e-mail us

Religious Life

The religious calling: to hang out with the young

Special Report Writer

No one is at home to take your call right now. If you would like to leave a message for Sr. Ursula, press 1. For Sr. Mercy, press 2. For Sr. Loretta, press 3.”

Anyone who has called a convent or house of sisters, brothers or religious order priests in recent years may have heard a similar response. Thank God for voice mail! It shows that religious life is as plugged in and as personal as health care, banking and the airlines.

It also reveals that nobody is home. With the number of religious women having fallen from 181,000 at its peak in 1965 to around 80,000 today, few communities have a receptionist, porter or housekeeper designate. The same applies to houses of religious men.

But can an ordinary answering machine say more than the words on its message tape? Might it suggest that religious life is becoming more invisible and religious men and women less accessible as their numbers dwindle? Vocations directors have been trying to frame that question more positively. Hundreds of them met last September in East Rutherford, N.J., where they looked at ways to build bridges between themselves and young adults. For four days members of the National Religious Vocation Conference rubbed heads, shoulders and prayers together and shared ideas on how to be more open to young Catholics.

Generation X Catholics number 20 million and comprise one-third of the church, but they are absent in the thousands from religious orders. Rather than faulting the culture or even Catholic parents for this, the vocations directors have begun to scrutinize their own houses. Are they interested in young people and familiar with their culture? Are they willing to hang out with youth and invite them to visit, even overnight, in their houses?

Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Mary Johnson has spent hundreds of hours with the young. A sociologist at Emmanuel College in Boston, she has worked on two national projects: Young Adult Catholics, to be published by the University of Notre Dame Press in June, and a forthcoming study of post-Vatican II entrants in religious congregations. Dean Hoge and Bill Dinges, both of Catholic University, and Juan Gonzales of California State University at Hayward co-authored the Young Adult study. Johnson has also studied generational differences in religious life, surveying 69,000 sisters in hundreds of orders.

Young people “yearn for community, for intimacy, relationships, spirituality, for the chance to serve and to be challenged and accountable,” Johnson told NCR. Religious life can fulfill these yearnings if it can “connect” to GenXers. It can offer them “a unique and distinct way of life,” in which contemplation and action are integral, she said.

“We’re mired and tired. We’re workaholics,” Johnson said, noting that many religious miss the uniqueness of their own lives because “we’re so busy in our ministries.” Often they seem “unapproachable,” and their lives look “impossible” to the young, she said.

Johnson’s work revealed that post-Vatican II entrants prefer a community of between four and seven sisters. Yet 80 percent of U.S. houses of sisters are comprised of one, two or three members. She hoped that congregations would not let the housing market determine the size, availability and distribution of their communities. It’s “doable” if orders start looking for larger units, she said, noting that many young entrants have made their decision on the basis of such living arrangements.

Harder to change are the attitudes some communities hold that become barriers rather than bridges to the young. “Some doubt that religious life will continue, that it has anything to offer the young, that the ministry of vocation work is even worthwhile,” she said. “Even those who say they believe sometimes make decisions that undercut their words” and then are “shocked” when the order next door gets new members.

Defensiveness and a fear of returning to the past stifle growth, Johnson said. “They are subtle but poisonous barriers that can sap our hope, our optimism and our belief.”

She has met religious who treat the yearning of young interested people or newer entrants as if it is “pathological.” She recalled a nun who told her: “If you expect me to stay home and baby-sit these people who are looking for the family they never had … ”

According to her survey, a quarter of young adults had attended eucharistic adoration and more than half had said the rosary during the past two years. Yet many religious label such piety as “conservative” and thus refrain from talking about what these practices mean to the young -- “not what they meant 35 years ago.” Johnson likened this response to “committing corporate suicide.”

