nuns

Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

Will millennials decide to become nuns? NJ.com and RNS offer contrasting answers

As nuns age, the huge question has been about who can be found to replace them. The future of Catholic religious orders in the United States is pretty dire at the moment. Two publications recently came out with stories on millennials and nuns, with very different conclusions.

One story is a splashy, detailed look at a handful of millennial women who entered Catholic religious orders in New Jersey and their reasons for doing so. Another is a Religion News Service story, datelined Grand Rapids, Mich., about older nuns who meet with agnostic/seeking millennial women and try to connect on a spiritual plane.

The New Jersey story, available on NJ.com (a group of news sources including the Newark Star-Ledger) follows three women who joined religious orders. There’s Anna, a Rutgers grad; Chiara, a one-time nursing student at Villanova; and Lauren, a former Australian actress now living with a contemplative religious order.

They’re millennial women who have chosen a path more popular for generations before them — one that involves kneeling before an altar, vowing to live in poverty, obeying God and abstaining from sex.

“I didn’t see a lightning bolt that fell out of the sky,” Sister Anna said. “I didn’t see an angel who told me what I was going to do in my life.”

In our hyper-connected, media-saturated age, it’s hard enough to get people to slow down and engage with the spiritual world, much less get them to consider a life lived in service to the church. Yet handfuls of millennial women across the state have taken that path. These women are serving as Catholic sisters or missionaries, many working through the process known as discernment to become “women religious,” commonly referred to as nuns. If the young sisters make it through the discernment process — which takes years and sometimes pulls them thousands of miles from family and friends — they are choosing something permanent, and forsaking the lures of marriage, kids, autonomy and material goods.

I know reporters may feel they have to dumb down religion stories for the masses, but the “kneeling before an altar”? Is that simple act so beyond the experience of most 20-somethings?

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Eve Fairbanks brings a sympathetic eye to aspiring nuns -- nuns! -- in HuffPost's Highline

Eve Fairbanks brings a sympathetic eye to aspiring nuns -- nuns! -- in HuffPost's Highline

For the second consecutive week, I am pleased to focus on an amazing work of religion coverage from an unexpected platform: “Why On Earth Are So Many Millennials Becoming Nuns?” by Eve Fairbanks, writing for the Huffington Post longform section, Highline.

Her essay begins (disclosure of my bias) exactly the way I would expect a HuffPost article to begin, when dealing with a subject linked to a traditional form of faith.

It’s all here — right down to the “scare” quotes in the predictable places. But the key word in that headline is “Millennial,” a generation wrestling with some interesting hopes, fears and anxieties. Let’s start here:

I went to a science magnet high school, graduating in 2001, but in my late 20s, I began to notice that some of my classmates were turning toward the Catholic faith. It surprised me: My high school was ostentatiously secular. We had a steel statue on the front lawn depicting the triumph of mathematical logic. Our senior class president wore a giant calculator costume to football games. When my government class held a mock debate over abortion, only two students out of 18 volunteered to argue the “pro-life” case. …

Catholicism seems especially out of step with contemporary American life. Protestantism easily accommodates rock bands and a personable, almost life coach-esque Jesus. But even liberal Catholic communities require submission to a gold-crowned pope who theologically can’t be wrong (in certain circumstances) and who is chosen by a hundred-odd men — only men — who undergo a ritual of eating the literal body of Christ embedded in a cracker. To say the sex scandals didn’t help is putting it mildly. A 2008 Pew Research Center study found that Catholicism lost more adherents in the late 20th century than any other religion in the U.S. About a third of Americans raised Catholic reported that they had left the church.

Still, there’s a certain allure to a high school with public art “depicting the triumph of mathematical logic.” The first photo featured wit this post, taken from Thomas Jefferson Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., offers one possibility.

Once Fairbanks moves past this scene-setting about how she came to write this essay, she interviews a few different young women — Tori, Rachael, Mackenzie — who are high-achieving idealists.

