ROME – Men and women religious are converging on the Vatican this week to prepare for the upcoming 2025 Jubilee of Hope, striving to resist the temptation to despair instead over falling numbers in religious orders and a slew of high-profile scandals.
From Feb. 1-4, more than 300 representatives of various consecrated communities from over 60 countries will be in Rome to participate in a special meeting in preparation for the 2025 jubilee celebrations, which are expected to draw around 35 million pilgrims over the course of the year.
According to a Jan. 30 press release from the Vatican’s Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, one religious, one member of a secular institute and one consecrated woman belonging to the Ordo Virginum, or “Order of Virgins,” from each country is participating in the gathering.
The summit, according to the press release, “will translate into a mandate to return to their countries as signs of reconciliation” for humanity.
A special Jubilee for Consecrated Life with the theme, “Pilgrims of hope, on the way to peace,” will be held from Oct. 8-9, 2025, as part of the jubilee year, and will allow members of consecrated and religious life to reflect “on the great need for peace, so urgent in our time.”
Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, also known as the Dicastery for Religious, asked those who will participate in both this week’s Rome gathering and next year’s jubilee to “immediately enter this pilgrimage together, bringing the true hope that is in our hearts and for which our lives are in service.”
Attendees of this week’s event will reflect on different themes each day. On Thursday, dedicated to “Believing in Hope,” participants will hear various talks and reflections from officials of the Roman Curia, including Braz de Aviz and Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, consultor to the Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops; Sister Alessandra Smerilli, secretary of the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development; and Father Paulin Kubuya Batairwa, undersecretary for the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue.
On Friday, reflecting on “Growing in Charity,” attendees will participate in a morning workshop before attending Mass with Pope Francis. On Saturday, dedicated to “Walking with the strength of faith,” a pilgrimage will be held with stops at several major Roman basilicas and will close with a special prayer for peace.
The event will close Sunday reflecting on the topic “Witnessing to hope,” with Mass and a talk by Sister Simona Brambilla, the new secretary of the Dicastery for Religious, who just took on that role in December.
“The jubilee is an event of great spiritual, social and ecclesial significance, an important time when God’s people ask to experience God’s forgiveness and mercy,” the press release said, saying, men and women religious “are also called to be witnesses and prophets of hope and peace, particularly on the occasion of the upcoming jubilee.”
This week’s gathering of consecrated persons comes amid a growing crisis in religious life, which in recent decades has been plagued by various sexual abuse scandals, revelations of the abuse and exploitation of women religious, and a rapid drop in numbers, which is in part related to the public scandals that have erupted.
According to a recent study of religious life in the United States, this decline in membership is expected to continue.
Of the 508 consecrated communities that responded to a survey on the number of men and women who made professional vows in 2023, 438 reported having not a single member who did so, meaning 87 percent of American religious communities had no new perpetually professed members last year.
At the same time, the image of religious life has been tarnished by scandal.
Most recently are the cases of Slovene Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, a former Jesuit who was expelled from the order last year and who faces allegations of sexual abuse from over 20 adult women, including members of a community he helped found in Slovenia; and the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), a Peruvian order whose founder Luis Fernando Figari has been sanctioned by the Vatican for various abuses, and which is currently undergoing an inquiry by the pope’s top investigating duo.
Amid these crises and more, many have called for a reform of religious life, with a specific evaluation of the vow of obedience in light of charges of abuses of power, authority and conscience.
Members and former members of countless orders have complained of suffering physical, psychological, spiritual, and emotional abuse from superiors who manipulate and mistreat underlings on grounds that they are the voice of God for those under their care.
Among those urging a new look at the concept of “obedience” in religious life is Peruvian theologian and former member of the women’s branch of the SCV, Rocio Figueroa, who serves as lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Catholic Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand, and an External Researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University.
Speaking to Crux about the topic in 2022, Figueroa said she believes the vow of obedience is ill-defined and this has opened the door to abuse, especially for women religious.
“At the beginning, the vow of obedience began with the monks: the obedience to their abbot. The superior with whom obedience to God was lived represented God, so by obeying your superior, you were obeying God,” she said.
According to Figueroa, the early monks “wanted to go to the desert to live a very rugged life, so they considered that annulling their own will or desires was a way to be holy,” giving rise, she said, to a spirituality “in which your own faculties are seen as dangerous in following God.”
This concept reinforced by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, who was soldier prior to his religious life, and who outlined “a blind obedience” in which, as a member of the community, “you had to obey no matter what you were thinking, no matter whether you were willing,” Figueroa said.
Calling this understanding of obedience problematic, Figueroa said that for many consecrated persons, especially nuns, their superior continues to be the voice of God, and they feel that “my superior is commanding me, is humiliating me, but they are doing it because it’s the will of God, the plan of God, and I am not to question.”
“The obedience of Jesus was always towards the Father, and the obedience that we are asked is an obedience to God, not to human beings,” Figueroa said, saying religious superiors only represent God “if they are good ones.”
She voiced her belief that obedience ought to be more cooperative, where members are free to voice concern if they have questions about the instructions they receive.
“It will perhaps be messier, there will be more discussions, but it’s human society, it’s a family. You talk things through,” she said, saying obedience “cannot be the submission of your will and thought.”
In Figueroa’s view, “until we have another way of exercising authority, it will be very difficult. We have to create a new model for exercising authority” in the Church.
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