Not very far from my home is a Carmelite Convent. It was founded in 1957. I believe there are only a handful of nuns living there, and I believe they are all quite advanced in years, but I am not sure. I have been interested in the life of prayer and contemplation. Since reading Cardinal Robert Sarah’s amazing book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise I have become even more interested in silence and its role in the life of faith and the pursuit of holiness. So I’m curious about communities who live out lives of contemplation, prayer, and often silence.
I am also curious about why a woman would enter a convent. These two videos show some of the life inside a Carmelite convent, one in England and the other in New Zealand. The first is very beautiful, but I wonder how many women would seek out such a place. The second shows what appears to be a more vibrant life and younger nuns. Of course every video has a perspective and manipulates the material to its own ends. Regardless, I find both fascinating.
Again, I can’t say whether either one of these options presented is attractive. I don’t know what young or old women think and feel about such things, except what they say in the videos and, frankly, it’s still mysterious to me at some level. Regardless, the first video seems to present a convent of old women taking care of very old women. There are just no young women at that place from what I can tell. The second video seems more attractive, more vibrant. Still both places seem to have merely a handful of nuns. I wonder what such a video (or film) might show if one had been made a hundred years ago. Would we have seen convents of hundreds rather than a dozen or less, and of all ages more well represented?
Because of my own proclivities I noticed the nuns in the first video take the Eucharist in the hand, while in the second they recieve it on the tongue. Does this matter to the life they live? Does this reflect their ages — the older nuns in the first and the younger in the second? I have heard religious groups with more traditional practices are growing while others are fading. I can’t tell from the videos, but I wonder.
Recently I saw a tweet (that’s a posting on the Twitter social application if you did not know) posted by American Magazine that said:
It is easy to see why #SisterJean has captured the hearts of millions. Her joy and holiness radiate through TV’s, radios and Twitter feeds. But there is another reason: We miss nuns.
This tweet is about the Catholic sister who is involved with Loyola University Chicago and its basketball team. Sister Jean has become a media sensation in relation to the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament and Loyola Chicago’s unlikely run to become one of the final four teams in the tournament.
Anywho, several people responded to the the “We miss nuns” part of the tweet by saying that there are still many nuns and sisters and they are very much with us. Here is one response:
Nuns (Sisters) might not be in “habit”, but they are very much alive and well, in every corner of society, working among us.
We still have nuns. Just that you don’t know who might be one because not too many dress in habits these days.
I am no expert on this topic (take everything I say here with a grain of salt), but it seems to me there are two things here worth considering:
Just how many sisters/nuns are there in the United States and is it, therefore, fair to say we miss our nuns??
Since we don’t always know there are sisters/nuns among us because they are not “in habit,” does that matter??
First, here are some statistics (found here) — and I know you know what they will say:
As you expect, the numbers don’t look good. Keep in mind that when the percentage ratio says 0.39% for 1965, that means the total number of sisters were less than one half of one percent of the total Catholic population for the United States at that time. That’s not a lot, but it’s quite a bit more than being less than one tenth of one percent in 2017.
If you need a visual, here it is:
Simply, we just do not have a lot of Catholic sisters/nuns anymore. If fact, one should rightly say that the population of sisters and nuns since 1965 has been decimated. If you want a comparison: 75% of the sisters/nuns population has disappeared in the US since 1965, wherase only 30% to 50% of Europe’s population was lost to the Black Death. (“only” — of course total numbers and the realities of the plague are more meaningful I know, but the ratios are still utterly staggering for the loss of Catholic women vocations.)
Another way to calculate this is to think of what might have been. The growth of total U.S. Catholics from 1965 to 2017 in the U.S. was just over 22 million, or about 48% growth (compared to a U.S. population growth of over 67% for the same period). If the same rate of growth applied to religious sisters the total number would be just over 266,000 instead of an unbelievable low of 45,000. Think of that. A growth rate for religious sisters that merely matched the rather bland growth rate for total Catholics would give us nearly six times as many sisters in the U.S. over that period instead of only one fourth as many.
While the Catholic Church grew slowly but substantially in total numbers, the number of sisters and nuns went down dramatically.
This is really sad. I believe the Catholic Church benefits greatly from having lots of sisters and nuns. In fact, the tremendous growth of Catholicism over the centuries was due, in a major part, to the tireless service of nuns and sisters. They fulfill a vital role in the life of the Church. And we have so few of them anymore. So… it is absolutely fair to say “we miss our nuns.”
The second question is, in some ways, a bigger question. What about habits? Religious sisters not in clearly religious dress makes them invisible to most people — consider the tweets above. I have been told by at least one Catholic that they can always “spot” a sister from the crowd. I can’t. Perhaps it’s merely my limitations, but I think that’s only part of it. Regardless, the question really is whether or not nuns wearing habits is better than not.
A habit, among other things, is a sign, that is it stands for something, points to something. This is not a post about signs and their functions in human society, but pause a moment and one realizes human beings are sign-producing, sign-oriented creatures. This is very true in the way we dress. Business people dress like business people, bankers like bankers, etc. In a sense we all dress in costume and do so for an audience. But this is not fakery, or merely shallow behavior. We are communicating who and what we are to others through our choices of clothing, hair styles, etc. This plays out in the most subtle ways, and to such a degree, that we take it for granted and do not see it.
A nun’s habit is a substantial sign, a clear message of the nature of the person wearing it. To not wear a habit and instead to dress like everyone else is to proclaim that being a nun is not something fundamentally different than other life choices — the “costume” of ordinariness speaks of being just another ordinary person. It is, in a sense, to hide in the crowd. To wear the habit is to proclaim that one is set apart. Statistics say that there are few nuns in my immediate world, but their chosen visual invisibility further reduces their potential impact on the world (or on me) for Christ.
None of this is to say that nuns are not wonderful people who love Christ and seek to serve him. I’m sure they do, and I’m sure Sister Jean is wonderful. Certainly because of the media attention she has an unusual platform to share the message of salvation. But, of course, that’s probably not why the media loves her. (And let’s be honest, basketball is not very important.) Regardless, I think the world needs habited nuns and sisters. The power of the sign of the habit, just like the clerical collar or cassock of the priest, is great.
People search for meaning. They are at least curious about others who exhibit a commitment to something greater than themselves. People are looking for transcendence. The habit is a this-world sign of a that-world connection and service. It says, in a powerful, visual way, “I have given myself to someone greater than I.” It is a form of evangelization to the lost and encouragement to the Church.
So… to answer the second question, I would emphatically say yes. The habit does matter. But I also said this question is perhaps the bigger question. Why? I think it is fair to say that the free falling numbers of nuns is directly related to the abandonment of wearing habits. I won’t say there is a direct causal relationship, but clearly there must be a strong correlation. Human nature tells us this must be true. Bring back the habit and it’s arguable the number of women religious vocations will significantly rise. In fact, a quick search reveals that while many women’s religious orders populations continue to fall, traditional (in part meaning wearing the habit) orders are on the rise.
Thus, in summary, we need more nuns, and more nuns in habits. Boom!