Vocations to female contemplative orders in Italy are booming, according to the Italian bishops’ conference.

In 2005, 300 women took their solemn profession of vows, bringing the number of contemplatives in the country to 6,672.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, welcomed the increase at a prayer vigil in St. John Lateran Basilica last October, noting that it is part of a wider trend.

“The number of contemplative religious sisters is growing throughout the world, but — and this is more significant — this is also happening in Europe and in our own Italy, which often seems so hardest hit secularization,” he said.

Others, such as Church statistical expert Brother Giovanni Dalpiaz, a Camadolese monk from Bardolino near Venice, Italy, caution that the trend is only a start.

“It is not good to deceive ourselves that all of the problems have now passed and a new spring has arrived,” he said, pointing out that there have been only incremental increases from 2001 to 2004.

But Brother Giovanni added that the recent increase “is good because it encourages hope that the Lord is still capable of bringing about strong and generous answers to his call.”

Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, told the Register Jan. 13 that Italy is the exception with regards to women religious.

In other parts of Europe, vocation numbers have dropped sharply. Meanwhile, vocations to apostolic institutions are also falling.

Still, the attraction to contemplative life is real. Cardinal Rodé believes it offers what is lacking in much of modern, secular society. In a general sense, he said, it “shows what young generations are looking for today: a space for silence, where they can enter into this silence, recollect, and therefore find — themselves, and find God.”

Like Brother Giovanni, Cardinal Rodé believes that the “vitality and dynamism” of convents in Italy is what is attracting vocations.

If a convent has an atmosphere of “profound faith and fervor,” Cardinal Rodé said, “vocations are born and grow spontaneously.”

Today’s young religious sisters give a variety of reasons for joining a contemplative order.

“On a cold Sunday in Advent, in the silence of a church, I heard this unmistakable call inside me: ‘Do you want to be only mine?’” remembered Sister Maria, 27, from the Benedictine convent of the Perpetual Adoration in Verbania, northwest Italy. “Yes, Jesus, I want it. I only want to follow you!” she replied.

At the time, Sister Maria was only 17, so she waited until she was 20 before “crossing the threshold.” She said that in the convent, she has “come to learn how to love” and that “the leap of giving oneself expands the heart.”

Sister Veronica, a Cistercian of the same age at another convent in northern Italy, remembers thinking that by joining an enclosed order, she had gone “inside.”

“Over time, I found such an expression increasingly inadequate,” she recalled. “Rather, as I began to enjoy the space of freedom that a relationship with the Lord brings, I started thinking just the opposite — it’s the world that appears as ‘inside,’ as narrow, a ‘prison,’ while the convent is a space where the eternal begins to take root in one’s life and therefore gives you space to breathe and an infinite horizon.”

For Sister Elena, 23, who entered St. Benedict’s convent in Milan at 21, contemplative life has allowed her to enter into a relationship with Christ that has freed her from fears that plague her generation.

“We young people today live our interpersonal relations with the nagging questions: ‘What do others think? Have I made the right choice?’ These fears paralyze you and in the end waste energy,” she said.

By joining a convent, she added, these fears disappeared and she felt freer and able to draw closer to God, “the source of true joy.”

Sister Veronica believes it was the Holy Spirit who brought her to a new family in God and gave her the grace to courageously leave everything — and receive tenfold back.

As a professed sister, she said, she now feels she has “a hundred mothers, a hundred sisters, a hundred brothers, and a hundred homes.”

Said Sister Veronica, “I began to experience that full measure, pressed, shaken down, and running over; as it says in the Gospel.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.