Women religious advised to stop focusing on dwindling numbers

| Soli Salgado | August 14, 2017 | 18 Comments


Sister Mary Pellegrino, outgoing president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, urged participants at the group’s annual assembly in Orlando not to focus on dwindling numbers of women religious but instead on the communion they have with each other.

She said the danger of focusing too much on decreasing numbers is that it diminishes every vocation, the church and even God.

“It’s rooted in a corporate God who ascribes to human notions of progress and growth, rather than rhythmic patterns of fruitfulness,” Sister Pellegrino, a Sister of St. Joseph, said in an Aug. 10 talk, adding that concern about smaller numbers also “reflects our fears and our uneasy and unresolved relationship with death.”

She said a new emphasis on deepening communion could be liberating but also challenging.

Sister Pellegrino gave the keynote address during the Aug. 8-11 assembly for the association of the leaders of congregations of Catholic women religious in the United States. LCWR has about 1,350 members, who represent nearly 80 percent of the approximately 48,500 women religious in the United States.

Looking back, she said the “golden age” of religious life happened around World War II and after the Second Vatican Council and its call for renewal of religious life in the 1960s, it was all downhill, according to prevailing accounts that say women religious left teaching in the schools to take secular jobs, swapped habits for street clothes and became feminists.

She said the current story about sisters is that they’re old and dying. But instead of being stuck looking back, she urged women religious to find a new way forward stressing that the groundwork has already begun through the apostolic visitation — a three-year study of U.S. women religious called for by the Vatican — and its findings released in the LCWR doctrinal assessment.

“Consider what God and humanity are asking for today,” she told the women religious leaders, noting that Catholic sisters in the United States are from 83 countries on six continents.

She also asked them to consider the reality of their cultural and ethnic diversity in a country whose government threatens to close or limit access to its borders in some new way each day.

Sister Pellegrino urged them to think about what it would mean to bring the “spiritual maturity and historical depth of centuries-old spiritualties and charisms to bear on the life and development of emerging communities in the church.”

The vitality of consecrated life and its spiritual energy is particularly evident when looking at worldwide gatherings of younger religious, she said, adding that they are more culturally, ethnically and theologically diverse than their older counterparts.

“These women are not naive, nor do they lack a sense of history,” she said. “They’re well aware of the boundaries they’re crossing and equally aware of Pope Francis’ call and reminder to religious men and women everywhere that our life and each of us by virtue of our vocation are to be witnesses of communion in and for a broken world.”

But even though the outgoing LCWR president called for optimism, she ended her presidential address on a somber note, acknowledging the week’s underlying theme of grief and the heartbreak that weighs on sisters outside the assembly.

She said sisters have “vigiled” at too many deathbeds, hosted too many wakes of friends and mentors.

“These are the heartbreaking losses that belong to God’s time and not our own,” Sister Pellegrino said, adding that they grieve together for death, but also for institutional losses that blur their comprehension for what the future holds.

“Our own grief is a gateway to grace, not only for ourselves, but for our world. The grace that will come from embracing this paschal narrative of communion will be costly, but it will not diminish us,” she said. “It will take our best energy and will not consume us. It will open us to the vitality that lies deep at the heart of communion with God, with another and with the wider world. It will help us to speak new languages, and apprehend new images and tell new stories.”

“It will remake us,” Sister Pellegrino said. “And while it is remaking us, we will remake the world.”

Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report.

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Category: U.S. & World News

  • JTLiuzza

    “And while it is remaking us, we will remake the world.”

    That’s pretty much the same refrain we’ve heard from these sisters since the council. They’re still waiting. I can only imagine how difficult it is to arrive at old age, look back on your entire life, and admit that you were wrong all along.

    How about: “Where are the young people? We’re old. Our once thriving religious orders are dying and will die with us in the not too distant future. We have in one generation destroyed orders that were built by Saints and lasted, some of them for centuries. We made big mistakes in the directions we took our orders and our very lives as religious. We ask God’s forgiveness and will spend what time we have left trying to restore, in whatever small way we can, that which we were given and which we destroyed.”

    There’s your source of grace, sister. Right there.

  • Willyum

    Poor Sister, she’s whistling past the cemetery. Dead sisters can’t take to the streets to evangelize. She’s in denial. She and her kind have done wrong and they can’t man-up to it….well, woman-up to it.

    • JTLiuzza

      And the sad absurdity of proclaiming to a bunch of 70+ year old women, “we will remake the world!” They’re stuck in the naive, misguided optimism of their 20’s.

  • CLQ24

    Not surprising their numbers are dwindling. They have been so of this world that there is no reason for anyone to join their religious orders. Why live a religious order’s lifestyle when you are no different then any other person living in the world today. Too bad they have yet to figure it out.

  • James B

    Vatican II has all but killed religious life.

  • JJM

    Is anyone really surprised that the vast majority of orders and institutes that belong to and support the LCWR find themselves in this position? They have sought new ways to follow the “Spirit of Vatican II” and have come up short. I am sure many were sincere, but for heaven’s sake, at least thirty years ago they knew that they were way off track when the numbers of candidates were drying up. Still, they persisted in doing things ad experimentum. I have met way too many who did what they wanted to do, including some modern religious. When they reject community, flit form job to job, perpetually taking workshops and vacations/retreats, fully embracing the world (secular dress, makeup, hair and nails, jewelry, new cars every five years, they loose touch with their vocation. I’ll never forget a professed religious sister who told me that she doesn’t attend Mass any longer, except when she has to (family events, funerals). She told me it was “liberating” to be an adult and to do what she wanted with her time. What sets them apart from the average middle aged woman? Nothing, except that she has good health care paid by the order and her apartment rent is subsidized . Not to mention lifestyle situations that, in some cases, are immoral. Res ipso loquitor (the thing speaks for itself). Sadly, many have lost their way and it is very difficult for any of us to admit when we made a mistake.

