From St. Louis Today
By Christine Spolar
BOLOGNA, Italy — This city of red brick towers and delicately painted porticoes once boasted the most convents of any city in Italy: Nearly 100 sanctuaries sprang up in the 16th century for women committed to teaching, caring for the ill and giving their lives to God.
These days, the nuns of Bologna are part of an uncomfortable countdown in Italy and the rest of the Roman Catholic world. Every week, it seems, there are fewer nuns, fewer convents with full houses and almost no Italians who care to make the commitment to a wholly religious life.
Schools and hospitals, in particular, have seen a loyal work force wane. Nuns from the order of Serve di Maria Addolorata di Chioggia left their convent in the Villa Erbosa private hospital in the last week of October. There were four sisters left of the dozens who used to cater to the physical and spiritual needs of the sick.
Across town at Ospedale Sant’Orsola, 40 nuns were among the caregivers. Now there are six, and they are mostly too old to work hard or long. Sister Superior Maria, 79, admits no one else is knocking at the door.
Schools in this renowned university town long ago gave up relying on Italian nuns as educators. The drop in nurses parallels work trends across Italy. The most fresh-faced nuns and novices taking up the hard chores in Bologna now hail from Africa and India.
The most populous convent — with 300 nuns — is home to mostly African and Indian women. It is a cultural leap in conservative Italy, where immigration itself is relatively new. As one nun explained: "Our culture is a European culture and theirs is completely different. ... Sometimes the Italians misunderstand them and sometimes they misunderstand the Italians. It’s not constant, but no doubt there are difficulties."
But the new novices also bear some things in common to their Italian elders. They do not come from wealth or have expectations that, as Sister Maria explained, can overshadow their religious prospects.
"The young in Italy have TV. They have cell phones. They have these laptops they carry around," the nun said quietly, her slight voice echoing across the wide hallway of the convent. "When you are going to discos, how can you expect to hear the word of God? You need silence to hear God."
The vanishing of Italian nuns reflects a decades-long trend within the Roman Catholic Church, as gender barriers in education and jobs fell in Western countries.
Changing demographics also played a role. Smaller families — Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe — meant fewer parents were seeking help from the church.
When families were larger, they were more likely to send a girl to a convent, said 80-year-old Sister Domenica Cremonini, who first walked into Visitandine dell’Immacolata when she was 11. Sister Domenica, a tiny, bright-eyed keeper of the faith, is also the keeper of records inside the vast monastery walls.
The oldest nun among the seven sisters of the Visitandine is 94, she said. The last novice who came under Sister Domenica’s watch is now 70. Still, this convent is doing well compared to its neighbors. Down the street, at Figlie del Sacro Cuore di Gesu, the number of nuns has slipped to two — one below the standard that designates a religious community.
Sister Enrica Martignoni, who directs novice schools in Bologna, said the number of nuns has dropped by more than a third in Italy since the 1990s. Recent years add little hope: In 2007 there were 856 nuns. In 2008 the figure fell to 808.
"When I joined, you’d have 25 novices in a class. Now you might have one," Sister Enrica said. "And yes, of course, we worry. There are a lot of people who pray over this."
Sister Domenica said she believes young religious women working in the community are an important spiritual component to well-being.
"We nuns add something. In the hospital, they tell me we are like good health — and when we are not around, you fall sick. I am not saying the doctors or nurses are not good, but nuns bring another kind of spirit."
The Vatican has reported in statistical surveys that the number of Catholics in religious orders around the world has declined. The latest worldwide data from 2006 found 993,171 active and cloistered nuns — a drop of 7,887 from 2005. The biggest drop was seen among active community-based nuns, with 753,400 in 2006, down from 760,529. Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate focused on the U.S. nun population since 1965, when there were 173,865 religious women. By 2000 the U.S. nun population had dropped to 80,000, records show.
Native-born Italians who come to convents now tend to be older, more educated and much more weary of the worldly life they have been leading. All the nuns interviewed said they see a spurt in the proportion of nuns seeking the cloistered life.
"There’s a lack of nuns," Sister Enrica said. "But if someone wants to become a nun, more and more, she wants to be in a cloister.
"Perhaps when you face so much superficiality in life, people want to pull away from it all," she said. "They feel a need for an interior life. Because society doesn’t offer that much anymore."
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