Writers for both the London Tablet and other English newspapers (the Independent is another) are somewhat mystified by what they refer to as a new trend beginning in their highly secular world. It appears that there is a noticeable increase of vocations to religious life among Catholic women. According to Katherine Backler, whose article entitled “Sisters of the Internet Age” recently appeared (May 2, 2015), the Roman Catholic Church has been experiencing a healthy, unexpected rekindling of vocations in England.
Ms. Backler’s observation, however, does not attempt to locate the basic reasons for this, nor does she remind her readers that women have, for the past two millennia, been drawn to religious life, no matter what the conditions. Her overlooking of historical and theological dimensions renders her article weak but it does serve to remind us of something we firmly believe: that God is still at work speaking to his people. American Catholics should be encouraged to learn about this upward trend. Still, we ask: why, especially in a time when secularism seems to be reigning supreme throughout Europe, are English women listening and responding to the call to enter religious life?
Ms. Backler does provide some clues. Naturally, her first nod is to the world of technology itself. Through it, modern women have been given tools with which they can discover some things about their own spiritual life. To the surprise of many, the media has helped them find some answers. From interviews she has conducted with English women, Ms. Backler concludes that there are a considerable number of women who feel “alone,” somehow, in a world that is without meaning. They, in fact, describe themselves as believing themselves to be “without a home.” Google, Facebook, or other Internet resources have become avenues whereby they have been able to search for something better.
In the meantime, Ms. Backler suggests, women’s congregations have also noticed the value of the Internet. These communities have chosen this means as their way to reach out and tell their story. The unique meeting this affords allows the “30-something” generation and women religious the opportunity to meet. It has given women who have had very limited religious education and little opportunity to meet women religious a way to do so. Thus, the Internet has, to a certain extent, become the modern vehicle for carrying on the story of God’s love affair with his people.
It seems to me that the positive results of this Internet use in England have made a significant difference by revisiting a topic somewhat neglected since Vatican II. Inquirers to websites and other social media have been able to seek out convents, make personal encounters with nuns and experience the essence of the common life and common prayer that provide nuns with meaningful lives. They have learned that the lives of today’s sisters remain vibrant – even if the average age is older. They have been impressed that today’s sisters are anxious to proclaim the Good News in such public ways as advocacy. As a result, Ms. Backler states, there has been a 50 percent increase of candidates to English congregations within the last calendar year alone. True, Ms. Backler does note that there may be other reasons why women have found other aspects of religious life to consider. As one sister she mentions stated: “Consecrated life is an essential part of the Church and her holiness, so it will always exist. It’s a re-enactment of the life of Christ…and there will always be people called to live like that… It is the love that gives value, not the numbers.”
As I read this article, I was heartened. However, I was particularly struck by the last comment. I had to ask: “Isn’t this last mentioned motivation really the one that captured our hearts so many years ago? Isn’t the desire for intimacy with the Lord the key reason why we sought out religious life?” For those who currently account for the predominant number of American religious, I think I can say that the answer is a resounding “yes.” Beyond Ms. Backler’s other conclusions, this reason is the only one that gets to the heart of the matter for us. For us, the choice of religious life was that graced opportunity to “live one’s life in the House of the Lord all the days of our lives.”
Historians and biographers have reminded us of this overpowering rationale surrounding religious life. American church history tells us that the very foundation of religious congregations in the United States began as a grace-filled adventure. The personal dialogue that God had with inspired founders encouraged thousands of followers to seek out the same spiritual journey that impelled them. While no community of women could be founded here until religious liberty was secured by the Constitution in 1790, the desire to establish convents was in the minds and hearts of many of our Catholic forbears.
The first to answer the call were four Carmelite women who entered their communities in Europe but sailed to Port Tobacco, Md., once it was possible to begin again here. Over the next century, several dozen religious communities – most from Ireland, Germany and France – had also established themselves in the United States. Almost all were immediately put to work by missionary bishops to serve as religious educators and health care providers. By 1900, there were more than 40,000 United States sisters. By 1965, the numbers had climbed to over 180,000 sisters.
Then, in the midst of the rapid social change of the 1960s, a dark, sharp decline began. We still live within its memory. Religious life seemed to have lost its way as the age-old arc of “rise and fall” dramatically altered the landscape. That is why Ms. Backler’s article becomes such a source of hope. We are even grateful to the Internet for the part it has played in reviving interest.
Yet, once again, have we failed to notice that, over the past 20 years, there has been an even greater phenomenon of growth within our own borders? The simple fact is that this English revival did not precede ours. Increase in vocations – albeit not affecting every one of the more than 400 congregations in the United States – began years before the upsurge noted by the English.
One highly reputable research study, published in 2009 by the D.C.-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), verifies that there has been a remarkable increase in membership among some U.S. congregations. While the study acknowledges the positive role of social media, it did not make it the major reason for this resurgence. According to the study, the increase is largely the result of a spiritual re-awakening, one that was first noticed during the pontificate of Saint John Paul II and associated with the beginnings of triennial World Youth Days. Furthermore, the renewed interest largely involved college students in their 20s or professionally educated women who sought ways to devote their lives in both prayer and service to God’s people.
To this day, the new swell of vocations that began in the 1990s was based on the traditional purpose of religious life. It has continued and solidified. It has been characterized as a personal encounter with the Lord whereby members can be strengthened in their work with the poor and by their union with Christ in communal prayer, especially that which is based on eucharistic liturgical action. This trend has grown stronger under Pope Emeritus Benedict’s and Pope Francis’ joyous embrace of God’s people.
Two of the most attracting congregations are the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (Nashville, Tenn.), and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (Ann Arbor, Mich.). Dressed in religious habits in order to be witnesses of their call, these sisters remain identified with the church in doctrine and social action. The Nashville community has almost doubled its number in 10 years to include 250 sisters, attracting more than a dozen women each year. The Ann Arbor sisters, begun in 1997, with an average age of 26, have increased to 96 members and expect more than 20 new candidates this coming year.
There are other congregations with similar motivations and growth patterns. One, the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Los Angeles (Alhambra), totals 136 sisters; their ministry is among the poor and sick. Another is the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration, Mishawaka, Ind. Numbering 130 members, they, too, work principally in health care, education and ecclesial ministries. Heartening increases have also affected a number of other communities.
And so it goes. Young American women, like their English counterparts, are also being motivated to choose religious life as their life’s option. They have become forceful, loving witnesses of God’s call to leave all for his sake. As Pope Francis has recently said about women, their model is Mary, the Queen of the Apostles. In their commitment to her, sisters want to ponder their faith just as she did, searching out the new directions that the 21st century impels them to pursue. In this way, they hope to prove, as Ms. Backler suggests about England, that consecrated life is truly on the rise again.
Sister Dolores Liptak, who earned her doctorate in American history at the University of Connecticut, is the author of several books, including a history of the church of Hartford, and an award-winning major work on immigrants and the church commissioned by the U.S. Bishops of the Bicentennial of the U.S. She has taught history in various seminaries in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as a history professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell.