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The future is looking gloomy, but religious leaders are positive

 Australia’s Catholic religious may be watching their numbers dwindle and their average age increase, but like fabled Ulysses they aren't sitting around dreaming about glories past. In fact, like the Greek hero of ancient times, they're ready and raring to go on new adventures.

That much was clear on a recent visit to Catholic Religious Australia's (CRA) 35th National Assembly themed "See I am doing a new thing - the changing face of Religious life and the challenges" and held at Brisbane's Mercure Hotel from June 21 to 24.

More than 120 leaders of religious congregations gathered. Also present was a representative from the Asia Pacific region and three New Zealand religious.

As CRA president Josephite Sister Anne Derwin explained, when I met with her after a stimulating Q&A-style session with four leaders of religious congregations as panelists, "we're seeing our ministry evolving into something new, very vibrant, prophetic and mystical".

The days when the religious were the Church's "work horses" were fast drawing to a close, she said. "God is doing a new thing," she said.  The phrase had already cropped up a few times before I caught up with Sr Derwin, during the forum attended on June 22 to get a flavour of the four-day conference. It was a reminder of the somewhat defiant and certainly optimistic title which came to be given to a survey of Australia's Catholic religious - "See, I am Doing a new thing!" - published in 2010.

The statistics from the survey were alarming, showing a steep decline in the number of Catholic religious since peaks in the 1960s.  In 1968, clerical religious and brothers had been at 1433 and 2376 respectively.  Since then the number of clerical religious has fallen by 21.5 per cent to 1125 in the current (2010-2011) Official Directory of the Catholic Church in Australia.  Religious brothers have experienced a much more severe decline, falling by more than 60 per cent to 889.  The peak year for religious sisters was 1964 when there were 13,900. The current figure of 5612 is nearly 60 per cent below the peak.  Average age of Catholic religious in 2009 when the survey was held stood at 73.

So the survey title which ultimately also named the 2011 CRA national assembly could certainly be seen by an outsider as ridiculously upbeat.  Yet the title grew out of an underlying optimism in responses from many of the participants.  There was evidence of religious moving into new and often challenging ministries with refugees and asylum seekers, indigenous Australians, and in organisations against human trafficking and for the environment.

Optimism also came out of a strong awareness, as several speakers at the CRA conference were to say, that God is, after all, in charge.  Though as I quickly learnt there was nothing fatalistic in this attitude.

"We have renewed focus on seeing and celebrating the new things God is doing in our lives and that of the Church," Sr Derwin said. "There's an acceptance that our congregations are ageing, but also an awareness that unless the grain of wheat dies there is no new life."  The apostolic form of religious life, the main model since Catholicism arrived in Australia, was passing, she said.  "The religious were the Church's workhorses ... in a way at the time it had to be this way because that was the need at the time," Sr Derwin said. "So we played a very big part in the Church in such areas as nursing, teaching, looking after orphans.  "Now these roles are being taken over by the laity and often the state."  The way Sr Derwin sees it, this has been very freeing for religious.  "We're seeing our ministry evolving into something new and very vibrant in Australia - something both prophetic and mystical.  "We're seeing great hope in the group, because God is doing a new thing and it's up to us to co-operate with God's vision for life for all people."

Earlier, on arriving at the conference, I had been struck by the spirit of camaraderie and good humour no doubt in large part due to this sense of a shared journey in challenging times.  A banner above the proceedings set the tone. "Attentive to the Spirit, CRA accepts and acts on the prophetic demands of the Gospel," it read.

Soon after my arrival the Q&A forum facilitated by Josephite Sister Monica Cavanagh got underway.  Panellists were Columban Father Noel Connolly, Mercy Sisters Jan Gray and Veronica Lawson, and Cistercian Father David Tomlinson.  Together they continued a dialogue on topics already presented elsewhere in the conference.

Key discussion topics leading to thought-provoking responses were:

- the managing of divergent viewpoints both within congregations and society at large and
l examples of new initiatives showing how the reign of God is emerging in particular congregations.

Responding to the first panel question, Fr Connolly spoke of his response to a businessman who asked whether he was optimistic about the future and how he was able to say "yes".  "I realised I had reached a profound personal truth," he said. "I asked myself why and realised it was because I believed God will save the world."

Speaking to the same topic of managing divergent viewpoints, Sr Grey said: "I take great confidence in that this is the way God created things - for us all not to be the same."  Sr Lawson said it was "always important to keep relationship to the fore".  "We don't all have to see the world the same way," she said.  She acknowledge that "we come with many different points of view which sometimes converge, sometimes don't".  The Mercy Sister gave an example of restructuring in her own congregation where 15 of 18 groups have decided to form one group which is causing "enormous pain in the things having to be negotiated".

The topic of change, of "new things" continued to be very much a part of the rest of the discussion. Sr Lawson spoke of the work her Ballarat congregation had done on "forgiveness as a work of mercy" and of a process of "naming and letting go of any past hurts and conflicts".

Fr Tomlinson spoke of working on gender issues in the Cistercian order, of trying to bring men and women religious into unity as one chapter.

Fr Connolly spoke on the increasingly multicultural nature of the Australian Church. He asked those present to imagine a meeting of religious heads in 10 years' time.  "Based on current trends, we will be much more multicultural and no doubt younger," he said. "I sense we are not preparing adequately for this change. "The reality is they (people with multicultural background) are going to be leaders and if they're not happy I suggest we would need to look out."

Sr Grey put the current situation of change facing Catholic religious into historical context, noting, "We're not the first - even earliest Christian communities faced their challenges".  She said "interestingly in the UK, orders are unconcerned about possibility of diminishment - since they have faced challenges many times in history and have been reborn".

The Q&A session finished with words of challenge from Fr Connolly when he quoted the words of one Catholic thinker that the Church should "present a beautiful face to the world".  "If we go around looking miserable, all we will do is convince the doubters they were right all the time," he cautioned.  Finally, he left those present the words of St Peter to ponder: "The reasons for your hope, be ready to share them."

Paul Dobbyn - Journalist


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