After a year packed with news articles on religious orders, a Dallas Morning News feature on a convent in Texas stands out.
This piece is smart, insightful and multi-sourced. Unfortunately, the best stuff is buried five or more paragraphs deep. Here's how it starts:
There were once no vacancies at the Jesus the Good Shepherd Convent in Grand Prairie. Now there are plenty of open rooms.
In decades past, the convent, a sprawling complex on a large plot of land just off the Bush Turnpike, housed around 40 members from the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth.
Fifteen women from the order live there now, with four of them ministering to the outside community.
Where have we read that before?
Pretty much everywhere. And that's a pity, because the 800-word Dallas story has much to offer.
It quotes six sources -- including a 51-year veteran, a sister who just took her vows in October, and the order's national director of vocations. It interviews two women who are exploring religious life over a weekend visit. And it includes details like:
The order’s dwindling numbers reflect a broader trend in the sisterhood across the U.S. In the past 50 years, researchers at Georgetown University reported, there has been a 75 percent decrease in the number of Catholic nuns in the U.S., from 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 50,000 last year.
Perhaps more significant, there are now more sisters over the age of 90 than there are under the age of 60.
But these sisters aren’t just watching the falling numbers, as the Morning News reports. They've rebranded the convent as the Nazarene Retreat Center, a "peaceful place for spiritual rejuvenation."
Like some other orders, the Holy Family Sisters are also holding weekend stays, introducing young women to their lifestyle. The two seekers in the article profess simultaneous interest and caution.
One woman gives the Morning News an especially insightful view:
Rachel Lamb, 30, had her own concerns but saw no difference between the life-changing decisions her friends are making, too.
"The more I look at it," she said, "the more I realize it’s the same reservations I see my friends having about getting married."
Despite the initiative, the newspaper makes the several times that the sisters consider quality more important than quantity. As Sister Bernice Stobierski tells the Morning News: "It’s not a matter of competition like I get this girl or you get that girl. We need to be happy with whatever choice this person makes."
But the article gets a bit fuzzy in adding: "These trips are important because attracting a younger generation of sisters might revitalize the institution, according to researchers at Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate." Aside from which researchers said that, isn’t it a rather obvious statement? By definition, a younger generation would revitalize the place, no?
The story is also a bit soft in citing Vatican II:
Sisters at the center point to the Catholic Church’s transformation after the Second Vatican Council as a key reason for their declining numbers.
During the council, held from October 1962 to December 1965, church leaders said furthering the faith was the responsibility of all Catholics, not just the clergy. People of faith could now help the official institutions without joining them.
Which of the 16 Vatican II documents does that refer to? I would guess it's Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations), which explains the peoplehood of the Church. As the U.S. bishops explain it:
All the faithful, by virtue of their baptism, are called to proclaim Jesus to the world. The lay faithful live out this call by witnessing to Christ in the family, the workplace, and the civic community. This is the secular character of the laity, which demands their active engagement with the world.
The Dallas Morning News team was essentially accurate in its drastic summary, but a closer quote of a church source would have helped.
Finally, the two visitors could have been asked why they were even considering the convent. Did they hear a call to the vocation? Did any of their relatives join an order? How do they think it will enhance their lives? Those unasked questions make up the kind of religious ghosts that we at GR spot all too often: spiritual angles left unexplored in mainstream news.
And in the case of the Morning News feature, burying the good stuff is like a case of buried treasure. I hope most readers will dig down to it.
Cover thumbnail photo: Sister Josephine Garrett of Jesus the Good Shepherd Convent in Grand Prairie, Texas.