“The Future of Religious Life,” Pedro Arrupe (1974)

In this address the annual meeting of the Union of Superiors General, held in Rome in May 1974, Pedro Arrupe raises what he calls a “relatively recent” question on the future of religious life led by members of the religious orders: “Is there a future for Religious Life?”  Answering that question, Arrupe argues, is impossible. Still, he offers three “basic principles for evangelical renewal” in religious institutes. He did so because “the future of our Institutes depends on the service which, according to the charism of each, we can and will in fact offer to the Church and to the world with which we must be identified; and by the right interpretation we will give to the action of the Spirit by reading the signs of the times.”

For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.




Concern with the future has so infiltrated the conscious mind that one gets the impression that it has reached the proportions of a real obsession. More than reaching out to the future, it is the future that is coming towards us; so much so that one is hardly aware of the fact that the future is already with and in us. So true is this that today, in the words of S.P. Snow, men are needed “who carry the future in their very bones.”


If this is true for all men, it is especially relevant for us religious. Hence we should cultivate an astute awareness of the necessity of serving the Church and the world, and of giving more serious thought to this grave problem of the modern world.


We would, of course, like to predict the future, to know what our lot will be, what is in store for our communities, what burdens will be ours in the course of time. Be that as it may, we are up against the classical irony of a Chinese proverb: “To prophesy is difficult, especially when it concerns the future”


The problem, then, is not so much the ability to prophesy nor of coming up with a type of futurology. Rather we could to greater advantage think on the past and the present in order that, in the measure possible, we may predict the future. In a world caught up in such a rapid mutation; in a world that presents such a vast and profound problem, religious life as such and each of our Institutes are confronted with a challenge impossible to ignore. “It is now trivial to say that Western culture is undergoing a crisis, but it is not trivial to live it. To live it and not just talk about it means that one takes upon one’s shoulders, willing or unwillingly, all the burdens of confusion, uncertainty and a clouded vision. No human being can for long enjoy living with a weight of that kind.”


The transcendence and gravity of the inevitable challenge of the present moment is even more apparent if we think on the responsibility inherent in the training of our youth, who are the architects of the future: let it not come about “that they be prepared for a world that no longer exists.” Anticipating the future, creating within ourselves a new mental process, striving for a sense of the future, will to a great extent lessen the difficulties of adaptation to the new circumstances of the future and will increase the probabilities of success. The difficulty lies in this, that nothing of what we actually see is part of the future: the entire “present” is rooted in the past—(studies, formation, individual and family, science, etc.). No actual phenomenon is a guaranty of the future or emerges in it. For this reason, therefore, it is necessary to create a sense of the future by reflecting. Naturally it is possible to think of a proximate or remote future. However I shall limit myself to reflecting on a not-too-distant future even though this is difficult, for it is quite impossible to predict a remote future.


The first question that comes to mind is this: Is there a future for Religious Life? The question has a two-fold aspect: does religious life as such have a meaning for the future—or better—is there a future for religious Institutes? The question is a relatively recent one. In times past it was unheard of even to think of such a thing, so evident and taken for granted was the existence of religious life in the future. Today, however, when no problem, be it even be so radical or perplexing, exists unnoticed, it is understandable that neither can the crisis in religious life escape notice. Actually there are those who predict the imminent demise of religious life because, in their opinion, the relevance or at least the expression of religious life is already outdated. Today the world has need of other forms of service. It is indeed difficult to share such pessimism.


On religious life as such, Fr. Rahner writes: “It can be affirmed with every assurance that in the Church there must always exist an institutional Christian life having a certain degree of radicality; in this sense, therefore, religious life will always exist in the Church.”


The survival of each institute is quite another question. Naturally no Institute has an absolute guaranty of surviving forever. “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to provide true statistics of the mortality rate of religious Institutes. The overall impression had is that they incline to a mighty resistance rather than to extreme fragility.”


Factually, not a few religious Institutes died out in the course of time: Between the IV and XX centuries, 276 religious Institutes of men were founded, of which 99 have disappeared (Monks 50; Canons, etc. 35; Clerics Regular 1; Societies of Priests 11; Lay Congregations 1; Clerical Congregations 1).


