Religious Life: Ideal and Reality

All aspects of life are experienced on a continuum between the poles of ideal and reality. Human relationships are one example. Certainly, all desire our relationships to be of an ideal, but such a desire is not possible, for reality tells us that there are no ideal or perfect relationships. We seek the ideal job, and sometimes individuals are fortunate enough to find a position that utilizes their skill set and provides opportunities that make the job one to which we look forward each day, but again it is never ideal. Some sports teams excel and have great records, but as the expression goes, “you can’t win them all.” Nothing is ideal; we must face and accept reality.

When the call of the Lord came and we responded as religious, we entered congregations that seek to be ideal but can never reach that high plateau. Religious life has its ideals: community that is nurturing and where everyone gets along famously, ministry that always goes smoothly and never experiences a “bump in the road,” a spiritual life that is always uplifting and a powerful asset as we journey to God and life eternal. However, the reality of the imperfect nature of religious life, like all things in the human condition, is our true experience and the one with which we must deal on a day-to-day basis. We seek the ideal, but we experience reality. Exploring what the ideal should be and what the reality actually is can be constructive in assisting us along the road to be more effective members of our communities and better ministers of God’s grace to others.

Religious Life Post–Vatican II: Ideal and Reality

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), while not generating any major development in the creation of new religious communities, did nonetheless move religious life in the direction we find in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. The Council’s “Declaration on the Renewal of Religious Life,” Perfectae Caritatis, sought to update the structural framework of religious life to the environment and conditions of the mid-twentieth century:

The manner of living, praying and working should be suitably adapted everywhere, but especially in mission territories, to the modern physical and psychological circumstances of the members and also, as required by the nature of each institute, to the necessities of the apostolate, the demands of culture, and social and economic circumstances. According to the same criteria let the manner of governing the institutes also be examined. Therefore, let constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayers and ceremonies and such like be suitably re-edited and, obsolete laws being suppressed, be adapted to the decrees of this sacred synod.1

Clearly Vatican II sought to move religious life into the mid-twentieth century, understanding that the contemporary environment and new apostolates required innovative approaches and methods for religious to bring the message of Christ worldwide.

Vatican’s II’s response to the needs for religious life to develop in order to meet contemporary needs was matched by the efforts of the Sacred Congregation of Religious to suggest essential elements that characterize religious life. (1) Consecration to God by public vows: Quite obviously the evangelical counsels set a framework within which men and women religious live; these dictate the basic parameters within which religious operate in the world. (2) A stable, visible form of community life: Religious are not solo operators; rather we live within the community and share our lives, both the routine schedules we follow as well as the great successes and failures we experience in ministry. We purposely share our lives with others. (3) A corporate apostolate faithful to the community’s charism: All communities have a basic charism, defined generally by the founder that serves as a guideline for the type of ministry that characterizes any particular order. Some are educators, others are missionaries to distant lands, still others have a ministry of outreach to the poor. (4) Personal, communal and liturgical prayer: For many communities, the liturgy of the hours and daily Mass are celebrated with some set schedule. Personal prayer is essential for all Christians but should be normative for religious. (5) Asceticism: While this concept is more normative in monastic and mendicant communities, nonetheless there is a sense that all religious must live a simpler life, seeking to follow the dictum, “Let us live simply so others may simply live.”

(6) Public witness: Those outside a religious community observe what we do and listen to what we say. Thus, we must be cognizant that we are constantly in the public view and must act and speak accordingly, providing a positive witness of the presence of God in our world. (7) A specific relation to the Church: Religious serve in an official capacity as representatives of the Church; we serve as ambassadors of Christ to others. (8) Life-long formation: We are never completely formed, but rather must continually renew and update our knowledge and skills. As a doctor or an attorney cannot rely on the information gained in medical or law school, but must continually update his/her skills and knowledge, so too those of us privileged to serve in the capacity as religious and priests must continue to read and update ourselves on things of the Church and our specific ministry. (9) A governance calling for religious authority based on faith: In the wake of Vatican II many religious communities updated and/or rewrote their constitutions in line with the concept of aggiornamento that characterized the Council and its documents.2

The ideal of religious life as expressed in Perfectae Caritatis and these nine essential elements must be juxtaposed to the reality that is found in religious life today. In The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision, this reality check is described:

Much has been done in recent times to adapt religious life to the changed circumstances of today and the benefit of this can be seen in the lives of many men and women religious. But there is need for a renewed appreciation of the deeper theological reasons for this special form of consecration. We still await a full flowering of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the transcendent value of that special love of God and others which leads to the vowed life of poverty, chastity, and obedience.3

Interpretation of the 16 documents of Vatican II and, therefore, one’s understanding of the direction of religious life, can be divided into two basic camps: viewing the Council as a revolution or reform with continuity. Holding to the later opinion, and viewing the current malaise in the Church and religious life as a product of a partial and selective reading of the Council documents, Sisters Mary Judith O’Brien and Mary Nika Schaumber have written:

