04 April 2013

"I liked the fact that they wore habits."

A decent piece on Dominican vocations in the Province of Ireland and the Eastern Province USA from the (usually execrable) NYT:

CORK, Ireland — The Rev. Gerard Dunne has worked for 12 years essentially as a human-resources recruiter — albeit one in a habit cinched with a dangling wooden rosary — for the ancient order of the Dominican friars. Once, his medieval robes may have deterred some. But today he is convinced that the garment is his greatest selling point for enlisting new priests.

Other religious orders largely stopped wearing their traditional garb in recent years, as they tried to attract new followers in secularizing societies. But the friars deliberately went on wearing the robes and promoting the spiritual benefits of shared prayer and a communal lifestyle — with a little help, too, from a chatty blog.

“We made a conscious decision a few years ago to wear the habit because we had no vocations and we were in a bad way,” said Father Dunne, 46, who estimates that he has traveled nearly a half-million miles along Ireland’s country lanes and highways in search of recruits. “If we didn’t present ourselves in an authentic manner, who would join us? And that meant going back to the fundamentals.”

Very often you will hear comments from friars from a Certain Generation that the current allure of religious life is really all about bad economic times and not a return to traditional Dominican life. . .IOW, increased numbers do not correlate with a desire for a stronger religious identity (habit, community, common prayer, etc.).

In tough economic times, the stability of community may also be appealing, and the resurgence for the Dominicans has coincided with Ireland’s economic crisis. But Father Dunne and others said most potential candidates were already prospering in existing jobs in professional fields, and came to the order because of a yearning for greater spirituality.

[. . .]

Matthew Farrell, 38, a former bartender from County Offaly and a novice, said he had sampled other orders, like the Carmelites. “I’ve been searching a long time for a vocation,” he said. “I wanted to get married or wanted to do something else. I tried to visualize myself as a priest.”

But in the end, he said, the Dominicans won out. “The Dominicans have a lot of enthusiasm and energy,” he said, “and I liked the fact that they wore habits."

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  1. There is a monastery in my diocese where the nuns ditched the habit decades ago and are into feminism and all sorts of New Age junk. If it weren't for the fact that they live in a monastery, you would never suspect they were spouses of Christ.

    The youngest ones are maybe mid to late 50s. They have had exactly two (2) postulants in the last 20 years, and both were middle-aged. The young women with religious vocations all leave to pursue them elsewhere. They don't want to be feminists, or practitioners of eastern mysticism, or glorified social workers. So far, none of these grim facts seem to have had any effect on this monastery, which continues along its path to extinction. (Which is a shame, I hear it's a lovely monastery.)

    1. Well, maybe the building will be picked up by a RC order after the last one is gone.

  2. By the same token, the convent of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (http://www.sistersofmary.org/index.php), also Dominican, is bursting with new vocations. Last I heard, their average age was 26. Somewhere I have a picture of them playing soccer—in their habits!

  3. A bit of Jungian speculation. Like it or not, something in us responds respectfully when we encounter a person or an institution which is individuated, that is, which is at home with itself as it was meant to be. There is a kind of self-accepting self-confidence that tells people, "I know who I am. You can take it or leave it." (This is part of Islam's power for contemporary uprooted Westerners.)

    The orders that maintain a conscious and proud link to their past, their organic community over time, give this kind of message. What characterizes this attitude is a lack of fundamental anxiety. That can be very attractive. So many people and institutions, despite their surface proclamations, are really trying to be Schliermacher and placate "the cultured despisers of religion". All this attempt really does is to validate the contempt --it never lessens it or converts them-- and to put off would-be friendly participants. Their anxiety to please an alien world seeps through, especially as they get more enthusiastic and assertive. (The Episcopal and other dying liberal churches come to mind.)

    I think that the habit speaks a non-anxious message from people who know who they are.

    1. Wow. Perfectly stated. And exactly right.

    2. I can see where the problem would be compounded if people in institutions that have given up their religious habits were themselves cultured despisers of religion.

    3. Tom, also exactly right. Can't tell you how many priests and religious I've known who despise religion and the Catholic Church in particular.

  4. It seems to me that many ancient orders ended up throwing their baby with the water. I think that especially the reformed orders, those which reformed a previous one in an attempt to restore their original way of life, like the Cistercians (which don't do manual labor anymore) and the Discalced Carmelites (which relaxed the cloister), just to mention a couple of them, fare particularly worse than their orders of origin. Perhaps because in their compromises they became more like the original orders and, if their reason of being was to restore something that had been lost originally, they lose their defining traits, which probably undermines their ethos more forcefully.

    I personally witnessed members of such orders regard their demographic fate without any openness to self-criticism and shrug at their destiny by consoling themselves that perhaps their secular branches or associates would keep their charisma alive, which would be changing the order upside-down and, perhaps, inside-out too.

    I have my doubts if this is what the Holy Spirit would want, because newer orders, oftentimes offshoots of ancient orders, like the Community of St. John, an offshoot of the Dominicans, and the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an offshoot of the Capuchins, are thriving by leaps and bounds, including their secular associates.

    PS: yet, it's interesting to note that some houses of orders facing problems which adhere closely to their charisma are growing rather well, like the Benedictines at Clear Creek.

    1. Decline is almost always tied to material success. More material success = increase in the number of those who are interested in joining b/c of that success. <---These members then start the inevitable, slow decline by welcoming more and more like themselves. . .eventually, you end up with a religious culture in an order/community that cannot/will not tolerate anyone who wants to live the original charism of the group b/c they represent a threat to the material comfort of that culture. . .thus, is born the reform and the cycle continues.

    2. I forgot one other element: orders/communities that see accommodation to the dominant culture as a means of attracting members forget that there are far more attractive options open to potential vocations in the dominant culture. . .why join a religious order/community that looks exactly like the dominant culture? Or has more or less submitted its original charism to a relentless revision based on the demands of a dominant culture. . .

      When a potential vocation has given up all the things that make him/her a success in the dominant culture to join a religious order/community, the last thing he/she wants is to rejoin the dominant culture presented with a thin veneer of religious decoration.