History is master of life. It is interesting to note the manner and circumstances in which religious Institutes gradually came into being. From such an observation we can learn some important lessons for ourselves in considering the future. Even in the light of the very apparent diversity in origin of Institutes, it would seem that their common dynamism could be contained in a three-fold basic thrust.


The first is the realization of a determined service to the Church and humanity in a given period of history whether in the spiritual, corporal or charitable order.


The second is characterized by an aspect of conflict, under which a great number of Institutes were born; struggle with human society of die times and likewise with religious society, its authority included, in the sense of the prophetic and charismatic spirit that inspired the Founder and which was not always understood by others.


The third thrust is evidenced by the presence of one man or group of persons moved by the Holy Spirit, and who brought their work to completion, thanks to the force of the charism received in full docility to the action of the Spirit.


There is no doubt that the service we must render to the Church and contemporary humanity is a most valid argument for our survival and a tremendous guaranty of it. What has become useless no longer has reason to continue to exist. It is this wanting to serve that should urge one to a profound study of the proper charism and intentions of the Founder so as to determine how best to apply them in present and future circumstances.


There is no reason to fear the aspect of conflict and opposition that can arise from sources least expected, because the Spirit often follows a path difficult to understand by those who do not possess or do not know how to interpret the basic charism or apply it to new circumstances. On the other hand every application or reform should be realized by men of great spiritual stature, imbued with a true supernatural spirit. This presupposes a burning zeal for the glory of God and the service of the Church. It implies humility, obedience and a profound appreciation of the Gospel. If we have men of such spirit and we are ready to offer real service to the Church and to humanity, difficulties should not intimidate us; rather they will be a sign that the way is a good one.



1. Three Basic Principles of Evangelical Renewal of Religious Institutes

Regarding the updating of Religious Institutes and their pastoral apostolate of the future, it will be useful to consider three fundamental elements in our manner of procedure;

—Foundational charism

—A sound incarnation of religious life in the world of today, and

—A right interpretation of the signs of the times.


a) Foundational Charism

The charism of the Founder is the element that characterizes every Institute. It expresses what is specific in our service of the Church and the world.


In the charism we have the particular grace given to the Founder and through him to the Institute. Having to apply it and place it in opposition to modern circumstances, it is then indispensable that we reflect on it, search out its underlying meaning and discover those new reaches that perhaps up to now have remained hidden and unknown. Our fundamental charism may not be betrayed; rather we should push on to an ever greater understanding of it, applying it to actual historical situations.


Accordingly, the first step forward to be taken by religious Institutes towards a more effective evangelization is the profound study and knowledge of all the manifestations and possible applications of one’s proper charism in the interest of its best possible use. This is a point of capital importance, for it is not impossible that, in the course of time, the essence of a charism will have acquired accidental .elements which not only tarnish its brilliance but likewise limit its adaptability and efficacy.


Knowledge of the essential elements of a charism offers the advantage, in view of rapidly changing circumstances, of the possibility of a greater elasticity of adaptation in line with survival and a progressive effectiveness of Institutes in their future pastoral work. In the measure that fewer accidental elements invade a charism will its adaptability be greater.


The shock sustained by religious Institutes in these years (referred to as the “shock of the future”) has positively contributed in that it has brought about more serious thinking. Consequently we have discovered riches that were unknown up to the time of the crisis that shook some Institutes from their very foundations.


b) Incarnation in the World of Today

“Flight from the World” is not synonymous with isolationism. Separation from the world is compatible with “incarnation” in the world. The “flight-incarnation” dialectic gives rise to a redimensioning of many past and present attitudes towards an intuition of the future.


A consciousness of the necessity of an intelligent incarnation in the world constitutes one of the great conquests of religious life today: a religious may not consider himself as someone foreign to human reality; nor does he strive to think of himself as surrounded by an aureole of privileges and power; rather he wants to be a servant of mankind, a friend and companion, someone to whom others feel dose—all in the likeness of his model Jesus Christ who “assumed the condition of a slave, and became as men are;” “who can sympathize with those who are ignorant or uncertain because he too lives in the limitations of weakness.”


