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Attracting young people to religious life

Those involved in promoting vocations need to think differently and understand youth culture today, according to Bernhard Eckerstorfer OSB, an Austrian Benedictine who delivered a talk hosted by SpIRE (Spirituality Institute for Research and Education) at the Vocations Ireland Spring Conference in Avila Carmelite Centre on Friday 22 April 22nd. Michael O’Sullivan SJ, Director of  SpIRE,  introduced the talk “The Spirituality and Culture of Young Adults Today: Implications for Religious Life in Europe” by commenting how it was good to consider “how do you attract vocations and sustain vocations to religious, congregation, institutes, communities, orders at this current time in our history”.

Bernhard Eckerstorfer began his talk by explaining how “we have to think of ourselves in a different way to be able to connect to young people”. He said that nothing is as it used to be in religious life and considers that the current focus on numbers doesn’t help, “we stare at the losses and the work ‘still’ comes up again and again ‘how many people are still in your monastery?” It is always the logic of still which means “we’re losing ground, everything is going down the drain and we’re frustrated”, he remarked. He explained how the media “want to hold fast to something, and they can describe it with numbers that are going down”. However in his opinion it is dangerous to “only look on numbers and compare our time with past situations”,  and he quoted the Desert literature of the fourth and fifth century where it says “do not compare yourself to others and you will find peace”.

“It is important to see it from the perspective of the young people and not to live in the monasteries whose architecture is from the past. New times need new standards”, explained Bernhard. He outlined how “we are blind to new developments in religious life”, mentioning that the landscape has changed significantly with church attendance decreasing and it is a different situation than before. “Nobody would compare the lifestyle of the 1950s with our lifestyle but we do it constantly in Church” he said. In considering reform he outlined how “we have to acknowledge that something has to go, that something had been great, useful but it has run its course”. According to Bernhard “we always have to ask not what we have done, but what will be important in ten or twenty years from now and then to start from there to work on our future.” Young people want change, he said, “they do not have the fixed idea that are community they are interested in or feel associated to should become again like the past”.

Bernhard explained how we can and should do our best to increase vocations. He said that is important to prepare religious communities for the future but in his opinion there is an increasing temptation to expect this only from their own efforts strategies and advertisement plans. “Authentic Christian renewal does not start with programmes but with a new awareness of God’s love and care. We have to regain this spiritual, theological perspective to really address young people, their world and what the church is called for today”, he remarked. According to Bernhard “vocation is in the first place not something we have to accomplish but let God work in and through you” and vocations ministry means “to collect those young people who want more around one’s community and immerse them into one’s spirituality.”

The youth programmes which Bernhard organises at his monastery have very fruitful with many young people coming to discern their vocation in life, “the young people come because they realise it is about them and not the perseverance of a monastic community”. Adoration is important to young people according to Bernhard. “People want to be silent – adoration is perfect for that”, he says. He also explained how they had confessions, music, candlelight procession, food, sport and disseminate free Catholic literature at their events. Camps inviting young people to enter into bible studies take place in the summer while those who want more are invited to ‘Come and see’ days – a live in experience with the monks.Bernhard underlined the importance of being with young people in vocations ministry. “Superiors have to make this a priority”, he said. Bernhard also considers that if there are young people in religious communities they need peers their own age to tell them that is good to enter religious life. And those young people exploring their vocation need to have days of recollection and spiritual direction. According to Bernhard, “this is the most beautiful thing we can do – to accompany young people who trust us”.