Commissioned by Catholic Religious Australia (CRA), the peak body for leaders of religious orders and institutes, the survey shows that the nation’s Religious Sisters, Brothers and clerical Priests are older and fewer but doing many new things.
The survey was undertaken on CRA’s behalf by the Pastoral Planning Office of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC). Its authors, Stephen Reid and Robert Dixon from ACBC and Father Noel Connolly SSC, Regional Director of St Columbans Mission Society, Australia/New Zealand, joined with Religious leaders at CRA’s Annandale office to mark the report’s release.
CRA commissioned the survey to get a picture of the membership at the present time, to consider trends for the future, and to understand more fully the important role that Catholic Religious play in the Australian Church and society.
The last time a similar survey was conducted was 34 years ago. While the 1976 survey was completed by individual priests, brothers and sisters, this survey was with religious congregations. One hundred and sixty one congregations, orders, societies and associations responded to the 2009 survey, which could be completed online or in print form.
‘See, I am doing a new thing!’ contains statistical information on Religious in Australia including numbers, age, locations, areas of work, as well as ownership and operation of institutions, and partnerships with other congregations and organisations. It also includes seven personal reflections on the findings of the report from leaders of religious institutes.
Key findings were that in 2009 there were 8422 Religious in Australia compared with 17,029 in 1976. Religious Sisters make up just over 70 per cent of the cohort. In 2009 there were 5,927 Religious Sisters, 884 Religious Brothers and 1,611 Religious order priests. The median average age of Religious in 2009 was 73.
While the survey shows that Sisters, Brothers and clerical Priests are ageing and decreasing, they are broadening the type of ministry they are involved in, with a movement away from institutional ministries like education to the more social and pastoral work found on the margins of society.
Today, many Religious are working with refugees and asylum seekers, indigenous Australians, as prison chaplains, for organisations against human trafficking, and for the environment. Other apostolates include congregational leadership and administration, contemplative life, parish work, pastoral care, healthcare and aged care, media, publishing and the arts, overseas mission, social services and spiritual direction such as retreats and further study.
CRA’s President Sister Anne Derwin said the launch of the report was timely with the universal church recently recognising an Australian Religious in the canonisation of Mary MacKillop.
Sister Anne congratulated Father Noel Connolly, one of the authors of the report on his inspired choice for the title, ‘See I am doing a new thing!’
The title is taken from a scripture quote from Isaiah, 43:18-19 which says: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”
Sister Anne said, “We are all aware that the essence of Religious life has not changed – the centering of our life in the consecration of Christ. But the form has kept changing and it will keep changing.
“So what this report does is call us to really think about what’s the new thing God is doing with Religious life in the 21st century.
“As religious congregations and church organisations reflect on this report we will start naming the new, and telling the story of how religious congregations are ensuring that the mission of God continues but in a new way.”
Speaking at the launch, Father Noel Connolly said even a quick glance at the report reveals that there is little point in dwelling on the past or longing for former days.
“That’s why I find the words of Isaiah so apt and encouraging. Jesus is speaking to the Jews sitting exiled in Babylon and longing for Jerusalem. He tells them to “forget the former things”, when all they could think of was the Exodus and the Temple. He promises them that he is doing a new and better thing. However, it is still a shoot and only just springing forth. Its beauty is fragile and far from irresistible. It can easily be ignored or overlooked.
“So one of the challenges of this survey and of leadership today is to be able to see the ‘new life’ and to celebrate and encourage it.
“We are challenged to reflect on the reality of the figures, as we will not find the new thing without discernment. In doing this we need to reflect on our visions and to plan for the future.
“We need to care for our younger members because there are so few of them and we need to work at vocations.
“We have to cooperate and collaborate with one another. We also have a call to partnership with laity as we are not going to be able to exist on our own.”