Future nuns, priests face big questions

Once a month, female students pack the cozy chapel at the Holy Spirit Friary that overlooks the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

These gatherings are confidential, with no one discussing who is or who isn't among the 50 to 60 gathered in the pews. Students come to listen and to pray as they seek discernment about whether to pursue religious vocations -- as nuns.

"They keep this private for an interesting reason," said Father Seraphim Beshoner, a history professor. "If word gets out that someone is trying to discern if she has a vocation, then our guys are afraid to date her. I mean, how can you compete with Christ and his church?"

Meanwhile, the campus offers a similar program for young men considering the priesthood. In its 25 years of existence, this Priestly Formation Program has produced about 400 priests for various orders and dioceses and, at the moment, another 40 or more students are taking part.

Many of America's 244 Catholic colleges and universities offer similar programs, of course, in part because of rising concerns about the thinning and graying ranks of priests, brothers, sisters and nuns. The number of priests in America has declined from 59,000 in the 1960s to 40,600 last year. There has been an even sharper decline in the number of sisters and nuns, from 180,000 in the '60s to approximately 59,000 today -- with 90 percent of them 60 years old or older.

One factor that shapes Franciscan University life is the presence of three male and four female religious orders that maintain houses near the campus and its 2,040 undergraduates, noted Father Richard Davis, leader of the campus friary and former regional vocations director for the Third Order Regular Franciscans. Many other orders regularly send younger members to visit the campus or study there.

"Our students are very sensitive to this," said Davis. "New styles of habits and robes keep appearing here all the time. The students see that and it makes them curious. ... This campus produces a large number of priests, but I believe even more of our young women become sisters and nuns."

While the atmosphere is highly charged -- Franciscan is known for its standing-room-only Masses, even on weekdays -- students face the same tough questions that shape the decisions of young Catholics elsewhere, said the friar. Based on his experiences over four decades, these include:

* How to respond if family members say they will -- in one memorable phrase -- be "wasting their lives." In an era of increasingly smaller Catholic families, many parents worry about "losing" a child and future grandchildren. In February, the U.S. Catholic bishops released a survey noting that 51 percent of women who recently took final vows said their parents or other family members actively opposed this choice.

* After decades of sexual scandals and abuse, Davis said some students literally ask: "Will I be safe? ... If I visit a monastery or a convent, will someone hit on me?"

* Students often want to know which orders are "faithful to the Magisterium" -- meaning the Vatican and core Catholic doctrines -- and which are not. The majority of students today, he said, are seeking orders that emphasize a life of prayer and service to the poor, in America and abroad.

* Many students bluntly ask: "Do I have what it takes?" This question may center on celibacy, poverty, a rigorous prayer life or some other personal issue. The key, said Davis, is that "you don't take religious vows to run away from marriage and family, or from hard questions about your own weaknesses or talents. You have to face these issues."

* Another question -- "Will I be alone?" -- is especially poignant in an age of fading religious orders. Some students in this highly social generation fear that choosing the religious life will mean a shortage of friends and companions.

"They don't want to join a community in which the life they will live looks pretty much like the life they would have lived if they had never joined a religious community in the first place," said Father Seraphim, dressed in his plain black Franciscan habit.

"However, they also want to join a community that has other young people in it. They don't want to be the ones left to turn out the lights someday when their order dies."

Painful options for postmodern nuns

It may take time, but it's hard for a Catholic educator to publicly praise the work of nuns who have bravely leapt "beyond Jesus" without drawing some flack -- especially in the Internet age. During this era of crisis and decline, some Catholic religious orders have chosen to enter a time of "sojourning" that involves "moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus," Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink told a 2007 national gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

"Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian," added Brink, a former journalist who is a biblical studies professor at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union. For these women, the "Jesus narrative is not the only or the most important narrative. ... They still hold up and reverence the values of the Gospel, but they also recognize that these same values are not solely the property of Christianity. Buddhism, Native American spirituality, Judaism, Islam and others hold similar tenets for right behavior within the community, right relationship with the earth and right relationship with the Divine."

It took time, but ripples from her address have grown into waves of debate about the health of many religious orders, especially in light of reports that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is supervising a "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The question is whether many sisters have rejected doctrines stated in Vatican documents focusing on the male priesthood, homosexuality and the Catholic Church's role in the salvation of souls. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- played a crucial role in the development of these documents.

Catholic conservatives are convinced that Brink crossed an important line.

"If you're going to be Post-Christian, then be Post-Christian. I don't say that with snark. It's just reality," argued Catholic blogger Amy Welborn of Beliefnet. "If you've moved on -- move on. Step out from the protective mantle of identity that gives you cachet, that of 'Catholic nun.' "

However, it's important to note that this "Post-Christian," "sojourning" strategy was only the third of four strategies critiqued by Brink in the online text of her presentation, entitled "A Marginal Life: Pursuing Holiness in the 21st Century (.pdf)." Her goal was to urge leaders of Catholic religious orders to make clear, if painful choices in an age in which "indecision" is the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Sister Laurie began with this assumption: "Old concepts of how to live the Life are no longer valid."

The first option, she said, is "death with dignity and grace," as opposed to becoming a "zombie congregation" that staggers on with no purpose. This option must be taken seriously since the average age of the 67,000 sisters and nuns in the United States is 69. Many retreat ministries are closing and large "mother houses" are struggling with finances, while some congregations no longer invite or accept new candidates.

Meanwhile, Brink noted with sadness, some orders have chosen to turn back the clock -- thus winning the favor of Rome. "They are putting on the habit, or continuing to wear the habit with zest. ... Some would critique that they are the nostalgic portrait of a time now passed. But they are flourishing. Young adults are finding in these communities a living image of their romantic view of Religious Life. They are entering. And they are staying," she said.

Finally, some women are fighting on, hoping to achieve reconciliation someday with a changed, egalitarian church hierarchy. Thus, the current conflicts in American Catholicism cannot be hidden, she said.

"Theologians are denied academic freedom. Religious and laywomen feel scrutinized simply because of their biology. Gays and lesbians desire to participate as fully human, fully sexual Catholics within their parishes," said Brink. Many Catholics also oppose the "ecclesial deafness that refuses to hear the call of the Spirit summoning not only celibate males, but married men and women to serve" as priests.

These religious orders will strive to recruit new sisters and train them to continue the struggle against the "men who control the power in but not the Spirit of the Church," she said. If reconciliation occurs, it will take place in a reformed church.

Right now, she stressed, the Catholic hierarchy is "right to feel alarmed. What is at stake is the very heart of the Church itself."