endangered perhaps, but not extinct

I know I promised not to write about the article anymore (my 15 minutes being up, although Mark's got a post up about it now), but I couldn't pass on sharing this tidbit with you all.

This afternoon before I left work, an old coworker who I haven't seen in ages came whisking into the office. She found me and let out in one long breath .... "I don't know if we ever talked about it but you know I'm a recovering Catholic. Anyway I read about you in the paper. Wow! What a surprise. I didn't know there were nuns anymore."

Me ... staring blankly at her. What do you say to that? So I took a breath and said, "Well, there aren't as many as there were during the 50's and 60's but yes, there are still Catholic Sisters."

She said, "Well, I guess I know that. I live right by Maryluhurst." [That's a unviersity run by the Holy Names Sisters and is next to their motherhouse where trust me ... there are lots of nuns.] "But," she continued, "they're all dying out."

"Yes, there are a lot of older Sisters" I said. "The reality is that the numbers will never be what they used to be. But God's still calling. The Holy Names Sisters have some younger Sisters and at least two novices. And we'll have 3 or 4 novices in our novitiate."

She didn't stick around to chat ... she'd said what she needed to say. Although she did tell me that she'd shown the article to her kids and asked "Remember Susan?". Her son remembered I was the one with all the toys on my desk.

For the record, I've written about declining numbers before. My thoughts are here and here, but to sum up some facts ...

*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

So yes, perhaps they are endangered species. But trust me, nuns and Sisters still exist and are doing pretty amazing things. And will continue to do so. Honest. As long as that's in the plans of the big guy.

If nothing else, I suppose one very positive result of my worlds colliding is challenging some people's stereotypes of what type of person is considering a religious vocation and reminding people about the existence of nuns. Maybe I'm the spotted owl of religious life?


Lisa said...

I realize that for some people this concept of "religious life dying out" is "real." But I think it's important to remind ourselves that a religious vocation is a call from God, just as the other vocations are. Therefore, God's grace will continue to call people to consecrated service and religious life, although transformed over time, will continue to be an integral part of our world.

The statistics you offer are very interesting and I think a helpful response to folks who think/perceive religious life is on its way out or something. Most people focus on the "decline" --- that religious today number around 70,000 whereas in 1965 they numbered around 180,000. I'd like to suggest folks focus on a different aspect of the data. As Susan points out, "from the turn of the century to 1965, religious has numbered fourfold to 180,000." That means that at the turn of the century, religious numbered around 45,000 and today we are ahead of that number. Without going into population demographics, I think we need to shift the focus and suggest this alternative view. People are very attached to the notion of overflowing novitiates of the 1950s. Many good women and men came to religious life at that time, some stayed, some followed other paths. But quantity did not necessarily mean quality, and by that, I don't necessarily mean people but also quality of formation, community life, etc. Few people today think it was a great idea for a single teacher -- no matter how talented -- to have a class of 50-60 children. Why do we romanticize the idea of 50-60 novices in a group, etc.?

I realize that the "romanticization" of the large numbers of recognizable habited religious actually comes from people's desire for God and their recognition of religious as "of God." So I don't want to discredit or appear to devalue the good place from which some of these views actually come. What I really want to do here (and realize I've probably digressed trifold) is encourage us to be encouraged by religious life today.

When we look at the quality of the witness of religious today, we should be able to see and know that religious life is alive and well. At that same time, we need to recognize our individual and collective responsibility to nurture and support vocations of all kind and in a special way those to priesthood and religious life.

Ok, that's enough from me :)

Susan Rose, CSJP said...

VERY well said Lisa!!!

Lisa said...

Thanks, Susan. I'm glad you don't mind that I took up so much space with my reply. I realized after I hit "post" that perhaps I should have posted it on my blog and shared a link.

Blessed and peaceful CSJP weekend!