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The Death of Religious Life

30 November, 1999

Tony Flannery recounts the development of ‘religious life as he has experienced it from the time he entered, in the fifties, until the present day. He suggests that the seeds of the present decline were already being sown early on and questions whether a new form of religious life will inevitably arise from the remnants of the present form?

95 pp, Columba Press 1995. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie


Chapter One      Products of our time
Chapter Two     The old system – before Vatican II
Chapter Three    The impact of the Vatican Council
Chapter Four     Great expectations
Chapter Five      Efforts at renewal
Chapter Six       Turning inwards
Chapter Seven   The present reality
Chapter Eight     A time for courage


Tony Flannery suggests that the seeds of the present decline were already being sown 50 years ago. Among other things, the centrality of total obedience to the understanding of the religious life led to many people developing in such a way that they were simply not capable of facing and overcoming the challenges of the dramatically changing world after the Vatican Council.

As he sees it, apostolic religious life is now in terminal decline and very hard decisions must be faced by those involved in it. He asks whether is it not time to decide to stop taking in new recruits and to proceed with a process of controlled disposal of property and of responsibilities which they will no longer be able to fulfil? Will  a new form of religious life will inevitably arise from the remnants of the present form? Or is it more likely that the present form must die and that a new form will then arise independently to replace it?

Chapter One   Products of our time
On a small farm in the fifties, saving the hay was the major task of the year. My father, who was normally a placid, almost timid type of man, took on a new personality when the hay was cut. He became frenetic, so that none of us had any peace while it lay on the ground. In fact, the hay dominated the whole summer. Weather forecasts were listened to very closely, and the time to cut each field was carefully decided. John Noone, who was the man who usually came to cut our hay, was summoned when the time was right, and was greatly abused if he didn’t come promptly. He was corner back on the local hurling team, and when he came in for the meal after knocking the field of hay, the prospects for the championship were discussed at length. In those days we in Galway did not even talk about the county team. They were not worth serious consideration. Club hurling was all, and our lives revolved around it. Indeed it was a simple and uncomplicated life we lived. Work on the family farm, school and sport were what absorbed us. Social life was restricted as much by the absence of transport as by the strict family mores in which many of us grew up. Rural electrification had only just arrived, and the communications media were limited to the daily paper, and a fairly primitive form of radio. The outside world had little enough opportunity to influence our lives, and to challenge the accepted values of the society.

These values were largely controlled by the church. I clearly remember one summer in my middle teens saving the hay with my father. We were turning the swaths with pitchforks, a slow and tedious job, always done with one eye at the sky to see when the next rain was due to arrive. We were discussing my future. I, the youngest in the family, was in the junior seminary of a religious congregation, and my two older brothers had already advanced to the major seminary. I was telling my father that I intended to follow them. He was pleased. I remember the feeling of well-being I had during that conversation. There was a sense of a very coherent world, with a dear and widely accepted value system, and that what I had chosen to do with my life was a good and worthwhile thing. There was a consciousness of it also being a sacrificial thing, but that did not impinge too strongly on me at the time.

There was, instead, a certain status about becoming a religious. It set one apart. (At that stage in my life, in my youthful innocence, I thought that being set apart was a desirable thing!) It gave promise of a good education, an exciting life, with the possibility of travel. Our education at the time had strongly inculcated into us the value of service, and this was the ultimate service – to give your life completely in the service of others, to do the greatest thing of all for them, to save their souls. And in the process to guarantee your own salvation – that ‘crown of glory’ which even we in the junior seminary were regularly told would await those who lived and died faithfully in the congregation. How easy it all sounded then, and how right! Faith in God was everything, and it was part of the air that we breathed. This life was only a brief trial, a preparation for eternal life, and ‘what does it profit a man…’ was often pounded into our young heads in the local church. Looking back, it is amazing that nobody, neither my parents nor the authorities in the school or the order I was joining, seemed to see anything unusual in three brothers from a sheltered background joining the order and wanting to be “priests, or suggested to me that I might have been just following their lead, or that I should take some time out before making a decision. But in that society it did not seem strange at all, and nobody questioned it.

The church for us had many faces. Pius XII, the Pope, hung on the wall in the kitchen close to the Sacred Heart. The photograph was solemn, antiseptic, and very pious. But it fitted perfectly our image of the Pope. He was a figure situated somewhere between this world and the next, with a direct line to God, and due a degree of reverence second only to the Almighty. Above the little red lamp hung the picture of the Sacred Heart. The eyes in the picture seemed to follow you around, knowing all your secret and most shameful thoughts, and passing judgement. The God that we believed in then was a distant and awesome person. The reality of hell was presented clearly and with graphic imagery even in our young days, particularly in the missions which we had regularly every few years. There was a strong element of fear.