This incarnation must manifest itself by an engagement, and as a witness, as one who is “the voice of those who have no voice,” in the global life and evangelical activity of the religious “as strangers to their fellow men or useless citizens of this earthly city.”


c) Interpreting the Signs of the Times

In the light of the constant duty incumbent on the Church “of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel,” religious can render a positive service because this task of discernment is properly their own.


It is not simply a question of determining facts and analyzing tendencies, but likewise of interpreting them according to the spirit of the Gospel. To do otherwise would be to invoke the words of Christ himself: “You know how to read the face of the sky, but you cannot read the signs of the times!”


A simple collating or interpretation of facts, even though essential, does not in fact constitute discernment. Strictly speaking discernment is the result of prayerful meditation on human realities. Whoever recognizes that this tenuous and difficult work requires a constant interior transformation, an authentic “metanoia” or conversion to Christ crucified, is likewise aware that this implies an effort to free oneself from all that can disturb one’s judgment or unduly invade one’s heart, and to be ever ready and attentive to the voice of the Holy Spirit.



2. Religious Institutes and Present-Day Progress

The interpretation and discernment of the signs of the times become daily more important because of the very circumstances of our present-day world. Hence arises the necessity of thinking on the effects that such situations can have on the activation of that service which religious are called upon to give.


a) Progressive Discernment of Constant Development

The new post-conciliar spirituality, the advances made in theological science, the possibilities and instruments of evangelization offered by the modern world open up a field of activity ever more vast and varied. The assimilation, adaptation and use of such opportunities and means give to the work of evangelization a force, an extension and an incalculable depth. We are faced with continual progress as much on the plane of human society as on the religious plane of faith. Humanity forges ahead, ever discovering new secrets of nature and science while claiming dominion over the world.


On her part the Church is not lagging behind, for she is ever bringing forth new facets of revelation in a progressive enrichment of this knowledge. Religious life and its work of evangelization should act as a lever of progress and in consequence develop with the help of new elements, for these exercise a tremendous power of transformation that is irresistible. And once again the indispensable instrument will be an intelligent power of discernment: not everything that happens in the world can be considered progress; nor in the “depositum fidei” is it always abundantly clear from whence comes the real acquisition of new knowledge.


Among the human values that have appeared in bolder relief are: the dignity of the human person, the concept of equality among men, true liberty in integral progress, social justice, peace, freedom of conscience, patriotism, rights of women, etc. Similarly on the plane of faith there have arisen new values: among these are a clear concept of the Church, advances in Christology, exegesis, priesthood, ecumenism, pluriformity, mission and apostolate, the role of the laity in the Church, liturgical reform, etc. An awareness of this progress and transformation can be an effective help in updating our life—whether it be personal and communitarian, private and apostolic.


b) Our Evaluation of the New Human Values

Hence our duty to reflect on all these new values and their progressive evaluation, because they constitute the point of departure for building, up a solid and effective future for service of the world. Having assimilated an evangelic spirit we shall then be able to draw practical consequences for our religious life: individual, communitarian, apostolic—all in view of evangelization.


At the same time let us not ignore the fact that the various trends at work in our modern world can, under pretext of modernity and adaptation, cause a lessening of our availability and corrode the real effectiveness of our apostolate, even to the eventual destruction of our vocation. The religious then ends up by being laicized, leaving in his wake a dangerous furrow for those who once rallied around him. As a logical consequence one is led to think on the probable necessity of “evangelizing” our Institutes themselves. Such “ad intra” evangelization does not imply only the negative aspect of reform and defense; it could be very useful for a positive, efficient program of progress towards realizing the ideal of our Institute.


To deepen one’s knowledge of the person of Christ, of his Gospel, of the radicality of the Beatitudes, of the meaning of the Cross, of humility, of universal love for mankind, etc., these require an inner force of true evangelization that has no limits. This is comparable to the evangelizing power of the Spirit, who gave to Founders of Institutes the charisms that in many instances have yet to be rediscovered and activated in all their depth and extent.


c) Special Thrust of Our Service

Faced with the multiple possibilities inherent in this new situation existing in the world, what is to be the special thrust of our service to the Church and man? Perhaps “per viam negationis” we might say that our service must not be simply professional, as often as the exercise of a profession or specialization may at times be necessary. Nor may we say that it is to be merely supplementary; for after all, we are not agents of public authority in those duties towards society that it cannot solve.


