ALL IN! Religious Vocations Flourishing in Orthodox Communities

One sunny Sunday morning I routinely announced to a crowded church that nuns would be collecting money after Mass for the foreign missions, a rather common pious practice among Catholics. I also announced, whether through innocence or unconscious intent, that they would be wearing religious habits. There was an instant, spontaneous, huge applause which I immediately judged to be linked to my mention of how the nuns were dressed.

After Mass, an irate woman, somewhat elderly but stylishly dressed, charged me with belligerent flashing eyes and a fierce challenge – ‘Religious habits don’t make the nun!’ She declared energetically that she, too, was a nun, just as sincerely dedicated to God and good works as these ‘habited’ collectors. And couldn’t I see the little cross pinned to the lapel of her designer jacket, indicating her total self-donation? Once she brought my attention to it, I was able to see it as a religious symbol.

Of course, I meekly suggested that the applause probably meant that Catholic laity liked seeing their religious leaders in distinctive garb but that I was sure that this angry lady was a very good and effective person. But her reaction does cause one to ponder on such a situation. What does one make of it?

The ‘new’ nun

Many of the single Catholic young women of my world, who are daily communicants and who have great love of the Lord, show utterly no interest in joining these ‘liberated’ religious groups. One mentioned to me that these ‘religious’ live no differently than does she. Why should she join such worldly, jaded groups? Ironically, this may ultimately prove to be a blessing rather than a tragedy because there is surfacing a most fascinating religious or cultural phenomenon which well may mean a true revival of religious life. We are seeing the ‘new’ nun.

The liberal magazine Time featured an article (20 November 2006), ‘Today’s Nun Has a Veil’, on the surprising growth of new and more orthodox religious orders appearing throughout the United States.The sub-title, ‘More young women are entering convents. How they are changing the sisterhood’, implies a great deal.

These women are mostly in their 20s and 30s, usually career types seeking more meaning in their lives (and are sometimes empty nest mothers). Most of them have not been blighted by the wild adolescent binges we saw in the post-Vatican II period but have been invigorated by the charismatic appeal of Pope John Paul II and his interpretation of modern feminism as a way for women to express Christian values. This is the JP2 generation.

It is most interesting to note that these enthusiastic, vigorous, educated young women want a structured life centring around the Eucharist and community prayer. They value the daily Mass. They respect the priesthood (even knowing that some priests are rebels, nerds or unfaithful). They are loyal to the teaching of the Church which is called the Magisterium. They are sincere about the evangelical counsels. They profess their primary commitment to Jesus through vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. And they mean it!

They truly believe that they are making a radical statement cutting through the murky disorientation which confuses our ‘today’ society. Their counter-culture announcement is embodied by the wearing of the veil. One young nun, quoted in the Time article, says ‘It’s a trend with younger women wanting to wear the veil now.’ And, besides, they laugh a lot, exude an unmistakable joyful spirit, roller blade and ride bikes through traffic and parks! It is also noteworthy that these new communities usually wear full habits, ankle length.

It has been my unbelievable good fortune to have been the confessor for a convent of the Sisters of Life for five years. I have met the new nun close up. She is a talented, normal, vibrant young woman who makes a choice, even if culturally radical, to give her life to Jesus Christ. She is not the mythical broken-hearted damsel or the one who can’t do anything else. She is a doctor, former Air Force nurse (Captain), psychologist, computer programmer, geologic engineer, teacher, former marine, ex- professional opera singer, political scientist, blogger.

This particular group, Sisters of Life, is a relative newcomer with a mere 15 years of existence. Yet it numbers over 50 members with prospects of many more. Its apostolate is specific. It deals with young women who reject abortion in favour of life and with any kind of attack on the sacredness of human life.

Other similar groups throughout this country are experiencing even more rapid growth such as the Dominican Sisters of Mary (in Ann Arbor), which, founded in 1997, already has 73 members. Their average age, incidentally, is 24.

