Decades ago, as I approached high school graduation and began to think about my future, I prayed about a possible calling to religious life.
Not only had the Sisters of Providence at Marywood High School encouraged me to consider a vocation, becoming a sister was a viable alternative to life as a working professional, especially following 12 years of Catholic education.
My choice to study journalism led me to a long career as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, and public relations consultant – but I never stopped thinking ‘what if?’ about life as a sister.
Today, many young Catholic women regard religious life as far-fetched. Yet remarkably, that notion is changing, according to a recent Georgetown University-affiliate survey.
After 50 years of decline, the number of young women “discerning the religious life”—or going through the long process of becoming a Catholic sister—is substantially increasing, notes the 2017 survey of American Catholics. Thirteen percent of women from age 18 to 35 responding to the survey say they have considered becoming a Catholic sister – that’s more than 900,000 young women.
Still, the vast majority of women professing final vows are 40 years old or older. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, its 2009 study undertaken for the National Religious Vocation Conference finds that 91 percent of women religious are 60 years old or older.
In 2010, CARA noted that 47 percent of women professing final vows were aged 40 to 59. Another 26 percent were between 30 and 39. The median age for the class was 44.
Then researchers noticed the trend toward younger women taking final vows. By 2014, only 27 percent of women taking final vows were ages 40 to 59 and those younger than 30 had increased from 18 percent to 25 percent; the median age of the class dropped to 35. But 75 percent of the class still was 30
A September 2015 story by M.B. Caschetta, “The Comeback of the American Nun” in the Women in the World newsletter, notes that though the Catholic Church does not provide recent statistics, “a slew of media reports from People Magazine to the New York Times suggest that increasing numbers of Catholic millennials are feeling the call of God in growing numbers across the country.
Why now? One clue comes from the National Religious Vocation Conference, which reports that of the more than 2,500 women who completed online VISION Vocation match profiles in 2013, the majority were under 30, desired to wear a habit or distinctive religious garb, preferred to enter an apostolic community, and attended Catholic school.
Recent generations of Americans report losing their faith and becoming alienated from organized religion, yet young people increasingly are turned off by the world’s emphasis on materialism, sex, money, and status.
Indeed, conference leaders say, young women are open to conformity to rules and desire lives of service. Many believe religious life may be personally fulfilling, allowing them to discover who they are, their purpose, and how they want to live.
At the same time, significant numbers of older women who’ve lived full lives as professionals are discerning vocations late in life.
Likewise, life as a religious still appeals to me after three kids, a happy 34-year marriage, and success as a small-business owner – so, perhaps there is hope for me yet.