A major factor in experiencing the face of the church was the local priests. The curates of my youth were, by and large, fairly benign men. They were quiet and retiring. They taught us the rituals of
serving Mass, and came to check on our religious education in the local school. But they did not leave a great impression on me, generating neither great fear nor much human warmth. But then, living as they did in an old and dilapidated house at the end of an avenue, either alone or with an old housekeeper, their lives did not contain much in the line of human warmth that we could see. The parish priest was of a different mould. He was remote, severe, and very powerful. He did not mix with the people, and we only approached him when it was absolutely necessary, and then with a certain degree of trepidation. His housekeeper was reputed to be almost as forbidding as himself, so that a visit to the parish priest’s house could be quite an ordeal.

The Punch and Judy showman came to our little country school one day when I was about eight or nine years old. He was made welcome by the principal teacher, a man in his thirties, who was a very good teacher whom we all held in high regard. All the pupils were gathered into one classroom, the blinds were drawn, and the show began. I can still remember the fascination of it. In the pre-television days, for simple country children, this was a gateway into a world of magic. We alternately laughed and cried as we followed closely the antics of the two puppets on the makeshift stage. We were riveted. But then the door burst open, and the parish priest stood there. Though he was a small man, his position of authority gave him great stature in our eyes. With one swing of his arm, he overturned the stage, destroying the magic by revealing the showman with his strings. And he ordered him out of the school immediately. Then he turned on the principal, and this was a seminal moment in my youth. This teacher whom we looked up to as a source of great wisdom and authority, became like one of us, a little boy, in face of the severe reprimand of the parish priest. None of us children were in any doubt as to where the real power lay in our community.

Another day, cycling home from school with my sister, his car pulled up and he rolled down the window and called my sister over. Hastily dismounting from her bicycle, she approached the car. ‘Do you bless yourself with your left hand?’ The voice of authority, strong and abrupt. Speechless, she nodded her head. ‘Don’t ever let me see you doing it again!’ The window rolled up, and the car drove away. I witnessed an immediate and irreversible conversion to right-handed blessing, and my sister vividly remembers the encounter to this day.

But the church was also mystery and poetry for us. The gathering of the people for Sunday Mass, and maybe even more significantly, for evening devotions and missions: the singing of the old hymns; the ringing of the bell to announce the presence of the Divine, and the hush that descended on all of us; the candles, flowers and incense. All of these were openings to a world beyond. Even for those of us who lived through it, it is hard for us now to conceive of how central a role the church played in our lives in those days, and how substantially it influenced our way of thinking. Looking back, it seems to have been very oppressive. But I don’t think we experienced it as that at the time. It all fitted so neatly into our way of life, and our thinking, that it appeared quite normal. Were we unhappy? Probably not, any more than any generation of young people is unhappy. It would seem to me that we were generally more content than today’s youth, because, in a world where advertising was still in its infancy, we had far less expectations, and were more easily satisfied.

But fear was a reality in our lives; fear, inspired by the religious teaching of sin and it’s consequences, hell and eternal punishment. One of the nightmares of my youth was the predictions that were made for the year 1960. Some years prior to it, when I was about ten, our weekly Catholic paper carried a prediction of frightening happenings for that year, when God’s retribution was going to be visited on the world. There were going to be three dark days, and the state of everyone’s soul would be revealed. Those who were of blameless life would shine out, and would spend the three days in prayer. The others, and I knew that would include me, would be shown up for the bad people that we were, and would be forcibly and dramatically consigned to hell. It was a terrifying prospect for a young child. This was published, with front page headlines, in the Catholic paper at the time, which was sold at our church each Sunday, and which we were all exhorted to buy. So it came with official approval, and, in the absence of any comment from the priest about the story, I took it as part of my faith. I suppose my parents, while probably not believing it themselves, didn’t feel confident enough in their knowledge of their faith to tell me to ignore it.

These were great years for religious life. Convents, novitiates, seminaries, were bulging. One could say that in many ways the brightest and the best were joining. The candidates on any given year included young men and women of the highest intellectual capability, strong and energetic, and very idealistic, as was common at the time. When I entered the Redemptorist seminary in the middle sixties it had reached an all-time high of one hundred students. There were extraordinarily talented people there. And it was a ferment of intellectual debate and discussion. The two books 1 found lying on my table in my room, when I first arrived in the seminary after a very strict and enclosed year of novitiate, were Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the great promoter of youthful rebellion of its era. Not only was I encouraged to read them, but the books we were reading were a constant source of discussion among the students. (I understand this was not typical of that time. A contemporary of my own, who was beginning her religious life in a convent, had no such access to literature. She recalls how, tired of reading the Messenger and the Redemptorist Record, and looking for more intellectual stimulation, she went to her novice mistress with a request for some books, and was curtly told that it would be more in her line to attend to the way in which she articulated the antiphons at the daily recitation of the Divine Office.)

