A campus program that builds on the new openness to religious life

A campus program that builds on the new openness to religious life

By Sr. Judith Schaefer OP, c

IT ALL STARTED WITH an unlikely question. Eight years ago, during a job interview, a student on the search committee asked me, “If we hire you, would you be willing to start a Contact Program for women?” To gain a bit of extra thinking time, I asked the enthusiastic young questioner, “What do you mean by a Contact Program?” She went on to explain—and that has made all the difference.

The student explained that, for several years, women on the St. Mary University of Minnesota campus had wanted a vocation discernment group similar to the Christian Brothers’ Contact Program, a discernment group open only to men. In response to the female student’s explanation of what they wanted, I answered quickly that, of course, I would be happy to start such a group if I were hired.

Six months later I found myself back on campus hired as a full-time faculty member with my fervent interview response long forgotten in the midst of finding new classrooms, meeting students and grading papers. But the students didn’t forget. They persisted. A year later I finally sat down with two young women who wanted to be leaders of the new group. We set a meeting date and time, they spread the word, and my cofacilitator, a Mercy sister, and I baked a pan of brownies. We thought we were all set for a quiet little meeting with four or five women.

Soon after we arrived and had begun to cut the brownies into large pieces, the young women started arriving in groups of twos and threes. We cut the brownies in half. More women arrived and we cut the brownies into fours. By the time the meeting began we had 20 college women sitting in a circle talking about what they wanted the group to be. That was seven years ago, and even though the brownie pieces were quite small, they fed the spirit and the desire of the young women who came that first night—and who have kept coming for six years. Since that first gathering, approximately a hundred women have participated in our Women of Faith group. And I still find myself asking: what are they really looking for?

Over the past eight years I have seen the desires and vocational interests of the young women with whom I work change and intensify. In this article I would like to explore three topics related to my experience: 1) what we do in the Women of Faith program, 2) some general suggestions for similar programs on other campuses, and 3) trends in vocation discernment that I see emerging out of my experience. My ideas and insights are primarily from my experience with a unique population of college age women; the ideas suggested here may not be practical or applicable in other situations, but I believe that they do convey a new interest in religious life that is bubbling up in a new generation.

Women of Faith program

As previously mentioned, the initial motivation and impetus for the Women of Faith program came from the women themselves. However, if one were to examine all of the motives, an important one, initially, was simply to “have what the boys have.” Their enduring interest beyond that initial group tells me the women are seeking something deeper.

On our campus, prior to the formation of our group, any direction or discernment of religious life for women was referred to the Office of Campus Ministry or to the resident priests on campus. This left the individual who was discerning any type of faith commitment alone and isolated. From the beginning, two key components of our group were the self-selection of each woman to participate and a community of women coming together to seriously consider their faith life and vocation choices. A consistent sentiment expressed by the women has been that they are seeking a “place where it is safe to talk about God and my faith with other women.”

A strength of the program has been the commitment and enthusiasm of the college leaders. The first two leaders, Lynn Streefland and Emily Lambaere, undergraduate students at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, launched the program and watched it grow into a strong community of support. The initial group met on a regular basis during the first semester, usually at our house/convent, and the program content focused on the lives of sisters—their spirituality, day-to-day experiences, methods of prayer and worship, devotion and forms of service. One significant event was a retreat to the Sinsinawa Dominican Motherhouse, where the young women spent time serving the sisters, praying with them, and talking to one another. In the midst of these conversations, we have watched movies (yes, even The Nun’s Story), eaten pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches, shared our faith stories, and had our gatherings crashed by several college guys wondering why the girls always kept coming to our house.

The initial college leaders, along with Sister Mary Jo Baldus, a sister of Mercy and co-coordinator of the group, and I were surprised at the consistent attendance. In many ways, it seemed that the group was almost running itself. Sister Mary Jo, a campus minister at the college at that time, described this new group experience like this: “Essentially it is peer-to-peer ministry.” With only e-mail and word-of-mouth promotion, an average of 20 women has attended each meeting through all of the years we have met. Initially, we were concerned that there would not be enough discussion or that only a few women would come, but the attendance and the continuing interest in the program has shown otherwise and has been the motivation to continue.

