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Posted April 17, 2005 at 4:00 p.m. CDT

John Paul II gets mixed reviews from religious congregations

By Stacy Meichtry

In the weeks since the death of Pope John Paul II, numerous metaphors have been trotted out to characterize his global influence. Heads of state have praised him as a bridge-builder; the faithful have described him as a father figure.

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To the million-plus men and women who form Roman Catholicism’s religious communities, however, figurative speech doesn’t capture John Paul’s influence. To them, the pope was an authority figure in both a moral and literal sense. He had the power to change one’s world view as well as one’s daily routine. In his absence, the reviews of his reign, if not the metaphors, were  mixed.

Such ambivalence set the scene at a recent memorial Mass for the religious at St. Peter’s Basilica. Hundreds of religious filed past metal detectors and into the pews Friday to honor the late pope. Some came in groups wearing veils and habits that identified their orders. Others came alone, clad in “modified” habits easily mistaken for plain street clothes. Throughout the Mass, their facial expressions ranged from stoic to stone-faced.

John Paul “always reserved a privileged place for those who answered the call of the Lord,” Archbishop Piergiorgio Silvano Nesti told the massive audience in a sermon. As Secretary of the Congregation for the Religious under John Paul, Nesti was a top bureaucrat who oversaw matters large and small for religious orders worldwide. Bureaucracy, however, was not the focus of Nesti’s sermon. Instead he sought to convey a message of moral support — one that John Paul had rigorously repeated to the religious over his 26-year pontificate. “Be not discouraged,” Nesti boomed.

What discourages many religious is their incessant decline in numbers. John Paul presided over the sharpest drop of religious men and women in church history — a sea change now recognized as a full-blown institutional crisis. When John Paul took office in 1978, the number of religious women worldwide stood at 991,768. That number has since fallen by more than 20 percent, according to the 2002 Statistical Yearbook, the Vatican’s most recent statistical compendium. The crisis facing religious men, meanwhile, is even deeper. As of 2002, there were 54,828 religious men worldwide compared to 75,802 in 1978.

Even as Nesti delivered his sermon, John Paul was still getting in his last words of encouragement. Minutes before the Mass, the Vatican released a message from John Paul to the religious that had been signed in February in preparation for World Missionary Sunday in October. The message was translated into six languages including Chinese. “How many martyrs in our day!” the message read. “The church has need of men and women willing to consecrate themselves wholly to the great cause of the Gospel.” 

Most religious do not directly blame John Paul for the crisis, even through it deepened under his watch. A combination of unsympathetic demographics and shifting sociological trends are the real culprits, they say. Simply put, the rate of incoming vocations no longer offsets the annual death rate of religious men and women as it did in the earlier half of the 20th century. Although new vocations are on the rise in developing countries in Asia and Africa, that growth is not robust enough to counterbalance shortfalls in the developed world, namely Europe.

That said, many religious are hoping the next pontificate will go beyond John Paul’s words of encouragement. Can the next pope stop the bleeding or will he ignore it?

“We can’t give into anxiety,” said Br. Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, based in Chicago. Despite the declining numbers Bednarczyk looks back on John Paul’s papacy as a period of renewal, especially among young people. He praised John Paul for creating a day of worldwide recognition for the religious (February 2) and for producing the 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata. Culled from ideas expressed at a 1994 synod, Vita Consecrata aimed at addressing religious life in modern contexts, including the need to involve religious women “in different fields and at all levels” of the church. John Paul “was well aware of the struggles we face,” Bednarczyk said. “If religious life is a gift to the church then you have to take responsibility for it.”

But many argue that responsibility was precisely what John Paul lacked when it came to the religious. Sr. Camilla Burns, who is based in Rome as the Superior General of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, couldn’t recall the last time her order had an appointment at the Vatican. Reached by telephone in Boston, Burns said what stuck out in her mind was the pope’s failure to turn up at an international assembly for religious held in Rome last November. “A year ago they got a commitment (from the Vatican) to meet with the pope. It was a great opportunity to meet 850 religious from around the world. But when the time came something else was scheduled. It created great sadness,” she said. “And he wasn’t ill that day,” she added.

Among the groups organizing the assembly was the Rome-based International Union of Superiors General, an umbrella group for superiors of women’s religious orders, headed by Sr. Victoria Gonzales. Thinking back on John Paul’s relations with religious women, Gonzales concluded: “He didn’t know much about religious life. It just wasn’t his strong point. He wanted what he saw in Poland — nuns walking around with big habits.”

Burns, meanwhile, is hoping for a change of both style and substance. Religious life will continue to languish, she believes, as long as the Vatican maintains its gender gap. Should the next pope also call for the greater involvement of women in the church, Burns hopes that he’ll depart from the caveats that defined John Paul’s stance. Vita Consecrata provides a good example of this logic. On one hand the pope calls for the advancement of women at “all levels” of church life. On the other, he warns women against treading upon the toes of the opposite sex, urging them to "promote a 'new feminism' which rejects the temptation of imitating models of 'male domination.'" 

“Some young women are so distressed about the church and the role of women, or the lack thereof,” Burns said. “They’re just not willing to throw their lot in anymore.”

Nowhere was the power divide more apparent than at Friday’s Mass. Clerics occupied the sanctuary. Seminarians took up the pews within an earshot of the altar. And behind them sat the laity, whose numbers were dominated by religious women donning short veils and flowing habits. A half-hour into the ceremony, their ranks began to show signs of fatigue as Nesti’s sermon bounced off the basilica walls in dissonant echoes. One woman rested her head against a massive column and appeared to doze off.

Stacy Meichtry is a freelance journalist based in Rome. He is reporting and writing for NCR during this period of papal transition.

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