facing the elephant

As a relatively young woman discerning a future as a woman religious, I can’t ignore the elephant in the room. Age, declining numbers, and the generation gap. Omis of Higher Plane fame pointed out an article in NCR that tells the story of a recent conference of women religious under 50 in Cleveland, “Young Nuns Look Beyond Sally Field and Maria Von Trapp.” It’s premium content on the web, but I managed to find a paper copy.

The article points out some statistics that were not a surprise to me.
*From the turn of the century until mid 1960’s, the number of nuns rose rapidly, growing fourfold to about 180,000 in 1965
*By 2004, the number had dropped to 70,000
*The median age for Sisters is in the 70’s
*Sisters under the age of 50 make up 5 percent of Sisters nationwide

This is the reality. But does it spell doom and gloom? I honestly don’t think so. When I first started admitting to myself that there just might be something to that persistent thought, “Susan, you should be a Sister!” one of my basic denial techniques was couching it in a concern that it wasn’t practical. Why would I want to hang out with older women? What could I possibly have in common with them? Why would I board a sinking ship? Did I want to be the one to turn out the light?

Omis asked if I was paying attention. I think he was asking if I was reading his blog, but the larger question could be am I paying attention to this reality. Yes I am.

I see what was. I see what is. I see glimmers of what may be. But I am not God, I am not in charge. Maybe there will be an increase in vocations in the next 5, 10, 15 years. Or maybe there will continue to be just a trickle of women answering the call. Luckily we have a wonderful cadre of older Sisters we can join in prayer and follow in ministry. In the NCR article, the younger nuns are attributed as saying they are blessed by having many “wisdom figures” in the older Sisters. I’ve experienced that myself. Such amazing women who answered God’s call and met the needs of their day. They gift those who follow them with powerful histories, strong charisms, and vibrant communities that are alive and ever changing.

Once I started hanging out with the groovy sisters, those concerns about sinking ships and being the last to turn out the light went out the window. Women's religious communities are alive and vibrant, looking towards the future. In my experience they do not feel like sinking ships. Very far from it.

Yes things will be different. No there will not be 180,000 young nuns running schools and hospitals, the needs of the past. But we are talking about the future, not the past. There will be Sisters, smaller in number most likely but no less present to the world around them, working for justice, spreading the Gospel, sharing Christ’s love with those in need. God is still calling women to a life of ministry and community, of that I have no doubt. And some are answering.

Those are my thoughts anyway this Thursday evening.


PS - The conference was organized by Giving Voice. I clearly remember one day when I was in a tizzy about “how can I be called to religious life, nuns are old.” I turned to my friend the internet, and I found this organization. Just knowing they existed, that there was a group of younger women religious actively seeking a future made it seem ok.

Update - Omis has a great follow up post on Higher Plane. I love the internet. Where else can you have virtual conversations with people you've never met?


Omis said...

The part about "people you've never met" will surely have to change!

lynn said...

When I entered my religious community, I actually felt more comfortable with the older sisters! The novice director didn't want us to mix so much with the older sister because they were "too welcoming" - ! They made me feel welcome, adn loved, adn helped me learn the history of the community, adn to love it very much. In Philadelphia PA, we went to InSearch, so we met younger religious on a weekly basis - that was a great support.

Susan Rose, CSJP said...


Thanks for the visit! It is great to spend time with the older sisters. I too feel loved and like I'm with some wise women who can help me on this journey. It also makes me feel good to know they're praying for me!