This is a partial response to an email I received from a friend. He got into a conversation with a colleague about the decline of all religious orders in the Church, citing one group in particular. Here it is:
As far as all religious orders being in “decline”, we have to distinguish. If by decline your friend means the replacement rate is not keeping up with the death/attrition/etc rate, than perhaps he is correct. HOWEVER, the number of incoming, new vocations shows the vitality of any religious order/congregation/etc (we’ll just use “order” to refer to them all). So if we use the number of entrants to orders as an indicator of decline or growth, we see there are definite pockets of boom and some orders destined for inevitable death. I don’t like to use the terms “liberal” or “conservative” since we are discussing religion and not politics, but it appears the more traditional/orthodox orders are attracting more applicants, as the more progressive, less-traditional/orthodox ones are waning.
The Dominican Friars of the Eastern Province just announced their largest incoming class in 50 years—21 novices. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (the ones at St. Pius V in Providence) had 23 postulants in 2009—the largest group of nuns in training of any US group. The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist were founded in Ann Arbor in 1997 by 4 Nashville Dominican Sisters. They now number 100 sisters with an average age of 26! No polyester pantsuits here.
Religious that have defied Church teaching or have distilled their ministry to mere social work have seen a decline to the point where many will just fade away. The Orders that have a strong identity and traditional Catholic charisms are attracting new members. The young men and women who are responding to religious (and priestly) vocations are immersed in a secularized culture that even our age group is not a part of, and they have more options than any other generation. It is no surprise, then, that when young people respond to a religious vocation–a call to devote their lives to something so radically different than their contemporaries–they jump in with both feet. If they are going to be that counter-cultural and have seen such a need to spread the Gospel, watch out because they are going to do it! The CARA study from Georgetown University gives us evidence of what was just anecdotal:
The most successful institutes in terms of attracting and retaining new members at this time are those that follow a more traditional style of religious life in which members live together in community and participate in daily Eucharist, pray the Divine Office, and engage in devotional practices together. They also wear a religious habit, work together in common apostolates, and are explicit about their fidelity to the Church and the teachings of the Magisterium. All of these characteristics are especially attractive to the young people who are entering religious life today.
God always provides for His Church!
God will always provide for His Church. In this there is hope. CNA ran a story last week about a 43 year-old prioresses who has revolutionized an old Poor Clares convent in Spain, turning it onto a magnet for dozens of young professional women. And we think we have a vocation crisis in the US? Consider Spain. In the whole of Spain, the Jesuits have 20 novices, Franciscans, five, and the Vincentians, two. Religious sisters are being imported from India, Kenya or Paraguay to prevent the closure of convents inhabited by elderly nuns Most priests are above the age of 60.
Sr. Veronica answers the call. According to the Spanish daily El Pais, Sr. Veronica “has become the biggest phenomenon in the Church since Teresa of Calcutta,” as “she has made the old convent of Lerma into an attractive recruiting banner for female vocations, with 135 professional women with a median age of 35 and 100 more on a waiting list.” The paper adds that Sr. Vernoica has also “opened a house in the town of La Aguilera, 24 miles from Lerma, at a huge monastery donated by her Franciscan brothers.”
According to El Pais, the majority of the young sisters who have been attracted to the cloister “have been in relationships and had careers.” The women are strong in their knowledge of theology, and are “urban and educated.” “None are immigrants. There are five sisters from the same family, eleven pairs of blood sisters and a few twins. Most are from the middle class. And they have college degrees. This community offers a complete roster of lawyers, economists, physicists and chemists, roadway engineers, industrial workers, agricultural workers and aeronautics engineers, architects, doctors, pharmacists, biologists and physical therapists, librarians, philologists, teachers and photographers.”