Religious life emerged as an expression of the creative power of the Spirit of God in times of crises and turning points in the Church. Due to the passage of time, distance from the initial fervour, Gospel radicalism, and insistence on inappropriate structures, consecrated life is, however, always in danger to lose its original strength and role within the Church and in its relationship towards society and the world. Documents of the Church Magisterium show that the renewal of the Church is often perceived as being in close correlation with the renewal of religious life. As the current bearer of the supreme power in the Church, Pope Francis decided to proclaim the church year, lasting from November 30, 2014 until February 2, 2016, as the “Year of Consecrated Life”. In the Apostolic Letter promulgated on the occasion of its opening, he expressed his expectation for all forms of consecrated life to reflect on what God, the Church, and the world expects from them and how they are responding to new current issues (cf. no. 5).
The topic of religious life is, therefore, current and important in the Church and its theology. At the same time, one has an impression that this age is not the golden age of religious life. This is particularly true for women religious communities of apostolic direction. Many indicators such as old age, insignificant intake of new members, disorientation in regards to new interpretation of their charism and priority areas of activity, insufficiently clear identity in the Church and in society, all point to the need for a deeper engagement with the fundamental issue of purposefulness and goals of such consecrated apostolic life in women religious communities. Transformations that are affecting religious life on the global scale are also affecting religious communities in Croatia. Although the circumstances in Croatia are specific, due to the transitional processes that are taking place in the society, the confusion within religious communities is merely a part of global metamorphoses of consecrated life in the world today.
The primary focus of this study is the mission of religious life and this allowed the study to touch upon all the issues mentioned above. Seen as the founding element of religious life, the mission of religious life is not simply a component of religious life, something that could be torn out of its integral whole and studied separately. Similarly, the mission of religious life cannot be taken out of its social ambient; social-cultural determinants and characteristics of the context exert a tremendous influence on religious life and activity.
The dimension of time is also very important. Religious communities need to be engaged permanently in rediscovery of signs of the times and reflection on how to live their own charism in current social and ecclesial circumstances. Each time has its own signs, that is, needs. It is expected of religious communities to possess a sufficient amount of Gospel shrewdness in discerning those signs and sufficient courage and skill in responding to them. The study focuses primarily on the period of democratic changes in Croatia, but its results need to be interpreted while having in mind the dimensions of the past, present, and future. Namely, the current state of understanding and realising the mission of religious life among female religious communities of apostolic direction in regard to its place and role in the Church and in society, can be integrally understood only in relation to previous historical periods. The history of religious communities testifies in favour of an exceptional ability of these communities to adapt to various historical changes. Furthermore, the current state of women religious communities will certainly have repercussions on the future of these communities.
The study consists of two parts: theoretical and empirical.
I. THE THEORETICAL PART
The theoretical part presents contemporary theological, Trinitarian-ecclesiological foundation of the mission of religious life and then proceeds with a study of how the mission has been understood in conciliar and post-conciliar documents of the Church Magisterium and rules and constitutions of women religious communities whose administrative offices are located in Croatia.
1. The Trinitarian-Ecclesiological Foundation of the Mission of Consecrated Life
The first chapter studies the dynamics of the mission of consecrated life in the perspective of contemporary theological, Trinitarian-ecclesiological paradigm of understanding the mission. The name of this paradigm itself shows that it consists of two foundational points: missio Dei and missio ecclesiae that emerge from fundamental directives of conceptualising the mission in conciliar and post-conciliar documents of the official Church and in current theological thought of contemporary authors.
After the reflection on the mission of the Holy Trinity and the mission of religious life in the light of that mystery, the chapter proceeds with a reflection on the mission of the Church and defines the identity of consecrated life within the frame of the Church; that is, it reflects on the place of consecrated life in the Church and its role in relation to other members of the People of God. Ecclesiality is co-natural constituent of consecrated communities and there are multiple ways in which consecrated persons participate in the mission of the Church.
2. The Mission of Religious Life in Documents of the Church Magisterium and Religious Communities
The Trinitarian-ecclesiological approach to the mission of consecrated life allows one to observe the mission in the domain of being, that is, the domain of essentiality, and not exclusively in the domain of functionality. In that sense, documents of the Church Magisterium and rules and constitutions of religious communities reveal that the mission encompasses everything that consecrated life is in its totality. The mission is a way of life of consecrated communities. Hence, one can enumerate four dimensions of the mission: dimension of prayer, dimension of witness, paschal dimension, and dimension of work. The study considers each of these dimensions and their key points on the basis of contents of above mentioned documents of the Church Magisterium and religious communities.
