Quite a conversation is taking place around Nuns: Perceptions and Assumptions. The latest comment sounded like a good springboard for a new post. This one comes from Diane who writes:

I’m interested in reflecting on the word, “growth,” in terms of religious congregations. Growth implies vitality. It is possible to see growth as being an increase in the number of vowed members. It is true that some congregations are seeing a large increase in the numbers of young women choosing vowed membership. At the same time, other congregations are seeing growth in a different kind of way. While the numbers of women seeking vowed membership may remain small—women are still entering and staying, but maybe one or two every few years—these congregations are redefining the notion of vocation. For them, the call is not to focus on replacing themselves with vowed members but to put their energy into nurturing their charism in people who feel a call to this charism, but not only in traditional vowed memberships. They are, in fact, seeing growth in the ways that lay women and men are drawn to these charisms and living them out to create the world that Jesus spoke of throughout his life and ministry.

There are a couple things here I’d like to highlight.

One is my ongoing mantra that religious life is not about numbers. It never has been and never will be. Yet, as some have noted, you have to have people in order to carry on the mission of the community. This is true. We welcome numbers and rejoice in the communities which are attracting large numbers of women. But the number of people coming, the age of the people coming, the dress of the people coming is really rather secondary to what the growth and vitality of a community. I think Diane well illustrated that with the Sisters of Saint Joseph in the full version of her comment.

Two is the issue of religious congregations who share their charism with coworkers, associates, volunteers, benefactors, etc. All these people who are not under religious vows are part of the wider community of that congregation. They choose to be associated with the congregation in different ways. This too is a sign of growth. The success of institutions that we founded and/or sponsored (regardless of how many nuns continue to serve there) is also a sign of growth. Every child that was ever taught by a nun who lives the values that were instilled in her or him is a sign of growth. I think sometimes we get too caught up in the numbers game to realize that growth is a far different reality in God’s eyes. To quote Sister Susan Rose‘s quote again: “numbers are a Capitalist answer to a Christian question.”

As nuns, we do not exist to perpetuate ourselves or to set ourselves up for emulation; rather we exist to serve God, the people of God, and all of creation. Our congregations are gifts of the Holy Spirit for the good of the Church and world. We trust that God knows best and by the power of the Holy Spirit enable us to do the work of God. If that means a handful of nuns, great. If it means truckloads, that’s great too. Vitality and growth have so much more to do with being true to this original call and gift of the Holy Spirit.