My grandfather always thought I’d be a nun.
I didn’t find out until after his death in 2009, and I interpreted it as a subtle threat. A well-timed postmortem comment here, a lackluster romantic relationship there, and suddenly I’d wake up with a habit instead of a husband.
Over the next few years, however, I began to see religious life as an opportunity to commit to the church in a public and lasting way, and I began to crave the communal living and prayer that would support such a commitment.
At this point, I feel totally open to religious life.
But religious life feels closed to me.
A man considering priesthood or religious life has a number of excellent options. In addition to diocesan priesthood, he can consider several religious orders which are big enough that men of all backgrounds and theological viewpoints can find supportive mentors, appealing ministry opportunities, and other young men in formation.
A woman who is attracted to contemplative and perhaps cloistered living, Marian and Eucharistic devotions, and traditionally feminine ministries also has several religious communities from which to choose.
But I’m not that woman. I cringe when men open car doors for me. My deep love of wilderness renders cloistered life unfathomable. My theological views are moderately progressive, and I want to do apostolic work that engages the world.
My options up until now have been twofold:
1. Enter a convent which would not fit my spirituality or skills but would have other young women in formation.
2. Enter one of the legacy orders, as I call them, where I would almost certainly be the only woman in my year and possibly the only one in formation.
Little wonder that my choice has been to put religious life on the backburner entirely.
Most frustratingly, the barren landscape of women’s religious life has—to my eyes at least—gone entirely under the radar.
I see the great legacy orders merging or planning their dissolution, and it has barely caused a blip on the radar of the American church. While there has been a worthy and concerted effort to bolster the number of priests, the demise of active women’s religious life seems to be taken for granted by just about everyone.Not me.
I am certain there are other young women like me, many of them academically and spiritually formed in schools run by men’s orders, who find religious life compelling but are stymied by the lack of options.
It is time to create new options, so here is one possibility.
What if one new religious order with two to four communities, supported collectively by the LCWR and its members, opened its doors to young women seeking apostolic work and community living? The communities could be located strategically in different parts of the country and focus on missionary work—education, retreats, service to and with the poor, and other ministries that actively proclaim the Gospel.
What if this order had its own distinct identity but collaborated in some ministries with one or more men’s religious orders that have no female branch, like the Jesuits or Augustinians? What if it had overt support from these men’s orders so that women who are familiar with them or educated at their institutions have a solid option to explore if they wished to consider religious life?
There are other possibilities too, of course. The point is that this issue is solvable. The recent publicity around the LCWR made it abundantly clear that American Catholics love women religious and value their contribution to the life of the church.
Let’s start a conversation so that today’s young women can realistically consider making the same commitment and contribution. Our church, and the women in it, deserve nothing less.
Sara Knutson received her Master of Divinity from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. She currently works as a retreat director at TYME OUT Youth Ministry and Retreat Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and wants to hear from other people musing about women’s religious life. If you’ve got thoughts, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.