By Sister Belinda Monahan, OSB
The word "diminishment" is frequently used by Catholics to describe the state of religious life today. People often use it to express the decrease of numbers and the increasing median age of many religous communities. The implication is that because we are older or smaller that we are somehow "less" than we were. Fortunately, as a younger member of a religious community, I don't see it as a lessening. I see it as a transformation in how we can be present in the world today.
This is not to say that smaller communities of women religious are not a reality; they are, but they are nothing to fear. In fact, recent reports show that the boom in religious vocations during the 1950s was an anomaly and we are returning to historical levels of women religious. Most of all, I have never seen a smaller community as a drawback, but, indeed found it to be a plus. Here's why:
1) You are known.
When I was looking at religious communities, I visited several different places. One of the things that appealed to me most about my community was the size--the fact that I would not just be a nameless face in the chapel, but that I could know and be known by everyone in the community. I chose not to enter a larger congregation because it was community life that was important to me. For me, a larger number of Sisters would make that more difficult, rather than easier. This knowing and being known means that the community can call me to holiness by stretching me and challenging me because they know me deeply.
Sister Belinda, second from right, stands with some her fellow sisters of different ages.
2) Called to become yourself, not an institution
Some Sisters note that as smaller, older communities, we are no longer able to run the large institutions that religious women used to manage. Again, this does not have to be a negative feature of religious life today, but can be a positive. I entered religious life because it held out the promise of allowing me to become who God called me to be, not because it offered a ministry that I wanted to do. In many ways, it would have been easier for me to pursue a ministry as a single woman. Instead, community calls me to be accountable to the members of the community; to be present to the community at prayers and meals. Single-minded pursuit of ministry--no matter how worthy the goal--can take away from that. Old stories of Sisters falling asleep in chapel or during Lectio Divina because of their heavy workload make me grateful that we no longer attempt to manage large institutions and ignore the work/prayer balance that Benedict instructed us to live.
Sister Mercedes Moore, above, is 100 years old, but does not let her near blindness keep her from crocheting afghans that she generously gives to anyone who might want one.
3) It's not about size or age, it's about presence
I believe that it has always been the Sisters' presence, who they were, how they did what they did, that was the key to religious life. When I read letters from alumnae to Sisters who taught them in years past, they often emphasize the Sisters' generous gifts of time and the care that the Sisters took with their education. We still have those gifts to give the world, undiminished by size and age.