In relation to the dimension of prayer, the study points out the primacy of prayer, reflects on the dialectical relation between prayer and work, and analyses characteristics of so-called apostolic spirituality. The dimension of witness springs already from the religious consecration and encompasses absolutely every element of religious way of life, while it manifests itself especially in living of vows and in the life of the community. The dimension of witness is in the service of eschatological signification of consecrated life. The paschal dimension is, similarly to the dimension of witness, interwoven into each part of religious life; from the religious consecration through ascetic exercises and sacrifices demanded by living a life in a community, all the way to suffering that is closely related to fruitful work. In the context of their discourse on the dimension of work, documents call, firstly, to faithfulness to the spirit of the founder, discernment of the signs of the times, and reflection on work. This is followed in the documents by concrete guidelines for the formation for active service and a discourse on the dialectical relation between being and doing.
The idea on the multidimensionality of the mission is able to emphasise better dialectical relations between these various dimensions of the mission, especially between the dimensions of prayer and work and dimensions of witness and work.
II. THE EMPIRICAL PART
In the area of theology of consecrated life a very limited amount of empirical research has been carried out so far, especially in the Croatian language. When it comes to religious communities, the need of empirical research is beyond doubt, especially when one takes into account that religious communities emerge, exist, and are active in a specific social context.
The purpose of the empirical part of the dissertation is to show, analyse, and interpret results of a quantitative study of the mission. The study has been conducted by using the method of questionnaire in 24 women religious communities whose administrative offices are located in Croatia. The empirical part consists of three chapters.
1. The Starting Points of Research on the Mission of Women Religious Communities whose Administrative Offices are Located in Croatia
The first chapter sketches the starting points of research and this includes the description of the historical-social and scientific-research context, defining of goals and hypotheses of research, and the description of method used in carrying out research.
The historical-social context reveals that most women religious communities arrived to the geographic area of today´s Croatia in the second half of the 19th century or the beginning of the 20th century. Only few of them emerged in Croatia, while others came from Western European countries. The scientific-research context provides an insight into a few existing similar studies in Croatia and on the international scale.
The general goal of research is to analyse the current understanding and realisation of the mission of members of women religious communities whose administrative offices are located in Croatia and to create a base of social-demographic data on religious communities (number of members, their age, level of education, employment, etc.). Hypotheses, which will be tested through research, are the following:
H1: Members of women religious communities whose administrative offices are located in Croatia understand their mission in a multidimensional way.
H2: In the dialectical relation between two dimensions of mission, dimensions of prayer and work, members of women religious communities understand prayer as having a higher value.
H3: Social-demographical characteristics of women religious do not have a significant influence of the understanding of their mission.
H4: In women religious communities there are differences between understanding and realising the mission.
H5: Social-demographical characteristics of religious communities do influence the realisation of the mission.
H6: Concerning the dimension of work, women religious in Croatia tend towards narrowing of the scope of their work and shifting emphasis on social and spiritual-pastoral forms of work of communities.
H7: Women religious in Croatia are open for cooperation with other ecclesial and social subjects in realisation of the mission of their communities.
The third subsection describes the method of research (participants, instruments, procedure, and planned methods of analysing data). As mentioned earlier, participants come from 24 women religious communities whose administrative offices are located in Croatia. The sample includes members of such communities of different age, level of education, work status, and engagement in various kinds of work. Instruments used in this research are two questionnaires. The purpose of the first questionnaire is to gather data on social-demographic characteristics of religious communities. The second questionnaire was used to get an insight into attitudes of women religious on the mission of consecrated life. Concerning the process of research, it consisted of two phases and its conduction has been adapted to possibilities of each religious community. For the analysis of gathered data IBM Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) programme has been used.
2. Results of Research: An Analysis and Interpretation
The second chapter of the empirical part presents results of research and their analysis and interpretation in the perspective of the Trinitarian-ecclesiological foundation of the mission and hypothetical framework of research.
The first part of the analytical-interpretative procedure is focused on social-demographical characteristics of religious communities in Croatia, of population and of the sample. Statistical data for each individual community that has been included in research and that have been gathered with assistance of sisters superiors of these communities, are not very encouraging. These numbers reveal: a small number of persons that are currently undergoing formation, high age of members, closing down of local communities, narrowing of area of work, retreat from job positions, etc. The average age in religious communities included in research is between 60 and 70. Taking into account trends in statistical data on the number of members of women religious communities through the period of ten years reveals that the total number of members has diminished by 14,0%. All indicators that have been taken into account do not predict flourishing of religious life in the near future.
However, these indicators have to be interpreted within the wider social context. External factors of the small influx of new members can be related to the small natural population surplus within society, higher life standard, changed status of women within society, bigger possibilities of education and employment, etc. The high age of women religious is related to the fact that people live longer in general. Furthermore, the high age is also affected by the fact that the average age of entering into a community has been increasing, which is also related to the increasing average age of entering into a marriage. Social-demographic characteristics of women religious communities in the Republic of Croatia need to be interpreted within the context of the total population of Croatia, which is also aging. Furthermore, when one compares social-demographic characteristics of women religious communities in the Republic of Croatia with women religious communities in some other European countries, in which the majority of communities did not have a young candidate joining a community for decades, then one can reach the conclusion that religious communities in Croatia are still showing significant signs of vitality.
The second part of analysis focuses on questions and replies of participants that reflect their understanding of the mission. Obtained results of research confirm the correctness of hypothesis that predicted that members of women religious communities whose administrative offices are located in Croatia understand their mission in the multidimensional way. The multidimensional way of understanding the mission, substantiated in conciliar and post-conciliar documents of the Church Magisterium, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and in rules and constitutions of religious communities, is also present in the current understanding of the mission among women religious. All four dimensions, prayer, witness, paschal dimension, and work have been recognised as forms of the mission of consecrated life. This also reveals that for members of women religious communities whose administrative offices are located in Croatia the mission is an aspect of being, i.e. it encompasses their whole existence and not just their work.
The analysis of the value system of women religious in terms of the dialectical relation between dimensions of the mission, leads to the conclusion that women religious, as predicted by one of the above mentioned hypotheses, value the dimension of prayer of their religious life more than the dimension of work. Furthermore, they also value the dimension of witness and paschal dimension more than the dimension of work. The issue of the relation of women religious towards their mission is a small part of a much larger context. On the one hand, the pressure of society for efficiency is getting stronger and this necessarily has an effect within religious communities where it manifests in exaggerated activism and subtle careerism, followed by pronounced individualism. On the other hand, it seems that the society has still not overcame the characteristic attitude from the time of socialism, based on the idea of minimal engagement for maximal profit, which is not entirely absent from women religious communities either. In the future, one ought to be aware of both of these tendencies of overemphasising and underemphasising work, in order to avoid both of these extremes and to nurture a healthy attitude towards work activities and efforts that work demands.
Results obtained through the statistical analysis of data lead to the conclusion that women religious communities are fairly monolithic in regard to how they understand their mission. Regardless of social-demographic determinants of questionnaire participants (age, place of origin, level of education, job position, temporary/final vow, affiliation with a community whose administrative office is located in/outside of Croatia), they gave similar answers to the question concerning the understanding of the mission of religious life. Calculation of correlations or differences among groups showed that results were not statistically significant or that the correlation/difference was weak/small.
In the third part the analytical procedure is directed to the realisation of the mission. It has been determined that social-demographical characteristics of religious communities (number of members, average age, and professional competence) largely affect the realisation of the mission in all its dimensions. Among other things, these determinants are one of the most important factors causing the shift in emphasis from one dimension to another. Concerning the dimension of work, women religious in Croatia expect narrowing of their area of work and shifting of emphasis to social and spiritual-pastoral forms of activity of communities. In the questionnaire participants had a number of chances to express their opinion on the dimension of work of the society to which they belong, as it concerns their presence and their future. In replies to these questions, two kinds of activities were mentioned the most and these are the same ones predicted by the sixth hypothesis: social and spiritual-pastoral. The importance of this hypothesis in the future perspective is manifested primarily in the warning not to separate social activity from spiritual-pastoral and vice versa. Their mutual relationship and interpenetration is extremely important when it comes to women religious communities of apostolic direction. Spirituality without charity work is like empty words without works, theory without testimony.
