How Catholic religious communities are trying to attract young people again.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Oct. 14 2008 7:33 AM

A Monastic Kind of Life

How Catholic religious communities are trying to attract young people again.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The Catholic Church has always seen the contemplative life as the "Air Force" in its spiritual struggle, as the Rev. David Toups of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commented—a conduit of spiritual power. Though the number of young people entering monasteries, convents, and the priesthood has drastically dropped from the mid-20th century, some new approaches to religious vocations have inspired some young people in America to embrace this idea, replenishing several of the older religious orders and filling new ones. One such community with a young population, nestled in the Ozarks, is a place that could symbolize Catholicism's true hope for renewal in our time. Founded in 1999, the Clear Creek Monastery has grown from 13 to 30 monks who are intent on building a community that will "last for a thousand years." Clear Creek is also part of the "reform of the reform," a rethinking of Vatican II that has led a number of religious orders—such as the Dominican Sisters in Nashville, the Sisters for Life in New York, and Benedict Groeschel's Franciscan Friars of the Renewal —to rediscover their original mission and flourish.

The growth in these orders provides a striking contrast to the continuing decline in Catholic monastic and religious life generally. In 1965, there were twice as many religious priests and brothers as today. There are just one-third as many nuns. According to Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the average monk is in his early 70s, the average nun in her mid-70s. The mission of many orders has become simply caring for their aging populations as they sell properties and consolidate with others.

The Vatican II document dealing with monasticism, Perfectae caritatis, counseled both "a constant return to the sources" of the Christian life and "their adaptation to the changed conditions of our time." Issued in October 1965, this re-examination of the religious life came as the cultural revolution of the 1960s began its magical mystery tour. It was received with wild and contradictory enthusiasms by a restive population of monks and nuns. Many of the large Catholic families of the World War II generation sought spiritual favor—or simply status—by giving one of their children to the church. These donated priests, nuns, and monks often wanted to leave or instead sought to accommodate the religious life's demands to their personal ambitions. For a time, the life of Catholic religious orders became about social justice issues, psychological issues, peace studies, interreligious dialogue, the ecology movement—everything and anything, seemingly, except the central proposition: that one can know a loving God and be transformed.

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles are the most famous example of the combustible combination of the times and the dissatisfaction of many religious. In 1966, humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers led a series of "encounter sessions" with the sisters, urging them to seek personal fulfillment. Within the next several years, the order nearly vanished. In many orders at the time, the vow of chastity was widely ignored.

Russell Hittinger, the Warren professor of Catholic studies at the University of Tulsa, admits that many of those who entered religious life before Vatican II simply did not have a calling. Those who truly have a call to monasticism—or other forms of the religious life—begin by falling in love with the pursuit of holiness, as did the monks of Clear Creek.

The Clear Creek story goes back to the University of Kansas. In the early 1970s, six young men who would become founding monks of Clear Creek were students in the Pearson College Integrated Humanities Program. Literally hundreds of Pearson's students became Catholic converts, inspired by professor John Senior, who conceived of a contemplative monastery close to the Lawrence campus. After he learned of a traditional Benedictine monastery in Fontgombault, France, he sent two young men off on a scouting mission with an instruction: "Bring back an abbot." These American students, and the others who soon followed, went to France thinking they would soon return to establish a monastery, bringing renewal to American Catholicism and society. But the demands of monastic life and obedience soon revealed this to be youthful presumption.

In 1999, a full 25 years after leaving for France, six of the original University of Kansas students, along with seven fellow monks, returned to America to start Clear Creek, establishing the first foundation for men of the Benedictine Congregation of Solesmes in America. On a 1,200-acre tract of land once owned by an infamous moonshiner, the Clear Creek monks use the old Latin rites both for Mass and the daily offices. Indeed, a return to traditional practices is a common element among those religious orders experiencing renewal. Many young nuns, for example, choose to wear a traditional habit even when their older religious sisters choose modest secular fashions.

Scores of families have purchased land nearby to raise their families in the shadow of the monastery, where they often join the monks in their liturgical celebrations. These families tend to be the crunchiest of the Crunchy Cons, into home schooling, the "local foods, local markets" movement, and sustainable farming. This growing community is one of the surest signs of Clear Creek's importance. This follows the classic spiritual pattern: Saints traipse off into the wilderness, and the world eventually follows, unbidden, as with the Cistercians, who turned the swamps and fens of Europe into arable land and saw communities spring up around them.

The emergence of Clear Creek and other growing monastic communities suggests there will always be young people who ask whether their devotion to God should take precedence over their own personal ambitions and even the natural desire for a family. (The A&E special God or the Girlwas an insightful documentary about this.) Today's young people, who have grown up in a highly commercialized and manipulated landscape, are particularly eager to connect with a more authentic way of living. Far from being pressured into pursuing religious vocations, they  find their families often protest, feeling they are losing their children to a life that's too isolated.

But after the first heady period of romance comes a long and difficult obedience, as every monk or nun eventually recognizes. Fidelity can result in humility, though, which is the deepest source of the beauty to be seen at Clear Creek and other monastic foundations. From its rich liturgical rites to the pastoral details of its life as a working farm, as the monks raise sheep, make furniture, tend their orchard, and care for a huge vegetable garden, Clear Creek is what a monastery is meant to be—a sign of paradise.

Father Anderson says, "We were only a bunch of bums, but by becoming nothing, you can be a part of something great."

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