When the young attend eucharistic adoration, hardly any of them talks about a theology of Eucharist, the sociologist said. Instead they describe the experience of quiet and stillness, how their heart rate and breathing slowed and how they can finally listen after the noise and speed of their day. They’re not contrasting these experiences with what happened in the wake of Vatican II reforms, Johnson said. “They’re contrasting their time with the wider culture. They see this as an example of ‘distinctiveness.’ ”

Johnson pointed to new “weavings” in religious life and the imbuing of old symbols with new meaning. One sister observed this when a group of students on her campus met regularly to say the rosary before they left to demonstrate at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. “She saw the link between the rosary and civil disobedience.”

But another was uncomfortable with such habits. A nun in an elementary school told Johnson that she’d intended to join a weekly prayer group of mothers who feared that in that particular neighborhood, their children could be abducted. She demurred when she discovered they prayed the rosary as it “reminded her too much of the past,” Johnson said. When Johnson asked the mothers what the rosary meant to them, they said they “prayed to a woman who understood what it was like to be frantic with worry while looking for her young lost son.”

Johnson urged religious to “admit that the past is affecting our future more powerfully than we care or dare to admit.” New vocations will require faith, she said -- “faith in God, in our way of life and mission and in young adults.”

It also demands a faith in the people that religious serve. “They hope we succeed, that we can continue to be sisters and brothers to them. The ones who need a brother or sister in this country and beyond are the abused, the neglected, the impoverished the uneducated, the ill, the dying, the homeless, the demeaned, the despised, the imprisoned. Our lives are for them,” Johnson said.

Religious men and women can give a “distinct gift” to the young and to a “world that struggles with generational misunderstandings and tensions,” she said. The care of older religious by younger religious has a larger message for the culture, Johnson said. It shows that fidelity is possible, that vows can be made and commitments kept a lifetime despite vast changes in the church and the world, she said. Older sisters are “reservoirs of unconditional love.” They prove that people can live together, care for one another, share memories and continue to grow, she said.

These “pioneers” who sacrificed much and built and serviced many institutions are now able to “let go of so much and to make light of it all,” Johnson said. In a day of rage, they exude a “palpable” peace and a “profound acceptance of aging and diminishment. In a society that denies or disguises aging, they age with gorgeous grace.”

As a researcher of senior sisters, Johnson found herself asking: “How -- in a society that says the one, at the time of death, with the most toys, wins -- can people with no property, no children and no status have so much and exude such joy?”

But theologian Tom Beaudoin noted that before young people even meet elderly nuns, all too often they see another public face of religious life. He said he could point to 30 women who have told him during the past year: “I don’t want to be an angry nun.” The stereotype of nuns for many young Catholics is that of women who sacrifice, bear their cross and are frustrated, said Beaudoin, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School and the author of Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X.

He hoped that religious women would find a way to deal with rules, resentments, regrets and things that didn’t happen that “doesn’t poison the face and image of religious life.”

Another stereotype youth hold is that priests and nuns don’t have a body. In Beaudoin’s research, young Catholics think celibacy is about denial, ignorance and forswearence of the body. This image does not jibe with a health conscious youth who are into running and sports, he said. “They want to relate to their bodies spiritually.” It’s time, he said, for religious to develop “a spirituality of the body.”

At the New Jersey convocation, Beaudoin also encouraged vocation directors to become spiritual directors to young adults, especially those in lay ministry. Religious have valuable experience about how to discern a religious calling, he said. He hoped they would share it with those considering religious life and with the parents of the next generation of sisters and priests.

GenX nuns and priests will never have the influence of Baby Boomer religious because of their much smaller numbers, said Beaudoin, a doctoral student at Boston College. But he urged all orders to call a national, regional or local day when all three generations could gather. Each generation would speak for 20 to 25 minutes – “with no crosstalk and no interruptions” -- on topics such as family, sexuality and religious identity. Young people could be invited to these presentations, which he hoped would prove healing and reconciling and exhibit the give and take of avowed religious life in community.

Five young religious brothers and sisters who spoke with NCR and who addressed the vocations convocation spoke of the delights and the difficulties of being one of the few persons in their congregation under age 40. For their stories, see the profiles on pages 32 to 36.

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001