· Vatican City ·


Communities return to the early Church and are mixed

New consecrated life

 Nuova vita  DCM-002
03 February 2024

The earliest names are those of Roman noblewomen, such as Sabina, or young women, such as Pudenziana and Praxedes, martyrs in the name of the ideal of life they had chosen: asceticism, prayer, deepening of Scripture. But already in Jesus’ time we hear of ascetic, anonymous women, such as Philip’s daughters living in virginity in their own homes, and Paul’s disciples. It is in their history that we find the first traces of consecrated female life. Nuns, sisters, lay apostles would follow through the centuries, responding, Gospel in hand and with different formulas, to the questions that life and society posed from time to time. They were often looked upon with suspicion or worse. One for all Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, “restless, wandering, disobedient and contumacious female” for apostolic nuncio Philip Sega, later venerated as St Teresa of Ávila, since 1970 Doctor of the Church. Today the new consecration experiences look forward, more than to the past, not identifying themselves in ancient formulas codified by the Church. “They do not want to be Orders, nor Religious Congregations, nor Secular Institutes or Societies of Common Life. At the core is the desire to return to the experience of the Acts of the Apostles and thus to the community of life, setting aside the distinctions and juridical structures that previously constituted one of the pillars of consecrated life. The main characteristic is that they are mixed, a single institute where men and women live and pray together, and not two separate communities”, says Fr. Giancarlo Rocca, a Pauline, one of the leading experts on the world of religious, author of numerous publications and, above all, of a census of new communities, published by the Urbaniana in 2010, which is updated periodically. The text presents about 800 realities, born from 1960 to the present, including those that have since disappeared, because, the author explains, they still tried to identify and chart a new path. “If one considers male-female co-presence in an absolute way there will be about 50. In general today, I would talk about 600-700, rooted in the Western world”. The census shows that these are realities that reach the peak of foundations in the decades 1970-80 (190) and 1980-1990 (222). The largest number are born in the United States (205), then Italy (200), France (161), Canada (47), Brazil (44), and Spain (20). Data are lacking for Latin America, Asia and Africa, where “typical forms” of consecrated life endure, partly because religious life, just as in the past century in the West, is still a source of emancipation, offering especially girls the opportunity to study and work. According to the Pontifical Yearbook 2023 out of 608,958 professed religious, 33 percent live in Europe, albeit with a very advanced average age, followed by Asia (175,494 consecrated women) and America (145,206). Compared to 2020, there is an overall decline of 1.7 percent. The decline affects Europe, America and Oceania (-3.5 percent), while on the other hand the fraction of women religious in Africa and Asia grows, rising from 41.1 percent to 42.3 percent of the world total.

In the volume on new communities the numbers come out of local censuses, publications, articles, internet, verified through direct contact. There are no other data, none provided by the Dicastery of Religious, since they are “atypical forms” compared to those established by Canon Law.

For approximately the last three decades, the term “ecclesial family” has been employed at the official level to describe certain emerging religious communities. According to Rocca, this term draws inspiration from the medieval concept of the monastic familia, characterized by the coexistence of various members, such as conversi, donati, servants, and oblates, all under the authority of the abbot. Additionally, it echoes the tradition of “double monasteries,” where both male and female groups operated independently but coexisted under a shared leadership structure for centuries. However, many of these new communities find this definition restrictive. In this model, approval is not granted as a single institute; rather, the men's and women's groups are treated as two distinct entities, linked only by a president who lacks the authority to command within the individual institutes without undermining the autonomy of the respective superiors general.  Furthermore, while past practices allowed for the appointment of a female general coordinator, provided that the vicar was a priest, this arrangement is no longer permissible according to current norms set forth by the Dicastery. This change marks a shift in policy, as illustrated by the case of the Marian Community Oasis of Peace, where a sister served as superior general while a priest held the position of vicar.

The origins of these emerging religious communities trace back to profound spiritual experiences deeply rooted in various traditions within the Church. Influences from Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican spirituality are evident, as are connections to the charismatic movement and experiences associated with places like Medjugorje. Notably, many of these communities have been established by married couples, united in their shared vision and commitment. What unites these diverse communities is their youthful vigor, with an average age typically ranging from 35 to 40 years old. Despite their vibrancy and growing numbers, there has been a notable absence of an official pronouncement from the Vatican. Anticipation for such a statement has been building since the World Conference of Ecclesial Movements and New Communities in 2014, yet as of now, no official document has been released.

In the interim, three international conferences were convened by the former congregation in an attempt to discern common threads among these emerging communities, shedding light on both their strengths and challenges. Fr. Rocca identifies several notable characteristics, including the practice of ‘mixedness’—the cohabitation of men and women—and multivocationality, which encompasses the participation of consecrated individuals, married couples, and laypeople representing various states of life. Another defining feature of these new realities is their departure from traditional models of apostolate-centered works, such as education or healthcare. Instead, they prioritize individual member commitment, often viewed as voluntary work undertaken at a personal level. Some opt for vows renewable annually or indefinitely, which can be dissolved at the discretion of the individual member without external ecclesiastical intervention.  In certain instances, these communities choose to operate at the local Church level, emphasizing a return to diocesan roots and fostering a deeper connection with the broader ecclesiastical community.