Within the past six years, five young women have entered one of a variety of religious orders, and several have pursued entrance but ultimately decided to do something else. Many have had serious conversations with vocation and formation directors, while others have gone on to volunteer work with the possibility of entering religious life later still in their minds and hearts. At one point several members of the group even considered living together on campus to focus on their spiritual lives, and the Office of Residence Life agreed to reserve a section of a residence hall for the women.

We have engaged in a variety of experiences, from praying the Divine Office together to sponsoring panels on Christian vocations—from sharing prayer partners for Advent and Lent to engaging in small and large group discussions. Annually some go on a “Nun-run,” that is, visiting several different religious groups over the course of a long weekend. Whatever the format or activity, what gathers the women consistently is the recognition that God is significant in each of our lives, and each of us desires to follow God as closely as she can in whatever vocation to which she is called.

What has changed over the years and what has remained the same? The Women of Faith group continues to form its membership through self-selection, with peer-to-peer leadership as primary. The purpose of the group continues to be to provide a safe place for women to talk about God and about how to live their faith life now and in the future. We still eat pizza and grilled cheese, and, oh yes, brownies. In recent years, though, the focus of the group has shifted from a primary emphasis on religious life to a broader focus of discernment for all faith-filled vocations. Interestingly I have also noticed that those women who are interested in religious life today are more concerned with finding a way to develop their personal, spiritual relationship with Jesus than were those interested women even eight years ago, who focused their desire for religious life more on service and community.

Women of Faith is and has become a familiar place and space on our campus where women of faith can talk about their dreams with other women and be taken seriously—no small thing in a post-modern milieu.

Elements for programs of discernment

The experience of being involved in—or more accurately, watching—the unfolding of Women of Faith has often led me to reflect on the meaning of my own vocation and the possibility or plausibility of religious life today. I have wondered what college campuses could or should be doing to help young people consider the option of religious life. I’ve also wondered if we even ought to be encouraging young adults to consider religious life at all when many religious congregations are in such a state of reorganization.

As I look at the literature on young adults, their faith development, and vocations to religious life, my experience resonates with a great deal of it, and, yet, in other ways, it seems to echo a different message. Yes, college students today are coming from a post-modern perspective that has radically influenced them. They are consummate consumers. They are essentially self-interested. They want it all and with little effort. Most are religiously illiterate, too. And yet my experience, in and out of the classroom, says that young people today also want to know more about God and religion, and, those with some religious experience want to find ways to follow Christ more seriously and have their religious practice be meaningful.

As a college professor I have the opportunity to work with master’s level students as well as undergraduates, and I recently worked with a young religious woman on a thesis entitled, “Vocation Discernment in a Post-modern World.” In her work, she grappled with the post-modern data that reports that, in an environment of relativity, the development of a clear faith identity in a young person is extremely difficult and unlikely; and that young adults today find it almost impossible to achieve their ideals in a postmodern culture. My student would not be dissuaded by the data, though, since she herself is a “post-modern young adult,” and is someone who is pursuing life as a religious woman. Her burning question became: as a campus minister on a large state university campus, how could she help other young adults discern religious life? What did they need? What would work? Her thesis went on to develop a campus program for vocation discernment. Out of her work and my own, I would like to focus on several key aspects of that program that affirm my own experience.

In order for young adults today to seriously consider the option of living into their future as a religious woman or man, a vocation discernment program needs to incorporate the following elements:

  • Monthly or bi-monthly gatherings of twenty or less,
  • Content focused on faith sharing and faith development,
  • Specific experiences of Catholic life and culture,
  • Opportunities to witness adult models of faith, and
  • Experience with spiritual direction or guided faith sharing.