This is true even though often enough a supplementary work may properly belong to religious. An example would be when the State, because of some temporary difficulty or obstacle inherent in the particular nature of a given work cannot proceed in the exercise of its duty (difficult or impossible cases of assistance; the mentally retarded, lepers, spiritual care of prisons, hospitals, etc.). Still less is our service to be solely and exclusively spiritual (even though it is, as a matter of fact, our principal service). Actually, corporal and intellectual works of charity, for example the help given for the triumph of justice (being “the voice of those who have no voice”), are likewise fields of activity that are actual and necessary, properly the work of religious who wish to extend a helping hand to the poor and oppressed. Finally, our service is not to be restricted exclusively to our specialty, given that lay people can and ought to collaborate with us in an effective way with an ever greater sense of responsibility on their part.


In the final analysis, speaking positively in the words of Vatican II, our service “is to be discharged to the extent of [our] capacities and in keeping with the form of [our] proper vocation. The chosen means may be prayer or active undertakings … to implement and strengthen the kingdom of Christ in souls and to extend that kingdom to every land.”


3. Some Attributes of Religious Life in the Future

 The problem of religious life in the future, the principal focus of our discussions these days, can have a two-fold formulation proposed thus:

i) How should religious life exist in the future; or how do we envision the ideal of this life?

ii) What, precisely, will the concrete historical reality of religious life be in the future?


The answer to this formulation should come from an analysis of principles as against an evolving historical reality. To the second formulation one may not reply without taking into account the human element that a practical ideal imposes.


Obviously the responses to both formulations of the problem are not entirely independent of each other, given that the first must keep in mind the human elements and the dispositions thereof; while the second supposes a knowledge of the ideal and its significance in real life. From what has thus far been said one may conclude that some attributes of religious life of the future may be deduced from actual facts.


In reality the present situation of the world and its evolution in the near future are creating new situations, multiplying difficulties and coming up with possibilities hitherto non-existent. These new possibilities cover the field of technological development, urbanization with its consequent ecological problems, increased international rapport, awareness of popular identity, etc. Religious life must accordingly present an authentic witness to man of today, offering the remedy for a troubled world.


This testimony must be an eschatological sign evident to the modern world. It is the sign of Christ crucified; “Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with Christ crucified, because the proclamation has as its object him with whom Christ identified himself (man without God and abandoned), whose lot we likewise share.”


The spirit and practice of the Beatitudes that form the code of the Kingdom of Christ should be visibly lived by religious as testimony against the commandments of a selfish world “totus in maligno positus.” To the modern world’s great incentive for gain we should reply with a total disinterest and simplicity of life. In contrast to the egoism and abuse heaped on others, transforming them into “things”—instruments of gain—there should be evident in us the ideal of selfless service even at the cost of great sacrifice and of one’s own life. In opposition to the frivolity and superficiality surrounding us we should counter with the evidence of sound reflection and responsibility that leads us to think and weigh well our actions and their consequences. Our free and conscious obedience will be the best remedy for the senseless desire for unlimited freedom to which is attributed an absolute value to the prejudice of others. Our prayer, simple and profound and, within limits possible, constant, will be an inspiration to those who in principle or because of excessive activism abandon prayer and so deprive themselves of all spirit. A universal love that embraces all without distinction and which, moreover, inclines to the weak and abandoned, will also be the best remedy for disharmony, division and rejection of every racial, national and class distinction.


If we wish to serve the Church and humanity there is only ·one way by which religious life can respond: namely by re-dimensioning itself, proposing topics of study and resolution, creating community, work and structures that will meet new situations.


a) Topics of Study and Resolution

Reflection on a deeper awareness of one’s proper charism and spirit will inspire a more authentic spiritual life, one that is more profound, demanding, effective; that is expressed in greater interiorness, in a more responsible use of freedom that will be more ample than before, and with an openness and flexibility that will be the fruit of a deep interior life and contact with the spirit. The apostolic life of the religious should tend to respond to the real necessities of the people of God.


