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Changing Face Of Convents

Changing Face Of Convents

In a society, religiosity is carried on mostly by women. While men usually have a materialistic and pragmatic mindset it is the women who possess emotional and contemplative nature. If so, how come the contemplative minds are getting fed up so fast with religious life! The convents In Kerala are today facing exactly the same challenges their counterparts in the West underwent after secularization, but at a much faster pace than we could ever imagine. In the 1970s and 80s where we had 20 to 30 sisters living in one single community, we now have just 6 to 8 members; and most of them over-50s. The empty convents are also indicators of several untoward developments in the Church. What is happening to our convents?

Not more than one and a half centuries have passed since the regional women religious congregations were founded in the Kerala Church. They emerged in the form of women’s progressive movements. The men’s religious congregation, likely founded in the same era , helped these small hither and thither women’s fronts to get organized and form a religious structure of their own. However, ultimately it is the women themselves who framed the fundamentals of the religious vision of their life. In short, the Christian women religious congregations were not founded by the priests of the time, but by the women communities with some assistance from the men’s religious communities. That is to say, the basic understanding was that only those who had a religio-community lifestyle could found and fashion a communitarian religious life.  

The complementary of women religious life

Priest-nun is a dual expression common in use today among the public, like husband-wife, brother-sister, even among the religious and clergy. This also leads to a mistaken understanding regarding priest-nun complementary. To understand the complementary relation, one needs to distinguish priesthood from religious life. The actual end of priesthood is basically ecclesiastical ministry or service. Like married life, religious life or single life, priesthood cannot be seen as a lifestyle. People of any lifestyle can become a priest in the Church. Celibacy as one among the criteria for Catholic Priesthood is an ecclesial law that can be removed from the canons by the Church at any time. In the Eastern Catholic Church there are priests leading family life.

Whereas, religious life is something which is etched deep within a person’s being. The religious lifestyle decisively influences the spiritual, physical and mental levels of a person. As mentioned earlier, a woman’s mind-set is fundamentally different from that of a man. As such, a person leading the same lifestyle and of the same gender can definitely help an individual to lead a more meaningful religious life. So there is no doubt that the spiritual life of a woman religious can be enhanced better by another woman religious. Yet moving a step further, men religious could become complementary to the women religious to transcend gender differentiation in religious attitude, applicable vice-versa. Thus it is men religious and women religious who are complementary in lifestyle to each other. And in no way it is priesthood that ought to guide a religious in living out religious spirituality. Priesthood can be of sacramental help. It is without this realization that even the nuns in our religious communities take a stand when confronted with issues.

Priesthood which encroached into religious life

As every family has its own deep bond of relationship and privacy, every religious community has got its own uniqueness, interiority and self-governance instilled in it which itself is an assurance by the canon law for the religious communities (CIC, ca. 586). But the priesthood which acquired an upper hand in power hierarchy is in several ways interfering with the self-governance of the religious communities. However, the power assured by priesthood prevented this intrusion in men’s religious congregations, in some sense. But this is not the case with women religious communities who depend very much on the priests for their ecclesial existence. As a result, they compromise with their very religious existence if they dare to resist interferences. This is evident in incidents like:  

·       Diocese or priests trying to seize the institutions run by women religious in several parts of the country.

·       When women religious don’t cooperate in the way expected by the priests in the parishes, the result is the hatred harboured against these religious and at times, even Holy Mass is denied to them in their convents.

·       The indirect influence of parish priests over the religious authorities to transfer those women religious in the community, who are not in their good books.

·       Women religious living in a predicament where they cannot but entertain or please a priest. ‘Don’t take what nuns say at face value’ is a usual talk among the priests with some common sense. It’s because their views, interests, disinterests, differences could never possibly be expressed as a result of the clerical dominance, and so in course of time, they themselves turn to a ‘plastic personality’. In short, they behave as if they cannot exist without appeasing the clerical class.

·       In case, a dispute or a difference of opinion springs up between the priest and the women religious it is not usually judged in accordance with the Christian ethics or on the basis of human justice. The decision taken by their very authority will be mostly favourable to priests and unfavourable to nuns. The women religious will always be the ones to be adjudged ‘wrong’ and on the losing side.