The period of Church history that followed the Second Vatican Council can be aptly characterized as one of light and shadow. The Second Vatican Council was received, on the whole, with tremendous zeal, and the fruits of the aggiornamento cherished. At the same time, however, there was a partial and selective reading of the Council, as well as a superficial interpretation of its doctrine … a lack of discernment of spirits. This misinterpretation often led to an acceptance of the secularized mentality prevalent in society, a certain estrangement from the Church.4

This same two religious have also commented, “Unfortunately, many religious were led astray by the false belief that they should disregard the authentic teachings of the Church as a legitimate authority, in the name of renewal.”5

It is clear historically that various forms of religious life have developed when the need in society and the Church necessitated new communities. However, must the renewal of religious life sought by Vatican II evolve simply through time? What precautions should be taken to assure that the basic elements of religious life and their meanings are not jeopardized? Sister Mary Prudence Allen has commented on this question:

Sometimes, by applying a Darwinian model of evolution to the structure of religious life, it is falsely argued that the essential structures of religious community simply evolve over time. . . . Embedded within this kind of Darwinian evolutionary approach is the underlying premise that change in structures of community is a simple, natural process, much like accommodation to changes in weather or environment, without reference to judgments about better or worse structures, for supporting the common good of the religious institute. With this misunderstanding of the meaning of renewal of religious life, this process can actually devolve toward decline and ultimately to extinction.6

Community Life Experience: Ideal and Reality

Why do we live a common life and what have been our experiences in community? Clearly the answers are a potpourri. Mother Agnes Dominic Pitts and Sister Mary Elizabeth Wusinch suggest that the common life aids both those who live it and those who witness it as a lived experience:

Religious do not live a common life primarily as a way of providing an economic orderly life for its relatively large family of followers, nor is it ordered primarily for the sake of the community’s apostolate — rather, and of first importance, and life itself it has a transcendent, essentially spiritual value for those who live it and for those to whom their witness of genuine lasting fraternal life brings hope.7

Largely, our experiences in community are determined by what our contribution has been to the common life. This can be evaluated both on the local community and the congregation-wide levels. What can we do to better the community in which we live? What can make our community more the ideal that we seek?

Common prayer and table should be the basic criteria upon which we will build community. While religious communities differ, all depend in some measure on the concept of common prayer. Why do we participate in this common exercise? For priests, the divine office is mandated, for when ordained deacons promise the presiding bishop to faithfully celebrate the liturgy of the hours. The constitutions of most religious congregations mandate common prayer, generally some form of the liturgy of the hours, as a normative exercise.

While, if we are not careful, praying the office can certainly become rote, such prayer should be an exercise that brings us into communion with our brothers or sisters who have chosen the same pattern of life. I recall once spending a couple of months with a group of religious brothers. I noticed these men were virtually 100% present at all common prayer times, and this observation, differing from my own experience, greatly impressed me. I once asked one of the brothers about what I saw and was told, “I come to prayer because my brother expects me to be here.” Indeed, we pray as a community for ourselves, but also to strengthen the community life and spirituality we share.

This is the ideal, but the reality is that too often personal schedules and desires are found to be “more important” or “higher priority” than communal prayer. Too often members have all sorts of “excuses” for their lack of attendance — it does not fit my schedule, the office is not my “form” of prayer, “I don’t get anything out of it.” Thus, we need to ask ourselves a challenging question: what is our commitment to this foundation of religious life? Do we fit common prayer into our schedule? Do we accommodate our schedule to meet the common schedule of the house where we live or do we say that the house must accommodate to my needs?

Common prayer brings us together, but it is the evangelical counsels which make religious distinct from the rest of the followers of Christ. In Vita Consecrata, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote:

By professing the evangelical counsels, consecrated persons . . . strive to reproduce in themselves . . . that form of life which he, the Son of God, accepted in entering this world. By embracing chastity, they make their own the pure love of Christ and proclaim to the world that He is the Only-Begotten Son who is one with the Father. By imitating Christ’s poverty, they profess that He is the Son who receives everything from the Father and gives everything back to the Father in love. By accepting Christ’s filial obedience, they profess that he is infinitely beloved and loving, as the one who delights only in the will of the Father, to whom he is perfectly united and on whom he depends for everything.8

The vows are the framework within which religious life is experienced. While they are basic, their essential nature serves as the foundation to live the life we have chosen. Additionally, they serve as a witness to others of the commitment that is required of those in religious life. Dominican Sister Mary Dominic Pitts has written: “The evangelical counsels, being the most radical means for affecting this interior transformation, are the most radical means for transforming the world.”9 The vows must impact how we think and even more importantly the actions of our lives. Mother Agnes Mary Donovan and Sister Mary Elizabeth Wusinsch addressed this challenge:

The religious who professes public vows is now obligated by a new bond and enjoys the liberty to strive to love as God loves and to abide in his love. Daily choices should be compatible with this new bond in order to fulfill one’s religious vocation.10

Poverty serves as the first of the three evangelical counsels. We all know the ideal, at least traditionally, the ideal of common purse as described in the Acts of the Apostles (4:32-37). We must admit that we certainly do not live in poverty. As the expression goes, “We take the vow, but others live it.” The goal is not to live in poverty, but it should be to live in simplicity. Do we have too much of the world’s goods, personally and communally? We must recall the challenge of Jesus to the rich man who wanted to follow him. After telling him to follow the commandments he said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:20-21).

One of the significant difficulties in the living the vow of poverty is the disparity in lifestyle between religious in the same community. This becomes a source of division, jealousy and the perception of unfairness. We hear, “Why is Joe’s personal budget twice mine? Why does he need all that money?” In the post–Vatican II era, the general economic prosperity of many religious communities has drawn them away from the ideal of simple living. We eat extremely well, have cable TV in our rooms, sufficient money to go out to dinner with some regularity and buy many things that we want but do not need. Has economic prosperity pulled us away from what we are called to be? A former spiritual director of mine often quipped, “Our community life was best when we had virtually nothing.” If we “cheat the system” by keeping stipends and other economic resources, who are the ultimate losers? The Jesuit theologian William Resier has commented:

What does it mean to be poor? This question has occasioned endless debates in religious communities. Does the poverty which one vows to observe designate spiritual poverty or material poverty? With what social class or classes is one identifying? There has never been a single, uniform definition of religious poverty.11

Chastity is the great elephant in the room for religious life today. We are all aware of the present climate in the Church, and thus we must avoid situations that may cause conflict. There certainly is a need for religious to have outside associations, including people of both sexes as friends and people with whom we can relate, even recreate, but we must be cautious in our personal contacts and associations. Pope Francis has written in Open Mind, Faithful Heart: “All priests and all consecrated men and women must resolve in their lives the fundamental challenge of their friendship with Jesus Christ, and they must bring their lives to resolution through this friendship with Jesus.”12 The vow of chastity must render the human heart capable of being fully receptive to and wholly taken up by the love of God.13

Obedience, which might on first reflection seem to be the easiest of the three vows to observe, may in some ways be the most difficult. When serving as the Rector of the North American College, now-Cardinal Timothy Dolan commented, “Obedience could be the easiest virtue to describe, but the toughest to live.”14 If the overall goal of the religious life is to conform ourselves to Christ, obedience can be the vehicle to achieve this end. Through this vow we have all agreed to show deference to our religious superiors. When we are left alone in our comfort zone and not pushed to consider another ministry or move to a different local community, then it is simple to be obedient. However, do we believe in the grace of state, that our religious superiors are given insight to know what might be best for us? Yes, we may be asked to go somewhere or do something that we did not expect, or feel is beyond us. Yet we need to be more trusting, with the belief that our trust in others is one aspect of our trust in God. The Bible gives us many examples. Abraham placed his total trust in God (Genesis 22:1-19) when the Lord asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac, the only possibility he had for progeny and to be, as God promised, the father of a great nation. The prophets were collectively asked to trust, knowing that their message would probably not be well received. The psalmist (26:16) writes, “In the Lord I have trusted; I have not faltered.” In the Acts of the Apostles (9:10-19), Ananias was asked to trust God and go and minister to the needs of Saul, who become St. Paul the great Apostle to the Gentiles.

Obedience is more difficult in our generation because of our insistence on self-autonomy; simply put, we do not want to be told what to do. To be obedient, to follow the commands of another, rubs against the grain of our desire for freedom; it places us in a position which is contrary to contemporary society. In another conference to seminarians, Cardinal Dolan stated:

It is precisely in obedience that we are most countercultural: in a society that urges us to keep all options open, not to be tied down, always ready to move on to something more attractive, to place conditions on all pledges, to protect our own interests above all else, to move up and make more, to demand rights and resist restrictions—we pledge complete obedience to one man and one confined area of God’s vineyard. That is obedience. That is countercultural!15

Obedience must be understood as a voluntary action. Our hands are not tied behind our back in an action that forces us to act against our will. Rather, obedience is a mature act of the will.  Sister Mary Dominic Pitts, O.P. has addressed this issue: “Obedience is not conformity. Its exercise is voluntary and responsible. Acting in true obedience, the religious, far from being repressed and dehumanized, is exercising the most mature act that the will can make.”16

Living by the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience requires our fidelity, but it also brings freedom. It is imperative that we remain within the framework of the vows by remaining faithful to one another. Pope Francis has written:

