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Nuns in a Time of Nones: The Winding Path to Today’s Religious Vocations

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(Photo by Lori Lo/Pixabay/Creative Commons)

(RNS) — Sister Maria Angeline Weiss recalls her choice to embrace the religious life of a Catholic sister as fairly straightforward. As a 16-year-old Catholic high schooler in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she was drawn to the “joy and her simplicity” of one of the nuns who taught at the school “and her love of prayer.”

That teacher belonged to an order called the Sisters of Christian Charity. When Weiss, now 35, visited one of the order’s convents, she said, “I very quickly felt like I was at home.” Weiss entered a Sisters of Christian Charity community at the age of 18.

But for Sister Madeleine Davis, who has taken her initial vows in Sisters of Christian Charity, the path has been more circuitous.

Growing up in an evangelical Protestant family in northern Illinois, Davis — then Abigail, before she took her religious name of Madeleine — didn’t know much about Catholicism. But when she was in high school her brother, inspired by the writings of the early church fathers, converted. On his visits home from college, they began to have long conversations about faith. A few years later, Davis was hospitalized after a car accident, and a Catholic chaplain dropped by to see her. Though a brief encounter, she said, she experienced the love of Christ through him and decided to embrace the Catholic faith.

“Before becoming a Catholic,” said Davis, now in her early 30s, “I felt like my life was empty. I was just doing what was expected of me, and I didn’t even want it all that much.”

Her story is familiar to Sister Mary O’Donovan, vocation director for the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. In a time when Christianity is on the decline and the religiously unaffiliated, known by pollsters as “nones,” are on the rise, “a lot of young people don’t have meaning in life,” said O’Donovan.

“There is a very great hunger out there. They’re really searching. Some know what they are searching for. Some don’t. Sometimes they are just waiting to be asked, ‘Did you ever think of religious life?’”

Nobody asked Davis. Not long after her conversion, however, “all of a sudden, the idea came to me: Well, you could be a sister,” she said.

The problem? She wasn’t sure religious sisters were still a thing. Having found, on Google, that they were, she began to contemplate the idea seriously.

Her misgivings revolved mostly around the idea of forfeiting motherhood. “So, I started praying, and asking God: ‘If you want me to be a sister, help me to want it too.’”

Another obstacle was her parents. While they weren’t bothered about her joining the Catholic Church, “becoming a sister was a much bigger deal,” said Davis. “They were so upset.” (They are now on good terms.)

Eventually, after living for a time with a community of religious contemplatives in New Mexico, Davis, working at a local crisis pregnancy center and as a volunteer caregiver for the elderly, realized she was on the right path, she said. “I was so happy, even though I was busy and tired. I loved what I was doing,” she said. “It was then that I realized the way I was trying to serve looked a lot more like a Sister of Christian Charity.”