage and family for life. If you were radical about your faith, you joined a religious order.
The past five decades brought a shift, thanks to the rise of sexual “liberation” and the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure and personal advancement. Life’s basic assumptions changed. Life (including marriage) was no longer an opportunity to “give your all,” but a way to “have it all.”
A young person considering a religious vocation today is no longer choosing between various paths of self-sacrifice. The choice now offered is between a life of pleasure and one that seems to offer nothing but denial. So why would anyone choose the latter?
The answer is hidden in the words of Jesus: “I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give” (John 14:27). Jesus also tells of a man who, finding a pearl exquisite in its beauty, sold all he had to acquire the pearl (Matt. 13:45-46).
There is an inherent longing in every heart for what is of God, for that which is true, beautiful, pure, and holy. This is the “image of God” breathed into us when we first became living souls (Gen. 2:7). By the way we have lived our lives, we have defaced the divine image. Its beauty has been scarred by our rebellion and sin. But Jesus came to our earth to bring the hope of redemption.
How is it with us who claim to be followers of Christ? Are we standing out as the “light on a hill” that Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount? Are we the “yeast” that permeates the dough with kingdom values? Not everyone is called to be a priest, monk, or nun. But Jesus calls each of us to follow him, and we each must discover how he would have us do that.
Since the time of Abraham, God has wanted a people, set apart, who would honor him and obey his commandments. Throughout the centuries, men and women have given their all to live out God’s command: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus took it even further: “If you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matt. 16:24-25).
As we strive to carry the love of Jesus into a strife-ridden world, those of us who aspire to be “bearers of Christ” should radiate a life that opposes the cancers of individualism and self-gratification. May the “gospel of joy” of which Pope Francis speaks take root in our hearts, leading us to truly follow Christ. May our lives stand as a living testimony that true joy is found in surrendering our lives to Jesus, in service to all.