“You have not only a glorious history to remember and to recount, but also a great history still to be accomplished!” St. John Paul II told clergy and religious women in his 1996 apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata.
“Look to the future, where the Spirit is sending you, in order to do even greater things.”
At that point, the Holy Father had labored for almost two decades to address the crisis in religious life that had prompted the departure of tens of thousands of women religious from storied teaching and nursing orders in the United States and resulted in the steady contraction of their apostolates.
At the center of John Paul’s long struggle to reform religious orders that had lost their way after the Second Vatican Council was a message of hope that their service would continue to bear fruit and also attract young women eager to assist the poor and the sick or take up the education of youth. In Vita Consecrata, he reminded Catholics that consecrated life was especially revered by the Church:
“As a way of showing forth the Church’s holiness, it is to be recognized that the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ’s own way of life, has an objective superiority. Precisely for this reason, it is an especially rich manifestation of Gospel values and a more complete expression of the Church’s purpose, which is the sanctification of humanity. The consecrated life proclaims and in a certain way anticipates the future age, when the fullness of the kingdom of heaven, already present in its first fruits and in mystery, will be achieved and when the children of the Resurrection will take neither wife nor husband, but will be like the angels of God (Matthew 22:30)” (32).
Now, almost two decades after John Paul affirmed the “pre-eminence of perfect chastity for the sake of the kingdom,” the vocations crisis is not over. Headlines over the past year spotlight a showdown between the Vatican and the leadership of some U.S. religious institutes for women who continue to resist Vatican-requested reform on policies and practices that challenge Church teaching or discourage vocations.
Previously, the Vatican’s ongoing doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was a flashpoint. In December, the focus shifted to the final report of the apostolic visitation of women’s religious institutes that was issued by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life on Dec. 16.
On that day, rather than meting out harsh judgments of U.S. women’s religious orders, Church officials expressed gratitude for their remarkable legacy of service, while noting that the care of their rapidly aging members often occupies more time and resources than the recruitment and formation of new vocations. The Vatican confirmed that individual reports would be sent to religious institutes with serious problems.
That decision allowed the Church to avoid a public scolding that might have been counterproductive, but it also frustrated Catholics who wanted a public accounting of what had gone wrong.
The report “notes the typically aging membership (median age is 75) and declining numbers (about 50,000). But it makes no attempt to identify the causes of the decline,” observed Donna Bethell, chairwoman of the board of directors at Christendom College, in a commentary on NCRegister.com.
“The closest it comes is the comment, almost in passing, that ‘vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women. This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize these aspects of religious life,’” Bethell wrote.
Yet those who listened carefully during the Vatican press conference learned that the pattern of religious life in the U.S. is not uniform, and those communities with a distinctive and shared life of prayer, liturgical worship and apostolic work are more likely to attract vocations.
“Within the 125 communities of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) members, nearly 20% (almost 1,000) of the sisters are currently in initial formation (in the years prior to final vows). The average age of sisters is 53 years — well below the overall trend,” reported Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life and chairwoman of the CMSWR, in her formal response to the final report. “Our culture can be quite antagonistic towards the faith and skeptical at best towards religious life, and yet, from this milieu, the Lord is surprising women with his love, his mercy and the possibility of a new and beautiful life consecrated by public vows.”
Looking ahead, Mother Agnes announced plans for “three theme-specific open-house days at convents and friaries throughout the U.S.” The first open house day will be on Feb. 8.
As we celebrate the birth of the Christ Child and this Year of Consecrated Life, let us pray that religious institutes of women in this country embrace the counsel proffered in the final report. Without laying blame, the document’s authors offer a path to reform and renewal. They urge religious women to “evaluate their actual practice of liturgical and common prayer” and introduce practices that “foster the sisters’ intimate relationship with Christ and a healthy communal spirituality based on the Church’s sacramental life and sacred Scripture.” (See our coverage on pages one and 6.)
If there is any chance that a dying order may finally decide to seek an antidote that will make “all things new,” it will have to come from the Holy Spirit and from a renewed appreciation for what it means to be a woman religious.
We live in a world that has never fully understood the great love that leads a woman to foreswear the good of marriage and children in order to take up a life that makes Christ visible in the world and points to the kingdom of God, as John Paul explained in Vita Consecrata.
But may their radiant witness continue to inspire lay Catholics to serve the poor and the sick, as if they were caring for Jesus himself; and let their example help married couples recommit to their vows with greater joy and patience.
In this Christmas season and beyond, we look to our beloved spiritual mothers to guide our pilgrimage to the kingdom of the Christ Child.