There’s a misconception that those in consecrated life are few and far between, but a number of essays in Understanding the Consecrated Life in Canada show this is not the modern reality. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Book Review: Consecrated life isn’t dying, just changing

By  Paul Laverdure, Catholic Register Special
  • December 4, 2016

What is new in Canadian religious life? Actually, a lot.

In 460 pages and 25 separate, densely-argued articles (seven of them in French), editor Jason Zuidema has assembled an impressive list of scholars to present the findings of years of intensive study.

Catholic religious in Canada may seem to have practically disappeared from public consciousness. They withdrew from professional service in schools and hospitals. They changed or abandoned their religious garb. Many left their communities and vocations dropped over the last 30 years. But there are still about 18,000 men and women living under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in Canada — 15,000 in Quebec alone. We cannot be more accurate, given the many different ways of defining religious or consecrated life.

Given also the advancing average age and lack of vocations, predictions are that the total number of religious should soon be half their present number — leading to further closures, property sales and reorganization or suppression of religious provinces. Most of this decline will be among French-language religious, who will be scrambling for long-term care and retirement homes. Yet, there is evidence that there is already some stability appearing, especially among English-language communities. There is even some growth in new religious communities, especially that of associate laypeople. Paul-André Turcotte mentions 190 new Catholic religious foundations in North America since the Second Vatican Council.

As Zuidema states: “There is a caricature about the consecrated life in 21st-century Canada that informs a great deal of public and private discussion in our country: that the consecrated life is stagnant or in irreversible decline. Moreover, says this caricature, the consecrated life belongs to the pages of history, not modern reality. (This) does not represent the findings of many researchers, nor, indeed, the experience of those living the consecrated life.”

The real picture is much more complex. While some communities are in decline or dying, others are growing and new ones taking hold. The very definitions of religious or consecrated life and the standard view of it are widening.

Many religious communities important to Canada’s history are in decline and could disappear, according to contributor Elizabeth McGahan. This leaves little but the names of saints and the historical memories their lives created, writes Claude Auger. The crisis is especially felt in French Canada, where the greatest number of religious were and are and where their social roles in health, education and social work have been secularized.

The decline, however, all researchers agree, began well before the Second Vatican Council, writes Gilles Routhier among others. Many do not know what to do about their present situation, says Dominican Fr. Darren Dias. Many religious welcomed Vatican II and actively work to live it. They recognized its necessity, Michael Attridge, Rosa Bruno-Joffre, Elizabeth Smyth and Patricia Kmeic write, even when some Canadian dioceses did not report changes in the 1970s to avoid upsetting Catholic lay and patriarchal sensibilities, write Heidi MacDonald and Emily Burton. Perhaps attempts to ignore change eventually made realization of those changes a greater shock for the laity.

It is equally clear to most researchers that religious life itself will not disappear. It has been firmly anchored in the Christian and other religious traditions for millennia. In fact, several new forms of religious life have appeared in Canada since the Second Vatican Council. There is growth in the theology and structures of lay associations, writes Rick van Lier and Dominque Laperle. Secular institutes and new communities of all kinds are part of the new landscape, including monasticism among Evangelical Protestants, writes Martha Elias Downey. There are still vocations, usually older men and women who bring a wealth of experience.

All researchers today recognize the overwhelming demographic importance of women religious to the history of consecrated life in Canada and their continued importance to almost all religious life today. Their stories are being told and institutional structures such as the Canadian Religious Conference reflect their importance.

An essay by Robert McKeon, “Canadian Catholic Religious Orders and the Social Economy Movement in Canada,” highlights the roles in health, education and welfare which Canadian religious pioneered and continue to promote here and abroad.

Obviously, religious life and the underlying quest for structured spirituality are very much alive and well. While declining in some areas of Catholic life, it is growing and diversifying in others. It spans a spectrum from loosely affiliated or full-time lay people, couples and families, to temporary vows and lifelong commitments in Catholic, Protestant and non-Christian communities. Quebec’s Louis Rousseau once said Catholic vocations, when they declined in some areas of Montreal, reappeared on the same territory in other groups, such as Protestants. The increasing religious diversity found in Canada will bring increasing diversity in vocations and in religious life. Consecrated, religious life itself is a constant beacon to the questing spiritual athlete.

I cannot recommend this ponderous, academic tome to every reader. But there are important insights here and every religious house should have a copy for its members to consult.

Understanding the Consecrated Life in Canada: Critical Essays on Contemporary Trends. Jason Zuidema, editor. (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, hardcover, 460 pages, $68).

(Laverdure is a researcher, librarian and historian at the University of Sudbury.)

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