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Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Today's Nun Has A Veil--And A Blog"

By Tracy Schmidt, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

emphases and (comments) mine - BW

For the iPod generation, it doesn't get more radical than wearing a veil. The hijab worn by traditional Muslim women might have people talking, but it's the wimple that really turns heads. And in the U.S. today, the nuns most likely to wear that headdress are the ones young enough to have a playlist.

Over the past five years, Roman Catholic communities around the country have experienced a curious phenomenon: more women, most in their 20s and 30s, are trying on that veil. Convents in Nashville, Tenn.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and New York City all admitted at least 15 entrants over the past year and fielded hundreds of inquiries. One convent is hurriedly raising funds for a new building to house the inflow, and at another a rush of new blood has lowered the median age of its 225 sisters to 36. Catholic centers at universities, including Illinois and Texas A&M, report growing numbers of women entering discernment, or the official period of considering a vocation. Career women seeking more meaning in their lives and empty-nest moms are also finding their way to convent doors.

This is a welcome turnabout for the church. As opportunities opened for women in the 1960s and '70s, fewer of them viewed the asceticism and confinements of religious life as a tempting career choice (Once again, it is NOT a career choice. If that were what religious life was, no one would join - it would be a pretty poor "career" choice.). Since 1965, the number of Catholic nuns in the U.S. has declined from 179,954 to just 67,773, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The average age of nuns today is 69. But over the past decade or so, expressing their religious beliefs openly has become hip for many young people, a trend intensified among Catholic women by the charismatic appeal of Pope John Paul II's youth rallies and his interpretation of modern feminism as a way for women to express Christian values.

As this so-called JP2 generation has come of age, religious orders have begun to reach out again to young people--and to do so in the language that young people speak. Convents conduct e-mail correspondence with interested women, blogs written by sisters give a peek into the habited life and websites offer online personality questionnaires to test vocations. One site, Vocation-network.org frames the choice much like a dating service, with Christ as the ultimate match. "For a long time, we neglected to invite people to see what we are about," says Sister Doris Gottemoeller of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of America, a national order. "I think we're more ready to do that now."

And although the extreme conservatism (Strange way to put it - most in religious life would see it as the most liberating and free life.) of a nun's life may seem wholly countercultural for young American women today, that is exactly what attracts many of them, say experts and the women themselves. "Religious life itself is a radical choice," says Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago. "In an age where our primary secular values are sex, power and money, for someone to choose chastity, obedience and poverty is a radical statement."

That radicalism is, ironically, embodied by the wearing of the veil. Decreed unnecessary by Vatican II (Say what? Where is that in the Documents of Vatican II? Number 17 of Perfectae Caritatis says - "The religious habit, an outward mark of consecration to God, should be simple and modest, poor and at the same becoming. In addition it must meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place and to the needs of the ministry involved. The habits of both men and women religious which do not conform to these norms must be adapted." Funny, I don't see the part about veils being decreed unnecessary. In fact I also don't see the part where is says stop wearing the habit.) and shed happily by many older nuns, the headdress is for many of today's newcomers a desired accessory. "A lot of my older sisters would never wear the veil," says Sister Sarah Roy, 29, who is the only member of her Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, Ill., to do so. (The others wear a simple dark dress adorned by a pin.) Though she admits "people just stare at you like you're a freak," she adds, "It's a trend (If you consider centuries upon centuries a trend - perhaps not wearing the veil is the trend.)with younger women wanting to wear the veil now."

Newer nuns see the veil as a public expression of faith, says Cheryl Reed, author of Unveiled: Inside the Hidden Lives of Nuns. "You can understand why a woman who has given up sex, freedom and money would want to wear her wedding dress--which is what they consider their habits to be. You want to say, 'I'm special. I gave this up.'" (I don't know many Sisters wearing habits, and I know quite a few, that would say, "I'm special. I gave this up." Quite the opposite really.)

Katharine Johnson isn't sure yet which wedding dress she will choose--a white one or a black one. At 21, she is in her third year of discernment. For now the senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign dresses as her classmates do, though on her ring finger she wears a miniature rosary and a favorite T shirt reads, EVERYONE LOVES A CATHOLIC GIRL. She still dates but limits physical contact to kissing. "As I date men and I date convents, I am waiting for God to say, 'This is where your heart belongs,'" she says.

Becoming a nun typically takes seven to nine years. After the period of discernment, a woman enters a religious community as a postulant, and she reflects upon her vocation and helps with chores around the convent. At the end of what is primarily a yearlong spiritual retreat, the postulant and her advisers in the community decide whether she will become a novice and study Catholic theology and ministry for up to two years. She may then take her temporary vows. After an additional four to eight years during which she serves the convent's mission, she makes her final vows and becomes a professed nun.

At the Sisters of Life Formation House in the Bronx, N.Y., 16 young women are making their way through that journey. They include a former Marine, a professional opera singer, a United Nations aide and a recent Yale grad. They have left behind paychecks, apartments, even boyfriends. Sister Thérèse Saglimbeni, 27, a novice who joined the convent in 2005, recalls watching the sisters playing volleyball while she was a student at the nearby State University of New York Maritime College. "I was with my boyfriend and had said how fun the sisters looked," she says. "He said, 'Well, why don't you join them?' And I replied, 'Well, maybe I will!'"

The other sisters chuckle when Saglimbeni recounts her saucy retort. But many of their loved ones feel less jovial about the women's decision to take the veil. "For those who are called, there is a real falling in love. You are filled with a joy and desire to be with God," says Sister Mary Gabriel Devlin, 32, vocation director at Sisters of Life. "Their families are not experiencing this, so it can be hard for them to understand." The sense of alienation can be even greater when women choose an order that isolates them from their families and others so that they can devote themselves to strict schedules of regimented prayer. Convents like Sisters of Life that combine contemplation with active ministry to the public are the most popular among young women.

Read the rest of the article HERE.

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