Religious garb correlation

So, I tentatively suggest that there is a correlation between religious garb and active, lively Catholicism (exemplified as entering religious life), regardless of the furious insistence that the relaxed lifestyle of the dying communities is in sync with a vigorous religious life. Somehow, once the religious casts off the habit or the collar, irreligious behaviour often follows.The hypothetical correlation needs to be deeply studied for some kind of objective understanding of what has happened in the last 40 years.

It is further grist for the correlation mill that male communities are experiencing the same kind of phenomenon. The most striking one in my experience is that founded approximately 20 years ago by the brilliant and saintly Fr Benedict Groeschel and his eight companions who left a very large Order because of serious differences on fundamentals. A tolerance of homosexuals within the Order and departure from ‘care of the poor’ were the alleged reasons to split and form a new community.

These New Religious, called the CFRs, wear a distinctive, grey friar’s habit complete with cowl, sandals and beard. They sleep on the floor, cook all their meals, do all their own housework and live a true community life. They wear their habits on the street, on airplanes, subways, buses, anywhere they go. They are highly visible. They insist that they make public statements by their manner of dress, namely that they believe in Catholicism. On entering any chapel or church wherein the Blessed Eucharist is reserved, they unapologetically kneel and kiss the floor as a public act of faith. They are fiercely loyal to Jesus, their Church and the Magisterium.

Is it surprising their recruit numbers are astonishingly high in this alienation/me-first era? They are beginning to get 15 to 20 young people each year, attracted by the clarity of dedication and holiness of the friars. Their retention rate is good and they now number over 100 members. Like the young nun candidates, these potential friars are looking for some sense of meaning to their lives and seem attracted to a life which challenges the limits of their generosity.

There is a hypothesis here which, while needing research and considerable analysable data, can be stated in research terms. Does the wearing of a habit coupled with a focused apostolate correlate positively with high recruitment? Does secular garb coupled with diffuse apostolates correlate negatively with low recruitment?

Young priests

For further input of data, I offer the following.

I have been further blessed to have been Professor of Human Sexuality and Counseling at two major seminaries for a total of 31 years. Over the years I have noted the clear movement towards a more traditional approach to priesthood in the Catholic Church. There seems to be a more open expression of piety and rejection of the semi-diluted theological climate of the late 20th century.

It strikes me that young priests who are clerically attired, are praying more than their middle-aged, somewhat angst-driven confreres who like to dress in Levis and sport shirts. Further, it is becoming a common observation in the priest community that the young priests are markedly more open in their loyalty to the Holy Father and less likely to have the theological hang-ups of their predecessors. Is there some kind of link here? Does wearing ‘clericals’ indicate a more, if unconscious, commitment to priesthood?

In my last teaching years at Dunwoodie Seminary of Yonkers, a group of students began meeting quietly each afternoon at five for an Hour of Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. The numbers increased until almost the whole student body was present at this optional devotion. A salient point of this observation is that all the students were dressed either in soutanes (cassocks) or in clerical collar. A further point is the obvious and pervasive devotion to the Catholic ethos in that theologate. Again, is there some kind of link here?

So many Catholic lay persons have expressed their pleasure at seeing their religious leaders dressed like Catholic religious leaders. They know that the religious habit or collar almost shrieks out in the secular marketplace that God matters. So does the average religious who has probably experienced the hostile stare or obscene remark from those who are rebuked by the religious garb. But he also knows the friendly smile and friendly support from so many more.

Beyond the effect on others, wearing religious garb reminds the religious himself/herself of the commitment one has made to God. Unbelievably, this is easy to overlook in this very secular environment. Wearing religious garb is a protection as well as a proclamation. Let us hope that the trend continues and that it might even break through the distortions of the stiff-necked earlier generation.

Father James Lloyd is a priest of the New York Archdiocese. This article, here shortened from the original, first appeared on Fr Lloyd’s website: http://www.geocities.com/frjimlloyd/

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5 Responses to ALL IN! Religious Vocations Flourishing in Orthodox Communities

  1. Emily says:

    Deo gratias! I have visited the Sisters of Life and fell in love with them. I am a convert to Catholicism and had the great blessing of being received into the Church at the Easter Vigil in 2000. Thank you so much for posting this, Father Rick. I have also been blessed to know several holy priests who wear a cassock daily and who have great reverence for the Eucharist and a tremendous love for the Holy Father and the Church. Clerical garb makes a difference.