    • Michael Aiello

      They see new orders filled with young vocations and yet they still stand defiant and won’t see the light.

  • Jim Dorchak

    What are women religious????
    I would not know one if I saw one.

    Maybe that is the problem?

  • James

    This script has gone from ludicrous, to hilarious to boring.
    This woman is in a state of pathological denial, and unfortunately she is legion.
    The great tragedy of the 20th century has been the vaporization of religious life. The eradication of women religious by surreptitious and deliberate means is an act of the Adversary, the father of lies, and an affront to Jesus Christ Who has not relented from calling souls to His service.
    With the abandonment of the classical expression of religious life, sisters committed suicide. It is their fault and the fault of a male episcopate without sufficient wits to find their way out of a paper bag.

  • Charles C.

    There is a story about nuns, and I tried to interest The Catholic Spirit in it, but it’s not about a decline in consecrated lives. Let me give you some excerpts from various news sources.

    “Sister John Mary has no possessions and wears a ring to signify her marriage to God. She’s one of the Sisters of Life, a convent of young, ultra-conservative Catholic nuns that was founded in New York in 1991, and arrived in Canada in 2007.

    In today’s world, choosing to become a nun obviously takes strong conviction. Choosing to become an orthodox, habit-wearing nun takes something more — that perhaps comes with the passion of youth.

    At the age of 29 — young for a nun in modern times — Sister John Mary committed herself to lifelong vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. The habit that she wears, sews and washes herself is a sign of her commitment in what she calls today’s “post-Christian culture.”

    “As our culture seeks to exclude God, we are attracted by a radical response to God,” said Sister John Mary.

    “It’s very counter-cultural, but there’s a great joy and freedom in the vows that we take in poverty, chastity and obedience. And it’s kind of the opposite of what our culture offers.”

    The Sisters of Life is one of the few highly orthodox orders of nuns that are seeing rapid growth in an era when religious life is otherwise declining in North America. Their growth is in part a response to an increasingly secular society as fewer people — especially young people — attend regular religious service or describe themselves as religious.


    But traditional, ultra-orthodox orders are on the rise.

    Insofar as women entering Catholic religious orders in the United States and Canada, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the only thing going,” said Sister Patricia Wittberg, a Georgetown University researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. She studies new religious communities.

    The Sisters of Life more than doubled in size between 2006 and 2016, as did the orthodox Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mi. The habit-wearing Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia convent in Nashville, Fl., has also grown recently.

    From just eight women in 1991, the Sisters of Life now has 102 members, including 13 from Canada. About one-third have joined in the past three years. The average woman who joins the convent is 25, which is significant.

    What this tells me is that the Spirit is moving among orthodox Catholics as it dies out among the “modern” ones. That’s the story we should be shouting to the world.

  • jacobum

    Not hard to explain. The religious orders changed their vocations and dress from Catholic Nuns to Secular Social Justice Warriors. Then V2 destroyed the engine of grace from worshiping God in the Mass of the Ages to the equivalent of a Protestant Communion Service aka a Catholic Happy Meal. The Catholic Church became the Conciliar Church and switched from worshiping God to worshiping man. How’s that all worked out? A man made disaster. Another 10 yrs and time and truth will finish off the rebels.

  • Scott Voit

    How can 1,350 LCWR members represent 43,000+ women religious? Who are they? Someone once said: they’re social workers who don’t date … That’s all i can say about them.

    • Prospero

      That is a good one.

  • DJR

    “‘It will remake us,’ Sister Pellegrino said. ‘And while it is remaking us, we will remake the world.’”

    Sounds like a typical commencement speech, the kind that defies the reality all around us.

    Sister, the LCWR is not going to “remake” anything because, in a few short years, there aren’t going to be any of you to do it.

  • susanna

    Sister! Sister! Why are the religious orders where I live selling their beautiful properties and buildings and having little pride parades in sloppy clothes? Stop focusing on the past little susie, we’re going to remake ourselves and the world now! God thinks we’re just wonderful.

  • giannamolla

    Very sorrowful tohear such theo-babble from Sr. Pellegrino. I think the best thing we can all do is pray to Jesus that he will deliver them from the bonds of New Age occultism and radical feminist ideology. In His Mercy, may Jesus help them to become true brides of Christ before they die.

  • Oak66

    Bottom line…blah blah blah…we have no reason to exist…They love leftism more than Christianity.. and Catholicism…They are NOT compatible.

  • Paula Ruddy

    Oh my goodness, this report struck a nerve, mostly with men, it seems. The pre-Vatican II Church was very beautiful in many ways. I loved it too. With great admiration I watched religious sisters adapt to a mission in the world among the marginalized, guided by the official Church’s teaching in Vatican II. More beautiful when you think of the way of Jesus. Making the adaptations, like changing into contemporary dress, was not easy. The women I know, now in their 70’s and 80’s, are still teaching ESL classes, working in food shelves, health clinics, and parish ministries. They have only grown stronger in faith and in compassion for their “neighbor.” They are heroines in my eyes. Should I be running them down in the name of Jesus?