Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

As nuns age, the huge question has been about who can be found to replace them. The future of Catholic religious orders in the United States is pretty dire at the moment. Two publications recently came out with stories on millennials and nuns, with very different conclusions.

One story is a splashy, detailed look at a handful of millennial women who entered Catholic religious orders in New Jersey and their reasons for doing so. Another is a Religion News Service story, datelined Grand Rapids, Mich., about older nuns who meet with agnostic/seeking millennial women and try to connect on a spiritual plane.

The New Jersey story, available on NJ.com (a group of news sources including the Newark Star-Ledger) follows three women who joined religious orders. There’s Anna, a Rutgers grad; Chiara, a one-time nursing student at Villanova; and Lauren, a former Australian actress now living with a contemplative religious order.

They’re millennial women who have chosen a path more popular for generations before them — one that involves kneeling before an altar, vowing to live in poverty, obeying God and abstaining from sex.

“I didn’t see a lightning bolt that fell out of the sky,” Sister Anna said. “I didn’t see an angel who told me what I was going to do in my life.”

In our hyper-connected, media-saturated age, it’s hard enough to get people to slow down and engage with the spiritual world, much less get them to consider a life lived in service to the church. Yet handfuls of millennial women across the state have taken that path. These women are serving as Catholic sisters or missionaries, many working through the process known as discernment to become “women religious,” commonly referred to as nuns. If the young sisters make it through the discernment process — which takes years and sometimes pulls them thousands of miles from family and friends — they are choosing something permanent, and forsaking the lures of marriage, kids, autonomy and material goods.

I know reporters may feel they have to dumb down religion stories for the masses, but the “kneeling before an altar”? Is that simple act so beyond the experience of most 20-somethings?

It’s an increasingly rare choice — and those of us on the outside looking in can only wonder and ask: Why?

Isn’t becoming a nun in 2019 one of the most radical things you can do?

Yet the women don’t see it that way, don’t see themselves as mysterious “others.” They are neither ambassadors for their chosen paths nor apologists.

“We’re just normal people,” Sister Anna said. “I waited in line at the DMV yesterday.”

Anna and Lauren appear to be part of convents where they are almost the only ones under 50, while Chiara is part of the much more popular Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal group, founded in 1988, and heavily populated by younger women.

The NJ.com story is confusing at this point, as it doesn’t make it clear that some orders are actually growing and attracting young people by the droves. That’s a rather important fact to leave out.

Instead, the story jumps from woman to woman and convent to convent, creating some confusion as to who lives where and which convent is being referred to in any given paragraph. I’d scroll up and down through the story trying to track the story line but finally gave up.

One of the convents that appears in the story is the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, N.J., which is portrayed as barely holding on at 17 sisters. But this 2015 New York Times article about the same place portrays the Summit convent at 19 nuns and growing fast. Ditto for the promo video atop this post. What has happened in the intervening four years? Did the NJ.com reporters pick up on whatever crisis happened there?

[NOTE: After this piece ran, one of the nuns contacted me to say: We are now 19 as we have 2 new postulants since it was written. That article was written over 6 months ago. So the number of nuns here at that time is accurate. I think the main point I’d like to emphasize is that we’re not just hanging on! We’re a vibrant, viable community of nunsIn 2005 we were 14 nuns with a median age close to 80. Since that time, we have a large influx in vocations but many deaths, too. So, while the number hasn’t gone up radically the actual sisters in the monastery have changed dramatically.]

When the NYT article was written I think we were 19 but we had a departure and a death. Or maybe 2 deaths. I would have to look up the actual dates. But since that article was written 5 more sisters have entered. One, who is now in her First Vows was here doing her “live-in” experience and is in one of the photos.

I will say the photographs for this story are lovely and a nice extra is some of the photos obtained from the 1950s and ‘60s showing what some of the now-elderly nuns looked like when they joined these orders in their late teens or early 20s. Of course, U.S. Catholicism was a whole different world back then.

Today, orders are scrambling to attract a generation that is about as unchurched as they come.

So what happens to the future Annas, Chiaras and Laurens … the women who we all know, who went to Rutgers or grew up playing team sports or acting in school plays, but who feel a call for something more and a need to connect with God?

What will their paths to fulfillment look like as parishes, monasteries and convents continue to shrink, and the sisters’ communities continue to change?

Some are hopeful that as the secular pulls that draw people away from religion grow stronger, God's calls to the church will become more difficult to ignore.

“A lot of young people are expressing an emptiness,” said Sister Agnes, the local servant, or mother superior, in Atlantic City. “They see a radicalness of following Jesus that is attractive.”

“Local servant”? When is a mother superior called that? Readers with any background in Catholicism will put on the brakes when they read that.

It’s not easy to get nuns to go on the record and talk much about themselves, so I’m glad NJ.com put two reporters and a photographer on a project to learn what being a nun in New Jersey looks like in 2019. I only wish the presentation could have been organized better.

For instance, there’s a photo showing Sister Anna talking with an older nun. The caption says they are talking about poverty and specifically whether or not Sister Anna can receive gifts. I wanted to know more about this fascinating conversation. Why was it relegated to just a caption?

By the way, the Huffington Post also came out with a story on young women who decide to become nuns. Doug LeBlanc wrote up his favorable critique of the piece here.

The RNS story is more about a missionary effort by nuns to connect with unchurched women.

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan (RNS) — The Dominican sisters sat in silence, eyes closed, palms upturned, couches and chairs pushed together into a circle in the room at the Dominican Center at Marywood in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Their reading that evening came not from Scripture, but from poet Mary Oliver: “Though I play at the edges of knowing, / truly I know / our part is not knowing, / but looking, and touching, and loving.”

And the candle flickering in their midst didn’t invoke a saint, but author and activist James Baldwin.

Joining the Catholic women religious in contemplation was a group of young women who aren’t sure they’d describe themselves as religious in any sense.

The Sunday night (July 7) meeting, known as Sisters & Seekers, is one of about a dozen gatherings across the country affiliated with Nuns & Nones, a growing alliance connecting Catholic women religious, most of whom are over 60, with 20- and 30-something millennials, many of whom identify as religious “nones.”

I was curious how much the nuns have to dumb down their tradition to find common ground with the seekers.

The answer: Quite a bit.

While the gatherings may look different, they all revolve around the same question, Gordon said: “What can these two groups learn from each other?”

Gordon believes women religious and millennial women have more in common than might meet the eye. Both are interested in community, in social justice and in asking hard questions about faith and spirituality.

“Any conversation with a sister is a master class in building community,” said the 28-year-old Gordon.

“We millennials have so much hunger for spaces of community, belonging, meaning, depth, and we aren’t finding that in our social media. We aren’t finding that often as we move city to city. And so to be able to find that with these Catholic sisters who hold wisdom of their traditions from centuries is a gift for us to be able to translate that into our own life.”

The meetings aren’t for recruitment purposes. The idea is for the younger women to learn from their elders about spiritual traditions that have kept nuns going for centuries.

Whereas the New Jersey story is about young women engaging with the Catholic Church on its terms, the RNS story is more about young women asking the church to engage with them on their terms. That’s a big difference. This paragraph says it all:

One discussion several months into the group’s meetings about queer identity and the Catholic Church left some feeling hurt or misunderstood. And the sisters and their millennial friends ran headlong into some generational differences around the topic.

Wouldn’t this be theological differences rather than generational? What did these young women expect? Are they interested in changing their points of view? Or is the leap to faith and submission to God too great?

The countercultural religious choices of millennials will continue to be a story for some time for reporters willing to take the time to report on them.

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