It was a very strange and exciting time. The system in which we were living was still largely traditional, and very restrictive. But within it were these hundred young men, carrying on a constant debate on the issues of the day. The fact that many of us were attending the local university made the efforts of the structure to isolate us from the spirit of the times more difficult. Of course it couldn’t last, and within a short space of time there began a mass exodus. But by then the Vatican Council, and the general sixties era, had begun to erode the coherent value system on which it was all based. But more about those two movements later.

There were three important factors in bringing so many of us into religious life in those years, and it is hard to measure them in order of importance.

1. As I have said previously, there was a coherence about life then and about what we believed as individuals and as a society, which is markedly absent today. Into this coherent belief system, both the theology and the generally accepted philosophy of the day fitted perfectly. And within all of this, religious life made perfect sense. It wasn’t in any sense a contrary statement about the values of the day. Quite the opposite. What were the outstanding features of that belief system?

– That this life was but a brief preparation for an infinitely more important existence, eternal life.

– That in fact this life was not of any great importance in itself except to live it in such a way that you would assure yourself of salvation. And since salvation was attained chiefly by avoiding serious sin, the sinless life was the one to aspire to.

– The great sin at the time, and the one that most endangered your salvation because almost all transgressions were in the serious category, was sexual sin. So the best way of avoiding the dangers in this area seemed to be to have nothing at all to do with sex. The obvious way to do that was to live the celibate life.

– Religious life was seen as a higher state of holiness than any other form of life. It was definitely considered to be in a higher category than marriage, which was somewhat tainted by the impression that it was a legitimised way of life for those who were unable to avoid sexual activity completely.

– Service of others was held up as an important value. You were encouraged to think of others before yourself.  And to give your life completely in the service of others was the greatest thing of all. That was what we believed religious life entailed.

– The notion that outside the church there was no salvation. In other words, we believed, and were taught to believe, that everyone who was not a Catholic would go to hell. This included not just atheists, non-believers and pagans, but also believers in the other great religions of the world, and Protestants. There were certain exceptions made to this teaching, in terms of those who were not culpable in their failure to belong to the church, which were clearly efforts to try to soften what was a very harsh doctrine. But it was also a very important and influential doctrine at the time. It had the effect of imbuing us with a sense of zeal, and with the urgency of the task at hand, that of bringing people into the church, which one is more likely to find today in some fundamentalist groups and in some expressions of the Muslim faith. It also effected our view of the third world. The image of the ‘Black Babies’ was strongly promoted, and we regularly put our pennies in the boxes for the foreign missions. While we were in no sense well off ourselves, we were told by many visiting foreign missionaries that the children of Africa were infinitely poorer than we were. And since service was so strongly emphasised in our upbringing, we genuinely wanted to help them in any way we could. But mostly, they were pagans. And according to our beliefs, when they died they would go to hell. What better way could an idealistic young person spend their life than to go to Africa as a religious, and convert all these little black children to Catholicism, so that they would be saved? We were also encouraged to pray incessantly for the conversion of Russia. Many of the religious boarding schools of that era observed a period of silence each evening for that intention. It was, we were assured, very dear to the heart of Our Lady. I consider that the change in this belief that there was no salvation outside the church, brought about partly by the Vatican Council and partly by the inevitable opening up to the world, was a highly significant change. The difference between believing that your faith is the only correct one and the only way to God and to attaining eternal happiness, and believing that there are many different ways to God which should be respected and cherished, is an enormous difference. Has Catholic theology ever really explored the implications of this change?

2. Apart from the spiritual gains that went with living the religious life, there were also more immediate, temporal, rewards. Religious were highly thought of by people generally, and were given a position of considerable status and influence in society. When I discussed my future with my father that day in the hayfield, I was conscious that I was choosing something that merited not just an eternal reward, but also a position in society that would be above that of most of my contemporaries in the area, whose choice was not much greater than taking a job in the local Bord na Móna works or emigration. In those years, when the different levels of society were fairly rigidly fixed, religious life was by far the easiest way for a person from the lower levels of society to move up the social scale. Through it one could assume a uniform which was just as respected as that of the gardaí, or the businessman’s suit. There was also the possibility that one could rise to a position of considerable distinction and authority, like principal of a school or matron of a hospital. These positions would otherwise have been almost unattainable for a person from the lower classes. For women, religious life certainly gave opportunity to achieve positions of status and authority that otherwise were not open to them. I am not suggesting that young people at the time chose religious life in a cynical way in order to move up the social scale. That was certainly not the case. It is hard to measure how much social factors influenced us, either consciously or unconsciously, in our decision-making, but I suspect they played a bigger part than we realised.

