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With the opportunities open to women, why do some still opt for the church?

By Ellen Fox

JANUARY 31, 2000:  Something was nagging at Lorraine Reaume.

"It was really frustrating," the Toronto native explains from her Hyde Park apartment, "because I felt for about two years that it was something going on but I couldn't figure it out. But I had never, ever thought of religious life. It never, ever occurred to me. Not once."

The then-32-year-old Reaume was working in the office of a lay missionary group that had taken her to Bolivia, where she'd spent two years working with the urban poor. Convinced that God was saying something she wasn't able to hear, Reaume consulted with her church spiritual director, who happened to be a nun.

She suggested that Reaume imagine a handful of different futures: One night she was to think of herself in a married life, the next night in single life, the following night in religious life—as a nun.

"When I did the religious life one, all of a sudden, I could feel this change in me and there was all this energy!" She still smiles about it now, four years later, as an Adrian Dominican novice pursuing a year of study at Catholic Theological Union. "It was funny, 'cause I got up from the chair and I said 'No, God, no! Not that. No. Anything but that!' I just resisted it.

"I guess at the time I didn't believe I could be happy in this life. I always assumed I would be married and have kids. I just assumed that's the way my life would go."

These days, nobody wants to be a nun like they used to—which is not to say that nobody wants to be a nun at all. The number of nuns—or, as they are commonly referred to, women religious—dropped nationally from 179,954 in 1965 to just 82,693 in 1999. And with the median age of such women hitting 67, some religious communities have stepped up their recruitment efforts, and are now being rewarded with candidates—among them, some Generation Xers—who are flocking to the life's seemingly radical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you want another community of religious members, that means 'younger,'" says Sister Catherine Bertrand, executive director of the South Side-based National Religious Vocation Conference, which aids religious communities in their recruitment efforts. In the past two or three years, she notes, there has been a broadening of recruit demographics—once just a trickle of older women seeking a second career—to include twenty- and thirtysomethings who thirst for the tradition and close-knit community they may have never experienced growing up.

A copy of Chicago-published Vision magazine, the conference's guide to religious communities, features a cover story on "What to Expect from Generation X," a glossary that deciphers terms like "cloistered" and "novice," and approachable articles on a range of topics—from celibacy to missionary work to getting arrested at a protest. The pages are filled with catchy ads for dozens of religious communities: "Are you an ordinary woman wanting to do extraordinary things? Consider us!" or "Your Friends Tell You Being a Nun Would Be a Waste, But...," and a handy mail-in card—just like the one Reaume used—that allows you to circle the communities you want information from. Or you can just thumb to the page that lists all the Websites—even the cloistered communities have them these days.

But if the thought of young women seeking religious vocation seems like a throwback to the first half of the century—when a woman's lifestyle options were likely to be either sister, spinster or wife—there are some marked differences to be found in today's batch of prospective nuns. Where once the promise of religious life wooed career-minded women who sought to teach, travel, attend college, work in hospitals or have a hand in church ministry, today's candidates are hankering after prayer and tradition.

"The piece that I continue to hear again and again that perhaps I heard less of over the years is 'a desire to be part of a community,'" Bertrand says. The drop in religious population after the sixties has been attributed in part to the women's movement, which opened up the job force, and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), after which many communities became more open, losing their habits and, in the eyes of some, their special identity.

The view of religious communities "shifted from being 'better than' to 'different from.' And I think that was a good shift," Bertrand explains. (Others who left religious life may have expected that women would be granted more power, and so did not find Vatican II open enough.) Henceforth, one did not have to be in a religious community to do ministry; it was now also the domain of lay people. But there are some desires, it seems, that remain constant.

"Some of the more conservative groups tend to be growing more rapidly than the liberal groups," says Sister Patricia Wittberg, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University. Though communities range from liberal to conservative, they are often considered to be one of two types. There are the apostolic communities, in which members work actively in the world (missionaries, teachers, health practitioners, etc.). And then there are the contemplative communities, which focus on prayer and perhaps preserve the habit. Since there's not much you can do now as an apostolic sister that you can't do as a regular lay person, Wittberg posits that it's the habit-wearing, prayer-filled, contemplative communities that are starting to gain ground.

