This blog post was written by CARA summer intern Nicole Cornell, a rising sophomore at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University in St. Joseph, Minnesota. She is double-majoring in Sociology and Theology. As part of her internship she has been studying theories of what attracts women to religious life.
The age old question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty has often been used to determine a person’s level of optimism. However, does it really matter if it is half-full or half-empty, as long as the content is drinkable?
This same notion can be applied to the declining trend of female religious in the United States today. What if it’s not the trend in numbers of religious vocations that really matters here? Perhaps it’s a matter of finding clarity? Just as what really matters is the content of the glass being drinkable, what really matters is how religious orders can exist in a future time, regardless of the many hypothesized reasons for the downward trend in their membership.
Throughout several of the sociological hypotheses surrounding the topic, a common thread emerges, calling religious orders to define a strong and clear sense of community. Clarity of description regarding the unique aspects of community life offered in religious orders is generally agreed upon as a necessary component in order to illustrate religious orders’ usefulness and purpose in modern-day America. A strong sense of community promotes important living aspects of religious life for women religious, contributes to preferred atmosphere for religious life, and is attractive to new, younger members.
In the study entitled, "Recent Vocations to Religious Life: A Report for the National Religious Vocation Conference" (2009), conducted by CARA, new members of religious orders in the United States were surveyed on a variety of aspects relating to their discernment process and religious life preferences. This data was then narrowed to only female religious respondents for the purpose of this article.
As religious orders seek to attract new vocations by appealing to a younger generation of Catholics – defined as the Millennial Generation (born in 1982 or later) – the importance of defining a strong and clear sense of community must be considered in its relation to the appeal of religious life.
In examining correlations within the data it was evident that several factors relating to generational differences in opinions on the importance of community life were evident among female religious (correlations significant at the .05 level, 95% confidence interval).
The graph below demonstrates that, overall, Millennial women religious were more likely to place higher importance on various aspects relating to the "sense of community" within a religious order both in their discernment process and as professed members of their order.
Support for the higher importance placed on a "sense of community" by younger women in religious life compared to those of older generations is shown through preferences for living in larger communities, as well as greater importance placed on aspects that make up community living. Almost three in four Millennial women religious (74%) prefer to live in "large" size communities, that is, living in a community of 8 or more members together. This is in contrast to only half (49%) of women religious from all earlier generations.
Also, 8 in 10 younger women religious place "very much" importance on all aspects that make up community living in religious life such as:
- Living with other members
- Praying with other members
- Working with other members
- Sharing meals together
- Socializing or sharing leisure time together
These respondents are considered to value "high community." This is in contrast to only a little over half (53%) of respondents from other generations listing all aspects of community life to have "very much" importance to them.
Quite evidently, the question of the contents of the glass being drinkable or not, trumps the question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. In the same way, regardless of what may be said on the decline of membership in women religious orders in the United States today, the importance lies in how religious orders will continue to function in the future, regardless of the trend.
Throughout several of the theories, there is a suggestion that a strong and clear sense of community needs to be evident by religious orders for them to continue to exist within modern, American society. A strong sense of community life is an important aspect of religious life valued by both incoming and current members, to varying degrees.
It is evident that young people today are more attracted to groups with a strong sense of community. Therefore, it is the orders that are able to exude their sense of community to the external world that young people will be more attracted to join. Young people are looking for orders that offer this strong and clear sense of community. Such orders visibly stand for something unique and have a specific mission and identity that is deemed worthy of receiving a young person’s gift of self.
Above photo courtesy of micmol at Flickr Creative Commons.