Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 7, 2008
Women religious search for a new way
Sisters, observers refuse to fret about rapidly falling numbers
By LASHA MORNINGSTAR
Women religious "were unencumbered by family, yet they were protected and controlled by the Church so they weren't just women running amok."
- Rebecca Sullivan
Leonard also points out that while things seem to change, the foundations stay the same. "When our congregation came to Toronto in 1851, they opened the House of Providence for needy people - all ages, different backgrounds, not necessarily even Catholic.
"Today we have opened the same kind of place called the Mustard Seed with the same kind of inclusiveness - community kitchen, spiritual journeying, garden plots.
"Young people come to volunteer to serve the people in the area. So in some ways there has been a going back to the sources."
A sister for 56 years, Leonard says, "I have had a wonderful life myself and I would like to see other people share that. But I know it will be different."
Sullivan acknowledges women such as Leonard.
"By the 1950s in North America, you could not find a better educated, more sophisticated group of women than Catholic women religious. In a sense they were the authors of their own undoing because it was these women teaching the next generation of women to be strong, independent, questioning and to challenge the boundaries of what women could do."
Factor in too "the Second Vatican Council which happens to coincide with second wave feminism. Once it became possible to be single or even married and have a family and an education, opportunities loosened up for women. Obviously membership began to decline.
"Even nuns themselves, when they realized they could have this life themselves, they left."
Sister Annata Brockman says women leave the religious life for a variety of reasons including "choosing a particular community for the wrong reasons. Or they might find themselves after much prayer and discernment where they believe God is calling them to serve God's people by responding to a greater need elsewhere.
"Mother Teresa is an example of this. She was approximately 18 years in one community before leaving her community to be founder of the Missionaries of Charity. It is a real discernment process."
The current model (of religious life) may disappear but the spirit is guiding us."
- Sr. Gertrude Mulholland
A sister of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (Halifax) for 58 years who served in a variety of missions including principal in Edmonton Catholic Schools and pastoral associate at St. Joseph Basilica, Brockman is not worried about declining numbers.
"My hope is God's people be served in the best possible way by religious and lay men and women working together for the greater good of all."
Sullivan salutes this maturity and sees this as a welcome evolution for women religious.
"My understanding is more and more new women religious are older. Back in the 1950s, the heyday for nuns, it was not uncommon to scoop them right out of high school.
"Now they want 50-year-olds who have lived, are firm in their faith and can contribute to the community in meaningful and tangible ways, bringing in a salary to continue the missionary work because they are already trained as doctors, nurses or teachers, social workers."
Vocations counsellor Marguerite Bilodeau adds other factors, saying, "Statistics show there are more vocations coming out from large families, poor countries and also areas where consecrated people are more visible."
The former co-chancellor of the Edmonton Archdiocese, Bilodeau states the importance of sound character for someone considering the religious path.
"When a person loses their integrity in whatever way, he or she also loses the sense of the sacred, turns away from God, spirituality, Christian values. Unless a conversion occurs, it is not likely that person will choose a state of life that puts God and neighbour first."
Sister Gertrude Mulholland concurs, as she enumerates various strengths a woman must have to be successful in religious life.
"Purity, able to live in community, . . . live a vowed life of chastity, poverty and obedience - a celibate life."
Once part of the archdiocesan vocations team, Mulholland says, "Religious life is not dying. There has been an evolution and unfolding and is constantly evolving. The current model may disappear but the spirit is guiding us."
She says the most recent novices in her order - the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception - are entering "already with a profession."
Mulholland urges that we appreciate the diversity and tells how her order evolved from caring for the orphans left from the 1850s' cholera epidemic to working today in parishes, hospitals, the inner city.
"We have to listen to where the spirit is leading us."
This attitude, says Sullivan, bodes well for the future of women religious.
"It (declining numbers) can be painted as a crisis, but I don't think it is a death knell for religious vocations. "I think it is a recalibration of the religious life under much more realistic terms and much more faith-based terms."
A professor with two great aunts she never met who were women religious, Sullivan says of today's sisters and nuns, "We may not have a treasure chest overflowing, but we have a few beautiful jewels."
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