BY CARMEL PILCHER
Recently I shared a delightful meal with a long time friend and former colleague. During the course of the evening he asked me how I felt about the Josephites “dying out”.
At the time I was somewhat taken aback by the question and simply dismissed it as something that doesn’t bother me.
I acknowledge that in light of the recently released survey about the state of religious life there might be some reason for concern. Even if I hadn’t read the report I know the reality – our numbers are diminishing gradually.
We regularly receive news of the death of one of our Sisters, but the rare occasion of a profession ceremony is a great cause for celebration. But I can’t remember the last time I heard any of our Sisters, either in casual conversation or at a more formal meeting lament the state of our congregation.
While we continue to pray for vocations and ensure that some Sisters are released to focus specifically on recruitment, our major focus is the need to stay relevant in today’s society. We are preoccupied with questions such as: what is God asking of us Josephites in the twenty first century? How do we most effectively serve our needy sisters and brothers? The present is our concern.
I recently attended a two day workshop with colleagues preparing to introduce the new translation of the Roman Missal. Among the presenters was a 75-year-old religious living with cancer. The message that he delivered with great dynamism and passion is that our liturgy is always to be prepared and led so that it is worthy of the highest praise of our God.
A few days earlier I joined a group of our Sisters who were engaged in finding new pathways for community living that will support us and serve our mission. The Sisters at the meeting reflected the statistics available in the survey – mostly ‘elderly’ – and yet the energy and courage to engage in something new was palpably youthful and enthusiastic.
Sometimes our church falls into the trap of measuring success by numbers. And yet do big numbers measure success?
There is no doubt that a big event such as World Youth Day is memorable and provides a surge of energy to those who participate – or even those who look on from afar. But has World Youth Day had a lasting affect on the tens of thousands of young people who gathered?
Yes, it is good when our seminaries are full, because we need priests. But the success will be measured, not by numbers, but if our newly ordained priests leave our seminaries prepared to wash feet in the servant leadership of Christ.
Each Easter in many parish communities there is great rejoicing as adults are initiated into our church. Most Sundays for that matter, parents present their children for baptism, and it is a fact that there has not been a significant drop in baptisms in the Catholic Church of Australia.
One could say that is a great success, but why do those families not feel the need to take an active part in their parishes? If is all about numbers then Christ’s ministry should have been an abject failure.
There is no doubt that we religious are aging and few are joining us, but we do what we can to be the presence of Christ in the world. We who truly believe in the power of prayer cannot underestimate the influence of thousands of religious throughout Australia and beyond who, after having lived a long life, accept their frailty and physical weakness to become the loving sign of Christ’s suffering.
We will never know what difference the faithful and hidden service of the continuous prayer of these religious Sisters, Brothers and Fathers makes in our world. Many die as they live, not with their own salvation uppermost in mind, but imploring a loving God to be compassionate toward the poor and the needy.
We religious don’t spend much time hankering after the days when tens of sisters or brothers joined us each year. Neither do we dwell on ‘what if’s’ and wonder how the world would survive without religious life.
We live in hope, knowing that apostolic religious life is a relatively new phenomenon in church history, and that perhaps fresh ways of witnessing Christ in the world are needed. We encourage and nurture those who are fired by our spirit but don’t feel called to vowed life, to collaborate with us in formal and informal ways.
And we continue to listen to the courageous trust of our founders who echoed Saint Mary MacKillop’s words: ‘God will provide’. We joyfully hope and know that God will surely continue to be faithful and so we do what we can.
Pictured: Sisters Margaret Cleary, Annie Bond, Ann Gilroy and
Jennifer Scully attending the canonisation of St Mary of the Cross in October. from the CathNews Gallery.
Carmel Pilcher is a Sister of St Joseph based in Sydney who works as a liturgical consultant.
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