“Unshaken Faith: Fewer become nuns, but sisters see signs of change”

I found an interesting article about nuns in the Billings Gazette: ”Unshaken Faith: Fewer become nuns, but sisters see signs of change / Number of religious sisters drops from 180,000 in 1965 to 67,000 in 2006” by Diane Cochran (April 8, 2007).

The Sisters quoted in this article belong to the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.

What I like about this article is the attention to statistics and the reminder that large numbers of vocations is not the norm in religious life and therefore (in my humble opinion) should not be the criterion for the worth or viability or faithfulness of a community.  You can follow the links or read some clips below.

Nationwide, the number of women and men entering religious life has been declining for 40 years. At St. Vincent, the number of SCLs, as they are called, is less than one-third what it used to be.

The plunging interest in religious vocation can be explained in a number of ways – including with one theory that suggests the soaring statistics of the 1950s and ’60s, and not today’s numbers, were the aberration – but it doesn’t really matter to the seven sisters at St. Vincent.

“I don’t worry at all about who’s coming behind us,” Sister Jean Casey said. “It’s up to God.”

“There will always be religious life,” said Sister Mary Lou Mendel. “It’s just how it’s going to look and what it will be.”

In 1965, when the eldest St. Vincent sister had already been a nun for 26 years and the youngest had put in eight, there were almost 180,000 religious sisters in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA. By 2006, the number had plummeted to about 67,000, CARA statistics show. Worldwide, the drop has been slightly less dramatic, from just more than 1 million in 1970 to about 776,000 in 2004.

In the ’50s and ’60s, women – and men – flocked to religious orders. “It was a highly unusual period in religious life,” said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, a group that trains recruiters and leaders for religious communities. “Because many of us lived through that, it was our normal.”

But viewed in a broader context, the era when so many of today’s older members of religious communities began their ministries was probably an abnormal spike in a centuries-long continuum of interest in religious vocation.

“It’s cyclical,” said Sister Marie Damian Glatt, one of the seven sisters at St. Vincent. “We’ve had periods in the past four to five centuries when we’ve had large influxes of people. … Then it slows down again and goes up again.”

“We’re living at one of those in-between times, which is not unusual in the history of the church,” Damian said.

This in-between time can be partly explained by a fading presence of nuns, priests and other religious figures in everyday life, the sisters said.

“Most of us grew up in the presence of sisters or in the presence of parishes. That was modeled for us,” Damian said. “Today, because there are fewer sisters for people to come into contact with, now they have to seek it out on their own.”

“It’s just not part of people’s radar screens anymore like it used to be,” Mendel said.

Meanwhile, the decadeslong decline in people entering religious life could be slowly reversing. Official statistics aren’t available yet, but anecdotal evidences indicates an upswing in interest.

Today’s teenagers and twentysomethings appear to be considering religious vocations more seriously than did the previous generation, said Bednarczyk, of the National Religious Vocation Conference. “They seem to be much more open to the possibility of religious life where we would not have seen that 10 years ago,” he said.

“The interest is beginning to grow. Whether or not that interest actually translates into actually entering a community, that we’ll have to wait and see.” (source)