A couple of years ago, a particularly bright and perceptive student of mine commented that Catholic parishes were like single-parent homes. She elaborated on the point, arguing that something is missing at the parish level when there is no nun or Sister present. This resonated with me because in the domestic church we encourage each home to have both parents present since we understand that mothers and fathers bring a different and necessary dynamic to the family. That is not to say that each woman and man act the same while carrying out their responsibilities, but they do fulfill unique and essential roles for the children in the home. Generally, one of those roles filled by both women and mothers is handing down the Faith. It seems to be the general rule in most cultures that our first teacher is our mother when it comes to the Faith. Not too long ago in Catholic history, religious women took on that role. Most Catholics of a certain age have stories, good or ill, about a Sister who taught them. So why don’t we expect to have more consecrated women today in our local churches helping to hand down the Faith to the parish community? Women, consecrated or lay, are not just responsible for education but so much more that makes a family and parish possible. Perhaps we should think more broadly and ask: what are we missing when there are no avowed women around?
In the past few decades, the Catholic Church has grappled with where women fit. On the fringe, you have groups demanding women’s priestly ordination; recently, the Vatican has looked at the question of the ordination of deaconess. It should be noted that we are investigating questions like these because women feel a call to serve the Church. The question is how the Church charts an orthodox and traditional path forward. These questions are being asked because fewer and fewer women are becoming nuns or Sisters while more and more of them passing into the next world. We do have some orders that are thriving, but when compared to men entering the priesthood the number of newly consecrated women in the Church is catastrophic.
Before Vatican II, women’s orders had a robust membership that served all areas of the Church, especially in education. Even further back, women held significant ecclesial influence. For instance, women serving as Abbesses controlled land and received symbols of authority from the Church, and there were consecrated women who taught and advised popes. Unfortunately, whether this is the case or not, consecrated women seemed to be overshadowed by men today. Moving forward, the Church needs to reconsider the role of women. Perhaps the resolution focuses less on establishing a new order of deaconess but rather a new framework that emphasizes and reimages the role of the consecrated woman as Mother of a parish. Many of us know that generally the leader of a household or religious order is called Mother. So why not use that title for consecrated women who serve in the parish setting? They can serve by helping women and girls discern their call. These Mothers would also serve as an icon of Mary bringing more of us to Christ. But Mothers would not just act as recruiting coordinators or educators but serve as a source of comfort much like our natural mothers in the home. I think a parish would greatly benefit from a maternal presence during times of celebration and especially during times of sadness. Theologically, consecrated women in the parish would be a constant reminder to us of Mary’s yes to God in her life and in the life of the world. They would also reflect those women saints throughout the ages who pleased God with their actions and continue to point the way to His kingdom.
My most immediate concern is that with fewer nuns there are fewer women to recruit new members. Without a rallying point, how can Catholic women start the journey to consecrated life? Sisters and nuns should be more readily accessible to women considering a life completely dedicated to God. Since each parish has a male priest who can readily answer questions about the priesthood and serve as a point of reference for young men, it is puzzling why we don’t ensure the same for women. In the US, we can begin this process organically by staffing the principal churches of a diocese with Mothers or Sisters and pray it grows to every parish. My other concern is that we are missing a spiritual dimension at the parish level that is harder to identify and quantify when we do not have women religious. Yet, this lack of feminine genius is negatively affecting us.
In many ways, women at the local level exert a massive amount of influence. Your average American parish is probably staffed by a majority of women who make decisions about the direction and health of the parish. So the next step should be seeking out and encouraging consecrated women to become Mothers of the parish, not because we need nuns teaching in Catholic school again or performing administrative tasks, but for what they represent theologically and spiritually for the people of God. We all realize that because of the priestly vocation shortage we have spent most of our energy recruiting young men. This does not mean that we should neglect to cultivate women’s religious vocations. Our quest to bring men into the service of the Church should go hand in hand with finding women to become Sisters and then for some of them to become Mothers of communities and parishes. In the end, one of the most important things that a spiritual Mother can teach us is how to serve God, because if there is any vocation that is synonymous with service it is that of Mother.
Image: Hermits and Nuns by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov