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The challenges facing religious life today

Religious life today provides a wide array of opportunities to choose a unique path by serving their orders in new ways.
Our Faith

It is no secret that religious life is at a crossroads. As the church celebrates the Year of Consecrated Life, the number of men and women in religious orders in the United States has experienced a steady decline from peak numbers in the 1960s. Many of the schools, hospitals, and other ministries started by religious orders are today staffed primarily by laymen and laywomen. But religious life today also provides a wide array of opportunities for sisters, brothers, and priests to choose a unique path by serving their orders in new and different ways.

For Sacred Heart of Jesus Sister Maria Cimperman, that path has included ministering to people at home and abroad who suffer from HIV/AIDS. Cimperman also currently serves as the director of the Center for the Study of Consecrated Life at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. In this web-exclusive excerpt from her January 2015 interview with U.S. Catholic, Cimperman discusses the state of religious life today and what congregations must do to survive—and thrive—in the future.

What is your take on the challenges facing religious life today?

I just think religious life is in a great amount of change right now and that’s a good thing. It can be scary but it’s a good thing.

We can’t just be looking at the externals. Saying the numbers have shifted, ministries have shifted, people can’t be in the parishes or the place they once were—those are simply externals. The work I’ve done on the history of religious life shows that in every epoch it goes up, has this moment of stabilization, and then goes down. The key is, as you’re about to hit bottom, you have to look for the new life. It consistently emerges.

There was a point in time when we desperately needed schools and hospitals in the United States. Religious communities provided that, and they also helped parishes grow. I think we’re in a different moment now. There’s both dying and new life happening. We need to approach that with the sense that God is inviting us to something.

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I think one of the challenges in religious life today is to give enough space to that kind of pondering. That requires a contemplative attitude, a way of looking at the world that says yes, we once had 500 sisters in this province and now we have 300, but that’s not the problem. The question is, how are we called today?

Sometimes we can get stuck in a rut. But we need to see where the Spirit is inviting us. It reminds me of that line from Vatican II, that we’re called to “carry forward the work of Christ under the leadership of the befriending Spirit.” Otherwise we become like mice running on wheels, and that just does nothing but exhaust people.

For me, it’s about really discerning where we are called to now. In some ways the shifting of numbers is forcing that or inviting that. I actually find it an exciting time because we can’t say, “Just keep on keeping on.” That would be the death of religious life. It is now about saying, “To what is the Spirit inviting us and how do we, together and personally, listen and respond?”

Where do you see religious life heading in the future?

I think what we’re called to, as men and women religious, is also what the world is called to. That’s to give space and time for relationships—to engage and do it very mindfully. So much in the United States speaks of individualism, but our vows are asking us to be ever more communal. We need to see what the world around us is longing for and what our community’s spirit is asking for. 

I believe we’re doing this more and more. We’re doing it in our congregations, but also across congregations. Our invitation is to, once again, encounter the Jesus who continues to say, “In 2015, what are we called to?” I think that’s why this Year of Consecrated Life is so important. It is a real invitation for communities globally and locally to ask, “What is our witness to be?”

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For my community, we’re the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. When you look at the pierced side of Christ and the wounded heart, what flows out of his side is both blood and water—both life and death comes out, but it always flows to the wounded heart of humanity.

That’s where we’re called to go, to the wounded heart of humanity. I think we need to do it together. I think we need to bring in the younger generations along with our elders who’ve been doing this for their entire religious lives.

It seems like there are a lot of young people today who want to make a difference in the world, but they may not realize religious life is a way to do that. How can religious orders invite young people to consider that calling?

Great question. It’s a very important question actually.

Religious life is an invitation to be encountered in your depths by a God whose love you cannot begin to imagine. It is encountering a God who will more than meet your greatest desires to love, to be loved, to serve, to offer hope and joy. It’s a way of being in a relationship with God. And a God who is very active.

It’s also a way of life that’s communal. You don’t do it by yourself, but you take responsibility and even uncover the gifts that you have through community to engage the unmet needs of the world. Religious life is a way of life that allows us to work with others who are also seeking God and seeking to participate in the transformation into God’s world.

And by doing this with others, there will be a companion on the way when life gets challenging, when you need to laugh, and when you need others to engage with. A religious community is gospel‑oriented but with a particular dimension of spirituality. We call it charism, the spirit of community.

It’s in us already. So for people to consider religious life, it is about finding that connection and saying, “You know what? I too want to discover God’s love and reveal God’s love to the wounded heart of humanity. I too want to offer that kind of mercy, because I too have known that.”

I see a lot of people who want to give their lives away and wonder, how do you do it? Should I be worried about numbers? Should I be worried about how people perceive religious? That isn’t your first question. Yes, you look at that. But the first question is, what are you called to? If you really want to encounter both the gifts and challenges of internationality, come forth, because you will be deepened and widened.

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How has the experience of living in a religious community shaped your life?

I find that with my sisters, they have so much to teach me. I spent a month in Brazil this past year, and everything was in Spanish. I’m a novice in Spanish. The sisters there were from seven different countries. That was a great growth experience for me. It was a chance to see how we look at each other’s countries. When I’m looking at our sisters who are living in parts of Asia, I have no idea what it’s really like to live in a non‑Christian country. They have much to teach me about what that’s like.

As a Catholic, all those issues that you find in the world come forth in community life. It keeps me so much more informed about what’s going on in China and Korea, what’s happening in Kenya and Chad, or what’s going on in France and Italy.

It opens that up and at the end of the day, we sit and pray with one another. After supper, when we have our evening prayer together, we have silence with the gospel. It’s a real way of engaging the world, and doing it openly.

Did I know I would be doing what I’m doing right now? No, I could never have told you that in the beginning. Do I know where I will be in 10 years? No. But it’s a call. I find my life ever more enriched in seeking to be open to the depths of God, and in seeking to live out God’s love as a member of my community. That calls out gifts that I didn’t know I had and gifts that I’m longing to offer and give away somehow.

I find it’s about a depth of relationship. It’s about seeking. We long to be women who create communion. I do a lot of work with a variety of congregations. There’s just such a richness and a real desire in the depths of God and in the fullness of life to offer that I would invite people to consider it. You’ll know if it is right for you.


This is a web-only sidebar that accompanies “An isolating epidemic” which appeared in the January 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 1, pages 28-32).

Image: Flickr photo cc by Karl Baron