Clericalisation and the search for identity in Roman Catholic religious institutes in Poland at the turn of the 21st century

Isabelle Jonveaux and Wojciech Sadlon

From the very beginning of the Church there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty, and to imitate him more closely, by practising the evangelical counsels. They led lives dedicated to God, each in his own way. Many of them, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, became hermits or founded religious families. Thus the Church, by virtue of her authority, gladly accepted and approved them.

(Catechism of the Catholic Church 2019: 918)

This short definition from the last Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly points out that the state of consecrated life is neither clerical nor lay but represents an autonomous way of life within the Catholic Church. However, members of religious orders may be ordained to priesthood and serve as priests keeping both roles: as a religious and a priest.

Our aim in this chapter is to discuss the complex relationship between being a member of religious order and also a priest. Our attention focuses on the changes of functions and roles of religious persons in Catholic male orders because female orders are not concerned by the possibility of priestly ordination. We will try to demonstrate that some functional changes also correspond with the dynamics of individual and social identity within religious orders. The study is based on Church statistics concerning religious orders in Poland and a case study conducted in a Cistercian monastery in Poland. Due to the limited accessibility of statistical data, we delimit our scope of interest to the 20th century, focusing especially on the 1970s, and showing the changes of proportions between religious priests and religious brothers and between (nonreligious) parishes and religious ones. We present surveys of religious brothers conducted in Poland in the late 1960s, uncovering a proliferated feeling of unrest within this group and a corrosion of the status of the religious brother within the monastery; we discuss Vatican documents which reintroduce the ideal of a religious brother and qualitative research conducted in a monastery in Poland (Jedrzejow). here treated as a case study which highlights causes and effects of the process of clericalisation and also depicts a community driven by problems of various types, for example, identity and economics.

Even though the problem is not new and may also be called general, in chapter we would like to focus on a specific location - Poland - a country with a great number of Catholics but also marked by an increase of both religious priests and religious parishes. Our strategy of focusing on a specific country will show that there are specific, local dimensions to this general change within global Catholicism.

Between a religious brother and a priest: historical format and contemporary challenges

From the beginning, Christian monastic life was composed of individual persons who decided to devote their life to God by leaving a ‘normal’ way of life, preferring to live away from urban or rural settlements. The first monks were determined to live in solitude and celibacy a consecrating their lives totally to God. St Antony is most often regarded as the first ‘anchorite’ who after his conversion at the age of 20 went to live in the desert region of Thebaid (Egypt). In the early centuries of Christianity, there were many such eremites who dedicated themselves to prayer and religious experience in solitude. In time, monastic life evolved in ‘cenobitic’ forms which were based on community and the organisation of social life conducted in isolation from other communities. Pachomius the Great is commonly acknowledged as the father of the cenobitic way of life. Within such communitarian forms of religious life emerged the need for celebrating religious rituals, especially sacraments for the community. However, neither St Antony nor Pachomius were priests. First eremites, especially in the early centuries of Christianity were called also ‘abba’, meaning, ‘father’. It corresponded with the familial character of monastic bonds and expressed egalitarian structure in the monastery (Mallon 2015).

When ‘cenobitic’ life began to be institutionalised and organised in the form of monasteries, special roles and formal offices (e.g. according to the Rule of St Benedict), it emerged from administrative and functional needs of the community of monks. ‘“Brother” is the name traditionally given to the male lay religious in the Church since the beginning of consecrated life’ (Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life 2015a: 1). The most famous founders of religious orders, such as St Benedict and St Francis, were not ordained and remained religious brothers until death. Up until the 9th century, the motivation for ordaining members of religious orders was limited to the internal needs of monasteries; from the 9th century, the number of daily masses celebrated by monks in the monastery increased because of the demand for masses for the deceased. By the end of the 9th century, a monk could have conducted more than seven masses a day (Vogel 1981: 208). The rate of priests increased therefore in the communities, so that the abbey of Mettler, which had 23-32 per cent of priests in 800, had 55 per cent of priests by the 10th century (Vogel 1981 and 2011). Religious rituals, especially the liturgy and sacraments, were undertaken by a number of appointed monks. The development of new forms of religious life, especially the so-called Mendicants, reshaped the relationship between priesthood and monasticism. Inaugurated in the late Middle Ages, these new forms of religious life were focused on ‘apostolic’ activity and mission and as a result gave priority to the priestly activity of their members. Mendicant orders inaugurated the practice of the so-called ‘absolute ordination’, which means without any reference to pastoral ministry within parishes. Since that time, religious orders included not only ‘brothers’ but also ‘priests’ (Legrand 1998: 930). Despite strong tendencies towards ‘clericalisation’, mendicant orders protected their lay character (Smith 1982). The situation of women’s religious life in this aspect has not changed from the beginning due to the fact that ordination within Catholic Church is limited to men.

The specific identity of religious brothers evolved in a process of emerging new forms of religious life such as ‘oblates’ and ‘converts’. In the early Middle Ages, parents dedicated their children to monastic life. Monastic regulations treated them to some extent as monks and they were refused permission to leave the community. Priests from outside the community were treated with suspicion and reticence. As it is expressed in the Rule of St Benedict:

If a priest asketh to be received into the monastery, let consent not be granted too readily: still, if he urgently persisteth in his request, let him know that he must keep the whole discipline of the Rule, and that nothing will be relaxed in his favour.

