Way back in about 1990, I was asked to write a piece on ‘The Australian Church in the New Millennium’. As I recall, I was fairly upbeat.

What I certainly recall is that I singled out one thing I truly regarded as essential for the health and vigour of our church in this millennium, and that was a renewal of the ‘religious life’, meaning those we commonly call monks, nuns, brothers, hermits and so on. I didn’t expect this to be just more of the types of religious congregations that we knew, but I looked forward to being surprised by new forms that would emerge.

I am still thinking about it 25 years later, in part because Pope Francis has put it on the agenda. The Pope has declared 2015 to be the Year of Consecrated Life with the motto ‘Wake Up the World’.

‘Consecrated Life’ is certainly a better term than ‘religious life’, because it captures the way that some people freely make over their whole life to God, keeping nothing back, through the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Consecrated life has taken many forms down the centuries. It had its origins in third and fourth century Syria and Egypt when, in an increasingly affluent and comfortable church, some believers took off into the deserts to seek God in solitude and simplicity. In due course, there came to be communities of these people living under the rule of an abbot (‘father’). These spread north into Europe, at first in remote places that afforded a similarly tough, if colder, version of the desert life of Egypt. In time, however, notably under the Rule of St Benedict, the physical harshness of the monk’s life was moderated into a routine of prayer, work and sleep that was manageable by less hardy mortals. In principle, all such monks and nuns had withdrawn from the world into seclusion. As time went by, however, houses of religious were founded in towns precisely in order to work in the world. Such were the Augustinians, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. After the Reformation, congregations of such ‘active religious’ came to predominate, running hospitals, schools and various other charitable works. This form of religious life flourished prodigiously in the 19th century, giving rise to the massive orders of teaching and nursing nuns and brothers that covered the earth well into the experience of Australian Catholics still living.

Different times, different needs, different forms of ‘consecrated life’. What we have seen in the last 50 years has been the steady decline of the teaching and nursing orders, in the West at least. Governments now provide education and health care fairly well. With the exception of some individuals who give up thoughts of prosperity and comfort, perhaps even family and safety, to go and work in remote or highly disadvantaged communities, teaching and nursing aren’t radical life choices. I used to say, as politely as possible, to religious Sisters, ‘The idealistic girls who used to join you are now working down at the community centre’. So I was interested to see a very senior Sister of Charity saying the other day, ‘We need to ask the question, painful as it may be, “What is missing in Australian apostolic congregations that young people, especially women, are looking for elsewhere? "'

Of course, the religious congregations have been asking themselves that for a long time. Some have tried to reinvent themselves, taking on new ministries that are a bit more out on the scary edge of our society. Other congregations have sprung up, working in media or IT. In general, however, while our society will tolerate an individual who wants to go live in a town camp or share the life of a tiny remote community, we make it difficult for organisations to take on these things. Organisations have to have health and retirement plans for their members, Workplace Health and Safety policies in place, just remuneration, boards of governance. We just don’t understand, or allow for, people who want to throw off all those securities and rely on God alone to get them through. So I don’t know how radical commitment, the ‘consecrated life’, can fit in modern Australia, at least in its apostolic form. But I do know we Christians need to see absolute commitment being lived out. And passionate young believers need communities where they can live out their ideals.

So let us think and pray this year for those who take on the consecrated life. Some will withdraw from the world to seek God in quiet and prayer as they always have. We need their prayer and their example of quiet dedication. But we also need those who will live out choices of radical commitment in the community. The Australian church has benefitted enormously in the past from the example of many dedicated brothers, sisters and religious priests. We now look to their successors in various, perhaps new, forms of consecrated life to continue to ‘Wake Up the World’.

Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.