Monthly, small group gatherings For the Women of Faith group, consistent meetings with the same women, once or twice a month, all during the school year, creates a sense of support and safety in sharing a serious exploration of all vocational commitments from long-term volunteering to religious life to marriage. For young adults today, finding groups that take God and faith seriously is no easy feat. The culture of many college campuses as inclusive, diverse, and multi-cultural makes it difficult for persons who are searching for identity and meaning to connect with other persons of shared beliefs and values. The self-selection or voluntary participation of each person in the group is an essential component for safety and commitment. Some women participate in the group for all four years of college.

Faith sharing and faith development

The content of our meetings has varied significantly over the years, as it is developed primarily by the leaders with input from the women themselves. Some years the conversations are deep and significant; other years the group wants to “do” more, like volunteer at Catholic Worker, or perform other types of service. Each set of leaders brings their own questions and faith practices to the group, whether it is a devotional, stories about a saint, or a question about prayer. For our group, the content is never very structured, and yet the sharing and the learning that occur go beyond what they would ever get in a classroom.

The leaders of the group have used different techniques to encourage and develop faith sharing over the years. Generally it works better for us when the women are asked to share in a smaller setting first (one-on-one, a single “flash” response to a question, or sharing a positive and negative of the week), and then asked to share in the large group. One particularly positive process has been pairing the women up with one another as prayer partners and then allowing them time at the beginning of each meeting to catch up with what is going on with each other in their faith life. Another meaningful experience is to have one of the women in the group share her faith story, favorite saint, or even her understanding of a Catholic teaching, e.g., Eucharist, the rosary, Scripture, etc., and then allow for questions or comments. You can see the openness in the women as they listen to the speaker share. Watching them teach each other prayers, stories, and Catholic tradition always inspires me to step out of the way and let the Word speak.

Experiences of Catholic culture

As mentioned above, for our group, no two years ever turns out the same in terms of what we do or what we talk about. And yet, each year involves some key experiences of Catholic life and culture, whether that is preparing meals at the local Catholic Worker, signing up for Advent angels, praying the rosary, visiting a convent for the weekend, attending Mass together, or listening to a panel on Catholic life as a single, vowed, or married woman. The women themselves know what they don’t know and they are not afraid to ask questions about it. Again, it is often the case that those who have had more religious experience in their family or high school lead the group or share what they know with those who have had less. Sometimes the content reflects a different part of the Catholic culture than I would have picked, but it is always shared with sincerity and reverence, which in the end speaks.

Adult models of Christian faith

Although I have emphasized the importance of peer leadership in the formation of our group, it is still clear to me that there has been and continues to be a need for adults like myself to support and be present to the group. The women I work with don’t need a lot of input or direction from me (and they usually don’t even ask for it), but they definitely need my interest and presence. They also rely on other faculty to share their faith stories, as well as on resident clergy on campus to provide direction and support. Young adults have always needed role models; that reality is even truer for this postmodern generation.

The importance of the role of the adult leader, as I have come to know it, is that it provides accountability, support and modeling. I meet twice monthly with the leaders and let the women suggest the basic direction of a meeting or event, but I freely interject ideas or concerns that I feel they may have missed. I participate in the group as a member and share my story freely. It doesn’t always feel like I do much, but I know from the women’s feedback when I have been gone, that my presence matters to them. Earlier in the group’s history I felt responsible for and tried to be more directive, but I have learned over the years that they “hear” one another better.

The role of an adult presence/model/support in groups like this is complex, and I often say that a good mantra for adult mentors would be: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Then, I received a note from a former Women of Faith member who graduated several years ago. She wrote: “Only now do I fully appreciate and admire you.... Thank you for being a voice, even in the face of opposition, and for planting a seed inside of me that is thriving now. I hope you know how much your influence is shaping the kind of woman I am becoming.” Thanks, Kim, now I do.

Spiritual direction or companioning

As I have watched young women move through a discernment process, there often comes a point at which spiritual direction can and would be most beneficial. The difficulty on our campus, and I would imagine on many others as well, is that affordable spiritual directors are severely limited. For many the only source for spiritual direction is the resident priests on campus. Though these men are fine directors, they have full-time jobs in other areas, and they are limited in their ability to address women’s experiences of discernment. Other sources of guided reflection are the campus counseling center or off-campus spiritual directors who generally charge a fee. This is one area where we as a church could work to provide more support and opportunity for spiritual growth if we want young adults to make authentic faith-filled decisions. I venture to say if a spiritual director on our campus were affordable, that person would easily have a full schedule of appointments.

