Changed, Not Ended: A view of religious life from a young sister
The young sister near me—dressed in a colorful tank top, shorts and sandals—speaks from her heart. Young Catholic sisters, about 70 of us, sit in small circles and engage in deep conversations throughout the sun-lit room. As I listen, I scribble her thoughts into my journal: Why are women drawn to religious life? In the past the visibility drew many; now the inner call and voice and dream move and call us forward. We get to let go. We are free. We are eager.
Giving Voice—a peer-led, inter-congregational network that creates space for women religious under 50 to discuss hopes, dreams and challenges—brought us together. The network, which includes a monthly e-newsletter, retreats and online interactions, held its seventh national gathering this past summer in Belmont, Calif. Yolanda Tarango, C.C.V.I., the co-founder of Visitation House in San Antonio, Tex., led the conference and challenged us to imagine how we will cross borders in future ministry while living our way into God’s dreams for us.
Hope is obvious at the gathering. A few sisters wear T-shirts made by Giving Voice that say, “I [Heart] Religious Life and Believe in its Future!” Many of us grin. At times we wipe tears of joy from our faces. We share contemplative prayer. We enjoy a rousing dance party, serious games of charades and a lot of deep belly laughter. These activities matter, of course, because they build friendship. The collaboration and connections made possible through Giving Voice help us to keep saying yes to our vocations.
Time of Diminishment?
Some people, focused almost exclusively on numbers, are concerned that religious life is in decline. This narrows our ability to see what God is doing. The total number of sisters in religious communities is shrinking, but I am not discouraged. At age 32, I am the youngest sister in my community, but I am not the newest. There are five of us in formation in my congregation plus a fair number of sisters in their 30s and 40s who have made their final vows. Other sisters in my community participate in Giving Voice too. A study in 2009 by the Georgetown University-sponsored Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that there were about 1,000 women in formation nationwide and that an almost equal number of women in recent years have joined each conference of women’s religious communities and their diverse expressions of charism. God continues to call women to this good life, no matter the variety of our backgrounds.
Some people, focused almost exclusively on numbers, are concerned that religious life is in decline. This narrows our ability to see what God is doing.
Young sisters are full of hope, but the concerns and fears of others can sometimes cool the fire in our hearts. While many people are grateful, pleased and proud that I am following a call to be a Franciscan sister, it is not unusual for me to hear negative comments about the lifestyle I have chosen. Today people can describe religious life in negative, worry-laden language. They say the life I am living is in decline or, worse yet, “has lost its meaning.” This can be frustrating and hurtful. Even some of the beloved elder sisters in my community appear sad that I do not have a classmate or that crowds of young women are not entering each year. But I appreciate my experience as it is.
This experience, of course, does have its challenges. As modern religious life—and its size—evolves, even the most hopeful and eager need to deal with practical consequences of transition. For me, the hardest element of the quickly shrinking population of my community is the regularity of death announcements. I was not prepared for the repeated heart-wrenching experience of attending funerals for women I really want to live the rest of my life with. I was not ready for the difficulty of having clouds of grief swirl into my daily communal living. God’s ways are mysterious, but nature teaches us that new life is born out of chaos; all who are near the labor are affected by the cries of pain.
Love for This Life
Religious life is not in decline; it is simply changing. And it should change. New paradigms of religious life can emerge only if we are open to God changing us beyond our limited imagining and dreaming. We need to remember that numbers do not make communities. In fact, I prefer to be part of a community that feels more like a family than an institution. The freer and more open we are, the better we can live the Gospel according to God’s vision and not our own ideas. We can experience the freedom to have meaningful conversations about “right-sizing” and new forms of ministry. We acknowledge it can be life-giving for the size of community to decrease; lower numbers can open up new opportunities for healthy, intimate relationships.
Even though I do not—and cannot—fully know what I am getting into with this life, I love being a sister. Perhaps the mystery of God is a thrill-ride for me. I love being a sister because I am permitted to be the best version of myself within a community of like-minded, prayerful women. In my community I can focus on what I care about—social justice, learning and art—and the community allows a lot of room for growth. The religious vows, prophetic in nature, free me to move to the edges and encounter God in new realms. This vocation creates opportunities to live a life of radical simplicity, solidarity and accompaniment with those who are oppressed. Many young sisters share eagerness for this type of Gospel living; we want to be where few others are willing to go.
Religious life is not in decline; it is simply changing. And it should change.
At times I am stunned by the beauty of the historical and ecclesial connectedness I experience as a Catholic sister. Amazingly, I am part of a sacred tradition and family tree with roots as deep as the desert mothers. My community’s charism is rooted in an 800-year-old Franciscan tradition. These connections and traditions are good for me. The structure, discipline, expectations and accountability of communal living provide the right container for my free spirit to thrive. I know of no other lifestyle that would enrich me with so much health and happiness.
Being a sister has warped my perception of age. Even though I am 32, I feel as if anyone under 60 is my peer. That said, my experience of intergenerational communal living is energizing. I gain wisdom from my elder sisters; I am enriched by what they have lived through. I am humbled to know we young sisters are receiving their legacy. I realize I enjoy my vocation, womanhood and freedom because of the hard work of earlier generations. At times my elder sisters say that I am able to do something—like serve, travel or study according to my passions—“because we worked for it in the past.” Responding to those reminders with “thank you” never seems to be quite enough. The prayerful support and mentorship of elder sisters enlivens me to respond zealously to God’s call as I move into the future that young sisters are so hopeful about.
At the Giving Voice gathering, Sister Tarango reminded us that we have a strange thing in common with our elder sisters: we all entered a community that will not stay the same as what we first came to know and love. Our elders entered religious life, and then it changed drastically because of the Second Vatican Council. Likewise the young sisters will experience changes as religious life continues to evolve. My elder sisters had the companionship of each other as they moved into a mysterious future. Young sisters also have this companionship, and we understand one another as we face the future. We joined our communities because we desire to counter-culturally live the Gospel. Young sisters bring strong faith, deep spirituality and broad experiences. We are open to new forms of religious life. We dream about intercongregational ministries and living communities. We know we need each other.
I am not worried about changes in religious life; I am excited. I trust that God is up to something amazingly good. I believe that God is helping religious life evolve to meet the changing needs of society. I pray that we will have the courage and freedom to let go of anything that slows us from moving into God’s hope-filled future. I am glad I will be with sisters, strengthened by the legacies, traditions and prayers of our elders. Thank God, by grace, we are in this together.