Time discovers growing religious orders

Time discovers growing religious orders

Time magazine has an article in its latest issue on women’s religious orders that are growing. It’s a halfway decent piece, although it has its flaws.

For one thing, it lumps together orders that have loads of young women banging down their doors, with orders that are mainly attracting older “second career” women. More importantly, I think they completely miss the reasons why women are flocking to “particular” orders, that is the reporters make it seem like this is a broad-based resurgence when it is not.  Some congregations and orders are still aging rapidly and dying out for lack of new vocations.

One of the biggest omissions, for example, is a description of the charism of the Sisters of Life. For all that they are a centerpiece of the story, the closest we get to their mission is that they “combine contemplation with active ministry to the public.” Actually, they were founded by the late Cardinal John O’Connor as a pro-life ministry to women contemplating abortion, to women who’ve had abortions, and for the “protection and enhancement of the sacredness of every human life.” But then the mainstream media is not allowed to portray pro-lifers in a positive light.

What makes the religious life different? What makes it attractive?

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  • The clothes do not make the man, and so, contrary to Fr. Corapi, the clothing habit does not make the religious.  It makes them conspicuous, but not necessarily religious. 

    So, we are now have a conundrum as given by Perfectae Caritas by the Second Vatican Council: Do orders return to their foundational charism, which may not necessarily have had a habit but an encouragement to dress as the local people, or do they keep their habit and not return to their foundational spirit?

  • Dear Deacon John,

    But what if the order did not have distinctive garb at its foundation?  If I understand Perfectae Caritas well, the religious orders were to recapture their essence and foundational spirit.  The key term is foundation. 

    Do young people truly see cowardice and weakness because of clothing, or have we (as I am 28) noticed that a general malaise of heterodoxy from religious, as well as secular ordained, who do not wear the distinctive garb?

    When religious are bearing the message of Christ and are not wearing a conspicuous habit, are they less effective?  Of course not.  So, is the habit romanticized?  It certainly does speak of the courage to wear it in this day and age, but not wearing one does not make a religious a coward.

  • Dear JC,

    Recall you are not merely discussing clothing.  You discuss community life.  That by far is the defining factor of religious life.  It certainly is not a “regular career” like nursing or teaching.

    Community life witnesses much more to the world that neither clothes nor ministry do.  It is there that we need to examine religious life.

    My challenge is to look beyond the garb.  As I said, clothes don’t make the man.

  • Dom,

    You neglected to highlight Sr. Sarah Roy, who serves at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). She does wear a habit:
    “the headdress is for many of today’s newcomers a desired accessory. “A lot of my older sisters would never wear the veil,” says Sister Sarah Roy, 29, who is the only member of her Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, Ill., to do so. (The others wear a simple dark dress adorned by a pin.) Though she admits “people just stare at you like you’re a freak,” she adds, “It’s a trend with younger women wanting to wear the veil now.”

    Our students here at SJCNC respond very well to her, as do our alumni.

    Mark Randall
    Dir. of Advancement

  • “As I said, clothes don’t make the man.”

    Says who? And based on what???

    The original expression goes: “Clothing makes the man.” Ask anyone with an office job who ever wears a business suit every day. Our dress affects how we behave, and how others behave towards us. To say otherwise is to deny an aspect of human behavior that repeats itself in many other walks of life.

    And not just around convents.

  • ”[T]he habit is seen as something of a litmus test for orthodoxy.”

    No, a habit is not a litmus test for anything. It is a sign, specifically about the nature of their committment. They are distinguished from groups such as Madonna House in that and other respects.

    The litmus test is how they live when wearing the habit.

    “When our students are out in the community in their uniforms and they misbehave, it reflects not only on them as individuals but also on our school as a whole.”

    Probably why they’re less likely to misbehave. A uniform has a way of doing that. So does wearing a suit to the office as opposed to Levi’s and a tee-shirt. Why, you’d almost think that…. clothing makes the man.