Another substantial temporal reward of religious life was that it gave a person access, not only to secondary education, which was by no means freely available, but also to third level, which in the Ireland of those days was the preserve of the privileged few. We might have had, in our late teens and early twenties, to attend universiry in full religious garb, with black trilby hats on our heads (mine never fitted properly, and flew into the Corrib one windy day as I cycled over the Salmon Weir bridge, never to be replaced!), but at least we were there getting the benefits of the education, when, in many cases, our parents could not possibly have afforded to send us to university. And amazingly, the ordinary students at the time didn’t pass any remarks of the way we were dressed, but accepted us completely as part of the scene. They too were products of the same culture that produced us.

The lure of the foreign missions was an attractive factor. Many of us already had aunts and uncles working in some part of the third world, and we were familiar with their letters and their occasional trips home. Regularly during our schooldays, especially at second level, priests on leave from the missions visited the school and spoke to us. In the context of our limited lives and experience these were often dashing figures. They were great communicators, and they regaled us with stories of their exploits in distant places. In those days travel was very restricted. Most of us had hardly been outside the confines of our own area, except maybe to go to boarding school. The lives these men and women lived seemed so tremendously exciting. Not only were they doing the marvellous work of saving pagan souls for Christ, but there seemed to be great fun and excitement in it too. And travel! How else, in those confined days, was one going to get to see the world? In my schooldays one missioner enthralled us with the story of how the ship in which he was travelling to the missions was hit by a torpedo during the second world war, and his narrow escape. Another, a great storyteller, made India sound like a world of romance and adventure, and fired all our imaginations. All this, and heaven too!

3. A third very important factor in enticing so many of us into religious life was clearly the lack of opportunity at the time. Ireland, before the economic explosion of the Lemass era, was a fairly drab place, offering little enough to its young generations. The big international companies, which now provide so much employment, were largely a thing of the future. Local industry, where it existed, like the Bord na Móna works in my area, was fairly small, and offered neither great wages nor many opportunities for advancement. The lucky ones got called to teacher training, the bank or the civil service. The eldest son inherited the farm. And the bulk of the rest emigrated. Given that limited range of options, what religious life had to offer was quite attractive.

I have overlooked the notion of a call from God in all of the above. We firmly believed that the decision to become a priest or enter religious life was an answer to a direct and individual call from God. A lot has been written and spoken about the nature of this call. Some people said that they experienced some type of dramatic moment of inspiration, similar to St Paul on the road to Damascus. But the general interpretation of this notion of ‘call’ was that God spoke more quietly and indirectly through the circumstances and events of a person’s life, and that a process of discernment was needed to work out the nature of the call. Of course, the times I am writing about were an age of greater innocence, of more simple understanding, than we live in now. Psychology, and the study of the development of the human person, have taught us so much about the complex nature of human motivation, and how easily subconscious needs and desires can masquerade as lofty motives, that we have become more sceptical. What appeared then as an unselfish answer to a call from God to come and serve his people, might be looked on quite differently from today’s perspective. We might question now if the decision was made from religious motives at all, or if family, social, economic or cultural reasons had more of a part to play. Kate O’Brien, writing out of that era, addresses the complexity of a so-called religious vocation in her book, The Land of Spices. She writes with remarkable intuition about Helen who became superior general of her congregation. The reality that O’Brien drives home to us is that Helen retreated into a convent because she couldn’t accept or even contemplate her father’s homosexuality.

Our theology easily accepted the notion of vocation as a call from God and did not look for possible hidden or unconscious motives behind it. So it is easy to see how a minority of sex abusers and paedophiles got through the, system. The system at the time, though at one level very strict and severe, was not at all geared to weed out somebody like this. Any type of psychological testing was not introduced until the mid to late sixties, and much later in some places. The numbers were large, so that the individual could easily avoid too much personal scrutiny. But more importantly, the ideal student was considered to be the one who obeyed the rule in all areas, did what he or she was told, and generally kept the head down. Submission to the authority, ‘obedience’, was the quality most advocated and admired. So it was relatively easy to ‘play the game’, and get through without too much difficulty.

It would appear to be true that the larger an institution, and the longer and more glorious its lifespan, the more inadequate it is in the face of change. I’m sure that there were some people who recognised that change was coming, but there was a general belief in religious life in those days that things would always remain much as they had been. The enormity of the change that was coming could not have been perceived fully by anybody, but most seemed to have had no inkling of it. That can be seen from the efforts that were made, when things began to fall apart, to continue as if nothing was happening. And that way of thinking and behaving became a feature of one strand in religious life for the next forty years, and sadly, even in the face of the most blinding evidence to the contrary, some people still act today as if nothing had changed.


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