The key question: Is there more to life than what is offered by a consumerist American culture?

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Beyond Thorn Birds (again): Vatican confirms there are rules for priests with secret children

Beyond Thorn Birds (again): Vatican confirms there are rules for priests with secret children

Is it just me, or does anyone else suspect that this is a great time for journalists to ask Vatican officials hard questions about the sins of priests who want to have sex with females?

I am not joking about this, although I will confess that there is a rather cynical twist to my question.

Let me also stress that we are talking about serious stories, with victims who deserve attention and justice. We are also talking about stories that mesh with my conviction that secrecy is the key issue, the most powerful force in Rome’s scandals tied to sexual abuse by clergy (something I noted just yesterday).

Still, the timing is interesting — with Vatican officials doing everything they can to focus news coverage on the abuse of “children,” as opposed to male teens, and a few young adults, as opposed to — potentially — lots and lots of seminarians. I am talking about this week’s Vatican summit on sexual abuse.

So first we had a small wave of coverage of this totally valid story, as seen in this headline at The New York Times: “Sexual Abuse of Nuns: Longstanding Church Scandal Emerges From Shadows.”

Now there is this semi-Thorn Birds headline, also from the Gray Lady, the world’s most powerful newspaper: “Vatican’s Secret Rules for Catholic Priests Who Have Children.” Here’s the overture:

ROME — Vincent Doyle, a psychotherapist in Ireland, was 28 when he learned from his mother that the Roman Catholic priest he had always known as his godfather was in truth his biological father.

The discovery led him to create a global support group to help other children of priests, like him, suffering from the internalized shame that comes with being born from church scandal. When he pressed bishops to acknowledge these children, some church leaders told him that he was the product of the rarest of transgressions.

But one archbishop finally showed him what he was looking for: a document of Vatican guidelines for how to deal with priests who father children, proof that he was hardly alone.

“Oh my God. This is the answer,” Mr. Doyle recalled having said as he held the document. He asked if he could have a copy, but the archbishop said no — it was secret.

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Friday Five: Abuse of nuns, pope on God's will, 'delivering' Mass, church parking tax, Tim Tebow

Friday Five: Abuse of nuns, pope on God's will, 'delivering' Mass, church parking tax, Tim Tebow

Friday Five always is a quick-hit collection of links from the world of religion news.

It’ll be even more so this week as I’m typing this from a Pennsylvania Turnpike travel stop en route to New Jersey on a reporting trip.

Since I need to hit the road again, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Priests sexually abusing nuns? What next?

It’s not an easy story to read or comment on. Perhaps that’s why we’ve neglected to mention it so far here at GetReligion. Sometimes a story is just too big and too complex to get a quick take on it. Also, the web of stories linked to clergy sexual abuse just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and more complex.

But we’ll keep our eyes open on this one.

Meanwhile, these early headlines should not go unnoticed, including “Pope Francis confirms priests' abuse of nuns included ‘sexual slavery’“ from CBS News, “Pope Francis acknowledges abuse of nuns for the first time” from Axios and "Pope Francis confirms Catholic clergy members abused nuns” from the Washington Post.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Pope Francis figured, too, in our No. 1 most-clicked commentary this week.

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The Times of London goes clever (and surprisingly deep) with party girls and praying nuns

The Times of London goes clever (and surprisingly deep) with party girls and praying nuns

Every so often, there’s an article out there that’s truly a pleasure to read and it makes some interesting points about life and faith, even if the piece isn't hard news. Such is the case with the Times of London’s take on an upcoming reality TV show.

GetReligion does not ordinarily cover opinion pieces, but this was a mix of analysis and news, so I grabbed it.

The writer, Helen Rumbelow, shows a keen awareness of the human condition as she describes the comedic collision of party girls and nuns when a group of wild twentysomethings are sent to a convent in rural Norfolk. They don’t exactly swap their go-go boots for godliness but there are subtle transformations.

