February 17, 2011
Meatless Fridays, Latin Mass on Sunday, long confession lines on Saturday afternoons and religious in habits were once so much a part of Catholic culture everywhere. Some Catholics still observe Friday abstinence. Others attend the Latin Mass. Catholics do frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation in Advent and Lent and even on days other than Saturdays. And, religious still dedicate their lives with joy for the good of the Church. But, in the last 50 years, Catholics have lost a certain visibility in the witness of their faith.
When the baby boomers were kids, nuns were ubiquitous. In our churches, in CCD classes, in Catholic schools, in the playgrounds. Even in movies. Sr. Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) in
The Bells of St. Mary's played baseball and even taught boxing. There was nothing that sister could not do or did not know. Like Sr. Marie Bernard (Jennifer Jones) in
The Song of Bernadette, their devotion brought us closer to God.
Recently, I spoke to a group of young people. I asked them to consider religious life. When I spoke about women in consecrated life, I was surprised to learn from the young people that not one of them could tell me what a religious sister was. I was more surprised to discover that most of them never recalled even seeing a religious sister.
Nuns passed on the faith, counseled families, served the poor. They taught us how to pray, how to behave and how to be proud of our Catholic heritage. They were, in a very real sense, the guardians of our Catholic identity. They never forgot us when we left their classrooms. We were always their concern. We thought that they would always be there for us and for our children. Yet, almost without our noticing it, they have slipped away.
The vitality of Catholic life in America owes much to religious sisters. The Ursuline Sisters were the first Catholic nuns to land in the new world. In the 18th century, they went to New Orleans. They opened the first Catholic hospital. There are now 561 Catholic hospitals and 300 Catholic health care centers present in all 50 states.
In the 19th century, Mother Seton and her first companions, all dressed in black dress, cape and bonnet, began their work of educating young girls. Often referred to as the mother of parochial schools, she inaugurated the indispensable work of the Catholic school. The Catholic Church today runs the largest network of private schools in our country. There are over 2.5 million students enrolled in 6,386 Catholic elementary schools and 1,203 Catholic high schools. There are 6,414 sisters, along with 1,149 brothers, teaching in these schools.
The Philadelphia socialite Katharine Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to serve the spiritual and material needs of Afro-American and Native American peoples. Mother Frances Warde, along with other Sisters of Mercy from Ireland, cared for the wounded and dying in the hospitals of Civil War battlefields. And, the physically frail, but spiritually strong Frances Xavier Cabrini came to America to work with Italian immigrants. Filled with the love of God and neighbor and gifted with great administrative ability, this remarkable woman founded schools, hospitals and orphanages across this country.
Nuns in the United States today number less than 58,000. This is slightly less than a third of the nuns serving the Church in 1965. Their median age is now in the mid 70’s. This makes many wonder whether or not many religious communities will completely disappear.
It is too facile an answer to say that the Second Vatican Council was the reason for a decline in religious life. In many communities, the numbers were already declining in the 1930’s. However, the quick social and cultural changes that took place at the time of the Council had their part to play.
Since the 1960’s, the strong emphasis on individualism, the right to dissent, the need for self-fulfillment and the general rebellion against authority were hardly the intellectual climate necessary for community living, a common apostolate and the sacrifice of one’s own legitimate desires for the good of others. However, despite all of these trends, many very courageous and generous women remained in religious life and others joined them. At a time when some congregations are merging with other congregations, there are also new religious communities being established. In 2008, at a conference held at Stonehill College in Massachusetts, Cardinal Rode noted that, in the United States, “since the Second Vatican Council, more than a hundred new religious communities have sprung up in this fertile soil.”
Today when so many question the dignity of the human person from conception to natural death, Catholic education is needed more than ever. Catholic health care as well. So also the Church’s outreach to the immigrants, the poor and disadvantaged. In education, health care, in law, in advocacy, in almost every area of life where the gospel can be a leaven, religious sisters are needed and are found. The work and the witness which religious give with their life of prayer and service are as fresh and as vital as the day that their communities were born.
Today the numbers of nuns behind cloistered walls are increasing. More than any activity, religious witness to the world by their love of God, their intense prayer life and their total commitment to the Church. In our secular culture, where religious symbols are no longer welcome, the presence of consecrated women and men remind us of our own spiritual life. Religious life is an indispensable gift of love to the Church. In some places, some of the external signs of religious life have disappeared. But what a loss to all of us if religious communities were to disappear as well!