Religious congregations – strong with prayer

Artur Stelmasiak

Recently the number of religious vocations has decreased. However, we do not face any danger of empty monasteries because the situation is stabilising.

The vocation crisis cannot be hidden. For 20 years we have observed a 40% decrease in the number of candidates for men’s monasteries. The situation of women’s congregations is even worse. When we compare the number of postulants to active congregations in the years 1990-2010, we can see that the decrease is 65%. Regarding the contemplative orders the situation is slightly better.
‘The most difficult situation is in the congregations that opened their houses in Poland in the 1990s. Then our country appeared to be an inexhaustible source of vocations. But the reality was different. Today these congregations experience big problems to run their houses’, says Fr Kazimierz Malinowski, OFMConv, Secretary General of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.
If the conclusions from the situation of the vocations are to be reliable one should also look at the demographic graph. ‘If universities have fewer candidates it means that fewer people knock at the monastery gates, ‘ Stresses Fr Malinowski. Since 2005 the number of 18-20 year-old men, potential candidates for consecrated life, has decreased systematically. The demographic boom of the 1980s blocked the decrease in vocations till 2005. Now we have fewer and fewer young people,’ the provincial of the Conventual Franciscan Friars stresses.

Providence concerning vocations

When one looks at all Polish congregations one can see a crisis very clearly. It concerns particular monasteries at a varied degree. Some congregations have to write ‘zero’ in the column of ‘No. of postulants.’ The worst thing is that this situation has existed for several consecutive years.
One of the effects of the decrease in vocations is the dying of the largest women’s congregations. For several years the number of the Sisters of Saint Elisabeth has experienced a 15% decrease, and the Grey Ursuline Sisters – 25% decrease. ‘One of the important reasons is that those sisters who had entered the congregation before the war died. The pre-war period abounded in religious vocations. Then more women entered congregations than during the abundant 1980s,’ Fr Kazimierz Malinowski, OFMConv, tells ‘Niedziela.’
The last vocation boom is attributed to the pontificate of John Paul II. ‘One can say that the present situation is a return to the norm of the mid-1970s. Then the number of vocations was at the present level,’ thinks Fr Kazimierz Malinowski.
When we look at the increase of the 1980s and early 1990s from a certain perspective we can see that it was needed so that we could realise the missionary challenges. The ‘surplus’ of religious sisters, brothers and fathers could be used in the 1990s when the eastern borders opened for the Church. ‘One can see the Divine Providence here. Thanks to that we could evangelise in the former USSR countries on a large scale,’ Fr Malinowski explains. Now the Polish boom of the 1980s yields fruit of vocations in Belarus or Ukraine. Still out of 13,000 Polish religious 4,000 work abroad. It is our great contribution to the mission of the universal Church.
Therefore, one can admit that if Lord God gives some challenge to the local Church or congregation he gives adequate strength. The Sisters of God’s Mother of Mercy, who are the custodians of the cult of St Faustyna and the Divine Mercy, are a good example. Such a big task must have led to more vocations. ‘Although the number of sisters is always insufficient the crisis of vocations has not strongly affected our congregation. We still have several dozen sisters in the novitiate,’ says Sr. Elzbieta Siepak, the press spokesperson of the Congregation of the Sisters of God’s Mother of Mercy. Some novitiates are empty.

Growing and dying

For the last 30 years we have observed a very dynamic process of opening new religious houses in Poland. Since the year 1980 74 new congregations out of 245 existing ones began their activities, which is connected with the very good opinion about John Paul II’s homeland. Poland used to be an inexhaustible source of vocations. Some congregations, e.g. the one founded by Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, have benefited from that since the number of the Missionaries of Charity has doubled in Poland since 1998. As a rule the new congregations, whose founders are known as charismatic, have enjoyed such successes. An example is the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem that evangelise through monastic prayer and beautiful liturgy. In April 2010 four brothers came to Poland and today there are eight men in the community. Since that time the number of nuns has increased from 12 to 14 and one candidate.
Some other models of contemplative life are experiencing their renaissance. Since 1998 the largest enclosed congregation – the Discalced Carmelite Nuns – has had an increase of nuns: from 382 to 520, and opened three new houses in Poland. The number of all religious candidates for enclosed congregations has been at a low, but stable, level for several years. In 2010 three new enclosed congregations settled in Poland. Apart from the Fraternities of Jerusalem there came Sisters of St John and the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the so-called ‘Annunciade’ sisters. However, the history of the Church shows that there have been periods during which some congregations have grown and some have died. We know cases of dying congregations. It can be interpreted that the charisma has died out in a given country or place. ‘Congregations have not their charismas forever but for a certain time. It depends of Lord God whether a given congregation has received new tasks or not. Consequently, it is natural that congregations are found and closed, ‘ Sr. Elzbieta Siepak explains. ‘We received a new task thanks to Sr. Faustyna. If we had not had the message of the Divine Mercy we might have had problems,’ adds another sister from the Lagiewniki convent.

Fishing in the Internet

Men’s and women’s congregations are not passive. They use all available means to reach young people. For several years they have been intensively working in the Internet. Seminaries and monasteries start Internet radios, television programmes and profiles in Facebook. ‘The statistics are uncompromising. Every second candidate for consecrated life has found his/her first information about the congregation in the Internet,’ says Fr Jan Maria Szewek, a Franciscan from Krakow, co-founder of the portal
Research shows that young people spend more and more time surfing the Internet. The conviction that if something is not in the Internet it does not exist is common. ‘Therefore, we cannot let such respected institutions as religious congregations be outside this reality,’ Fr Szewek adds. Ten years ago it was enough to have a static web page with basic information about the congregation. Today such a page is unattractive for young people. A static and weak web page hides a less dynamic and unprofessional religious congregation,’ the Franciscan father explains. ‘And who would like to join such a community?’
Another field of ‘fishers of men’ can be the open days or youth meetings. For several years such activities have been intensified. They are not direct vocational retreats but rather pastoral actions. ‘On such occasions we inform young people about religious life and offer the chances to meet religious brothers and sisters,’ Fr Malinowski thinks. An example of such an action can be ‘Max Festival’ in Niepokalanow, which has been organised for the last three years and during which young people can visit the centre for a few days. There are concerts, film shows, theatrical performances, lectures, discussions and invitations to common prayers. ‘The festival is a perfect occasion for young people to pull someone’s belt and ask for a conversation,’ says Fr Piotr Maria Zurkiewicz, co-organiser of the Festival. Although one cannot evaluate the direct effects of such meetings one cannot neglect to organise them. ‘Although the first contact with a congregation can be virtual nothing can replace real conversations and testimonies of the consecrated people,’ Fr Szewek admits.

‘Little ants’ of Lord God

Many factors contribute to the situation of religious vocations. One cannot forget that the first and most important novitiate is at home. ‘Unfortunately, families are increasingly weaker,’ Sr. Barbara Kulikowska from the Secretariat of the Female Congregations’ Conference says. Women’s vocations reflect the general social transformations. ‘When we have fewer and fewer stable references it is hard to make decisions for the whole life,’ claims Sr. Kulikowska from the Franciscan Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary.
Another obstacle for candidates for female congregations is cultural changes and wrongly understood emancipation of women. ‘Young girls are constantly told that they must realise their dreams and gain successes. And what earthy successes can one gain in a women’s convent?' Sr. Kulikowska asks a rhetorical question. The social status of priests is still high whereas that of nuns is low. For example, priests can count on pastoral or preaching success. ‘Whereas we are only invisible little ants of Lord God. We must give up all our ambitions for the sake of obedience, work and prayer. And these requirements are increasingly beyond young women’s possibilities,’ Sr. Kulikowska says.
The nun who deals with the statistics of female congregations pays attention to another alarming factor. Earlier young girls very rarely left their postulancy and novitiate and recently it has become a common phenomenon. Last year 84 out of 282 women left their postulancies. 59 junior sisters and 33 novices left before their perpetual vows. ‘It shows that more and more women cannot confront their lives with what the congregation proposes. They are increasingly weaker and less decisive,’ Sr. Kulikowska stresses. ‘Although candidates have much better intellectual abilities, their emotional maturity is much weaker.’

Lord Jesus knows what he is doing

Activation is a phenomenon that deserves special attention in the Polish religious life. In the 1990s the congregations launched ca. 1,000 various initiatives and now the number has doubled. It was made possible after the ideological restrictions (binding till 1989) have been abandoned. Then the communists had not allowed the consecrated people to be fully involved in social life. ‘During the times of the Polish People’s Republic all our charismas were restricted to care for the disabled and the elderly. Only nowadays the congregations are returning to what they were called,’ Sr. Siepak thinks.
This process is greatly supported by the restitution of religious properties, which the communists grabbed. Thanks to that congregations can conduct educational and nursing activities on a large scale. Altogether they run over 800 educational centres and 400 houses for the elderly, disabled as well as they run hospitals and medical centres.
There are various reasons for the decrease in religious vocations. But observing the religious life of Poland one cannot conclude that it is a serious crisis. One should speak about changes of religious life, which has always been a dynamic reality. ‘Today religious life and priesthood are not the only forms to realise service in the Church. Currently, laymen can enter movements, communities, study theology and undergo formation according to various spiritualities. Once it was solely reserved for the religious, ‘ Sr. Krupecka says. ‘Each vocation is a big mystery. That’s why one cannot define the consecrated life by numbers and tables. One must pray and thank for the vocations we have. Lord Jesus knows what he is doing and gives as much as we need… although humanly thinking, we would like to have more,’ Sr. Siepak adds.

"Niedziela" 5/2011

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: