Not long after Pope Francis’s election a Vatican official made a sombre announcement. Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo disclosed that more than 3,000 men and women were leaving religious orders every year. Most left, he said, at a relatively young age due to an “absence of spiritual life”, a “loss of a sense of community” or a “loss of a sense of belonging to the Church”.

So it was not surprising that the Pope sounded the alarm about the decline of the religious life last weekend. In an address to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the Pope said the traditional orders were “haemorrhaging” members.

This is no exaggeration. American women religious reached a high point of 181,421 in 1966. Today there are fewer than 50,000, a 72.5 per cent decline. According to the most recent Vatican statistics, the number of Brothers worldwide fell from 55,253 in 2013 to 54,559 at the end of 2014.

Why is this significant? Because for the past 500 years the Church has relied on religious orders to advance its mission. Arguably no one has contributed more to education than men and women Religious. To this day orders are present in the world’s most inhospitable environments for Christians. The Missionaries of Charity and Salesians, for example, have risked their lives to sustain the mission to war-torn Yemen. Without Religious, the Church would live broadly within its comfort zone.

In his speech, Pope Francis blamed the decline largely on the wider “provisional” culture, which discourages life-long commitments. But he also conceded that some orders have lost their original sense of purpose and suffered poor leadership. “If the consecrated life wants to maintain its prophetic mission and its fascination, continuing to be a school of faithfulness for those near and those far,” he said, “it must maintain the freshness and novelty of the centrality of Jesus.”

Decline is not uniform, however. While the number of women religious is falling in North and South America, Europe and Oceania, it is rising in Africa and Asia. But even in the West, a handful of communities are suffering an enviable vocations crisis: they don’t have enough space for everyone who wants to join them. The orders that are flourishing – such as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Nashville Dominicans – tend to have a strong sense of identity, distinctive dress, a deep communal prayer life and a courageous missionary spirit.

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