"Conservative people tend to watch Mother Angelica," she adds, referring to the wimple-clad host of "Mother Angelica Live" on cable's Eternal Word Television Network. It seems that whenever Mother Angelica, who Wittberg calls "the Rush Limbaugh of Catholicism," features a religious community on her primetime chat show, it boosts the number of inquiries to that particular community. "It's like Oprah's Book Club," she says. (To be fair, Susan Sarandon's Oscar-winning turn as apostolic Sister Helen Prejean in "Dead Man Walking"—which many sisters praise as the only worthy portrayal of a modern nun in years—apparently raised quite a bit of interest in Prejean's real-life Baton Rouge community, too.)

"Sometimes the groups in habits will get people because they are identifiable; the habit is romantic," Wittberg admits. "Young people today want a certain amount of stability and ageless truth, never having known any of it. The chances are they've grown up in a divorced family. It's rare that the family sits down to a common meal. In that kind of environment," she concludes, "eternal, changeless truths seem very attractive."

But for young women who hear the call in their hearts, the road to religious life may be even rougher in the new millennium.

"The first two months were really, really hard, and I wanted to leave," recalls Sister Barbara Danko, a 28-year-old Hammond, Indiana, native who took her final vows with the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart last August.

It was the fall of 1992, she had just entered the novitiate, the initial stage of joining a religious community, and she cried every other day during her stay at the motherhouse in Frankfort, Illinois. She was the only new person. "You have to remember, the motherhouse is a retirement community; I was 21. By Christmas, I began to think, 'I don't know if I can do this.'"

After a week at home for the holidays, however, Danko returned: "I began to realize how much God loved me, and this was the only possible way I could ever imagine responding to the love I had only caught a glimpse of within those first two months."

Sitting in the carpeted parlor of her ranch-style convent in Fort Wayne, dressed in a long gray skirt, white blouse and black cardigan (the colors worn by her community), the smooth-browed Danko seems in many ways a throwback to the kind of woman who might have become a nun decades ago.

Unlike others seeking religious vocation, there was never a period when this third-grade teacher lost her belief in God or stopped going to church. One of six children and a self-confessed "goody-goody" in Catholic high school, Danko even remembers being tormented as a fifth grader after declaring—to her class—that she was going to be a nun.

After high school, she struggled through a semester at a nearby college before working as a secretary. She dated, but not seriously. It was actually the prompting of one boyfriend that led her to discern her vocation. "He would say to me 'What do you want to do with your life?' And I would say 'I want to do God's will.' And he'd say, 'No no no, you gotta have some dreams or something, what do you want to do?'"

She began praying about it, and was inspired by a booklet on a missionary program in Appalachia. "I thought, 'I want to be able to do something like that, that I can reach out to people in need and not have to worry about a family or kids or things like that.' And I went to him [the boyfriend] and I said, 'You know what? I'm either going to remain single or become a sister. So I don't want to date anymore.'"

Family and friends were supportive, but the college kids in her jazz choir were rough. "They would say to me, 'So what about sex?' Some of them, I think, really made a point of doing things that they thought would offend me, the sex jokes and drinking and the language," she explains.

But what about sex?

"We are sexual beings, we're made to be with another," she says plainly. "And so are those desires there sometimes? Yes. But to be the fullest person God has made me to be, I have to say no to some things to say yes to other things. I may not have that intimacy in my life, but I have incredible intimacy in relationships in my life that I know I wouldn't have if I were with one man."

If a somewhat conservative community like the Franciscans—which balances the traditions of prayer and communal living with worldly pursuits like teaching—suits a lifelong "goody-goody" like Danko, who exactly is becoming an old school, ultra-conservative nun? Who's choosing the cloister? The silence? The veil?