Plus, the piece shows how easy it can be to write profound observations on something as everyday as a reality show.

Five new girls arrive at the Daughters of Divine Charity convent in Swaffham, deep in rural Norfolk. The first, Paige, 23, has, between her red go-go boots and her miniskirt, a gap large enough to display the entire face of Nicki Minaj that is tattooed on her thighs. She is struggling to pull a suitcase the size of a small wagon across the gravel courtyard. It’s full of her clubbing lingerie. She is joined by Rebecca, 19, another committed hedonist who seems to sum up their situation when she realises what their new home is, crying: “F***, I’m in a f***ing nunnery.”
It’s a fair guess that this Channel 5 reality-TV experiment, called Bad Habits, Holy Orders, wouldn’t have taken much of a “sell”. “Think Sister Act,” the executive would say, “crossed with St Trinian’s.” …
The five women had been told only that they were going on a “spiritual journey” and had imagined a yoga retreat in Bali. Instead they were to be confined to a nunnery off the A47 with a bunch of mature ladies in wimples, whose modesty was far more shocking than anything they could think up.

What follows is a photo showing an elderly nun face-to-face with one of the sultry five. I’m guessing that the reality show paid the nuns a good amount to film this show on their property, for why else would a religious order put up with this craziness?

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Big question looming over Catholic news: What would it take to pop this pope's media bubble?

Big question looming over Catholic news: What would it take to pop this pope's media bubble?

As a rule, I post "think pieces" -- posts pointing readers toward essays about trends on the religion beat -- on the weekend. I'm going to make an exception because I can't imagine waiting a few more days for readers to see this one.

I mean, we're talking about a John L. Allen, Jr., analysis piece at Crux with this headline: "Can anything burst Pope’s media bubble? Nah, probably not."

Prepare to chat away.

The piece starts off with a complicated drama in the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria, where -- as Allen puts it -- Pope Francis has "thrown down one of the most authoritarian gauntlets we’ve seen any pope fling in a long time."

It's the kind of move, literally threatening the status of every priest of the diocese, that would freak out mainstream reporters if attempted by any other recent pope. But it's not the kind of thing that sticks to Pope Francis, because everyone knows what he is a friendly, populist kind of man who is gentle and kind, etc., etc. As Allen kicks things into gear, he writes:

What all this got me thinking about is the following: Had any other recent pope done such a thing, howls about abuse of power and over-centralization probably would have been deafening, especially from the press, where the rebel priests likely would have become folk heroes. Francis, however, gets more or less a free pass. ...
Yes, some coverage has been more critical of late, especially Francis’s handling of the sexual abuse scandals in the wake of the criminal indictment of one of his top aides, Cardinal George Pell, in Australia. Even then, however, the tone tends to be, “Francis is such a great guy, so why is this area lagging behind?”

The heart of the essay is a bit of speculation about what it would take to pop this amazing papal media bubble.

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Looking for faith in the Washington Post's bittersweet look at Chicago Cubs heaven

Looking for faith in the Washington Post's bittersweet look at Chicago Cubs heaven

Does anyone know where the whole concept of baseball as an alternative religion got started, I mean other than in classic Hollywood flicks?

We're talking about a level of symbolism that's even deeper than the unwritten law that all pre-game montages for pivotal baseball contests must include a shot of nuns -- hopefully wearing baseball hats. Images of rabbis and priests are optional, but producers have to find some nuns to put on camera or it's just not a real baseball game.

Maybe it has something to do with baseball's golden age being linked to the heartbeat of life in the great American cities of the Northeast and Midwest. That was back when Catholic families had lots of children and large Catholic schools -- with lots of nuns, of course -- where so important to urban, ethnic Catholic parishes.

Then there are the rituals of baseball. Football happens once a week, like a blowout bash of a spectacular tailgate kegger (think Ole Miss). But for fans, baseball is part of the familiar rites of daily life, involving a radio (or television), a father's stuffed chair, peanuts, the right beverage, the common wisdom of the box scores and, for the truly devout, even the sacred process of keeping score -- just like your parents or grandparents taught you to do it.

This brings us to God and the Chicago Cubs. We're talking about the theological questions (for some, theodicy was a relevant topic) surrounding the fact that a loving God allowed so many Cubs fans to live and die during the club's 108-year trek through the baseball wilderness, with the promised land of a World Series championship hovering off in the distance.

This brings us to that Washington Post story with the headline: "What of the lifelong Cubs fans who departed before it came?" You got it. Were these fans able to watch the game from prime seats located up in heaven?

You want baseball religion?

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The Los Angeles Times hears the voices: A nun, a dying woman and prayers that last forever

The Los Angeles Times hears the voices: A nun, a dying woman and prayers that last forever

On one level, it was a simple assignment. The metro desk at The Rocky Mountain News had received a call about a wedding that was sure to be poignant. The bride had cancelled her church rites several months in the future so that a simple ceremony could take place beside the deathbed of her father, whose cancer had taken a sudden turn for the worse.

My editor's instructions: Make me cry by the third paragraph or you're fired. His advice: Look for crucial details and let their voices tell the story. One symbolic detail was the copy of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" on the father's nightstand.

I thought about that story, which generated more letters from readers than anything else I wrote in Denver, when I read the Los Angeles Times feature that ran the other day with this headline: "People don’t want to die alone. With Sister Maria standing vigil, they've got company."

There isn't much I can say other than this: Listen to the voices and pay attention to the crucial details in this very human, yet deeply spiritual, story. Here is the overture:

Esperanza Calderon stared at Sister Maria Socorro with half-closed eyes. The nun hunched over her as she reclined in a living room chair, wrapped in a blanket and slowly but inexorably dying.

As the 70-year-old woman’s sister clasped her hand, Socorro held a book open across her palms. Together the three women prayed.

“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof,” the woman followed along in Spanish, her voice fragile. “But one word from you would be enough to heal me.”

At the heart of the story is the humble work of the Servants of Mary.

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Death in Chicago: Tribune story shines in reporting nuns' response

Death in Chicago: Tribune story shines in reporting nuns' response

While most media obsess over the primaries, people are still dying on our streets -- one of them in front of a monastery in Chicago.

But he didn’t die forgotten: The resident nuns plan to lead a peace walk tonight.

Nor did the Chicago Tribune overlook this wound dealt to a community: It produced a gentle, heartfelt newsfeature that at once captures the grief and serves as an advance for the event.

Written by Godbeat veteran Manya Brachear Pashman, the story first sets the Benedictine nuns in their neighborhood, then quickly gears up to the emergency:

Neighbors of St. Scholastica Monastery in the Rogers Park neighborhood occasionally see the Roman Catholic sisters who live there, either gardening or leaving to run errands or go to work. They wave and take comfort knowing the religious women have them in their prayers.
Then last weekend, one of the nuns showed up on their doorsteps. Shaken by news that an 18-year-old man had been fatally shot steps from the sisters' home, she put fliers on doorknobs and fence posts and chatted up passers-by, urging neighbors to help the sisters reclaim the crime scene as a place of peace.
On Wednesday, the nuns and their neighbors will gather at the corner of Seeley and Birchwood avenues to walk silently toward the scene of the crime and pray for Antonio Robert Johnson, the man who died there.
"It's important to have our neighbors know we're an oasis for peace in the area," said Sister Benita Coffey, the sister in charge of promoting social justice for the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago. "We've been on this property since 1906 and we are not getting up and leaving the neighborhood. We're going to support our neighbors in whatever ways we can."

The Trib backgrounds us on similar actions by the Benedictines: "The Chicago women have been outspoken against excessive military spending, capital punishment, human trafficking and torture."  They also held a vigil in September 2014 when a man was killed across the street from the monastery.

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