This has been a big year for stories about nuns, probably partly from a realization that their numbers in America have fallen by more than two-thirds in 50 years. A story by the Associated Press this week on the Holy Spirit Adoration sisters is a late entry, but a searching, incisive one.
The story stands out because the order, often simply called the Pink Sisters for their rose-colored habits, locks itself inside cloisters, talking to the public only through grilles. As their ranks have dwindled, the sisters have decided to open a little to the outside world in hopes of interesting young women to join. In response, AP gives us an inside look at the 20 sisters in the Philadelphia convent, one of four in the U.S.
We learn of the order's birth in the Netherlands, and of its purpose: "perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated bread they uphold as the body and blood of Christ." The article adds the reason for the pink habits: "to symbolize the joy the sisters feel honoring the Holy Spirit." No religious "ghosts," no cynicism. Just telling it as the sisters see it.
I'll confess I was a bit put off by this paragraph:
It may come as a surprise to some that a group of 20 nuns live a contemplative, secluded life not far from Philadelphia’s famed museums, historic landmarks, and government. The sisters leave the cloister only for emergencies, such as medical appointments.
That veers close to a condescending anthropological approach, examining the quaint practices of a backward community. If AP wanted to raise the issue of why people choose religious life over tourism hotspots or centers of power, it should have asked the sisters. They no doubt have their reasons.
But the article redeems itself and better in the following section, describing the sisters' humble lifestyle:
When they do venture out, they wear gray so as not to draw too much attention to themselves.
It is a selfless life, focused on offering intercessory prayers on behalf of people they will never meet living in places they will never see. They pray most of the day, together and individually in shifts before the Blessed Sacrament, generally waking up at 5:15 a.m. to prepare for the first daily service, and going to bed after the 8 p.m. final prayers.
All the sisters have jobs. Some craft Mass cards and rosaries, the sales of which support the convent. Other sisters respond to letters and answer the phones. Some callers are lonely; others are suicidal. Just listening, the sisters say, seems to make a difference.
Literally adding color to the story are the five photos by AP's Matt Rourke, played up handsomely on Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe. The photos show the sisters kneeling, praying and playing organ. Their pink habits stand out among the dark wood pews, hinting simultaneously at their somber duty of prayer and their joy in performing it.
I was also charmed by a quote at story's end. One of the sisters, Mary Angelica, says the group keeps everything simple, even meals -- "though on special occasions, we have ice cream."
The story, though, has a couple of other flaws. I don’t see an obvious time angle. Closest is the sisters' publicity campaign: hanging a banner outside their chapel and convent, granting more interviews with reporters, inviting Catholic women's groups and schools to address the sisters. Mentioning the Year of Consecrated Life -- called by Pope Francis to focus on religious orders like the Pink Sisters -- would have been another good angle.
Finally, I would have liked to learn more about the sisters' thoughts and feelings about prayer. It takes up nearly all of their time, when not eating, sleeping or doing housework. Do it make them feel closer to God? Do they feel separated from loved ones, just praying behind walls all the time? And when they pray for others, how do they know it makes a difference? This video, from a Holy Spirit convent in the Netherlands, deals with some of that. AP could have done the same.
All that said, the article still gets points for an inquiring, detailed, non-snarky peek at a world that few will ever visit. In this story, AP has a model of respect, sensitivity and understanding of a religious group. Let's hope it becomes, well, a habit.