"I was a little Nietzsche-loving atheist," laughs 28-year-old Sister Ann Remington, recalling her high school years in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She wore flashy vintage clothes and big hats, listened to The Smiths and ran with the drama clique. But for the last three years, she's been living in silence and prayer at Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, a sixties-style complex in the hills of Dubuque, high above the slow, wintry roll of the river.

Prayer begins in the darkness of the chapel at 3:45am every morning, and continues throughout the day, with time in between devoted to vegetarian meals, choir practice and labor at the order's caramel candy factory. From 7pm to 7am, the "Great Silence" proscribes the abbey's twenty-two residents from speaking to one another, though sign language—which was once the only way to communicate here—is permitted if necessary. Most of the sisters hit the sack around eight.

Once a sister takes final vows here, she stays for the rest of her life, perhaps leaving the property a handful of times for doctors' visits or a death in the family. The sisters believe their prayers make a difference in the world, and, contrary to the Visa commercial, no one here surfs the Net to buy Country & Western CDs. They're not likely to be offended by the portrayal, however, because they also don't watch TV.

Remington came to the abbey after graduating from a liberal arts college, giving up med school, which she figured would prevent her from having a family anyway. "I've always been an all-or-nothing kind of person."

She came around to Catholicism late in high school, after some terrifying dreams about crucifixion, and found herself considering medical mission work in Africa toward the end of college. The cloistered and obedient life, she reasoned, was not for her.

"I loved to travel," she explains. "My favorite thing was getting in my car and going on road trips. But I kept finding myself stopping by here when I was driving."

She spent a month at the abbey one summer, with plans to attend med school in the fall. The night before she left, the phone rang in the guesthouse. It was a wrong number, but she ended up talking to the stranger on the phone for quite some time. "He said, 'I'm trying to figure out what God wants for my life. I don't know what it is, but I think this is the right thing for you.'

So I came back up here and I said, 'Well, I got the call.' It was a wrong number," she laughs. "But I got a call."

Remington has taken temporary vows here, so there's time before her decision is made final. "There are two of my friends in Seattle who keep insisting that this is all a practical joke." Sometimes she yearns to go dancing, or be with her old boyfriend.

"It's not the sex that I miss, it's the shoulder," she confesses. "There's a lot of loneliness in this life, and what I miss is going over and having somebody who, for whatever strange reason, has decided that I'm the coolest thing in the world."

But now that "somebody special" is God?

Exactly, she nods.

Byand large, despite the efforts of some sisters—particularly the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas—to step up their visibility in schools and on college campuses, candidates for religious vocation who are under 40 are still a rare. And while the contemplative groups certainly have their appeal, most women becoming sisters—like Lorraine Reaume—are entering apostolic communities and aren't donning the habit. Gone are the days when women joined the very nuns who might have taught them school. Reaume's Michigan-based community of choice—the politically progressive Adrian Dominicans, the kind of women you might find at a political protest or supporting women's ordination—is a long haul from Toronto. But she says she can't resist.

"There's a sense of being able to do more together," she stresses. "That by throwing my lot in with other people, I'm able to offer more."

But to Wittberg the sociologist, the more conservative communities have a vital role in future of the church.

"The people who aren't satisfied with church on Sunday—the people who want to do more—are the people who join some sort of group. If the religious orders aren't there, the people who want to do more have a tendency to flake off, to break away and join groups which will demand more spiritual commitment from them. Southern Baptists. Buddhist Ashrams. The Jehovah's Witnesses," she reasons. "We should be able to keep our own at the very least, right?"

Sister Bertrand, of the National Religious Vocation Conference, puts it another way: "This is not about survival. This is about the mission of Jesus. If that's going to be able to continue, obviously you need people to continue that mission."

Sister Bertrand, of the National Religious Vocation Conference, puts it another way: "This is not about survival. This is about the mission of Jesus. If that's going to be able to continue, obviously you need people to continue that mission."


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