  • Dear David,

    Clothing, however, does not make the man.  The individual may be supported by his clothing or not, but he is not his garb.  We cannot mix the two together.  Is a religious less so because he is not wearing a habit?  Of course not.  He is still the brother (or she the sister) by virtue of profession of vows in accordance with the order’s customs.  Clothing may affect how he acts, but moreso the formation is the contributing factor.  If it were only the clothing that made the man, then I wouldn’t cringe every time I see Fr. McBrien spewing nonsense on the airwaves while wearing his Roman collar.  I would know I would hear sound teachings.

    What I want to say is that the major point to religious life is community life.  That, not the garb, is the sign.  It is a powerful witness.  It can be seen as eschatological, that, in Heaven, we will have neither husband nor wife.  The quality of life in a convent, monastery, priory, etc., is based on the quality of prayer first and foremost.  From there, the community (not necessarily the entire order) grows or withers.  If there is not community that prays together, or if there is no community, then why would a young adult want to join.  I would conjecture that, for us, the community at prayer is the more important aspect.  Habits generally suggest orthodoxy, and so why many young women are flocking the OPs of Nashville and Ann Arbor as opposed to Adrian and Sinisawa.

    A point of clarification: charism is more like how the religious order serves the Church, not whether a habit is chosen or not.  That information is in the constitutions, rule, etc. of the order.

  • Dear David,

    I just found a link that suggests that both of us might be right!

    From Catholic Youth Ministries of the Deanery of New Albany
    Scroll to the heading “Why do some priests and religious dress in clerical garb or habits and others don’t?”

    (I wanted to post this before I leave for retreat, lest I forget to do so afterward.  My apologies for the double post, Dom!)

  • “Clothing, however, does not make the man.  The individual may be supported by his clothing or not, but he is not his garb.  We cannot mix the two together.”

    There is more to refuting a statement than the outright dismissal of it, as if doing so enough times renders your position believeable. (Like little kids who say “I know you are but what am I?” over and over again.)

    I pointed out how one’s dress affects one’s behavior, and how others respond. I gave specific examples from everyday life to reinforce that contention. In order for your refutation to carry any weight to those not already predisposed, you would need to eschew your arbitrary semantics in favor of demonstrating that, for example, how wearing a suit to the office as opposed to dungarees has nothing to do with how well I perform my tasks, or how seriously I am taken by my colleagues.

    Then you’d be on to something. Until then, we just disagree. Nothing more.

  • Dear David,

    I suspect that we really are not in disagreement.  I will admit though that I do not find your argument for habits as convincing as Deacon Bresnahan’s.

    I am curious what you believe about a situation given earlier.  Let us suppose a man decides he will wear a Roman collar and black suit to a masquerade.  Is he a priest?  From the outfit, we may be led to think he is, but he may be solely a poser.  The exterior has led us astray here.

    Likewise may the religious not wearing a habit lead us astray.  We may not think he (or she) is one because he is not wearing a habit, although he has professed vows.

    It is these examples that lead me to say that clothing does not make the man.  I am not denying your counterargument that appearances affect perceptions.  Nor does it seem you are arguing with me when I say that formation is more important than the garment.

    Deacon Bresnahan’s argument does not attempt to give theological meaning to the habit, or at least how I interpret it.  He states that it increases visibility.  No one can argue this statement.

    If I am misunderstanding you, please clarify.

  • Andrew,

    You’ve got it exactly backwards. If we see a man wear a Roman collar he represents a particular office, and presents a particular set of expectations. His behavior and actions are scrutinized in that context. Yet if the same man were to behave in similar fashion while wearing jeans and a t-shirt it would not phase us.

    Putting a Marine uniform on a man does not make him a Marine. But when we see a Marine wearing the uniform we expect something particular of him. More importantly, when he is wearing the uniform he expects something particular of himself.

    It likewise with habits.

  • Dear Dom,

    I think I now see the argument.  And I think I know now why people were not arguing with me on the formation aspect.

