Hope Blooms at CTU despite Vocations Drop

By Unsworth, Tim | National Catholic Reporter, February 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

Hope Blooms at CTU despite Vocations Drop


Unsworth, Tim, National Catholic Reporter


Sr. Peg Spindler, once addressed as Sr. David Ann, has been a Sister of Ss. Cyril and Methodius for 32 years.

Once numbering around 400, the 89-year-old community now has less than half that number, and only 27 members are 50 or younger. Presently, it has no candidates.

If Spindler's congregation is slowly dying, it is not alone. Numbers in virtually all congregations of religious continue to decline. Presently, according to the 1997 edition of The Official Catholic Directory, there are 108,333 vowed religious sisters, brothers and priests in the United States, not counting Americans serving overseas. In 1994, there were 116,281 -- a decline of nearly 8,000 in four years.

Not long ago, a researcher at the Center for the Advancement of Research in the Apostolate in Washington stated that the numbers have just about bottomed out and that future losses would be largely attributable to deaths and the paucity of candidates.

"We're like the Shakers without the furniture," one wag suggested.

The massive numbers of first-generation candidates from immigrant families have simply dried up together with many of the missions they were founded to accomplish. The earlier congregations could be said to be victims of their own success, having educated laity to do many of their tasks.

The wider field of possibilities these days also works against vocations. As one former nun observed: "When I entered more than 50 years ago, a woman had two choices. She could enter the convent or the [Women's Army Corps.]." Today, a might-be religious has almost unlimited choices.

But Spindler is not concerned about the vocations drought. "It doesn't bother me that there will be fewer religious," she said. "I entered to serve. There will always be a space in the church for this kind of life. It's a prophetic thing. It's a leaven. I'm helping the dough to rise."

One good spot to watch the bread bake is the Catholic Theological Union, a distinguished 347-student theologate near the campus of the University of Chicago. Sixty-four percent of the student body is religious, mostly religious men. There are 45 female religious and 84 lay women, just over twice the number of lay men.

In December 1997, 37 major superiors of male congregations gathered at CTU to discuss aspects of religious life.

"These men have been through it all," Passionist Fr. Donald Senior, now in his third term as president of CTU, said.

"There is no one formula for addressing these problems," Senior continued. "There is often a call for standardization in the church, but there will always be the Pauline impulse to respond spontaneously. There will always be people on the outer edge.

"Just know" he concluded, "that religious congregations are making harder, more reflective choices."

New thinking

Those reflective choices show up in the thinking about the state of religious life emanating from those who know it best.

During her 20 years at Catholic Theological Union, where she is a professor of Old Testament Studies, Sr. Dianne Bergant has witnessed literally hundreds of religious preparing for their missions. Her own Congregation of St. Agnes was founded in 1858 by a German immigrant priest to serve the needs of other German immigrants in the Midwest. Today, in common with other congregations, it struggles with being faithful to its original charisms and the pressure to address new needs.

"At Christmas," she recalled, "I sent 150 Christmas cards to members of my congregation who live alone, just as I do. It's not easy. You make a ministerial decision, but [when living alone] my life gets cluttered.

"It's extremely difficult to know what it is to be poor. Very few religious orders are challenging their members to live frugally. I have the same problem."

Bergant gets unsettled when she hears talk of numbers. …

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