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Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Local nuns follow their vision"

Unfazed by national drop in females joining orders

By Jeremiah Horrigan
Photo by Jeff Goulding
April 19, 2008

Emphases and (comments) mine - BW
The number of nuns is declining, but those who choose to embrace the calling say they have ever-new opportunities to serve. Here, Sister Catherine Walsh teaches at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.

NEWBURGH — If the pontificate of the late Pope John Paul II was something of a golden era for many Roman Catholics — a time of religious renewal and papal popularity — it was anything but a boom time for the world's Roman Catholic nuns. (Actually it was a boom time for many women's religious orders, those who completely embraced the teachings and traditions of the Church, rather than those who embraced new age spirituality, heterodox theology, desent from the Church and it's teachings, abandoned their traditional habits, stopped living in community, and generally set out on a course in a vastly different direction than what John Paul II was speaking of and thousands of young women are looking for in the Church today.)

According to Vatican documents released in February, the number of nuns declined by 25 percent during that 27-year period. This, despite an increase over the same years in church membership to more than 1.1 billion, according to BBC News. (It will only get worse in the years to come.)

The falloff appears to be increasing: in a single year, 2005 to 2006, the official Vatican newspaper reported "members of the consecrated life" — mostly women teachers, health-care workers and missionaries — fell 94,790, or 10 percent, to 945,210.

The order of the Little Sisters of Assumption would seem to fit those statistics. They have 25 provinces around the world numbering 1,000; their U.S. province, which is headquartered in Walden, has a membership in the 30s. The order hasn't seen a postulant enter "for years," according to the provincial of the order, Sister Annette Allain.

But statistics can be deceiving, and, as all the nuns interviewed for this story will tell you, the numbers represent new opportunities for them, as much as anything else. (I am always intrigued by the way orders that are clearly in the process of dying out, spin the demise of their order, all the while saying that the rapid growth of young "traditional" orders is somehow unhealthy.)

"Our service in the past would have been staffed by us. But now, there are so many more lay collaborators, people who have taken on the mission of the Little Sisters," she said.

A sense of history also helps explain the situation, she said. Before Vatican II, when Pope John XXIII opened up the liturgy in response to changing times and needs, "there were very few opportunities for the laity." (Sure, so in the past where the laity really saw there role in the Church as going out to serve, they now see it as being involved in the liturgy. How many of the countless numbers of ushers, readers, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion do nothing else outside of the Mass to be at the service of the Church or the least among us? Yet, when asked about service they quickly respond - "I distribute communion once a month at Mass." This is a far cry from a lifetime of day in and day out service provided by the religious sisters in the history of the Church.)

"Now, we have lay deacons and their wives and all kinds of new approaches to the problems facing us." (There are no such thing as "lay deacons". Deacons are ordained clergy, and they are not a "new approach" to the very real problem of a decline in the number of vocations to women's religious life.)

The decline in numbers was no surprise to Sister Maura of the Dominican Sisters of Hope in Newburgh. She lives at the order's Newburgh convent, where 68 nuns, many of them retired or infirm, live and are cared for.

The large loss of young women joining religious orders may come as a surprise to some, but not to Sister Maura, who has witnessed the decline for decades. Neither, Sister Maura said, is it as dire a sign as it may seem. (Something tells me that the founder of her order might feel differently.)

"Whatever the change in numbers, there's no question God's work will be done, though maybe under new appearances," she said this week. "God has his own ways," she said in a voice full of conviction. (True, but I don't think God would have raised up the vocation to religious life for women, given us scores of Saints from their ranks, only to let the vocation die out. He did however, say that every branch that does not bear fruit He takes away. Perhaps there are many branches of women's religious communities that no longer bear fruit and He is simply taking them away [cf Jn 15:1-11].)

Sister Catherine Walsh, a Dominican Sister of Hope who teaches public relations and communications at Mount Saint Mary College, acknowledged that nuns have had their "stresses and strains" lately, but that declining numbers don't tell half the story.

She'd recently seen an article by a sociologist that identified nuns as "the only group that keeps diminishing in numbers while starting new things."

"We continue to find new ministries; if a call goes out, we do it; it's our mission to be of service to the people of God." (Yes, and many of these "new ministries" are part of the problem.)

She said that following World War II, there was a tremendous growth in spiritual vocations that tapered off — and has continued to do so — following the innovations of Vatican II. (Stress on the word innovations - this is a problem for many in the Church. They have found innovations in Vatican II that are simply not there and took license, to the detriment of their communities, to grow in discontinuity with the history and traditions of the Church.)

And don't tell Maureen Breslin, the passionate head of the Junior League of Mary at St. Augustine's Church in Highland, that vocations are declining.

She personally knows three girls who have entered novitiates around the country, a development she views as a sign of a resurgent interest in religious vocations among the young. (Let us dare say they are more traditional orders.)

"Today, young people are up against the world, they're exposed to the entire world, and they need the sort of inspiration Pope Benedict is bringing to the country."

Those members of the Junior League who are old enough to attend today's youth rally in New York City are excited like she's never seen before.

How excited is that?

"Bigger than Hannah Montana."

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