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Force of habit: Why men’s religious orders have bounced back

Established congregations such as the Oratorians are attracting younger members (Photo: Adriano Moraes/Catholic Herald)

During the post-conciliar turmoil, some predicted that men's religious orders would vanish. How wrong they were

Forty years ago, many thought there was no future for men’s religious orders in Britain. I remember someone confidently announcing, back in 1980, that “They’ll all be finished before the year 2000”. Yet now, in this second decade of the 21st century, some male orders seem to be flourishing.

I wrote recently in these pages about the growth in new female religious communities. But while women appear to be drawn to new orders, men seem more interested in older ones.

For example, the Conventual Franciscans, better known as the Greyfriars, have returned to Oxford after a 500-year absence. They also run a London parish and have a community in the coastal town of Rye and at Walsingham, home of the National Shrine of Our Lady. The Dominicans are thriving anew with noticeably large numbers of novices. The Oratorians are now at York, Cardiff, Manchester and Bournemouth, as well as London and Birmingham.

This year the 19th-century Dominican church at Haverstock Hill, north London, inaugurated a rosary garden, with a vast white-clad phalanx of young Dominicans present. Dedicated to the Luminous Mysteries, the garden was created – perhaps symbolically – from a wasteland alongside the church.

The Dominicans also have houses at Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Leicester. The community at Blackfriars in Oxford exudes an air of vitality, with the attributes of other thriving religious orders, including doctrinal orthodoxy and the wearing of a religious habit.

Fr Nicholas Crowe, director of vocations for the Dominicans’ English province, says: “It’s important to remind ourselves that vocations are in the end all about grace. The young men who have joined our order are a gift from God. Of course we have to co-operate in this grace – which is easier said than done because the right kind of change can be painful and the wrong kind of change disastrous.”

He continues: “Any community that wants vocations has to have both the stability to hand on the treasures of its heritage and the flexibility to change to accommodate new hopes and dreams. But in the end I don’t think any order ever really deserves the vocations that God sends them.

“The question, then, is not so much what have we done that has attracted vocations to the order, but what does God want us to do with the young men he has sent us? At heart our way of life is all about the search for truth and the proclamation of the Gospel. It may simply be that we are in a moment in history when the Church especially needs men and women who have been formed in this atmosphere to labour in the vineyard.”

Also in Oxford, the Oratorians run the former Jesuit Church of St Aloysius in Woodstock Road. They provide glorious liturgy, Latin chant and good hymns. A less likely place, Bournemouth, now hosts an Oratory too (at Sacred Heart Church – again, formerly Jesuit). A new priest was ordained for the team this month, and it’s a busy parish, plus a university chaplaincy.

The Conventual Franciscans were ousted from Walsingham by Henry VIII in 1535. But they have just celebrated the first anniversary of their return to the village. They are part of the shrine’s fresh expansion under the direction of Mgr John Armitage, leading up to the re-dedication of England to Mary in 2020.

What about new religious orders? The Franciscans of the Renewal, founded by Fr Benedict Groeschel in the 1980s, are omnipresent at events organised by Youth 2000, all-night Nightfever vigils in city-centre churches and Catholic Underground meetings. They emphasise Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Confession and prayer – often to the background of devotional but distinctly twangy, guitar-led music.

I remember that during World Youth Day in 2011 in Madrid, I saw a young friar digging to bury the much-mended hem of his brown religious habit. It was worn out beyond all hope of re-attachment to the main garment. Like other blessed objects (medals, scapulars and so on), it had to be buried or burned. I was touched by his simplicity and his commitment – both in such stark contrast to everything a consumer and luxury-orientated society celebrates, and yet curiously in touch with the emerging mood of ecological concern in the West.

The friars live the tough way. They sleep on hard boards, eat what they are given and work in the dingiest parts of cities. They offer a radical and lifelong challenge. I can see why they attract recruits. I am more astonished that the recruits stay.

Finally, I must mention the so-called new movements, including the Neocatechumenate, Faith Movement, Charismatics and the not-so-new Opus Dei. All are recruiting men in good numbers. Many men in our diocesan seminaries are involved with one of these groups.

Doctrinal certainty seems to be an attraction, along with an emphasis on prayer and the distinctive nature of the priesthood. They share much with the new young members of the older orders: they are uninterested in silly liturgies – jokes about “clown Masses” and singing Kumbaya abound – and are unembarrassed by the Church’s moral teachings, liturgical discipline and claims of truth. They like wearing clerical attire, including cassocks.

This all sounds like good news: and we need it. Evangelisation in the years ahead will be challenging and this is no time for faint hearts.

Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and historian