A bishop condescendingly asked John Henry Newman, “Who are the laity?” To which the great saint, and, one hopes, future Doctor of the Church, replied that the Church would look foolish without them.
The same might be said of those who are consecrated in the Religious life. The difference is that most of the Church consists in laypeople, while monks, nuns, and other consecrated Sisters and Brothers are a small fraction of the People of God, but are needed to remind all the baptized that our true home is in heaven. The distinctive habits that they wear are reminders of their role.
Since the Second Vatican Council, many ill-advised Religious have abandoned conventual life and even those Religious habits. It was an abuse of the Council’s modest prescriptions for updating the consecrated life, and in fact, it often fostered dissent from the Faith itself. Since 1965 the number of women Religious in the United States has dropped from 181,421 to fewer than 47,000 today. Eighty percent are older than 70, so the death rattle is ominous in at least 300 of the 420 Religious institutes. Yet, many refuse to admit their mistakes, rather like the definition of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
But there is also a dramatic upsurge in Orders that live the traditional counsels, teaching, caring for the poor and sick, and not wasting their time in “workshops” on climate change and nuclear weapons.
Some of these new communities are growing dramatically: the Dominican Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, and our own New York-based Sisters of Life (who share our parish’s hospitality), among others. The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, whose mother house is in Michigan, have grown in just twenty years to more than 140 Sisters with an average age of 32. They teach in preschool through college throughout the United States and this coming year will open another large convent in Texas for 115 sisters.
A choir of these Sisters in their traditional habits was invited to sing at the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in Washington. This is a big change from just a few years ago when an earlier Administration threatened to sue the venerable Little Sisters of the Poor for maintaining Catholic moral principles.
The Advent season bids us to think more deeply about Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. The Religious are consecrated to remind the faithful about these Four Last Things. “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess” (Deuteronomy 30:15-16).