In my column last week I referred to what the second meaning of the extinguished light near the Tabernacle signified: a severe crisis in vocations. Today I want to share how the post-conciliar church is dealing with this crisis.
Members of the National Religious Vocation Conference met over a year ago to figure out how to attract young Catholics to the religious life. Women in particular are not entering convents today. Walk into a third grade classroom in a Catholic school and ask how many girls want to be sisters. Not a hand goes up.
The statistics, for those who are only convinced by hard numbers, are indeed bleak. In 1965 there were 181,000 nuns in the United States. Ten years later, after the winds of change had blown into the Church with Vatican II, their number dropped to 135,000. By 2000, there were 84,000 with a median age close to 70. No one would call this a "fruit" of Vatican II, because the very word, fruit, implies a harvest, health, vitality. But no one denies that Vatican II marks the point when vocations began to drop, drop, drop, as steadily and surely habits were abandoned and rules laid aside or revised to accomodate the modern day world.
So a committee of nuns with doctorates was formed to make a "scientific" study on why young people are not entering the convents. What are they finding? Should the sisters who are out "recruiting" perhaps take a more spiritual approach? Would it be the case to look back to the pre-Vatican II days when vocations flourished, the convents were full, and the religious women in the American Church fashioned the nation's second biggest school system and one of the nation's largest health care networks?
No, they haven't had the simple good sense to realize that to look backward is not to be backward. For the progressivists, it is always onward and ever forward. What is needed, the study concludes, is for the religious to conform even more to the current ways and styles. "Are you willing to hang out with youth?" is the imperious question. "Are you ready to invite them [the youth] to visit, even overnight in your houses?" (Remember, most convents are closed, almost everyone has adapted to the modern world and live in regular apartments or houses.) "Are you familiar with their jargon, their music, their culture?" ("The Religious calling: to hang out with the youth," Special edition of the National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 23, 2001, pp. 29-48).
It is not the life of self-denial, prayer, suffering and sacrifice that is emphasized. Instead, Sr. May Johnson, co-author of the Young Adult study, tells us that youth want "community, intimacy, spirituality, the chance to serve and be challenged and accountable." Career goals in a self-fulfilled life of service. I invite my young readers to respond: Is this the kind of religious life that attracts you?
Further, the study notes, it's not good to stress the idea of celibacy, which "gives the idea of denial, ignorance and forswearance of the body." The youth of today "are into running and sports"; they need "to relate to their bodies' spirituality." The conclusion: "It's time for religious to develop 'a spirituality of the body.'"
The response of one practical minded young lady seemed eminently logical to me in view of this notion of "being religious": "Why be a nun at all when you look like everyone else, have jobs and careers, and live in houses and apartments like the rest of us? I can do what you do and get married too -- and have it all."
The two pictures reflect two mentalities, and, if you like, two conceptions of the Church. Obviously, we are in face of two conceptions of religious vocations.
In the first, the three young women are dressed to be comfortable and fit in with their peers. They smile broadly and casually, pleased with their careers, their accomplishments, their lives of "service." Their first concern is not the glory of God, but citizenship in the modern day world. No sign of a total renunciation, a care for recollection and a separation of the sexes, no more sacrality in attitudes or even in dress. What is most striking in these modern women is a psychological contradiction: that is, to dedicate their lives to God and, at the same time, to try to please the world. In this unfeasible juggling act, they lost both things: they are neither spouses of Jesus Christ nor women of the world. Certainly I don't blame these three amiable women, for they are the victims of a much vaster process. They are following the contradictory orientation of the conciliar modern day Church.
In the other picture, you see the coherence of being of three novices who have already given themselves to God and are not looking back toward the things they left in the world. From this grand renunciation, from this life of spirit and prayer comes the enormous peace and calm one sees in these figures who gather together to study on a pleasant summer day. Their habits, their postures, their very way of being are a kind of mirror that reflects for us the great dignity, measured discipline and serene beauty that used to mark everything touched by the Holy Faith.
Without even seeing the faces of these sisters, we know that their features will be composed and calm despite what personal trials they may be undergoing. Without knowing if these novices are destined to teach, to nurse or to embrace the contemplative life, we know that we are in the presence of a sublime and noble disinterest. What shines forth in these three figures is a grand ideal, a life entirely surrendered to Christ and to souls, a grand ideal that the Religious were asked to have continually before them and labor to attain despite human weaknesses and insufficiencies. The figures are faceless, but it is clear that we are in the presence of the happiness that only peace of soul can give. Sacrality, peace, seriousness, joy and a profound psychological equilibrium. These are the impressions these three novices leaves us with even though we do not see their faces.
Does it seem strange that the convents were teeming with new vocations when religious life was seen foremost as a life of sacrifice and self-denial, rather than a life of self-fulfillment and service? It shouldn't. Youth, which was made for sacrifice and heroism, are willing to give up everything for love of an ideal. I have the full certainty that the religious sister of tomorrow, that is, the religious sister in the Reign of Mary, will look much more like the ones of the past than those of the present. This is not just a presentiment based on fancy; even today the orders that are growing and prospering are those where the sisters wear habits, follow a rule, embrace a life of self-sacrifice and prayer, the life of the Cross.
When will these convents and orders flourish again? I know many single women and young girls who await the response. A very wise man I knew once gave the best answer I ever heard: When the trunk is strong, he said, it will support many branches. When the Holy Catholic Church is once again strong and healthy, its sap healthy and flowing strong and pure, then the orders for women will flourish. The Catholic Church and Christian Civilization are in the terrible situation that we see, and God does not come to its aid, Our Lady delays her grand intercession, because of the sins of men. However, she inspires souls, often those who remain in the lay state precisely because of the crisis inside the Church, to be disposed to suffer to expiate these sins and to restore the glory of God on earth and to save souls.
The joy of the expiatory soul who thus immolates herself for the glory of God is an enormous joy amid enormous suffering and trials. It is also a life of spiritual aridity and trials. It can seem at times there is no place where she fits in this modern day world. But she has the joy of knowing that Our Lady smiles and accepts these sufferings for this noble cause: the restoration of the Catholic Church and Christian Civilization. It is a special suffering undertaken to prepare for the vocations of tomorrow. The Psalm of the Prophets becomes the refrain of such stalwart souls who never cease to insist that Our Lord should cleanse and restore what is His: "You that are mindful of the Lord, hold not your peace. And give Him no silence till He establish and till He make Jerusalem a praise in the earth."