My two sisters and I grew up going to public school but doing the traditional Catholic thing in addition: catechism classes, Sunday mass, monthly confession, holy days of obligation. My father was Protestant, a member of the midwestern Christian Church. Out of deference to him, our mother couldn’t drag us too far over the 1950’s pious Catholic edge. Rosary beads that glowed in the dark were about as uber-Catholic as I got.
Nuns didn’t become a big part of my life until the College of St. Elizabeth, which was the crown jewel of the Sisters of Charity and had a nun as president — Sister Hildegarde Marie Mahoney — nuns as Deans, a predominately nun faculty, and “dorm nuns” to keep us in line. Right after I graduated in 1967 the “great exodus” happened, and nuns began leaving the religious community in droves. The College still exists, but staffed almost entirely by lay people. There are about 240 nuns left in the Sisters of Charity, average age around 80. Within 15 years, probably less, the Sisters of Charity will cease to exist as a functioning entity. That’s true of most religious orders in the United States.
I’ve sometimes thought that religious life might have survived with a dramatic re-thinking of the role. Instead of lifetime vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, I thought they might do better with a 3-5 year commitment. A think a lot of spiritually inclined people, both women and men, might have been drawn to that at various stages of life. A few might have stayed permanently. But changing the model would have required bold and out of the box thinking. Nuns are known for their social justice work and charity toward the poor, but not for being bold and adventuresome in challenging their place in the patriarchal Catholic hierarchy.
Friend Phyllis sent me this article, about young, not especially religious people finding community in convents with nuns. It’s an interesting article, and the “nuns and nones” are probably learning a lot from each other. But it’s too late, I think, for religious life as we know it to survive. These pairings of spiritually curious young people who want to know more about communal life with 80 year old nuns will likely be lovely, for awhile. But it’s too late to change the precipitous downward trend of religious life, and whatever deep knowledge nuns have about communal living will go with the remnants of once-robust religious orders to the grave.