Fidelity is always personal: it has special names, codes, and gestures for every person. Persons are the highest value; above them there is no higher realm of values. Therefore, if we are not faithful to concrete persons, even under the pretext of serving “ideals” then we are ultimately not being faithful to ourselves.17

In an essay on religious consecration, Mother Agnes Mary Donovan and Sister Mary Elizabeth Wunisch have commented: “Far from being a distraction of anything truly human, it is within this context [living the vows] that the consecrated religious finds liberation from the egotism and restless self-seeking that so characterize our times and much more: the joy of a deep and true relationship of spousal love with God.”18

Religious Life Today

Reviewing religious life today as an ideal we seek, but a reality we live, poses a question: Are we holding to the values that are central to religious life or are we compromising our way of life to meet the needs of the contemporary world? The Jesuit priest William Barry provides this answer: “Religious life in the U. S. often seems to have been co-opted by the individualism so rampant in our culture. Religious leaders and formation personnel must help their members become more of a ‘we’ then a group of ‘I’s.’”19 We must ask ourselves if we have been mesmerized by the world to such an extent that we have equal attachment as individuals and congregation to the world as to God. Has religious life gone astray?

We need to find our way forward; we need to counter the world. The Capuchin Father David Couturier has written, “Religious life is not so much confused about Christ’s identity and the Church’s dogma as it is struggling for mission as it acts out its part in the theological and philosophical drama of a culture captivated by aggressive consumer capitalism.”20 What is the model that we should be manifesting in our world today? Do we need to return to the basics? Will the traditional “vision” for religious life serve God’s people today and be attractive to possible new members? Time will tell the future direction of religious life in the United States.

  1. Vatican II, Perfectae Caritatis, October 1965, #3.
  2. Mother Agnes Mary Donovan and Sister Mary Elizabeth Wusinsch, “Religious Consecration: A Particular Form of Consecrated Life,” in Counsel of Major Superiors of Religious Women, The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision, (Notre Dame, Indiana, Ave Maria Press, 2009), 30–31.
  3. Counsel of Major Superiors of Religious Women, The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision, 0.
  4. Sister Mary Judith O’Brien and Sister Mary Nika Schaumber, “Conclusion,” in Foundations of Religious Life, 187.
  5. O’Brien and Schaumber, “Conclusion,” 201.
  6. Sister Mary Prudence Allen, RSM, “Communion in Community,” in Foundations of Religious Life, 121.
  7. Donovan and Wusinsch, “Religious Consecration,” 37. In January 1994, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life published “Fraternal Life in Community.” One section (2b) reads: “Religious community, in its structure, motivations, distinguishing values, makes publicly visible and continually perceptible the gift of fraternity given by Christ to the whole Church. For this reason, it has as its commitment and mission, which cannot be renounced, both to be and to be seen to be a living organism of intense fraternal communion, a sign and stimulus for all the baptized.”
  8. Pope Saint John Paul II, Vita Consecrata, March 1996, #16.
  9. Sister Mary Dominic Pitts, O.P. “The Threefold Response of the Vows,” in The Foundations of Religious Life, 88.
  10. Donovan and Wusinsch, “Religious Consecration,” 32.
  11. Quoted in Melanie M. Morey and John J. Piderit, SJ, Catholic Higher Education: A Culture in Crisis (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006), 261.
  12. Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio), Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus (New York: Crossroad, 2013), 18.
  13. Pitts, “The Threefold Response of the Vows,” 96.
  14. Timothy Dolan, Priests of the Third Millennium (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2000), 75.
  15. Dolan, Priests of the Third Millennium, 77.
  16. Pitts, “The Threefold Response,” 107.
  17. Pope Francis, Open Mind, 190-91.
  18. Donovan and Wusinsch, “Religious Consecration,” 27.
  19. William Barry, S.J., Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Katharine Schuth, O.S.F., and Patricia Wittberg, S.C., “Finding a Way Forward: Thoughts for Religious Leaders,” Center for the Study of Religious Life Scholars Roundtable, August 2007, 1.
  20. David Couturier, OFM, Cap., “Religious Life at a Crossroads,” Origins 36(12) (August 31, 206): 183-84.
Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC About Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC

Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC, is a Holy Cross priest, presently serving as a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts. He has written extensively on American Catholic history.


  1. […] The manner of living, praying and working should be suitably adapted everywhere, but especially in mission territories, to the modern physical and psychological circumstances of the members and also, as required by the nature of each institute, to the necessities of the apostolate, the demands of culture, and social and economic circumstances. According to the same criteria let the manner of governing the institutes also be examined. Therefore, let constitutions, directories, custom books, books of prayers and ceremonies and such like be suitably re-edited and, obsolete laws being suppressed, be adapted to the decrees of this sacred synod.1 […]