·       The ‘domestic worker’ of the diocese or the ‘maid-servant’ of the parish is typically the designation assigned to women religious in the minds of at least some of the priests. Decorating the chapel, cleaning work, preparing food, washing and ironing clothes of the priests are their responsibility is a deep-seated idea implanted in the hearts of such priests.

The Priesthood which found the religious communities

The emergence of religious life in the Church arose as a reflection of the intense and profound desire to lead a radical way of life in following Christ. As it is a way of life, the source of spiritual background and the uniqueness of one’s life play an inevitable role in its foundation. From the time the clergy had domination over religious life, the concept of priesthood in the Indian Church is that religious life is also a ministry for Church like that of the clergy. The authoritarian and white-collar tasks will be handled by the clergy and the religious ought to assist them under all circumstances.

Maintaining such ideologies and wrong notions, the clergy in the diocese founded several regional religious congregations to facilitate the needs of their dioceses. How can an individual who is only assigned to do the priestly duties found a way of life which he has never lived and is not responsible to live also? 

In this there are some basic ambiguities about religious life. Once upon a time in Europe, some religious Congregations sprouted up in order to serve the people afflicted with plague. After the period of plague, those religious were in a predicament not knowing what to do next. If religious communities don’t have clear and distinct interior lifestyle, there is every possibility to misconstrue the service they render or the activities they take up as religious life. If ‘charism’ of religious life is understood as running schools or orphanages, carrying out family apostolate, publishing prayer books and making holy vestments and pious article etc. there is a danger of living religious life without really knowing what it means; and naturally it leads to the mechanical, routine and monotonous living of coming together for mere communitarian practices, chanting verbal and routine prayers together, dining together etc. Only those who really cherish religious calling within should join religious life. Religious communities must not be ‘organizations’ formed by priests and bishops in order to run the machineries of the institutional Church, that too as cheap labour. Instead, religious have got a major role to meaningfully intervene in the ecclesial society and secular society in building the Kingdom of God after the model of Jesus Christ.

The future of the convents  

What will happen to our women religious communities in future? The numbers of religious in convents have drastically come down. If the present circumstances prevail, in some 20 years women religious will be even lesser than the priests. A rush of young girls to religious life was seen between 1960s and 1980s. We can truly make out what led to such a hike in vocation only when we analyze the socio cultural changes brought about in the life of young girls after 80s. There was a far reaching global cultural impact on the society and the women folk were the first to seize the opportunity it presented. The women who were relegated to household works in a male dominated society turned to be the educated breadwinner, a socially free bird, and to a great extent they achieved economic freedom. The globalization that took place after 1980s opened up arenas of possibility, without any discrimination, for both men and women. And women were the champions in reaping the best fruits of globalization in our land. In Christian society, women leapt into nursing and IT sector and gained social and economic stability as well as freedom. Before 80s if the global mission apostolate and convents opened up new vistas of freedom for women of those times, after 80s greater possibilities and freedom were offered by the global cultural world outside. And the convents did not update their lifestyle reading the changing signs of the time. In such a situation, for the new generation convents became a place of social confinement and monotonous living without any novelty and challenge. The women religious did not take enough timely effort to reflect and renew their traditional lifestyle that they considered sacrosanctum. And the shrinking of convents is the aftermath of that social and ecclesial submissiveness (not to be confused with ‘obedience’) and unreflective living.

Such sharp decrease in vocation in religious communities is not taking place in priesthood as of now because of the social freedom, respect and security a priest enjoys. We can safely say that the ‘boom period of priesthood’ is also nearing its end, and in the near future a steady decrease in vocation to priesthood is foreseen as the social reverence for the clergy is going down in the social scale of respectability. In Europe, what happened to convents gradually struck priesthood also. It is good to reflect whether the Indian Church is also waiting for the same plight.

·       This article has been translated from Malayalam by Dinny Kuruppassery

(Dr Jijo Kurian OFM teaches Theology at Capuchin Vidyabhawan in Kottayam, Kerala)

(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)