(St Benedict, The Holy Rule of St Benedict, trans. Boniface Verheyen 1949: 60)

The first monastic rules accepted the presence of children in monasteries as child oblates. However, there were differences between monastic rules. The Rule of Pachomius and St Basil allowed child oblates to choose whether to remain with or to leave the community when they reached the ‘years of discretion'. St Benedict’s Rule treated child oblation as binding for life (Smith 1982). Eleventh-century monasticism distinguished between ‘fratres barbati or conversi’ who took vows but who did not participate in the extensive communal life of the monastery and oblates who played an economical role in the monastery as workmen or servants (Werner 2013). In Cluny, Benedictines who took vows differed from those lay persons gathered in prayer communities called fraternitates. There were also laymen who dressed in the monastic habit and were an integral part of monastic life, but who did not participate in extensive monastic prayer. Some oblates were also accepted in the monastery due to their physical or mental disabilities (Smith 1982). Derek Smith mentions also ‘anticlerical’ character of some ‘para-monastic movements’ of lay people which have been emerging since the 10th century in Western Europe and which later took form of

Beguine and became associated as tertiaries of the Franciscans and Dominicans (Smith 1982).

In the 16th and 17th centuries, new founders of religious orders developed non-clerical religious communities. The most popular institutes of religious brothers were founded by St John of God and St John Baptist de la Salle. Religious brothers belong to clerical institutes, lay institutes, also called ‘Institutes of Religious Brothers’, and to mixed forms of religious orders, including both priests and religious brothers. The form of religious life represented by religious brothers shares many similarities with religious sisters. From the perspective of a contemporary understanding of priesthood, brothers and sisters in religious orders are strongly identified as distinct from the priestly way of life. However, it is worth noting that our understanding of identity of Catholic priests has been changing. The modern understanding of a priest (‘presbyter’) subordinate to the bishop was shaped at the end of the 2nd century. In that time, priests began to offer religious services in local parishes. Since in the 4th century, priests belonged to the hierarchical clergy. Since in the 12th and 13th century, priests are no longer identified with pastoral service but with sacerdotal privileges (Legrand 1998: 930).

The contemporary distinction between religious brothers and priests within religious orders reflects the formal role of priests in the structure of the order. Where only priests are allowed to be elected, superiors orders are the labelled ‘clerical institutes’. Where priests are refused election to the role of superiors, these institutes are described as ‘lay institutes’, however, these not to be labelled as ‘secular institutes’ that exist outside the traditional framework of religious orders. According to modern Canon Law, consecrated life within the Catholic Church includes religious institutes composed of persons who profess special religious vows. Religious institute ‘is an institute of consecrated life whose members take public vows, lead a life in common, and are in some way separated from the world' (Code of Canon Law: 607). ‘In itself, the state of consecrated life is neither clerical nor lay’ (Code of Canon Law: 588). Institutes of consecrated life are categorised into clerical and lay: a clerical institute is under the governance of priests ‘by reason of the end or purpose intended by the founder, or by reason of lawful tradition’ (Code of Canon Law: 588). Catholic Canon Law also mentions a secular institute which ‘is an institute of consecrated life whose members live in the world, strive for the perfection of charity and seek to help to sanctify the world, especially from within’ (Code of Canon Law: 710). In a secular institute, members ‘live in the world' without any obligation to live in common and ‘in the separation from the world’ (Code of Canon Law: 710 and 608). A lay institute ‘does not include the exercise of sacred orders’ (priesthood) (Code of Canon Law: 588).

To distinguish between ‘brothers’ and ‘priests’ within religious orders, church documents use the term ‘lay people’ for ‘brothers’, and ‘priests’ for ordained persons as parallel ‘sectors’ of religious orders. There is no doubt that the dynamics of religious orders in 20th and 21st century are strongly marked by the reconfiguration between ‘brothers’ and ‘priests’. The changing character of religious orders cannot be understood without focusing on the shifting roles and identity of priests within religious communities. The complex relationship between brothers and priests within religious orders is highlighted by strong tensions between the structures of religious orders which are formally independent from local bishops and diocesan structures, especially parishes which are directly subordinated to bishops.

The tension between brothers and priests was highlighted by the Second Vatican Council and later elaborated by the document Vita Consecrata by Pope. John Paul 11 strongly identified consecrated life as ‘signum fraterni- tatis’, meaning ‘fraternity’ and ‘fraternal life’ (John Paul II: 1996). In 2015, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life published a document entitled ‘Identity and mission of the religious brother in the Church’ (2015b). The document, designed as an initiative to promote an increasing appreciation of religious brothers’ vocation, clearly indicates the complicated position of the religious brothers: ‘However, we recognise that the vocation of the Religious Brother and Sister is not always well understood and appreciated within the Church’ (Congregation for Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life 2015b: 3). From our perspective, what is highly relevant here is that the documents point to the unsettled position of priestly functions in male religious orders, which in fact jeopardises the ‘fundamental objective’ of the religious life:

Consecrated life, predominantly lay in its beginnings, proposes as a fundamental objective, the cultivation of the collective Christian treasure, which is contained and given to all the faithful in the sacraments of initiation. Certainly, it accomplishes this in a special way, seeking to imitate Christ in his way of living: chaste, poor and obedient.

(Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life 2015b: 7)

According to this document, priestly functions have been dominating consecrated life: ‘Over the centuries, this goal, so essential to consecrated life, has run the risk of taking second place in male religious life, in favour of priestly functions’ (Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life 2015b: 9).

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