    Father Corapi once said, “I had this discussion….meeting….debate….fight with some radical feminists once. They happened to be religious sisters. I could tell because they had a lapel pin on their double knit pants suits.”

    A religious should be recognizable by much more than a lapel pin.

    I’ve been lurking for a little while now, but want to thank you for this blog, Father, and for your participation on The Inner Life on Relevant Radio. God bless!

  2. Mary Smith says:

    It strikes me that young priests who are clerically attired, are praying more than their middle-aged, somewhat angst-driven confreres who like to dress in Levis and sport shirts. Further, it is becoming a common observation in the priest community that the young priests are markedly more open in their loyalty to the Holy Father and less likely to have the theological hang-ups of their predecessors. Is there some kind of link here? Does wearing ‘clericals’ indicate a more, if unconscious, commitment to priesthood?

    I had an experience attending Mass where a “person” sauntered up the aisle prior to Mass, unlocked the tabernacle, opened the door, looked inside, walked awary…then shook hands with some parishioners…He was wearing Levis,, loafers without socks, and a plaid short sleeved shirt…
    When Mass began…there was this same man…HE was the priest.
    He was definitely “fatherfavorite”…as stated in a previous article…. This priest has been in his parish for almost 25 years! Obviously, he is “well loved”….

    Now…does wearing religious attire make the priest or nun? No…but it does make a beautiful outward sign of committment. I do see that in my own profession, many people say they would like to see the nurse in white or with her cap. (Caps are breeding grounds for bacteria!) And my response has always been that a uniform or cap does NOT make the nurse a better nurse….just more visable….

    What really makes a profession or vocation real, visable, and viable is how the person carries out their life…WALKING THE WALK… And Prayer is the essential element…
    Not necessarily the clothing… But WE all need reminders! AND we all need to pray!!!! I am much more impressed and insprired by seeing a priest be reverent and to be on his knees in prayer.

    m.s.

  3. mercyknight says:

    Beautiful comments, Mary,

    I guess where I come from is a desire for us to show reverence to ALL areas of life, beginning with priests and religious.

    I was reading an article recently that pointed out that the great 20th century theologian, Dietrich von Hildebrand, first noticed this infiltration of irreverence back in 1920. While a professor, he had the habit of allowing some of his students, who were priests, to enter through the doorway ahead of him. One day another professor took exception to this as he pointed out to von Hildebrand that he had a doctorate and he should receive this kind of respect rather than to offer this to his students. Saddened, Dr. von Hildebrand began to recognize the beginnings of this irreverence.

    Fast forward to today and we see priests and bishops, not only void of many receptions of respect, but frequently attacked and persecuted openly for their views, teachings (orthodox), etc.

    But not only are we seeing this irreverence in our Church. Just yesterday I saw a news piece where they were saying that neckties are becoming, as they said, “passe” in the workplace.

    Notice many commercials where the “together” person is young man (Apple Computers) and the “out of touch” person (PC Computer) is the “Republican looking” white male in the necktie. Or the Vonage commercial with the “savvy” woman (slacks and open collar shirt – bright colors) with, again, the “out of touch – Republican looking” white male in the necktie.

    I know this might sound like nitpicking, but the subtle trends are the way whole societies are transformed.

    Once we lose reverence in holy places – our Churches – how can we expect to find it anywhere in the public square?

  4. Mary Smith says:

    I hate to bring up one of my many sins…I love clothes…but…there are styles that I wouldn’t be caught dead in! (even if I had the body to put myself into!) BUT…I have to draw a deep line in the sand when it comes to decorum…There are clothes for around the house, under the car, in the garage…Are they the same clothes you wear to the most wonderful banquet held weekly on the Lord’s day???? (not always the case though…bear in mind that I am from the guitar swinging Masses of the 70’s!!!!)