At the heart of these emerging communities lies a commitment to communal and personal prayer, as well as a dedication to communal living and outward visibility, often symbolized by the adoption of and wearing of a religious habit. Remarkably, they are pioneering in certain aspects, offering women opportunities for preaching, holding leadership positions, engaging in spiritual direction, and conducting retreats. Additionally, they prioritize hospitality, communal sharing, and a strong focus on cultural engagement.  However, like any nascent movement, they face the risk of veering towards certain forms of fundamentalism. Despite this, Fr. Rocca notes that these communities are progressing steadily, even in the absence of official recognition. “They refuse to let their existence hinge on formal acknowledgment, continuing to establish new communities unabated. When eventual Vatican recognition does come, they will consider their next steps, much like religious congregations and secular institutes have done in the past”.

Indeed, many of the new religious institutes such as the Salesians, Salesian Sisters, Canossian Sisters, and Sisters of the Child Mary faced challenges in obtaining official recognition as religious and nuns for a significant period. The Vatican's criteria at the time were closely tied to the requirement of solemn vows and adherence to a specific “rule” of life. Despite these obstacles, these institutes forged ahead, prioritizing their commitment to consecrated life and apostolic work. It wasn't until much later, (1860, 1900, 1901 and 1917) coinciding with the establishment of the Code of Canon Law.  Rocca concludes, “That is, the important thing was life, consecration and apostolate, not official recognition. It should not be forgotten that the Congregation of Religious accepted temporary vows for a long time and intervened to suppress them (profession was also made with the formula 'as long as I remain in the institute') after 1920”.

History is full of examples. The Daughters of Charity, founded by St. Vincent de Paul, along with Luisa De Marillac, faced with the choice imposed by Pope Pius V, who in 1566 with the bull Circa pastoralis officii decreed that only cloistered nuns were considered true religious, chose to devote themselves to the care of the poor by taking private vows every year.

In Rome, even earlier, there existed the Oblates of Tor de’ Specchi, founded by St. Frances of Rome, dedicated to both contemplation and charity. Sister Grazia Loparco, a historian and lecturer at the Auxilium Faculty who sits on the steering committee of Women Church World, reflects on this diversity within women's religious life, noting, “There was space for them too.” She emphasizes that this diversity is inherent in women's religious life, as women have historically advocated for forms of religious expression that align with their calling, even if they do not receive formal recognition from the Church. This sentiment is particularly evident in modern times, with women like Caterina Volpicelli, Clelia Merloni, and Francesca Cabrini, who felt compelled to devote themselves to missions of education and charitable welfare as an expression of their faith, foregoing formal recognition in favor of inner conviction. Sister Grazia also traces this tradition back to the early Christian martyrs, whose courageous witness strengthened the role of women in the community. She explains, “In the first centuries, bishops had to acknowledge that despite societal perceptions of women as fragile and unequal to men, they possessed 'manly' virtues bestowed by the Holy Spirit, including fortitude in the face of trials. Virginity and martyrdom became synonymous, underscoring women's unwavering commitment to their faith.”

And what about today? Since the Council, over 400 religious institutes have vanished, and in recent years, the Dicastery for Religious is confronted with the decline of about 500 institutes, predominantly women's, which are facing closure. This poses a multitude of challenges, from finding suitable placements for elderly nuns to determining the future use of their properties. In essence, while the overarching charisms endure, the distinctive services provided by some formerly esteemed institutions appear to be dwindling with the passage of time.

However, says Sister Loparco, “a recurring fact in the Church is that when new forms appear that seem more responsive to the needs of the present, they do not completely eliminate previous ones. The religious congregations of the nineteenth century, for example, did not replace monasteries, which were the first form of common life for consecrated women. They have diminished, but they still exist. Because in that form of life people find meaning who feel led there to live the following of the Lord. So in the twentieth century came secular institutes, which dispensed with religious habit, community life, and activity carried out in common, and focused on personal witness in places of life and work, but did not do away with earlier forms”, says Sister Grace. Today especially active congregations are needed in those contexts where the state fails to take care of people’s needs, “mostly the working class and especially women. That’s why they were born in the 1800s, and that’s the reason for their relevance in so many peripheries of the world”. Certainly a form or type of religious life is changing, but it is not yet clear where it will go. There is a shift, as there has been so many times in the past. The form or structure changes, but the ascetical-religious life continues. And the new communities “respond to the forms of poverty in developed, spiritually ‘anemic’ contexts, so they focus on communal life, spiritual accompaniment, listening and dialogue. And this also speaks of the Gospel, of personal vocations given for the edification of the Church”, says Loparco. They also express a prophetic element: “They are men and women who in the name of the Gospel live a communion and mission, overcoming conflicts so present in societies. Today religious life is a sign in saying that it is possible to work and live together, founded on faith, converging toward a single mission”.

by Vittoria Prisciandaro
Journalist at the St Paul’s periodicals, “Credere” and “Jesus”