A new study on American Catholic sisters debunks some commonplace assumptions: in reply to the many Cassandras, the report Understanding U.S. Catholic Sisters Today drafted by Kathleen Sprows Cummings, Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame testifies in fact that the number of women religious in the country is about the same as it was in the first half of the 20th century: just under 50,000. Significant differences with those days are not of course lacking, but the idea of convents filled to overflowing in the 20th century is not correct and the great pessimism usually linked to the future of the religious life is excessive. Indeed, if it is true that the number of sisters in the U.S. has decreased by 72 per cent in the last half century – we have in fact fallen from 181,421 in 1965 (the largest figure ever attained) to nearly 50,000 today (only 9 per cent of whom are under 60) – “Many American Catholic women are still attracted by the religious life. At this moment there are 1,200 women in formation, including 150 in contemplative monasteries and about 1,050 training to become sisters”. Furthermore, a recent study carried out by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) of Georgetown University maintains that about 8 per cent of nubile women born after 1981 have given at least some consideration to the option of the religious life and 2 per cent of these considered it “very seriously”, which translates as 250,000 nubile women interested in this way of life. Thus, notwithstanding the decrease experienced, the religious life has excellent possibilities of survival, even with fewer sisters and in different forms but without relinquishing its identity, as many predict. “Some already see signs of hope, especially in the younger generation that is bringing new energy and new optimism”. The first step in trying to understand today’s reality is to realize that the vocational path is very different from that of previous generations. While in the past women were guided in their choice by the teachers they had had in Catholic schools, today this transmission no longer exists; it has been replaced, for example, by recourse to the new media and the web, where it is possible to find programmes of discernment, and other similar opportunities to become acquainted with the congregations. Moreover, those entering the religious life today are generally more mature and better educated than in previous generations.
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