This will give rise to a constant concern for discovering ingenious creativity to meet new forms of apostolate. The greatest importance will be given to the witness of life in an attempt to make it wholly evangelical and conformable to the original charism.


Jesus Christ’s predilection for the poor will condition the religious of the future to aspire after a similar love without, however, excluding others. In the midst of this world’s poor he will think especially of the two-thirds of humanity living in inhuman conditions. His fundamental qualities will be poverty and complete dedication to others. The universality of his all-inclusive love will give him a prophetic dynamism to preach the Gospel truths without compromise to all social classes because all are called to salvation.


As long as he does not stray from the Gospel spirit he will always have the grace of a holy freedom; and his only fear will be the dread possibility of offending God. Recognizing the value of celibacy and chastity, virtues firmly rooted in the Gospel and theology, he will know that although these are charismatic gifts given gratis and conferring a special strength, it is also possible to lose them. Hence he will know how to maintain a well-balanced attitude with an interior serenity while still being open to others.


Knowing how to approach matters so delicate and difficult, and conscious of his own weakness, he will not be wanting in the practices of asceticism so as not to endanger so lofty a vocation. In his obedience he will see the will of God and through it will recognize the meaning of his mission.


His obedience will be such as to avoid the opposite excesses of “blindness” on the one hand, and “self-determination” on the other. He will know how to dialogue with his superiors and his own community so that the superior may reach enlightened decisions that will be accepted as an expression of the will of God. The exercise of authority will then be service-orientated and the Superior will be considerate of priorities in his responsibility for the person and apostolate of his subjects.


b) Community Life

This will be the distinctive mark of religious life of the future even though varied in its expression by different Institutes. It will be enriched by closer inter-personal rapport imbued with an apostolic thrust born of the conviction that such a life should not stifle but rather promote the spiritual and apostolic life in accord with the particular charism of the Institute. Community life of the future will be more open, to some extent shedding the old aura of a certain reserve; a life hitherto unknown to most people. Consequently the apostolate will require a greater openness which, in turn, will lead to a type of life that constitutes real witness.


Apostolic contact with souls will oblige some changes in the system involving large communities, reducing them to smaller ones so that they may be a real leaven for the People of God and the fruit of fraternal living should be given much thought and consideration; types that will provide a broad flexibility of adaptation. This will in turn engender a healthy pluriformity within the Institute itself.


c) Institutions

A basic revision of institutions is likewise called for. The difficulties inherent in maintaining large institutions (universities, study centers, mass media, etc.) call for readjustment in many sectors. For example, the actual difficulty of controlling personnel and finances should shift from a “juridic control” to one more immediate and personal, because of the particular problems involved. There should be more involvement on the part of lay people even to the extent that the institutions are no longer our own and over which our involvement becomes that of “co-administrators.”


More and more the State is invading the field of Institutions at all levels. This will leave us free to explore more possibilities of action, particularly in those sectors requiring greater commitment and disinterestedness, deriving from a religious motivation. Such an apostolate will be more properly our own, in the exercise of which it will be possible to give effective service in these new situations. Ultra-conservatism (or “immobility”), the result of over-institutionalizing, will disappear without necessarily implying the abolition of institutions as such, for these have an effectiveness and · mission that are irreplaceable. The work of transferring these institutions will play an important role in the near future. It is a transformation that will bring about a greater collaboration among the various religious Institutes either by merging activities already existing or by the creation of others. This can only come about as a result of studied collaboration. Difficulties, of course, are not lacking in this regard. Uppermost will be the study of various charisms that could indicate a merger of some Institutes whose specific character may not be particularly different from some others. This could possibly create a more fruitful apostolate.


d) Formation

The new type of religious of the future will need, as hitherto-fore and now with greater reason, a period of formation. This brings us to a consideration of those engaged in the formation of youth in whose hands the future lies. But youth is likewise in the hands of the educators in formation.


The artisan of formation should be a living incarnation of the Institute. More than with words he should form others after the pattern of his own life and example. He should have a keen insight for interpreting new situations, an understanding of modern-day youth; he should know how to dialogue with them while not compromising his role of director and former. True dialogue presupposes the ability to listen to youth, coupled with an understanding of how to maintain freedom and to arrive at intelligent decisions even though these may be difficult of acceptance.


