U.S. Franciscan Father Michael Perry, minister-general of the Order of Friars Minor, embraces Pope Francis during his visit to the hermitage and cell of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Oct. 4. Hundreds of Franciscans gathered in Rome to discuss the impact the "culture of the provisional" is having on commitment to religious life. (CNS/Paul Haring)
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis frequently denounces two aspects of modern culture: the way it encourages people to throw away whatever or whoever they no longer find useful and the belief that nothing lasts forever, not even love.
Hundreds of members of the Franciscan family -- friars from different branches as well as different congregations of religious women -- gathered in Rome Oct. 29 to discuss the impact the "culture of the provisional" is having on religious life.
In brown robes or black veils or bright batik African scarves, the sisters and friars spent a day discussing a key challenge for modern religious life: "fidelity and perseverance."
The problem is decades old, but all the speakers quoted Pope Francis' succinct descriptions of the cultural atmosphere that makes it difficult today for young people to make lifelong commitments and encourages those who have made vows to head for the door when trouble arises.
Meeting with families -- grandparents, engaged couples, parents and children -- in late October, Pope Francis said the "culture of the provisional cuts life up into pieces." Meeting with novices in July, he said he'd once heard a seminarian say he would go forward to ordination and "try out" the priesthood for 10 years, and then he'd see.
That's not the way it's supposed to work, the pope said. A vocation is a call by God, who loves continuously and endlessly. God's love is reflected in the sacrifice of Christ, who died to save human beings "not provisionally, but for eternity," he said, and making vows is a person's response to that everlasting love.
The October conference was part of an ongoing, long-term project of the Franciscan friars to study why so many religious are leaving and what orders can and should be doing to help members live their permanent vows permanently.
Father Michael Perry, minister-general of the Franciscans, said speaking openly of the "reality and fragility" of religious life is necessary if orders are going to calmly and objectively find responses to "a reality that often is embarrassing for us."
Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, former superior of the Franciscans and secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, told the gathering that religious "can't obsess over" the number of members who leave each year, "but we also can't bury our heads in the sand."
Between 2008 and 2012, he said, the congregation for religious issued 11,805 dispensations, releasing men and women from their religious vows. Other religious received dispensations from the congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for Bishops and for Clergy, which brings to about 3,000 the average number of perpetually professed religious leaving every year.
The figures, he said, work out to be about 2.5 dispensations annually for every 1,000 consecrated men and women with perpetual vows. The Vatican's Statistical Yearbook said that at the end of 2011, there were 903,363 religious priests, brothers and sisters in the world, but that figure includes those with temporary vows.
"We shouldn't be alarmed, but we must not fall asleep," either, the archbishop said. As Pope Paul VI once said, "Fidelity is not the virtue of our age."
Archbishop Rodriguez said the way many people watch television today -- "channel surfing" -- is the way they go through life, "not taking on long-term commitments, passing from one experience to another without let any of them impact their lives."
While recognizing that the dispensation applications submitted to his office may not fully reflect the reason a person is leaving religious life, the archbishop said the leading explanations fall into the categories of: "absence of a spiritual life," leading to a crisis of faith; "loss of a sense of belonging to a community" or even to the church; and "affective problems," including falling in love and struggles with chastity.
The response of religious orders, he said, must begin with being very clear and even blunt with potential members, letting them know what religious life entails and not offering them what he described as "discounts."
At the same time, the archbishop said, religious communities can't be so eager for new members that they'd accept just anyone, and they can't simply "clutch" those they have, but must challenge and offer support to those in crisis.
Sister Concetta Resta Zaccaria, superior of the Franciscan Immaculatine Sisters, said it's very difficult to convince young people today that love is forever and, therefore, so are marriage and consecrated life. "Young people see their parents love each other only for a time" and then get divorced, so "how can they think it's forever?"
In religious life as in family life, she said, "it's all about love. You give up everything for it."
Striving for holiness in a religious community "means struggling, loving others even if they are annoying," Sister Concetta said. "It's not easy. Maybe today you can do it and not tomorrow, but you keep trying."