VATICAN CITY, DEC. 18, 2003 ( John Paul II offered guidelines for the Church to overcome the crisis of consecrated life that is reflected in statistics compiled by the Holy See.

The Pope requested that every possible effort be made to support this "gift of God for the Church," when he met today with a group of French bishops and with the archbishop of Monaco.

This crisis of the consecrated life, he told the bishops, causes the aging of religious communities, "with inevitable consequences for the life of the institutes, for their witness, for their governance, and also for the options connected to their mission."

The Statistical Yearbook of the Church reveals that in 1985 there were 917,432 women religious, with temporary or perpetual vows, in the Church; in 2001 there were 792,317.

In those 16 years, the figure for Europe declined from 493,045 to 357,840. The number of women religious is constantly decreasing in Latin America, North America and Oceania, while it is increasing in Africa and Asia.

According to the same source, in 1985 there were 150,161 religious-order priests; in 2001 they decreased to 138,619. Over those 16 years, Europe declined from 71,642 to 62,546. Their number is decreasing in all the continents except Africa, where there has been a slight increase since the year 2000.

The number of non-ordained religious with perpetual or temporary vows decreased from 65,208 in 1985 to 54,970 in 2001. They are decreasing everywhere except in Asia and Africa.

In his address to the bishop, the Holy Father offered guidelines to enable the Church to surmount this crisis of consecrated life.

First, he emphasized "permanent formation" of the religious, "in particular at the theological and spiritual level."

John Paul II then stressed the need for religious to understand their charisms more profoundly in order to "renew their works, paying particular attention to listening with great willingness to the new calls of the Spirit" and responding "to the spiritual and missionary urgencies of the moment."

The Pontiff also asked the bishops and all Catholics to "promote the vocation and mission of consecrated life."

He further advocated "institutional dialogue" between religious congregations, bishops' conferences and the conferences of religious superiors to attain a "genuine consensus and fruitful exchanges." The objective is that each institute of consecrated life integrate itself better in the life of the diocesan Church, the Holy Father said.

He said that religious today are protagonists of "imaginative charity," especially with persons "wounded by life," and that their witness continues to address youths.

For this reason, John Paul II requested the bishops and religious to give "renewed attention to young people who wish to commit themselves to the religious life," ensuring that they receive a solid "human, intellectual, moral, spiritual, communal and pastoral" formation.

The Pope noted that, even amid the crisis of consecrated vocations, new communities of consecrated life are springing up.

"The new religious communities are an opportunity for the Church," the Holy Father said. "Helped by the bishops, whose task it is to be vigilant, they still have need to mature, to establish themselves, and on occasions to organize themselves according to the canonical rules in force, with prudence."

"May all remember that the spirit of dialogue, of fraternal coexistence at the service of Christ, and of the mission must prevail without cease!" he exhorted, stressing that all "competition and antagonism" must be avoided.