How the soul of the project became visible

Paul Wennekes

Congress | Saturday, 30 nov 2019

How the soul of the project became visible

Paul Wennekes

Congress | Saturday, 30 nov 2019

Ladies and gentlemen,

For almost two years I was allowed to coordinate the Monastic Pastoral Care project. In the beginning I thought that this project would be mainly an ecumenical file recording of ideas and concepts regarding religious communities. However, from the very first conversations the emphasis was not on financial constructions, legal models or on forms of cooperation between religious and lay people. No, in the more than 100 conversations held, the emphasis was massively on the question of one’s own identity and spirituality. I am very grateful to my interlocutors for their great hospitality, openness and often vulnerability they have shown; it made this project an unexpected spiritual discovery for me personally.

The conversations led to a kaleidoscope of results and impressions and during the preparation of this day the coordination group wondered how we could best present this diversity. We have decided to invite as many speakers as possible from different organizations and with different backgrounds to give that kaleidoscope a face. All speakers today are willing to directly talk to you as a visitor and we hope that you will use it on this day.

Early next year, a whole series of reports of conversations and descriptions of organizations will be published on the website. You will receive a message from us via email. Today, however, I would like to focus on four more general conclusions from the conversations that I believe are of great importance to anyone thinking about future forms of religious community life.

The title of this day is “Believe in Change – Religious Life”. Both parts of this title have a double meaning and I would like to place my four conclusions there. The conclusions are:

  1. We must not hide the pain and doubt in believing in times of change, but name and share it.
  2. We must dare to believe that change offers an opportunity for life
  3. God speaks to people in our day too
  4. Believers are also looking for religious fellowship in our time.

1. Believing in times of change, we must identify and share the pain

Do you know the joke of the three pastors who all three have problems with pigeons in their church tower? Two pastors have already tried everything but they cannot get rid of the pigeons. The third pastor says that he is no longer bothered by pigeons. When the other two ask what he did to get rid of his pigeons, the third pastor says: I baptized them, gave them first communion and gave them confirmation them, and then I never saw them again.

It’s good that you can laugh about it, you still understand the joke, but how many people outside of our increasingly limited circle will still understand this joke at all? And who will in 25 years? I need not outline the numerical decline of the large churches here. Last Sunday I was at the church in Boxmeer and the pastor reported that there is one candidate for first communion this year. A shock of unbelief went through the church. And yet it makes sense. If we look at the developments in the numbers around church attendance and church involvement, it is logical that sooner or later we will end up in such a situation. I have also noticed in myself how much the image of the past, the image of the large people’s church, is decisive for me, how that seems to be the norm more or less in my subconscious. It is difficult to imagine radically enough the decline of church presence in society, the decline of knowledge of religious language and symbolism, the decline of the visibility of Christian believers. And that whole development is also a permanent challenge for those people who still consider themselves believers. The feeling of being among the last of the Mohicans, the doubt for which it is all still good, disappointment about life projects that have turned out so differently, bitterness sometimes; these are all feelings that could also be found among the discussion partners. And I think all of us sometimes get such feelings, feelings that also shape our thinking about the future. In our thinking about the future, it is necessary to consider and name this decline as objectively as possible, not to hide or deny the doubt and pain. A surprising number of interlocutors stated that they were happy to be able to express this doubt and pain on a personal level. These were moments of great vulnerability and carefully articulated hope that apparently do not occur too often and that are humanly so essential. Believe in times of change; we desperately need each other, also to be able to express and share these feelings. I have the impression that this is often lacking, with all the consequences for life within communities and for thinking about the future.

2. Believe in change as an opportunity for life

The decline in the classical orders and congregations is also known. For at least 25 years, many orders and congregations have been preparing for the end of their presence in our countries, a process that has been given the somewhat euphemistic name ‘responsible completion’ in the Netherlands. Many orders and congregations have with great carefulness taken all necessary steps to take good care of the last members, to take all necessary financial and legal measures and also to prepare themselves spiritually for that approaching end. This process of responsible completion takes place largely in silence and I have great respect for everything that has been achieved in this context and for the many good things that have been done, including for society in a broad sense. However, with the same respect I must also conclude that when the focus is almost exclusively on the process of completion, there is too little room for new forms of religious life to grow, there is too little attention for the spiritual needs and opportunities which every time offers, including, and perhaps especially, our time. There is a modest but undeniable renewed interest in society in religious life or at least its spiritual legacy. There is an increased demand for information and guidance. Especially within the Protestant churches in the Netherlands and Germany, but also within the Catholic churches, there are numerous initiatives that are considering or already experimenting with new forms of religious community life. It is striking, however, that there is surprisingly little mutual exchange between these initiatives, let alone concrete cooperation. I am convinced that there is a world to be won with a much more intensive exchange and cooperation; within church communities, within ecumenical contexts and within international contacts. When we have the courage to take that path, many new, often unexpected and unimagined possibilities for altered or modified forms of religious community life emerge.

