Father Bryan Massingale said the world and the Catholic Church are living in a time of change and uncertainty marked by climate disruption, the rise of white nationalism and a radical shift in the understanding of gender and human sexuality.
Yet, he said, the teachings of the faith are there to help individuals navigate the uncertainty. And women and men religious are called to be at the forefront, he said.
Father Massingale, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, delivered a keynote address on “Courage for an Interim Time that Doesn’t Yet Know Its Name” to about 300 religious sisters, brothers and priests gathered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel for the Religious Formation Conference 2019 Congress Oct. 25.
During the Oct. 24-27 event, participants worshipped, heard from various speakers — including Sister Norma Pimentel — and took part in workshops meant to enrich the men and women who form new members of religious communities.
Sister of Charity of Nazareth Nancy Gerth said the conference is a time for formators to share their challenges, gather new insights and support each other in the work to form new members. Sister Gerth is a member of the Religious Formation Conference (RFC) board and helped planned the gathering.
The RFC is a national organization that serves religious congregations and sponsors the conference every other year.
Formation work can often be challenging, said Sister Gerth.
“Because men and women come to us today from such diverse fields — whether because of age, country, career experience and education background — it’s important to create a formation program that balances their needs with what’s important to a congregation,” she said.
“There are so many options for ministry that choosing religious life is counter-cultural. To walk with people doing this and be a support to them and help them navigate it can be challenging.”
The conference, she said, is a good time to find out “what’s happening in the world that affects how we minister.”
Father Massingale, who serves as a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, noted that in a 2015 address Pope Francis declared “ ‘We are not living in an era of change. We are living in a change of era.’ ”
To live during a change of era is “to live on the cusp of something that marks an exponentially different way of being, living, praying and doing,” said Father Massingale. “That’s a challenge of a whole other order.”
Father Massingale went on to address what he called the three signs of uncertainty — climate change, a change in the understanding of sexuality and the rise of white nationalism.
The rate of climate change and the refusal of governments to act is “troubling,” said Father Massingale.
As evidence, he noted the Brazilian government’s refusal to accept outside help in fighting fires that destroyed parts of the Amazon rainforest over the summer. Closer to home, he pointed to the U.S. government’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to curb global warming.
“We see a full-scale effort to overturn all manner of environmental protections … to open the Arctic to oil extraction and wilderness areas to commercial development … to curtail the efforts of local and state governments to oppose environmental regulation on private enterprises,” said Father Massingale.
“We’re seeing in this moment where single actors can imperil the survival of an entire species, not just the human species, but indeed of the planet.”
Father Massingale said individuals can be in denial about climate change because it hasn’t yet affected them. This is not the case with sexuality, he noted.
Sexuality affects individuals more directly and personally, he said.
The world is facing a “radical and significant shift in human understanding of gender, sexuality and of human sexualities,” he noted. The evolving understanding of sexuality hasn’t affected only the secular world, the church, too, is grappling with it.
He pointed to what he called a “major controversy” sparked by the use of the acronym LGBTQ in the working document of the synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment, which took place last year at the Vatican. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer.
The third sign that marks this “interim time,” said Father Massingale, is the rise of white nationalism in the U.S.
White nationalism is a reaction to the anxiety of living in a changing environment, he said.
The most recent U.S. census, conducted in 2010, reported that more than a third of Americans belonged to racial and ethnic minority groups. The majority of children under the age of 12 belong to racial and ethnic minority groups and only 39 percent of millennial Catholics are white, he said.
“America is browning. The church is browning,” he said. “It’s the resistance of the changing complexion of America that accounts for the rise of white nationalism that plagues our society.”
The nationalist sentiment creates a sense of anxiety over who “belongs” in this country, he said.
These attitudes can also be found in religious communities, as some members of religious congregations bemoan the entry of foreign nationals into their communities, he said.
This is an “age of fragility and anxiety,” said Father Massingale.
This “period of deep and thorough-going change carries with it dangers of fragmentation and instability.”
But there’s sustenance in the faith to work through it, he said. The Catholic faith gives courage, hope, the “ability to reason well in the face of the unknowable” and the knowledge that God is present even in the “upheaval of an age which is coming to be.”
He told the hundreds of men and women religious listening to him, “Our future, sisters and brothers, depends upon the deeper adherence to the ever-creative, ever sustaining God who births the future.” This is not a time to create “legacies,” but a time to create new beginnings.
Men and women religious, he added, are called to be the “forerunners of human evolution.”