WASHINGTON — As the universal Church gears up for the Year of Consecrated Life in November, it faces a challenge, as the numbers of men and women religious continue to decline. But families may hold the key to reviving interest in the consecrated vocation in the 21st century.
Family is the key to forming vocations for the consecrated life, according to Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., one of the fastest-growing dioceses in the U.S.
Bishop Burbidge chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, and in this interview with the Register, he explains how the bishops’ conference is trying to get that conversation about consecrated life down to the parish and family levels.
Pope St. John Paul II in Vita Consecrata noted that the consecrated life, in all of its diverse forms — including monastics, virgins, hermits, widows, contemplative institutes, apostolic religious, secular institutes, societies of apostolic life and other new and renewed expressions of consecrated life — are “a precious and necessary gift for the present and future of the people of God” and “an intimate part of her life, her holiness and her mission.”
Bishop Burbidge identifies that personal encounter with men and women in consecrated life as essential to helping young people and their families understand the vocation and its way of life. He also explains the beauty and importance of the consecrated life in the Church and why the Church needs consecrated men and women on this path in our modern era.
Why is the Year of Consecrated Life important?
One of the beautiful traditions we have in our Church is that, while we recognize the great contribution of all vocations in the Church, it is very important for us in a particular way at certain times to lift up and honor [different] vocations; to provide an opportunity for our faithful to understand those vocations; and to promote those vocations within their families.
Dioceses do this all the time. We have special days where we recognize priests and married couples. So this is what the Church is doing. Whether it is the Year for Priests or the Year of St. Paul, we’re looking at something very particular that builds up the body of Christ — that strengthens the Church. Our Holy Father is saying, “Let’s look at how consecrated life has done that throughout the history of the Church, with its countless contributions, and get a better understanding of what consecrated life is.”
What do the U.S. bishops have planned for the Year of Consecrated Life?
Three major events that we’re asking to be done on a local level — and it could vary from one diocese to another — are days of community with religious, so more like an open house. And this isn’t just for young people; it is very important to emphasize that, in many ways, it is connected to the  World Meeting of Families [in Philadelphia]. We want families as well as their children to learn about the nature of the consecrated life. So we’re asking on a local level for dioceses, sometime in February 2015, to have open houses, tours, receptions, family activities and presentations. This could be at a convent, abbey, monastery or religious houses. And then, in the summer, we’re looking for dioceses to promote days of mission and service with religious — there are so many of those in consecrated life who have dedicated their lives to the care of the sick, the elderly, the poor and the homeless — maybe together with families, they could participate in that kind of service, in a particular ministry within a local church or society.
Then, in September, we’re looking at a day of prayer with religious. And that could include vespers, a Mass, Rosaries, Holy Hours, whatever — so, on a pastoral level, we’re providing prayer intentions, prayer cards, a video and other resources. … If you look on the website, there are resources and ideas, but I think people will respond according to their local situation.
Where are we now, in terms of the state of consecrated life today? There continues to be a noted decline of consecrated religious brothers and sisters, and while that’s not the whole picture of consecrated life, where do you see things today?
I think we do recognize a need, based on recent trends, that we do have to talk about this vocation a little bit more. We need to invite people to experience it, because what I think these trends are reflecting is that people are not as understanding of what this life is all about and how one can live the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience in community life with a specific charism: “What is that all about?” So I think the year is probably a recognition of the fact that, just like the Year for Priests, we need to talk about this a little more and see from those who are living it the joy of living it, so that others might have their eyes opened to the possibility that they might actually be called to this life.
What’s the relationship between the family and the consecrated vocation?
The family has to be the foundation from which good vocations are received or planted and the seeds are nurtured. That can be related to vocations with the diocesan priesthood. So much of our work has to be with parents and families to help them understand what this life is and their role in encouraging their sons or daughters, when it comes to consecrated life, and to have their hearts open to it. That was presumed before. There was a time in history when, even when I was a seminarian … that was a given. The fact that you’d speak about becoming a priest or a sister — it would be a given or norm for your classmates or anyone who entered [religious life] that your parents would feel proud, and they’d be there with you the first day and throughout the years. But later on, when I became rector of the seminary, there were all these [times] when, on opening day of the seminary, seminarians would show up by themselves, because their parents were so opposed to the idea. That was unheard of at one time in the Church — parishes and families used to be so thrilled.
But I think, throughout the years, there is this [question of] “What is this life about?” or “What is this life that I’m sending my son or daughter off to?” So that’s where we have to do much better work: to be nurturing and helping the parents. That has to be the essential part of vocation work, so we’re not just going to say we need our young people to learn about consecrated life, but their families need to be involved, too.
How does the consecrated life fit within the life of the Church?
The Church, throughout her rich history, has always depended on the faithful, generous witness of those who have devoted their entire lives to Christ and his Church — their entire lives. And through this devotion and subsequent intimacy, the Gospel has been preached, lived and shared; and very, very, powerful instruments of Christ’s love have brought forth him to others in need. With religious orders, for example, we have seen a growth of such important ministries, whether it be with education, hospitals or care for the dying. We need religious men and women, consecrated men and women, who devote their lives to a certain charism and a community, who produce such great fruits.
The Church needs married couples, the Church needs single persons, but for men and women to unite and give their lives to complete service to the Church, bound by poverty, chastity and obedience, witnessing so clearly to the body of Christ — wow, what a great gift to the Church.
How would you respond to those who say the consecrated life is too difficult or a relic of the past?
I would say that the consecrated life is one’s path to holiness. In God’s divine and mysterious plan, we’re all called to become holy; we’re all called to become saints — we’re all called to go to heaven. That’s our call. But God will place in the hearts of some that your path to this is by saying Yes to become a priest or to be a consecrated religious — that’s your path to holiness. So it’s like any vocation in life. Will that always be easy? Of course not. Is it too difficult? Of course not, because the One who chooses the one called also supplies the additional grace or strength that is needed.
And what can we do at the grassroots parish level to promote the consecrated life?
Here’s one thing I suggest people do: We all know someone in consecrated life who has deeply inspired us and talked with us. Remember them. Maybe if they are still living, send them a note, and let them know the impact that they had. And for those that have gone before us in faith, make a special prayer or remembrance at Mass for them.
For those who are so blessed to have consecrated life serving in their midst now, to find a way to express gratitude and thanks, and to honor them by learning more about their community, congregation or way of life. And I think, certainly, to pray: Pray for them by name. We pray for our seminarians, but we also need to pray for our consecrated religious by name, asking God to give them the grace to live faithfully their vows and to find their joy in them.
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.