La Salle University professor Margaret M. McGuinness’s excellent history, “Called to Serve,” which chronicles the outstanding achievement of religious sisters in America for the past almost 300 years, is truly worth reading.

(Read a review of the book.)

As the congregations age, what does a young potential candidate think when all the sisters she meets are older than her grandmother?

But it does not address the question, why have religious vocations among women diminished almost to the vanishing point? That was not the purpose of the book.

Still, statistics show many religious congregations are literally dying.

According to data compiled by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), between 1900 and 1965 women religious numbers showed phenomenal growth, peaking at about 180,000. Since then they have declined to 54,000, a drop of 70 percent.

More telling for the future, the average age of a religious sister is now in her 70s, and only about one percent is under 30. If this is to continue, and there seems to be nothing out there to suggest it won’t, inevitably many of the congregations will be forced to merge in the coming decades.

There is that gnawing question. Why are there so few religious vocations? There is no single easy answer, but here are a few thoughts.

The culture has changed. According to CARA research, 45 percent of the pre-Vatican II generation says they attend Mass weekly; for the millennial generation it is only 18 percent. Reasonably speaking, if young people aren’t attending Mass they are not likely to be considering a religious vocation.

The number of children in Catholic schools has fallen from 5.2 million in the early 1960s to 2.5 million today, according to figures from the National Catholic Educational Association.

Because the children are not in Catholic schools they are less exposed to women religious, and also many of the remaining women religious have left the education apostolate. Of those who teach most no longer wear a distinctive habit to set them apart from the lay teachers.

So many ministries have opened up for the laity, including temporary mission work. One wonders if young women see any real distinction between active, committed laity and women religious.

As the congregations age, what does a young potential candidate think when all the sisters she meets are older than her grandmother?

Today, many congregations will not accept a young woman until she is at least in her mid-20s, preferably with a college degree. The reasoning is understandable; it’s expensive to send a young sister through college. What if she leaves after getting her degree?

But there are other considerations too. One of the icons McGuinness holds up as a nun for today is Sister Mary Scullion, Philadelphia’s famous advocate for the poor. What is not mentioned is a little known fact.

In 1972, when Mary Scullion presented herself to be interviewed by the admissions committee of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, she was wearing her Little Flower High School uniform.

After the interview there was serious discussion among the sisters on the committee to whether she showed sufficient maturity to enter. Finally it was decided to accept her. She may have been the last Sister of Mercy to enter straight from high school. Think of what they would have missed had they turned her down.

In recent decades the main national leadership group of women religious, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has had public disagreements with the hierarchy, especially on what some would call “women’s issues.”

This has caused the breaking away of more traditional congregations to form the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR) and an apostolic visitation from the Vatican in 2008-2010.

Critics have argued radical positions of the LCWS leadership and some members have inhibited vocations, but that may be hard to prove. For example numbers for male non-ordained religious (religious brothers) have dropped almost as dramatically as religious sisters since 1965 — about 63 percent according to CARA figures. The brothers have not taken positions objectionable to the hierarchy and they are for the most part still in their original ministries.

An August 2012 article in America magazine argued statistics from the Official Catholic Directory show congregations represented in the more liberal LCWR received just as many vocations as those represented in the more traditional CMSWR, so neither could claim they were attracting more vocations.

That was true enough except for the obvious flaw: the LCWR congregations represented 80 percent of America’s women religious while the CMSWR represented only 14 percent, which meant per capita the CMSWR was almost six times as successful in gaining new vocations (six percent of the women religious were represented by neither).

Neither as a group was close to replacement levels for deaths or departures, but individually some of the younger traditional congregations show vigorous growth.

As mentioned by McGuinness, in 2010 the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia had 27 postulants, and 23 the year before. Almost one-third of the community was under age 30.

The Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist was founded in 1997 with four sisters. Eleven years later there were more than a 100 with the average age 28.

Also worthy of mention are the New York-based Sisters of Life and the Argentina-based Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara who are very successful in harvesting vocations. The latter serves Latino people in the Chester County area of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Whether or not a congregation requires its members to wear distinctive garb at all times is really something it must decide for itself. We would not expect a diocese to require its priest to wear a black cassock and Roman collar to the ball park. Should nuns be treated differently if that is not their wish?

Sister Helen Prejean, whose activism has raised the conscience of everyone on the matter of the death penalty, and Sister Mary Scullion who by direct action serves the poor belong to more modern congregations.

Dominican Sisters of St. Rose of Lima, Little Sisters of the Poor and Missionaries of Charity are members of traditional congregations who work quietly in direct ministry to the poor, the aged and the sick. Poor Clares, Visitation of Holy Mary sisters and Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit of Perpetual Adoration have chosen the most ancient form of monastic life and constant prayer, which is just as valid today as it was in the early Church.

The many, many congregation¬s for women, whether traditional or adapted to a modern culture, have one thing in common – every one of their members has of her own free will entered a life of vowed service to God.

God bless them all, and I’m sure He does. The future is in His hands.


Lou Baldwin is a freelance writer and a member of St. Leo Parish, Philadelphia.