So, where necessary, responsible completion, but also openness to change as an opportunity for life. A two-track policy!

Change is a primal Christian concept after all. This weekend it is the first weekend of Advent. Advent: God comes to us, God touches us. Always and everywhere, in response to an experience of God, a religious experience in any form, people have had to move, leave the familiar behind them, pass through water and deserts, risk change. The process of responsible completion is an often necessary part of our pilgrimage in our day, but we must remember in the midst of all completion to seek and pave the way again and again as necessary. That requires courage, daring, trust, faith.

3. Also in our day God speaks to people; the wish to live religiously

Some theologians argue that secularization is much less radical than we think and that we should speak of ‘de-churchification) rather than secularization. There are many more people than we think who have experienced God or the transcendent in one way or another. And there are many more people than we think who, in response, try to shape their lives on a religious basis. By coincidence, I came into contact with the Danish journalist Charlotte Roerth during my visit to Helfta Monastery in East Germany. This completely secular journalist travelled to Spain and met Jesus there. That meeting turned her life upside down in the most radical way. Whatever you think of the story, it is important to me that Charlotte Roerth states that without the help of religious, pastors, believers, she would have been hopelessly lost in trying to get a grip on what happened to her. She went, sometimes almost desperately, looking for words to interpret her experience, she went in search of people who had gone through similar experiences. People who have had a religious experience are looking for us! Can we be found as Christian communities? Do we want to be found? Do we dare to give words to what we experience ourselves? Mgr. de Korte, bishop of ′ s – Hertogenbosch has spoken about the religious speechlessness of Dutch Catholics. I think that speechlessness does not only occur among Catholics and not only in the Netherlands. Wanting to live a religious life also requires to be visible, to be able to be found, to be understood, and especially for those who are not or hardly familiar with Christian language and heritage.

Religious communication in a highly secularized society is already a major challenge for all of us now and will become an even greater challenge in the future. How do we answer the questions of those who have been touched by God?

4. Also in our time believers are looking for religious community

In the past two years I have been able to discover at how many places very different initiatives around religious communities are being developed or are already being realized. These are initiatives that elaborate on existing orders and congregations, these are new initiatives that go back to original order founders with their specific spirituality. These are modern interpretations of beguinages. There are communities in centuries-old German Stifte which  want to be more than just keepers of historical heritage. There are groups of lay people which want to inhabit vacant monasteries as new communities. Religious and lay people together test all kinds of forms of cooperation and / or living together. There are communities which organize themselves around specific themes. Experiments are being carried out with fully digital monastic communities. In short, there is much more life than I ever thought possible and what lives there is richer and more varied than I could ever imagine. Of course there are all kinds of problems, of course there are conflicts, of course things go wrong and it is relatively small groups of people who are involved in all these initiatives. But the versatility and potential of all these communities is large and promising. And more and more we begin to discover each other as companions, across borders of churches and countries, hopefully towards a communion of communities.

We will have to be realistic; as individual organizations it will be very difficult in the future to be visible, findable, understandable. I said before that there is a lot of potential in more intensive exchange and cooperation, but that many religious organizations reflect and work on their future mainly on an individual basis.

In the course of the discussions I became convinced that the view on the future should not be limited to individual communities or organizations. The concept of ‘spiritual family’ offers a different perspective. By a spiritual family I mean all congregations, lay organizations, study centres, etc., that share a certain spirituality. For example, will there be a Franciscan presence in the Netherlands in 30 years’ time? Or a Vincentian presence? An Ignatian? When the answer to that question becomes the responsibility of all institutions and organizations within a family, then the perspective, the discussion broadens enormously. Is this idea a desperate regrouping of the last reserves of religious forces? A postponement of 20 years or so of an irrevocable end to an outdated religious life model? I am convinced it is not! This belief is rooted in the encounter and exchange with so many people who reflect on and experiment with modified or new forms of religious community life.

In the beginning I said that we would like to present you today a kaleidoscope of impressions from our project. I have not tried to give all kinds of concrete examples, to describe the many pieces of glass in the kaleidoscope; as mentioned, much of it will be available later on the website. The four conclusions I have mentioned are to me like the essential background light that first makes the patterns in the kaleidoscope visible. Today I would like to invite you to look through the kaleidoscope. For me the images in the kaleidoscope have become a sign of great hope, for me it has become the Soul of the Project. Amor Towles, author of that fascinating book ″ A Gentleman in Moscow” gives this wonderful description of the effect of a kaleidoscope and I would like to conclude with that. I quote:

″ At the bottom of the tube of a kaleidoscope are coloured glass shards in a random composition; but thanks to a ray of sunlight …, when one looks inside one finds a pattern so colourful, so extremely complex that it seems certain that it has been designed with the utmost care. And then, with a slight twist of the wrist, the shards begin to shift and form a new pattern – a pattern with its own symmetrical shapes, its own colour complexity, its own conjecture of a design.”

Watch video: