Why I am optimistic

Sharing supper with us recently, Kristin, a young woman living with our sisters in Florida while exploring her call to religious life, asked me and two other retired sisters what work we had enjoyed the most. What caught my attention was that each of us hesitated for a moment and then replied, “All of it.” We are, after all, quite different individuals.

Guadalupe is a Latina from Montana who entered religious life in her early 30s, spent her early religious life as a nurse, a number of years on preaching teams in Bolivia, and then more years on preaching teams in Texas. 

Mary Eileen, a suburbanite, entered after a year of college, taught in grade and high schools, served as chief administrator at a couple of high schools, then later lived and worked in inner city Chicago as a counselor in a high school run by Holy Cross Brothers.  When she started to go blind, she took a job working for the blind service in Chicago. 

I’m a city kid and taught high school for a dozen years, but after getting my Ph.D. became a college teacher and writer. Along the way I’ve done other things, such as helping migrant children prepare for first Communion and catch up to grade level. As a Fulbright lecturer, I also taught American literature to graduate students in Spain.

Our diverse additions were common since American sisters have usually served, as the founder of my congregation urged, “wherever the work is great and difficult.”

Nonetheless, regardless of what American sisters have accomplished, contemporary observers tend to think, “Right, but what’s the future for that candidate and others like her? Isn’t all that you describe fading into the past as the mass of American religious women age?” The answer, I think, is “Yes and no.” The past is past, but that doesn’t make the future bleak, just different. American sisters continue to gravitate toward Gospel-inspired ministries that are great and difficult, but their work does not and will not necessarily look like that of the past.

The recent past and present

American sisters have been and are part of a massive transition from the relatively stable society and life styles of the early 1960s through mammoth changes in American culture as a whole and religious life in particular.

As far as I can see, American sisters do not mourn the past. Yet they are all too aware that as they age, their numbers diminish. New members replace only a small proportion of earlier populations. In 20 years, most of today’s elderly religious will be gone, and currently middle-aged and younger members will all be 20 years older. If American sisters’ congregations go into an irreversible decline, this would not be the first period in church history to witness a diminution of religious life. But I don’t think that is what is happening. On many levels, American sisters have “gotten their houses in order.” They have reconnected with and reaffirmed their traditional charisms, and they recognize that their missions are always larger and ultimately more important than their jobs.

It seems to me that the radical decline in numbers signals a necessary winnowing to prepare for significantly different lives for future women religious in active ministries. Most sisters of a certain age would agree that their smaller communities are already healthier than the larger ones they entered, although how American sisters transition to the lives those smaller numbers will live remains crucial as they separate essentials from cultural preferences.

To meet the challenge of change, American sisters rely on hard-won clarity about who they are and what they are about. They know that their primary role is to spread the Gospel; and as always, they rely on Providence.

Current vocations

Like the founders of religious congregations in the United States, the women entering today in their 20s, 30s and 40s are characterized by faith and courage. Women currently entering religious life are brave risk-takers, since almost nothing in our culture encourages their choice. 

In the past, most postulants were young, generous and naïve. Today’s candidates –  adults with fresh perspectives – are still generous; some are young, but most are clear-eyed and even wary of what they are getting into. Although notably smaller numbers are entering religious life than in generations ago, young women continue to join the “good company” of other religious in America. They still value the multiplier effect achieved by working with good companions in communities of conviction. In less than 20 years, these newest, youngest members will be leading their congregations. 

In the meantime, they require a combination of tutelage, loving respect and support. Reflecting the respect and mutuality required of all sisters, my congregation’s constitution speaks of our “open[ing] ourselves to [a candidate’s] influence and the Spirit speaking in her, just as she undertakes continuing conversion into membership. Together we enter a process of change that carries our past into the promise of the future.” This process is designed to prepare new members for the open dialog that characterizes contemporary religious life.

Fortunately for new members, the American communities they are entering are happier, healthier and even, I think, holier than 50 years ago.

The future

I believe green shoots of the future are already visible. A new face of religious life among active congregations of American sisters seems to be appearing.

Following mergers, there are fewer institutes and smaller living arrangements. Sisters are investing themselves where their talents and passions call them. Artists offer their talents in ways we didn’t anticipate. Caring about prayer and spirituality, sisters are involved in retreat centers and spiritual direction. Collaborating with other groups, they serve marginal populations who lack power and prestige. They are engaged in opposition to trafficking, sexual exploitation and destruction of the environment.

Still deeply prayerful and communal, the lives of religious women are already less institutional than in the past, perhaps less consciously professional, but definitely attuned to marginal peoples. Since ours are still transitional times, I expect a near-term future, one that could easily last another 20 years, to be especially challenging.

Alteration is not, however, the same as obliteration; and sisters’ communities in the United States have all come through a series of cliff-hangers, would-be disasters. Each congregation has, I suspect, stories of early times when the sisters might have easily disbanded and given up. Yet committed to their particular missions, American sisters are still attuned to Jesus’s instruction to the synagogue official, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust” (Mk 5:36).

[Winifred Morgan, OP, is a professor emerita of English from Edgewood College, Madison, Wis. In 2013 Palgrave Macmillan published her more recent book, The Trickster Figure in American Literature.]