Emerging trends

My experience of vocation discernment programs has been limited to the Women of Faith program on our campus and my experience as a congregational director of formation was a decade ago. There is no doubt that it is a new day. Young adults today are different than at any other moment in history, and they are growing up in a culture unseen before. And yet, religious life has emerged and developed in every generation. Why not now? What does the future hold? I will not pretend to know the answer to these questions, but I do offer three convictions that have emerged from my experience.

  1. Young adults today, despite all that we read about their self-interest and their lack of identity, do desire to know more about their spiritual life, i.e., God, prayer, life after death and Jesus.
  2. Some young adults are seeking God and holiness through more traditional forms and practices; the majority are seeking God and meaning through more non-traditional forms and practices. Most young adults do want to know and understand God, but on their own terms and in language and practice they can understand.
  3. Those young adults today who are interested in religious life are primarily seeking religious life to be closer to God or to be more faithful to their developing spiritual life.

This latter point is a radical departure from previous generations. Recent scholarship is suggesting that the decline in religious life in the 1960s was, in part, a result of the decrease in the cost/risk ratio, i.e., renewal reduced both the cost of being a religious and the benefits. Communities today that are requiring some “cost,” i.e., restriction on freedom, clothing or community, are seeing more applicants.1 Religious life, for most of its history, has been designed for the pursuit of personal holiness. Perhaps young people today are choosing the structures of religious life for that purpose, while others are using the structures of volunteer programs such as the Catholic Worker or Mercy Corps for apostolic service.

The third point is the one that interests me the most. In a book by Patricia Wittberg, From Piety to Professionalism – and Back?, Wittberg states that the shape of religious life for the past four centuries is atypical of religious life as a whole.2 The immediate past and some of the present represents a radical shift in the goal and purpose of religious life, i.e., a shift from an emphasis on personal piety and spiritual perfection to an emphasis on service of others with personal sanctity as secondary. Wittberg ponders whether some in the present may not be returning to the earlier motivation when she writes:

New entrants are attracted by the spirituality of the community rather than its distinctive institutional activities—if, in fact, any of the latter remain. The group’s basic identity may revert to a religious virtuosity based on the more traditional model of the individual spiritual quest rather than the service-oriented virtuosity that flourished uniquely in Western Christianity between the 1600s and the late twentieth century [page 272-273].

Such a turn would seem to fit this current generation quite well. For young adults growing up in a culture of relativity and diversity, finding a place to stand and to define one’s own identity first before turning out to others seems understandable and appropriate, especially for persons for whom self-interest is primary. Forsaking all and clinging to God through identification with Jesus has always been radical. For those of us for whom Vatican II was a personal event versus an historical one, the current expression of a radical following of Christ may look a lot more like previous eras than a perspective with which we are comfortable. But, as Wittberg reminds us, what we see depends on where our vocation story enters history. My own involvement in young adult discernment all started with an unlikely question, and it comes back to an unlikely question: how can we create spaces and places where it is safe for young people today to say: “Sir, we should like to see Jesus” (John 12:21)? For us, the Women of Faith group has been one answer.

1. See Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, “Catholic Religious Vocations: Decline and Revival,” Review of Religious Research 42:2 (2000): 125-145, for a fascinating analysis of the sociological data on the decline in Catholic religious congregations. They challenge and critique some earlier analysis and its conclusions.

2. See Patricia Wittberg, From Piety to Professionalism – and Back? Transformations of Organized Religious Virtuosity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), for an insightful review of the departure of religious congregations from sponsored ministries and its ensuing effects on religious life.

Sister Judith Schaefer, OP, is an associate professor of theology and department chair at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. She served as director of initial membership for the Sinsinawa Dominicans for six years prior to getting her Ph.D. in systematic theology.

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