I am a vowed Marianist religious with nearly 40 years of profession. When I talk with our young religious — women and men who feel excitement about this moment of possibility in the Church — too often the conversation shifts to the recent past. They comment on how disheartening it is to hear others talk not about the vibrancy of religious life but about the loss of the great numbers of religious we once had.
It’s important to acknowledge the sense of loss that many older Catholics feel when invoking the “diminishment narrative” about today’s religious life. But the reality is that we no longer need large numbers of religious to build hospitals or create schools — those Catholic institutions already exist and in many places are thriving. While we’ll continue to support the spirit of such institutions, we are listening for the spirit to understand how we should focus our energies into the future. Marianist co-founder Blessed William Joseph Chaminade told us “new times call for new methods,” and it’s especially instructive in this challenging moment of U.S. history.
How do we leverage transformation of the society for God’s vision for the world? For God’s people — which is everybody, not just the Catholics, not just the poor?
While there is a genuine questioning from Catholics about what the future will hold, we can look to our foundations for insights into our ways forward. For our first 15 years, Marianists were a lay group, and only later a small number of individuals felt called to dedicate their life energy to fostering those communities. Chaminade called us “religious sodalists,” reinforcing that we are a continuation and extension of the lay groups.
The laity will be our partners and even our leaders in whatever our future holds. It’s a gift we’ve been given for the Church — that lay and religious are equal and have gifts that are complementary. We celebrate our Marian model for the Church, one which has its foundation at Cana when Mary recognized the needs and called them to Jesus’ attention to meet them. At the University of Dayton, having lay leadership allows the religious to focus our energies not on the day-to-day business of the University but on making sure we provide the support for the people who fill those crucial administrative roles: President Eric Spina, Provost Paul Benson and Director of Campus Ministry Crystal Sullivan. Although the religious have had more opportunity to steep in the charism, our faculty and staff who are Marianist Educational Associates own the charism also. They bring it to campus and the classroom in greater numbers and in ways that are unexpected and inspiring for our students. We have students who each semester study the Marianist charism and make a commitment to share it here at the University and beyond as they move on.
Recently, I was invited to give a talk in Rome to the International Union of Superiors General where I discussed Pope Francis’ challenge of moving “from the center to the margins.” People in religious life today are quite accustomed to having been at the center of things — of the Church, of the big institutions we built. But our call is also to move to the margins and to be with and people who aren’t at the center and perhaps don’t have access.
How do we share our resources with people who live on the margins? The congregations in Rome are doing all they can to respond to the immigrants in need on their shores. In the United States, how are we at Catholic universities going to stand for the protection of our own students and those whom society has put at its margins? We may not know what the future will hold, but we certainly have hints about where we need to put our energies.
We know that as Marianists we are always going to be providing community spaces because faith formation in community is our method. That’s what attracts people — students and staff, faculty and presidents — to Marianist institutions. They recognize communities in which they can thrive.
That is our gift in the Church.
We have to make sure that the people at the margins have access to that kind of community.
When the angel visited Mary, she said “yes” so that Christ could be born into our world in her very flesh. The newest generation of vowed religious are saying “yes.” They are called today to give flesh to God’s Spirit in a world both blessed and broken by globalization; they are called to be blessed to communicate and partner with people from all parts of the globe who are excluded and oppressed for their race, class, ethnicity, geography, religion and a host of other identities.
Whether lay or religious, we will re-shape our institutions and communities and our very selves.
We will take the Gospel, as Pope Francis has charged us, to the margins.
Sister Laura Leming, F.M.I., is director of novices, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Dayton and a board member at St. Mary’s University. She received a master’s in theology from UD in 1987.