Shifting conversations in religious life

by Susan Rose Francois

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I realized the other day that it was ten years ago this summer that I attended my first vocation retreat. It had become harder and harder to ignore the crazy idea that I should become a Catholic sister. After a few months of strong internal resistance, I temporarily left my single girl life in Portland, Ore., one weekend and drove three hours north to spend two days at St. Mary on the Lake, the regional headquarters of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, outside Seattle.

Part of the reason I went on the retreat was to get the whole vocation thing out of my system. I had a deep sense of call and a desire to share my gifts in the service of peace and justice. At the same time, however, becoming a sister really seemed to make absolutely no sense. I remember thinking that surely God was mistaken about this, or at the very least I misunderstood the call. In a way, I suppose I also went on the retreat to humor God. Funny, I know.

Much to my surprise, and eventual delight, I discovered a community of Catholic sisters who embodied the same desire that I felt within my own heart, to pursue social justice as a path to peace. They were fun, funny, and faithful. I laughed so much, and while I am an introvert, I felt right at home, even if it took my head a few months to catch up to what my heart knew on that first vocation retreat experience.

From the beginning I felt a deep sense of peace with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. Yet, I also couldn’t help but notice one thing . . . there would be a major generation gap. The retreat was held at what is essentially a retirement center for our sisters, so of course most of the women I met that first weekend were in their 70s, 80s and 90s. I also soon realized that the majority of sisters out on mission or living in other houses were also at least 30 years older than me.

The call that at first had made no sense seemed to make even less sense. And yet, it felt so right. Obviously, I took the plunge and took my first steps into community. It helped that I entered with a small cohort of women within 10 years of my age and, thanks be to God, more women have entered my community since. I’ve also been blessed with a wider cohort of age peers across congregations.

One of the gifts of this time in religious life, when there are fewer younger members within congregations, is the relationships we build across congregations. During the novitiate, I participated in an intercongregational novitiate program with men and women religious from 13 different congregations. Since my novitiate days I have been involved with Giving Voice, a grassroots peer-led network of Catholic sisters in their 20s, 30s and 40s. When I think about the unknown future of religious life, one thing I know is that these connections with religious life age peers will sustain and support me. I also suspect the Holy Spirit is at work here in some way we can’t yet imagine, steeping us in our individual charisms while connecting us across congregations, from the very beginning of our religious lives.

While I have found it necessary to “mind the gap,” the generational differences are by no means insurmountable. In many ways they are a blessing. Our contemporary society is devoid of many opportunities for generations to mingle, and here I am having lived in various local community groupings with women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, as well as a few sisters closer to my own age. You might think the age gap would be more challenging than it is, but then you’d be forgetting that we share the same heart’s desire and spirituality. One aspect of this intergenerational experiment that does not get easier, however, is saying goodbye to dear friends who have passed away. That one seems to get harder, as the connections are deeper with each passing year.

Have you noticed that I’ve not yet used the “D-word" most often used in religious life circles to describe this reality? Diminishment. Say that word three times, and I think you’ll find that the word alone is enough to zap your energy. Diminishment. Diminishment. Diminishment.

Yes, the number of Catholic sisters has decreased since Vatican II. Yes, as the large groups who entered in the 1950s and 1960s age, the change will be even more rapid.  But, as Sophia Park, reminded us so eloquently in her column: “The crisis of religious life is not a decrease in vocation. Rather, the crisis of religious life is that we do not know how to receive God’s gift.”

I’ve been inviting sisters I know, young and old, to abandon the “D-word" in favor of a more descriptive term –“demographic change.”  For one thing, as it is more descriptive rather than value based, the term is less energy zapping than the “D-word."

Demographic change helps us to recognize the reality that people are still coming to religious life. While the landscape of religious life will look and feel very different in the future, with substantially fewer vowed religious, I do not believe that religious life is going to disappear. Looking at the demographics of newer Catholic sisters also tells us that the religious life that is emerging, like the church, will be much more diverse. For example, in their recent book New Generations of Catholic Sisters: The Challenge of Diversity, Mary Johnson, Patricia Wittberg and Mary L. Gautier tell us that while 90 percent of finally professed sisters in the U.S. are white, 42 percent of sisters in initial formation are women of color.

When we focus on diminishment, we focus on what it is that we think we are losing. When we focus on demographic change, we can look lovingly at our reality and ask curious questions. What might God be up to with this radical shift in the landscape of religious life? What choices, actions, and plans can we make now that might help us to receive God’s gifts for religious life, for the church, and for the world? Are we likely to find easy answers to these questions? No. But I suspect that by shifting our focus to the gift of demographic change, we will be better able to access the creative energy of the Holy Spirit.

[St. Joseph of Peace Sr. Susan Rose Francois is a Bernardin Scholar in Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She has ministered as a justice educator and advocate and worked in local government prior to entering religious life. Read more of her work at Musings of a Discerning Woman.]