Social Justice

Religious Life: A Subversion

posted on 03/09/10 03:48 pm by Fr. Paul Hansen, C.Ss.R.  

Recent commentaries out of Rome suggest that “i gruppi” have replaced religious life in the Western world. The groups, i.e. Focolare, Comunione e Liberatione, The Neo-Catechumenate, to name a few, are reported to be the real fruits of Vatican II. Indeed a Cardinal recently commented that, “religious life in the West has committed suicide.” I offer a different gloss, one that stands in the midst of the malaise, and yes even death, of these religious times, and one that moves awe-fully in its rich and varied possibilities.

There are a plethora of books and articles written on religion and spirituality in these times and the possibilities these moments offer if we but drop the pretense of therapeutic masking of those attitudes and values that ail us as religious communities and instead come to our senses, pay attention in an age of distractions. Numerous reflections and analyses describe the ‘drift’ of these times. In politics the “left” and in the church the “prophetic” have not found a home or creative moment. Michael Morwood: Tomorrow’s Catholic, Diarmuid O’Murchu: Religion in Exile and Donald Cozzens: The Changing Face of the Priesthood suggest new directions. There are no clear models. The way is found by knowing the Christian story well and diving deeply into the wells that feed our times.

The religious life that I entered over 38 years ago does not, in form, exist anymore. I loved the journey, learned much, sat at the feet of the “experts” of Vatican II and walked with people trying to discern what it means to be human in a world of terrible poverty, to know God in a world of affluence. The Scriptures were always near at hand. They continue to offer hope and direction.


“As Religious we are indeed sub-people… sub-versive, sub-verted, sub-verting, sub rosa, subtle. We are on the ground, underneath official versions.”

Religious life can offer a fresh invitation to healthy life in a world dominated by idols, defined and interpreted by the market. Walter Brueggemann suggests that lives rooted deeply in memory of the biblical story have possibilities of bringing profound hope to these our times. The choice is ‘Amway’ or ‘Yahweh.’ Many expressions of religious life are rooted in Amway and have lost purpose and prophetic fire.

Modern religious life took its form in a world of Newtonian physics, a world influenced by the Enlightenment. We really did think that God “out there” and reason “in here” would help us live and be of God and “his” will. This world has entered the history books and now must pass from the consciousness of religious life. Our world is one of Quantum physics where all reality is relational. Today many experience their lives and reality in angst and in need of purpose. Religious life is not immune. There are no longer privileged places outside the struggle. There is one life, one history and one journey.

The sub-version of the dominant version with its idols and market driven values is a version deeply rooted in Real Presence and attentiveness. Religious life is an attempt to be attentive in this age of distractions. In order to pay attention and be a prophetic presence, religious life has to be part of the process of healing and repairing and transforming itself and the world.

Although officially ended, the meaning of Jubilee continues for it is the heart of the Gospel, the mission of Jesus. The freeing of peoples, debt release and right relations with mother earth and her species must be at the center of religious life. However, unless we know the Gospel story well and are profoundly in touch with life in these times our efforts will be misplaced causing harm. Misplaced anger, middle class guilt and frustration will not assist new possibilities for hope for a meaningful present and future. The task is to be the sub-version, to repair, heal and transform. All the rest is commentary.

Paul Hansen is a member of the Redemptorist Order and the director of his Order’s Biblical Justice Advocacy/Consultancy in English Canada. Paul recently returned to Canada from Rome where, for six years, he was the Director of the General Secretariat for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation for the Redemptorists. In that capacity he visited his Order worldwide receiving a first hand awareness of the plight of millions marginal to power and of the destruction of our ecosystem.

QUESTIONS 1. Do you agree that ‘i gruppi’ are a challenge to Religious Life as we know it in the West? Why? Why not? 2. What new directions have you and your community discerned as a way forward in these our times? 3. “Many expressions of Religious Life are rooted in Amway ( North American way of life) and have lost purpose and prophetic fire.” Discuss. 4. It is said that Religious Life is not truly in touch with these times but is about a sophisticated narcissism. As Religious how might we engage these times to offer hope and renewal to ourselves and the world?

Paul E. Hansen

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