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One Step to Revive Contemplative Life

Catholic News Agency published an article stating that in the wake of monasteries closing left and right in Spain, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the head of the Vatican’s congregation on consecrated life, insists that contemplative life will not go away: “we need contemplative life as we need food and water to live.” While I agree with the cardinal about the need for contemplative vocations, it will take a nearly impossible course correction to rebuild the vocations the Church has lost.

More jarring than the massive closures in Spain are the statistics about the United States. Since 1965, the number of religious brothers and sisters has fallen at a far greater rate — over 70% — than the general Catholic population has fallen, only about 3% [1]. You can see the chart below for more complete numbers:

Many Catholics have known about this decline for a long time. Others are just learning about it. But no matter where you fall on that spectrum, you would be absolutely foolish to deny it. Vocations and reception of the sacraments have fallen so dramatically over the last 60 years that you have to wonder how the Church has kept going. The only logical answer? Divine protection.

In this short article, I want to posit one reason why contemplative life is dying and how to revive it. In order to dedicate your life to God in contemplation and prayer, which is a strict and disciplined lifestyle, you have to be raised in contemplation and prayer. You can understand my sentiment here by using a military analogy: a young man who has never done a push-up in his entire life is far less likely to succeed at boot camp than someone who has maintained physical fitness and discipline. Similarly, why would we expect young men and women to give up material possessions and success in pursuit of a contemplative life when they have absolutely no experience with it?

The first time I ever attended the Latin Mass I was absolutely dumbfounded by how silent it was. I did not like it. I had no idea what was going on or what I was supposed to be doing. I called a friend of mine who attended the FSSP seminary and said, “OK, I went to my first Latin Mass, and it was too quiet and hard to follow. What am I supposed to be doing?” He chuckled and responded with one word: “praying.”

It hit me like a ton of bricks — the responses I was so used to at the Novus Ordo Mass were not contemplative prayer from my heart at all. The Latin Mass is focused on God, on the sacrifice of His only Son for the forgiveness of sins, and the faithful are called to prayerfully and silently witness this. If your only experience of prayer is the one hour you set aside on Sunday for Mass, and that Mass is not silent, then you are never delving into contemplative prayer. This is the norm in the Church now, so of course no one wants to live a contemplative vocation.

The mass is a re-presentation of Christ on the Cross at Calvary. We are transported to His crucifixion, standing or kneeling at His feet next to His mother and St. John. What were they doing during Christ’s agony? Clapping and singing? Listening to bad jokes from leadership around them? Giving canned responses to each movement? No, they were prayerfully and sorrowfully witnessing the sacrifice of Christ. They were contemplating it, pondering it in their heart, and being mentally and spiritually present for Christ. We should do the same at Mass.

Once we return to a weekly obligation of contemplative prayer and witness to Christ’s sacrifice at Mass, once we find how to pray in silence as so many great Church Fathers and saints before us did, vocations will return stronger than ever, and the Church will again begin to thrive.

[1] Data and chart taken from which uses a combination of multiple studies that are listed on their website.

Image: H. abanil via Wikimedia Commons.

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