A writer with Pacific Standard asked that question—and found some answers:
The number of Catholic sisters in the U.S. has steadily declined from a peak in 1965 of 181,421, to about 49,883, according to a 2014 report by researchers at Georgetown University. By 2009, just one percent of sisters were under the age of 40. In fact, there are more sisters over the age of 90 than there are under 60.
Those one percent of under-40 nuns appear to be clustered in several convents throughout the country. In 2006, those same Georgetown researchers found about 85 new orders in the country, although they caution that those numbers are about as constant as Silicon Valley start-ups. The researchers also detailed six female-oriented religious institutes that had doubled membership between 1970 and 2013.
Sociologist Patricia Wittberg, of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, emphasizes that, while these new sisters get their fair share of media attention (the Dominican Sisters of Mary, called Mother of the Eucharist, appeared on Oprah in 2010), teens are not in fact running to the convent in droves (as they did in the 1950s). “These are the minority of the minority, those who are furiously Catholic, kids who are homeschooled because the local parish school is too liberal,” Wittberg says. “They have a hunger for doctrinal certainty … or, a spiritual fervor.” Communal religious life almost completely eluded Generation X (a comparatively high 20 percent of that generation claims to be unaffiliated with religion), so the fact that anyone under 30 enters a convent now seems newsworthy.
In any religion, Wittberg says, the most devout hunger for more than weekly Mass or services or prayer. Catholic women like Roufs have either started new orders, or joined conservative orders that have survived. [Mother Claire] Roufs puts the idea in secular terms:
If you look at an athlete, you can go shoot hoops out here anytime, but only a few people are going to play in the NBA. … Those who are going to be playing in the NBA are those who are dedicated, and given to a mission and something bigger than themselves. They’re not just playing hoops by themselves whenever they want; they’re playing with a team, they’re playing in obedience to their coach, and they’re living a disciplined life. They shine in a way no other can because their life is ordered to that great end they’re pursing. So too with religious life.
To be sure, research shows that Millennial sisters place more importance on community, and, for some, the absence of digital life may be a welcome change.
“It’s a hunger for quiet,” Wittberg says.
And check out the website for the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, who are the focus of the story.
Photo: Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus website