by Fr. Timothy Guthridge, C.PP.S., Director of Initial Formation
“Only when you get to the point of a broken heart
do we ask the right questions.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)
A long time ago, I learned that good questions are more likely to lead people to a better place, rather than to answers. During my first year as Director of Initial Formation, one of the more important questions at various workshops and conferences on religious formation I attended was, ”What is the significance of religious life?” As our community becomes smaller and smaller, this question—at least for me—becomes more and more significant.
One of the basic answers to the question is that religious life, especially missionary life, is always rooted in Mission. Mission is the source of all Christian life; it is the very root of the Church. The Catholic Church around the globe is becoming more and more Mission-oriented; Pope Francis has put more of a missionary emphasis on the Church. Church is becoming less a place where people go and attend. We see this in the continual drop in church attendance and numbers of children attending Catholic schools. The Church is becoming more of a phenomenon where people are going out of the Church to spread the Good News. This is happening more and more in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The Church in the United State is very institution based, so it is taking a little longer here.
The question is, “What is the Mission?” Jesus defines the Mission in Mark 1:15: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” Everything Jesus does in the Gospels gives witness to this reality, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” As Missionaries of the Precious Blood, everything we do must be evaluated according to this Mission. How do we as a religious community give witness to Jesus’ declaration that the kingdom of God is at hand?
It has to involve more than the work we do; it must include every aspect of our lives. This includes the way we live community, how we treat one another—and all of our actions, not just when we are professionally engaged. It includes every word that comes out our mouths, not just when we are behind a pulpit or in a classroom or assembly hall. Every moment in our lives, we are giving witness either to the kingdom or to what is not of God.
As we approach our two hundredth anniversary, we have to be mindful that we cannot live on the laurels of the past. We have to take St. Gaspar’s message and update it in today’s context. This is another question we must ponder, “How do we update Gaspar’s message?”
Religious missionary communities talk about ministering to people on the margins. One conference I attended defined people on the margins as people with no power, people who are looked down upon, people who have no voice, and people who are seen more as issues to be dealt with rather than human beings. Are these really the people with which we minister?
I have heard it said that religious life was never meant to be in the center, but it was always to be an outpost of the institutional church. Jesus always lived on the margins of institutional religion. It is also said that religious communities historically have walked a tightrope in the institutional church. We can fall too far inside the Church or we can fall too far outside the Church. For missionary communities it is a challenge to maintain a healthy balance.
In the 1840s, when the first Precious Blood Missionaries arrived in this country, they worked in German mission outposts—beginning in Ohio, then spreading to missionary outposts throughout the United States. As our missions developed more into Catholic parish and school institutional structures, our community fell more to the center. Today, many places where we serve are no different than typical diocesan structures. There is nothing wrong with diocesan structures—they are the backbone of the Roman Catholic Church in American—but as we are in the process of forming missionaries and desire to be missionary in nature, I think we have to ask ourselves the question, “What are we doing and why are we doing it?”
In formation, there is always a tension in teaching people how to walk the tightrope. If we stay in the center too much there is danger of betraying our being. It is tempting to want to stay in the center where it is safe. As we get older, myself included, it is even more tempting to stay safe. I don’t believe the crisis in religious life is about the lack of numbers. There is a crisis in the tension of understanding where we are in the church and what we would like to be doing.
One of the challenges for contemporary religious is how to be formed and reformed for a global reality that isn’t all that comfortable. Missionaries are not to be too comfortable with belonging. I heard Fr. Barry Fisher say long ago, “wherever a missionary is, he or she should always be a stranger in a strange land.” We know that abstract altruism is not enough.
Developing courage, bravery to live with not belonging, and living on the outposts of the church where traditionally missionaries have always resided is a challenge and a matter for discussion. I don’t think we will ever get it perfectly, but I do think these are important questions to discuss.