    Now, to posit a question on your first point in your reply to me: Is it reasonable to understand the scandal I feel whenever I here Fr. McBrien spew nonsense come from the garb or from the office?  I am scandalized because of the office first and foremost, and then secondly because of the garb.  I expect my priests to preach sound teaching precisely of their office; their garb may lend more credence.  Is that what you mean?

    I really want to understand the argument you are posing better.  This is why I am asking these questions.

    If my argument above is in agreement with what you mean, then I posit that we really are not in disagreement.

    Thank you for your help.

  • Andrew: I don’t think we are in disagreement which is why I found your disagreeing so puzzling.

    It is reasonable for you to feel the scandal when McBrien spouts his nonsense. But for many the garb is the sign of his office.

    If a Marine in civilian clothes is arrested for drunk and disorderly is bad enough. But if he were to be arrested while wearing his dress uniform, it would scandalize all Marines, active and retired.

    When you wear a uniform or habit, you represent more than yourself. This is why the Church has had distinctive habits for nearly her whole history, from papal vestments down to scapulars and crucifixes.

    The symbolism is important in and of itself because of the sign value to the world in need of evangelization and a witness. It is not enough to just wear the outfit, you must live what it signifies. Yet wearing the outfit is an aid to living that which it signifies.

    A Marine in uniform is reminded at every moment that his behavior reflects on all other Marines. It is also an effective tool for accomplishing his job sometimes, like if he is an embassy guard. The mere sight of him can be enough to deter aggression.

    A religious in habit is reminded by the habit that his behavior reflects on his order, on the Church, and on Jesus Christ. A habited religious is also a sign and symbol of the countercultural nature of the Gospel and effective reminder that there are those who take St. Paul’s admonition to live in the world, but not to be of it seriously still. The mere sight of a habited religious or a priest in collar can be enough to spark a spiritual journey.

    Ask any priest who has traveled while in his collar and blacks about the encounters he’s had. Chances are good that he would never have had them if he were wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

  • Andrew:

    In considering Father McBrien and his reason for wearing clericals, consider when he does, and when he does not. He wears them when interviewed on CNN, because he wants to convey credibility. He does not wear them when pictured in an issue of the National “Catholic” Reporter, because he wants to convey defiance of church authority.

    Whether or not “clothes make the man,” they say something about his attitude. And attitude DOES make the man.

    Does that help?

  • This discussion reminded me of a recent post by former athiest, Catholic convert blogger Jennifer F of Et Tu, Jen?: “Thank God for Priests:

    I was pretty sheltered from Christian thought growing up so I didn’t realize until I was older than priests really couldn’t get married and really did live their whole lives for the Church. I was shocked. As a person completely immersed in secular society, I just couldn’t figure out what was going on. It was almost like…they really believed.

    In all the years I spent badmouthing Christians, I would always shut up when the topic of Catholic priests came up. Even as an atheist, I admired their faith. It was like nothing I’d seen in the rest of society. I was intrigued and impressed.

    I remember a few years ago, before my spiritual journey had really begun but when my heart had softened from loathing Christians to just having a vague dislike for them, I was having lunch by myself at a restaurant. It was a beautiful day and I was sitting out on a large tree-covered patio. I’d brought a magazine to look through but found myself annoyed with all the garbage in it. It was full of cynical diatribes, scantily clad women, glitzy ads for overpriced crap that nobody needed. I wondered how our society had spiraled this far down the toilet as I set it aside. I thought to myself that more and more it seemed to me that something is very wrong with our world and I didn’t like what I saw. I felt a vague aloneness, not just in the restaurant but in the world.

    Just then I looked up to see a priest, also sitting by himself, at a table near me. As I looked at him, a strong feeling came over me to go talk to him. I wanted so much to run over to his table, pull up a chair and ask him why on earth he was devoting his life to this God business, what had convinced him? What made his faith so strong? If God is so obvious to an intelligent-looking man like himself, why can I not see him?

    But, fearing looking foolish and possibly offending him, I remained in my seat. As I returned to my lunch tears stung my eyes a little bit as I thought, “Thank God for priests.”