Voices of the the Future: Young Women Religious Are Reaching across Congregational Boundaries to Revitalize Religious Life

By Mesman, Jessica | U.S. Catholic, January 2020 | Go to article overview

Voices of the the Future: Young Women Religious Are Reaching across Congregational Boundaries to Revitalize Religious Life


Mesman, Jessica, U.S. Catholic


At 32, novice Maria Anna Dela Paz is the youngest sister in her congregation, the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, by about 20 years. She was drawn to the community's Franciscan charism and its emphasis on human rights and social justice advocacy, but she says, "I didn't ever think there were people like me who were discerning."

She's not alone. According to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 90 percent of Catholic sisters alive today are over the age of 60; most are closer to 80. The majority are white. Many younger religious sisters, who reflect the increasing diversity of the general population, have no peers in their home congregations.

These women often feel invisible. They aren't part of a trendsetting organization like Nuns and Nones, in which aging religious sisters partner with secular Millennials to share resources and work for social justice. Their stories don't seem to attract the same media attention as their peers who discern in the more "traditional" orders or those who wear the full habit and don't work outside of their convents. These women usually come to their congregations with careers they will continue. Sister Dela Paz is a program coordinator at the University of San Diego. Others are counselors, teachers, lawyers, and full-time students. But they've also chosen a radically countercultural life of service to the church and those most in need.

The dominant narrative of vowed religious life has for decades been one of diminishment and scarcity. Those are words younger religious sisters are tired of hearing. It's true, however, that women such as Dela Paz struggle with being minorities in their aging home communities. "It's difficult to talk about your hope for the future of religious life when you don't see the young faces," Dela Paz says. "It's easy for younger religious women to think 'I'm the only one.'"

These younger women are drawn to religious life for many of the same reasons as their older sisters: They heard a calling to the life of prayer, service, and working for social justice. But even though their days as sisters may look similar, they've grown up in different worlds, and their experiences of Catholicism are often unimaginable to each other. A sister born in 1985 knows a different church than a sister who took vows before Vatican II or even before Roe v. Wade.

Thirty-seven-year-old Sister, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Lisa Perkowski, an art teacher at a Catholic high school in Tampa, also expressed the difficulty of developing one's gifts while living in community with much older women. Although there is genuine love and mutual care, "we are living our lives through a different lens and time," she says. "I think our older sisters can only see so far. They're struggling with diminished energy, while we still have half a lifetime or more ahead of us. When I'm thinking ahead, compared to my community members I'm thinking a lot differently."

Who is helping these younger sisters prepare for the future of religious life--a future their aging sisters won't see? They're reaching across congregational boundaries and turning to one another.

Finding their voice

Both Perkowski and Dela Paz connect with other younger women religious as part of a grassroots organization called Giving Voice, created in 1999 to fill the void of peer mentoring and support that once happened naturally in congregational life.

"My first introduction [to Giving Voice] was through a closed Facebook group, so I got to 'Facebook stalk' some other young sisters," laughs Dela Paz. "There was this beautiful joy that exuded from their profiles." To see the joy and hope of peers her age already living out their vocations was a revelation.

While still a novice, Dela Paz went on her first retreat with the organization and met these younger sisters in person for the first time. Right away she felt the difference in being surrounded by peers. …

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