The religious charged with forming youth will adopt the principle of fidelity to the Institute and its norms, while at the same time instructing in the right use of freedom. He will have to allow much liberty while making his own the responsibility for difficult decisions. He will exercise great effort in educating his charges for a world in mutation that will continue for a long time; but he will likewise stress the value of the unchangeable basic concepts of religious life while instructing in ways of adaptation to new circumstances.


Otherwise stated, formation will be education in the intelligent use of freedom, in the practice of discernment in properly evaluating one’s life and work, in obedience to the law without loss of liberty, in exercising freedom by obedience to the law. The work of the educator in formation will consist, moreover, in “teaching how to understand” so that youth “will understand how to learn.” An atmosphere of trust is a very necessary quality today.


The Institute is giving over to the young religious the responsibility for the future, assigning them to apostolic work under difficult circumstances. Hence youth must know how to be always open with their superiors.


e) Vocational Recruiting

The particular difficulties inherent in the religious life of the future, if its demands are to be accepted wholeheartedly and generously, will perhaps greatly influence the number of candidates, in the sense that there may be fewer requesting admittance. In this respect it is not possible to foresee the future. Much will depend on the grace of God that can still be given to many.


One thing, however, is abundantly clear: the future will have to witness a wiser selection of candidates. In normal circumstances, therefore, this will mean a diminution of admissions; this in turn will ensure a higher rate of perseverance. Even today, in the light of “post factum” observations there is an awareness of the fact that among the many who abandoned religious life, some should never have been admitted in the first place!


f) Structures

In this sphere there is also much food for thought. The problem exists of how to exercise authority in a new way, of how to arrive at decisions. To meet the “new look” will require some changes in our structures. It will be necessary to pass from a pyramidical structure of organization to one more resembling a biological organism in which there are many lines of communication and influence.


The fact remains, however, and undoubtedly so, that there must always be someone responsible for final decisions. But if ideas, to be actively productive, must continue to follow an exclusively vertical line through the various instances of authority, they risk falling by the wayside. Hence the example proposed of a structure resembling a biological organism. It contains more than an exclusively vertical line of communication (from head to foot and vice-versa) because there are likewise other lines of inter-communication: blood vessels and lymph glands; sensitive and motor nerves, metabolism, etc.


Accordingly provision must be made for study groups removed from the vertical line of authority, but set up within well-defined limits and with a definite purpose. This is necessary today and will be necessary in the future in order to arrive at decisions following lines of information and thought that will enhance the motives and objectives in decision making. As already indicated, this will require that each group have the necessary maturity and intelligence in an appropriate ad hoc structure. While not cutting off the vertical line of authority with all its implied responsibilities, yet it is necessary to consider the horizontal or, better still, the all-inclusive dimension, so that in arriving at decisions there will be a meeting of both horizontal and vertical lines of communication.




Generally speaking, the future of religious life in each of our Institutes cannot be foreseen with any degree of certainty. The future is in the hands of God. We must be content with “docta ignorantia future.” “A man’s heart plans out his way, but it is Yahweh who makes his steps secure.” The future of our Institutes depends on the service which, according to the charism of each, we can and will in fact offer to the Church and to the world with which we must be identified; and by the right interpretation we will give to the action of the Spirit by reading the signs of the times. As Superiors General our responsibility is great: “we must realize that there is a series of possibilities for the future that can be influenced in diverse ways …; we must quit being mere spectators at the world’s drama, and busy ourselves about influencing history in constructing the future.” If it is true that, looking upon concrete circumstances and their progressive evolution, we feel some concern, there are, nonetheless, abundant motives for hope.


Our hope rests not only in a faith like that of Abraham “who hoped and believed,” but also in the spirit of our Founders, still living in our Institutes; in the good will and sincere efforts of our religious; and, above all, in the action of the Holy Spirit, who so clearly speaks to us in the words of the psalmist: “Put your hope in Yahweh, be strong, let your heart be bold.”




Original Source:

Challenge to Religious Life Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—I, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1979, “The Future of Religious Life,” pg. 157–173.

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