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August 30, 2009

Seeking Catholic identity Chicago religious communities reflect trends in national study that show increase in vocations to ‘traditional’ congregations

By Michelle Martin


When Andrea Sims, 26, enters the Little Sisters of the Poor this fall, it will be a little more than five years since the Princeton, Ill., resident began exploring the idea that God was calling her to religious life.

She remembers first feeling that she might have a religious vocation on the Fourth of July in 2004. “It was Independence Day, and at the time, I was feeling like I would be surrendering my independence,” said Sims.

It wasn’t particularly pleasant for Sims, who had grown up believing that she would be called to be a wife and mother.

“It was almost painful to give that up,” she said. “It took a few months to embrace the calling and understand the beauty of it.”

But as she explored the idea with the help of a spiritual director at Benedictine University in Lisle, and took time to learn about religious life in general and various congregations, she came to a new understanding.

“I’m not giving up my independence,” said Sims, who will spend her nine-month postulancy in Washington, D.C. “In a way, I’m gaining the independence to give my whole life to the Lord.”

Since that summer day, Sims has graduated from Benedictine University with a degree in nutrition and spent months working as a cook and as a nursing assistant in the Chicago and Palatine homes run by the Little Sisters, who she first met on a 2005 “nun run” in which she visited four convents in 24 hours.

Matching trend

In many ways, Sims’ vocation journey matches what the Hyde Park-based National Religious Vocations Conference found in a major study of religious vocations that was released Aug. 11.

That study found that the majority of religious congregations in the United States have at least one person in formation, although many do not have more than one or two. However, about a fifth of the congregations have more than five people in formation. Such congregations tend to be on the more traditional end of the spectrum, more likely to have their members wear habits and have a regular schedule of common prayer and spirituality focused on the Eucharist.

The study, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, surveyed religious congregations about people in formation and new members, surveyed people in formation and who had joined religious orders since 1993 and included several focus groups.

Holy Cross Brother Paul Bednarczyk, the executive director of the NRVC, said the study did not show whether there has been a recent boost in religious vocations, although he believes the numbers started going up in about 2003, based on anecdotal evidence. However, it does provide a benchmark for future studies of religious vocations.

“This tells us where we are early in the 21st century,” Brother Paul said. “Often, we compare the numbers to where we were in the 1950s and ’60s, when the numbers were quite large. But really, that was an anomaly. That was not the norm.”

Fulfilling lives

Among the survey results that Brother Paul found notable was that 43 percent of the men and women surveyed had entered their congregations when they were under the age of 30. “That is confirming that this is a fulfilling life for them,” he said.

However, the survey did find a divide among women’s religious institutes. More than half of new members of institutes belonging to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious are over 40, while fewer than 15 percent of new members of institutes belonging to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious are. Those that belong to the CMSWR are generally perceived as being more traditional.

Congregations belonging to the CMSWR also were far more likely to have five or more people in formation. However, the LCWR still represents a much larger group of women religious in the United States.

Brother Paul said the people who have discerned vocations do so because they sense a call to religious life, they are looking for spiritual growth and they want to deepen their connection to the church and grow in their prayer life, he said. In general, they want to live in community, with more people saying that the religious community life was more important than their ministry.

“The majority of them have already been involved in ministry,” Brother Paul said, so they feel they can do ministry without a vocation to religious life. “I would think those communities that have a regular rhythm of common prayer, eucharistic adoration, that are Eucharist-centered, have a common apostolate — those are the communities that are more attractive to young people.”

Felt like home

The Little Sisters felt like home to Sims for all those reasons, including their work serving the elderly poor. She was especially attracted to their fourth vow; the sisters take a vow of hospitality in addition to poverty, chastity and obedience.

Indeed, two-thirds of the newer members, men and women, belong to communities that either require a religious habit or give their members the option of wearing a habit, a practice that many communities dropped after the Second Vatican Council. Before that time, he said, many religious habits were seen as “otherworldly” and designed to prevent religious men and women from engaging fully in the world around them.

Now, habits have grown somewhat simpler, and younger religious are embracing them as a manifestation of Catholic identity.

That is certainly the case for Sims, who was initially reluctant to wear a habit, as is the practice among Little Sisters of the Poor.

As she got to know them and reflected on the issue, however, she discovered a desire for the habit.

“It is an outward sign of an inward conversion,” said Sims. “It’s a way to show humility and obedience.”