The seventh hypothesis considered the issue of openness for cooperation of women religious in Croatia with other ecclesial and social subjects in the realisation of the mission of the religious community to which they belong. The hypothesis has been tested also through the questionnaire that gathered statistical data on communities as well as through the questionnaire that inquired into their attitudes. On the basis of the following data on – affiliated membership, employed lay people in their convents/institutions, founding of or cooperation with civil associations or institutes, cooperation with other women religious communities, number of women religious who are active in parishes and other kinds of institutions, attitudes on cooperation preferences regarding various persons/groups, whether and how the work of women religious is valued by other ecclesial and social subjects, and the importance of the opinion of these subjects when it comes to the realisation of the mission of women religious communities – one can conclude that women religious in Croatia show a high degree of openness for cooperation with other ecclesial and social subjects in the realisation of the mission of the religious community to which they belong.
The last subsection offers conclusions on the basis of the comparison of results on the understanding and realisation of the mission. It is pointed out that there is a difference between understanding and realising the mission and that these can be noticed on the individual level of every women religious, as well as on the level of whole religious communities. On the individual level, there is a noticeable difference between stating that dimensions of the mission are important and an evaluation of the extent of their realisation in one´s own life. Hence, a certain dimension can be highly valued in theory, but practice reveals an entirely different image. Concerning the dimension of work, differences are also noticeable if one compares what an individual member of women religious communities does with what she thinks she is able to do or more inclined to do.
In order to notice differences between understanding and realising the mission on the level of a religious community, it is sufficient to compare replies of women religious on signs of the times, on starting new activities, and on what kind of activities and to which groups should their religious communities focus, etc., with the actual state of the community, i.e., with activities that the community is actually engaged in. It is also interesting to compare these replies of participants with prognostic attitudes of sisters superiors. Participants have overwhelmingly pointed out the need for spiritual-pastoral and social-charity work, while numeric data shows that religious communities invest most energy into educational activities.
The discrepancy between the understanding and realisation of the mission is clearly there and should not be disregarded. On the contrary, it ought to be even more closely analysed in the future in order to find out where this discrepancy leads to, what are its consequences, and to draw out right conclusions for future endeavours.
3. Conclusions and Significance of Research for the Future
The topic of the third chapter are conclusions and significance of this study for the future. The scientific contribution of a study is determined in relation to its theoretical framework and its hypotheses. In the Croatian speaking region literature on theology of consecrated life is very scarce. Very little has been written on the mission of religious life and almost no research has been done empirically. Hence, any contribution in this area is more than welcome. On the theoretical level, the scientific contribution of this study on the mission of consecrated life is manifested through the presentation of the theological and Trinitarian-ecclesiological view of the mission of consecrated life as an aspect of being and the multidimensional understanding of the mission, based on results of a comprehensive analysis of conciliar and post-conciliar documents on consecrated life and documents of religious communities. The important characteristic of this part is its interdisciplinarity in terms of both, theological disciplines and other scientific disciplines that have been consulted.
In the empirical part the contribution of the first comprehensive quantitative empirical research conducted among women religious in Croatia consists of a study of opinions and attitudes of women religious on the understanding and living of the mission and their relation towards multidimensional approach to the mission in the light of aforementioned conciliar and post-conciliar documents. Results of this research, as a fruit of the first systematic overview of the phenomenon of religious mission, provide not only a better insight into the current state of women religious communities in Croatia, but they also have repercussions for the future. Namely, this systematic study of social-demographic characteristics of women religious communities in Croatia and the survey conducted among women religious on their understanding and living of the mission, is helpful for carrying out a realistic analysis of self-understanding and needs of communities, on the one hand, and possible expectations and needs of the contemporary society, on the other.
Possible limitations of this study are its partiality, since the researcher belongs to the studied population, and the researcher´s lack of competence for conducting social research, since the researcher is a theologian, not a sociologist or psychologist. The researcher tried to overcome these limitations by asking for assistance and advice from experts.
Other similar studies conducted earlier in the Republic of Croatia or abroad, especially those conducted in the USA, have provided the researcher with an idea how to compose the questionnaires. Although the study could have been extended in order to include a comparison with these other studies that preceded it, the author decided against it for a number of reasons. Namely, the study is a pioneering attempt to treat this topic in the area of the Republic of Croatia and, therefore, valuable in itself. Furthermore, a comparison with other studies would have extended an already complex topic by adding yet another analysis that would demand familiarisation with the socio-ecclesial and cultural context of the country in which these other studies have been conducted. However, such a comparison certainly constitutes one of many possible trajectories of future research.