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Unexpected Rise in Numbers of Women Religious After 50 Year Period of Decline

For more than a decade, the Catholic Church has faced heavy adversity. From disgusting crimes to reports that Catholicism has lost more members than it gains at a higher rate than any other denomination, parishioners have had to take a hard and close look at their institutions. But rather than surrendering out of frustration, the lay people of the Church have embraced a rallying stand for their faith. In 2018 and 2019, this renewal of faith has been most profound among women. For the first time in 50 years, we saw an increase in the number of women entering vocational religious life. Why?

In the previous decade, there is no doubt that the cultural factors of modern life made it more and more difficult for young women to seriously consider becoming “women religious”. A CARA survey of 240 women and men religious indicated that 78 percent of those surveyed reported that someone encouraged them to “consider” a vocation to the religious life, but 51 percent — also a majority — said that they had been “talked down” from it.

During this timeframe, the church also reported a downtick in the numbers of women religious. The National Religious Retirement Office statistics show that the number of women religious in the United States declined from a peak of 181,421 in 1965 to 47,160 in 2016. Also alarmingly, about 77 percent of women religious are older than 70. Yet in 2018 and 2019, Eve Fairbanks from the Huffington Post revealed that “the average age for taking the final step into the religious life a decade ago was 40. Today, it’s 24.”

Today, exposure to women religious is much different than it was even a decade ago. We have little computers we carry in our pockets which allow us to connect to people across the world. Some sisters and nuns are posting videos on their social media and in 2014, a 29-year-old nun won the singing competition to become TV’s The Voice of Italy.

To be clear, seeing a viral video of women religious isn’t exactly the best reason to commit to the humble life of sisterhood. But the fact of the matter is that women religious have new ways to reach the laity, especially the younger generation. There’s even an online app called VISION which offers Vocation Match to help one find the best religious order fit, much like for those singles seeking the ideal mate.

The unexpected numbers of new vocations we are seeing don’t have a definitive cause we can identify at this point. One theory is that a turn to religious life by today’s young people comes from a lack of fulfillment in our modern world of materialism and hyperconnectivity. “The level of anxiety and sadness these kids have, I don’t think we can even understand it at this point,” John Olon, a high school theology teacher, said during a Huffington Post interview. “I think there are things these kids are experiencing now that we don’t even have names for.”

Olon exposes students to religious life by bringing in different priests, nuns, sisters and seminarians. He noticed the ones who tried very hard to relate to the students with videos of clergy members dancing or doing karaoke were the least appealing to his students. It wasn’t until he invited one very conservative, white-collared priest into class that he realized what these kids are craving.

The priest told them they were all called to holiness; called to be saints. Olon expected his students to write off this priest immediately. He tells Eve Fairbanks, “And then this one kid, a lacrosse player, very stereotypical, stopped to ask me, ‘Is that guy coming back next week?’” “Oh, no, don’t worry,” Olon reassured him. “But I want him back,” Olon remembered the lacrosse player saying. And he wasn’t the only classmate to feel this way.

Olon was absolutely stunned by this but upon reflection of his experience, he realized that this world does offer a lot of stress to young people – much more than it ever has. So maybe these young people are desperately seeking a new kind of fulfillment. One that cannot be achieved through buying new things or getting more likes on their social media posts.

This article was affirming to me because these courageous young women responding to the Lord’s call could be anything they want. They are smart, funny, driven, enjoy healthy relationships with their professors and peers; yet material and secular success is not what drives them. They are looking to serve and for a personal, authentic, and an eternal relationship with our Lord, one with eternal, not earthly rewards.

While each of us isn’t necessarily called to a religious vocation, we are all called to a particular vocation in life and to give ourselves to our Lord. We all stand to learn a lot from these young women who are making the decision to seek the will of God first and look more closely at what He is calling them to be.



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