ROME — With the number of vocations to religious life dropping, sometimes precipitously, communities must trust in God but also plan for the future by educating laypeople to carry on their work and spirituality, Pope Francis said.

Meeting March 17 with members of the general chapter of the Augustinian Recollects, an order of men founded in 1588, the pope acknowledged their report that 25 years ago they had more than 1,200 members belonging to eight provinces; today they number 955 members and have only four provinces.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in most Catholic religious orders, the pope said, adding, “This is a reality that we cannot ignore.”

“There are thousands of explanations,” he said, including declining birthrates in some traditionally Catholic countries, confusion on the part of young people or a reluctance to make a lifelong commitment “and so on and so forth.”

While it is important to study the reasons and to continue to invite young people to join, the pope said, religious communities also must plan for a future when they have very few or even no members.

“Do not be afraid to ask yourselves this question: When there are no more Augustinian Recollects, when there will not be enough priestly vocations for everyone,” the pope said, “have we prepared the laity, have we prepared people to continue with your pastoral work in the church? And you, have you prepared people to carry on with your spirituality, which is a gift from God, to carry it forward?”

“I do not dare to be a prophet and say what will happen,” the pope said, but the decline in vocations “worries me.”

“I trust in the Lord,” he said, “but I also have to say these things: Let us prepare ourselves for what is going to happen, and let us give our charism, our gift, to those who can carry it forward.”

“Please let us not try to mend things that cannot be mended because a culture is imposed on us,” Pope Francis said.

“Let us continue to pray that the Lord may send vocations, but may he also prepare us to give our gift, when we are fewer, to those who can collaborate with us,” he said. “The Lord is good; he will give us the necessary consolation to make these decisions. Ask for the grace to know how to make them in time and as the Lord wants, not as a sociologist or psychologist will tell us, no: what the Lord wants.”