    …I attended a Mass where it looked more like a beach party than Sunday Mass. I looked at what I was wearing…thinking I was a bit over dressed. I was wearing a skit and top…when I noticed that my top was inside out. I think I could have turned it right side out without anyone caring one way or another. (this was also the Mass where the priest walked was in casual attire) This entire Mass was 45 minutes of “what’s wrong with this picture”…The Blood of Christ was “served” in martini glasses And when I attempted to hold the “glass” myself, I was glared at as not “doing it” properly…since tincturing was their style. Anyway…as unorthodox as this was…the people were very nice, inviting, friendly. And my husband who is not Catholic, thought it was the best service he’s ever been to!

    And as difficult as this was for me to sit through…If it meant that my husband would embrace the Catholic faith and truly love the Lord…hmmmmmm Does clothes then make the man…or the priest…or the parishioner…?????? OR am I as phony as the Armani rip-off suit from TJ MAX?

    Aretha Franklin has it right…R-E-S-P-E-C-T…

    m.s.

  5. mercyknight says:

    Thought I’d share this from David Bennet, Mary …

    Let me start by saying that worship of God is not always going to be exciting in the secular sense. I hope it is always meaningful, but I can’t say it will always be exciting. Excitement as defined by secular culture is an emotional high or adrenaline rush. Both are often whims that we each get at different times and in different settings, some Christian, others not. If emotional highs or adrenaline rushes are the standards of Christian worship, then Jesus himself was a lousy Christian. Jesus fasted for 40 days, and he tried to hide from the excitement of the crowds. He was spit at, teased, and received the death penalty. Even after he rose from the dead, his followers experienced torture, rejection, and death. The lives of Jesus and the apostles were hardly exciting in the sense we define it today. As his followers today, Jesus tells us that we are “blessed,” i.e. “happy” if we are merciful, poor, peace-making, hungry, etc. Jesus turns the world’s definition of excitement upside-down! In other words, as Christians we will often have to bear many crosses, and will not always live exciting and happy lives as the world defines the terms exciting and happy. Since Catholic worship and the church year (feasts and fasts such as Advent, Christmas, and Lent) are based around the life of Jesus, some moments will perhaps be more “exciting” than others, but they will always be Christian. In other words, excitement is not a bad thing per se, but our faith and worship are not dependent upon something that subjective. If it were, then when the excitement passed, our faith would be in vain.

    Excitement comes and goes and differs from person to person. Sometimes we just cannot be excited or lively, no matter how hard we try (and why should we even strive to have one emotion?). After someone has died who is close to us, it is hard to get those “warm-fuzzy” feelings during worship. It is in these moments that “exciting” worship can become meaningless, and even offensive. Many I have talked to who say their worship is “exciting” often do not even go to church very often. Perhaps it is because when all is said and done worship that is not meaningful, but only exciting, is rather shallow and has little connection to the life of the believer. And obviously, when the excitement fades (as it usually does), what is left? Most human beings experience a wide variety of emotions everyday, including sadness, anger, doubt, impatience, etc. Catholic worship generally appeals to all of these emotions, not just one.

    Many people, but especially young people, are sick and tired of excitement. Everyday we are bombarded with advertisements and people who try to tell us what is exciting and why we must seek their version of it. Virtually every minute of the day, through images, T-shirts, and music, we are told, “all you want is excitement.” Many in the secular world buy into this, but many Christians such as myself are sick and tired of excitement. We want peace, meaning, historical connection, and community, which are exact opposites of the loud, the fast, the new, and the individual that secular society tries to sell us constantly. Catholic worship is meaningful to us, because it gives us a historical alternative to today’s secular values. I do not want MTV in my Church. Even if I watch MTV during the week (and I used to), please…give me a break from it on Sunday and when I worship. Perhaps this is why Wicca is the fastest growing faith among teens…it offers contemplation, peace, mysticism, ritual, connection to the past, and other spiritual benefits, while many Christian churches have sold themselves out to secular culture. Catholic Christianity generally has not sold out to popular culture, and definitely allows room for much ritual, sacrament, peace, historicity, and mysticism, while still allowing plenty of room for excitement (although our worship and faith are not tied to excitement). However, unlike Wicca, our worship is directed toward the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, the word has just not gotten out that ancient and historical Christianity is meaningful. Let’s get the word out that we are excited to not always have to be excited.

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