It was a truism--universally accepted until the last decades of the twentieth century--that, wherever the Catholic Church was present, there would be representatives of the religious life: communities of vowed men and women living a frugal common life, praying and working together in Christian service, and offering a witness to the kingdom of God. They belonged to congregations that explicitly took on the responsibility of answering the gospel's call to leave family, lands, and ownership to follow Jesus Christ.
Similar religious communities existed in smaller numbers in the Orthodox churches. Even today, many older people were taught, guided, and cared for by an impressive army of religious sisters, brothers, and priests. They numbered at least three hundred thousand in the United States on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, and their ranks were swelling. From Trappists to Jesuits, from cloistered Carmelites to Sisters of Charity, the religious could be found everywhere, celebrating the liturgy and common prayer, and frequently serving those with personal needs, especially the poor and the sick.
Most of these communities are now in a state of collapse, with the average age of members in the upper seventies, and no recruits in sight. My own experience offers a sad example. In 1951 I entered the Capuchin province of Detroit, which had almost seven hundred friars. The Capuchins were the fourth-largest religious order of men in the Church. They had produced such examples of sanctity in our time as Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, now declared a saint, and the Venerable Solanus Casey, who may soon be beatified. There were almost 150 friars in formation in the Detroit province when I joined. Today the province has fewer than a dozen men in formation.
Against that decline, one has to set the number of new communities that have appeared in recent years--made up of deeply dedicated men and women who are part of what has come to be known as the John Paul II generation. I belong now to a reform movement, founded by eight Capuchins and known as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. We currently have 115 friars and some twenty-five sisters. Because I was the first servant, or superior, of our community, many people ask me, "What are you doing to thrive in a wasteland?" Occasionally someone inquires, "What can we do to see religious life return?" I have thought much about these questions.
I had been a friar for two decades when I came across some work in psychological anthropology that made me suspect that religious life was beginning to go in the wrong direction. Serious cracks were already appearing in the structures and attitudes of many religious communities, even the largest and most respected. When I studied the book The Ritual Process, by the eminent psychological anthropologist Victor Turner, I was mesmerized by some of the anthropological components of religious life, which seem to have gone unrecognized in the endless discussion on how to make orders more relevant. I discovered, for instance, that religious life is older and wider than Christianity. Buddhist and Hindu forms of this life, with the basic disciplines of...