A loving gaze at religious life realities

A loving gaze at religious life realities

By c

Religious in their 20s and 30s—such as Brother Patrick Winbush, OSB of the Benedictine Abbey of Newark, NJ—are usually a small age minority within their communities. That reality has many implications for both young religious and vocation directors today.

CONTEMPORARY RELIGIOUS LIFE, as it is lived out in North America, is in the midst of a dramatic demographic shift. Within the next two decades, the large groups of religious currently aged 70 and older will pass on to the next phase of their religious life with their Creator. Meanwhile, there is not another large generation waiting in the wings to replace them. This undeniable reality leads to many questions about the future of religious life. Whether one views this reality as the proverbial elephant in the community room or as the writing on the wall, the time has come when we can no longer avoid talking about it, as if that was ever truly possible. The crucial question of this moment is how to engage this reality. Do we look askance at it from a place of anxiety? Or can we gaze lovingly at this shift and see God’s promise of abundance, even there? The lens we choose necessarily influences our capacity to navigate the shifts for the sake of the Gospel and the mission of Jesus. (Note: I have borrowed the term “navigating the shifts” from the Presidential Address of Sister Pat Farrell, OSF to the 2012 LCWR Assembly (https://lcwr.org/media/news/ navigating-shifts-presidential-address-pat-farrell-osf).

Religious life by the numbers

First, however, we must take an honest look at the numbers. In 2013, there are 68,004 Catholic sisters, brothers and religious order priests in the United States. This number has been steadily declining for the past five decades, from 214,932 in 1965, to 145,195 in 1985 and 88,222 in 2005. Diminishment holds true across all three groups of religious, but it is most dramatic in the number of sisters, which has decreased from 179,954 in 1965 to 51,247 today (CARA, Frequently Requested Statistics).

age chart

The National Religious Retirement Office offers another perspective on the numbers which is particularly relevant to this discussion—a generational breakdown. The latest NRRO statistical report looks at the ages of 50,915 religious men and women in 548 institutes. Their analysis often employs the age of 70 as the line of demarcation: 67.3 percent of religious today are over 70, while 32.7 percent are under 70. Our reality is thrown into even starker relief, however, when one inserts additional lines of demarcation for those under 70 (see chart).

Pondering the future

The colloquial phrase that comes to mind when I look at this chart is: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” The steady decline of the past 50 years will transform into a rapid change in the generations that make up religious life. Keep in mind that those under 60, according to the NRRO report, make up just 13.2 percent of religious men and women today—a grand total of 6,730 people across 518 congregations. The next group in their 60s is more substantial, just shy of 20 percent of today’s religious religious. Some in their 60s already find themselves “at bat,” being called to community and leadership roles. Others are “on deck,” poised to discern a potential shift from ministries to which they have been long committed to community-based ministry. Given the rapidity of change, the under 60s will not be too far behind them in this reality.

Age Distribution of U.S. Religious December 31, 2012 –Data from National Religious Retirement Office
Age Group Number of Men and Women Percent of Total Religious
Under 40 1,797 3.5
40-50 1,716 3.4
50-60 3,217 6.3
60-70 9,942 19.5
70+ 34,243 67.3 


This small group—along with lay associates, partners in ministry and new vocations—will be the ones to carry the charisms and visions of our founders into the future. It is important to realize that this is a very mixed group with three generations—Boomers, Gen X and Millennials. Society and culture have been rapidly changing in the past sixty years. As a result, these three generations have been formed by distinct cultural experiences. Depending on when they entered community, there is also a wide variation in their experience of formation and religious life. This small diverse group will be called to mingle these varied experiences as they live out their vows together in a rapidly changing context.

New members of religious communities will, by necessity, need to take on leadership roles rapidly. Pictured here is Sister Nicole Trahan, FMI, reflecting on the daily Scripture readings during a Giving Voice gathering. Sister Nicole is the national vocation director for the Marianist Sisters.

Ultimately, of course, we have no idea what the future will look like, which is enough to make anyone just a little bit anxious. When I ponder the future, however, I am often comforted by the memory of an experience I had in the novitiate with one of our wise elders, Sister Mary Byrnes, CSJP. When I arrived in the infirmary to interview Sister Mary for a novitiate assignment about her experience of renewal after the Second Vatican Council, she was ready and waiting. “I’ve been up all night,” she said, “thinking about what I want to tell you.” She then proceeded to capture my undivided attention for the next two hours. Towards the end, she told me how much she admired those of us entering today. She thought we were courageous because we have no idea what it is we are signing up for. This stopped me in my tracks. “When you entered,” I asked her, “did you have any idea you’d do all those things you just told me about?”

She had to admit that the answer was no and that we had more in common than she had realized. The key difference in our experiences is that while Sister Mary did not know when she entered in 1950 that major changes were just around the corner, I’ve known all along that we don’t know what lies ahead. Those who have lived religious life since the Second Vatican Council share in the common experience of flux and the unknown.

Pondering the future of religious life is part and parcel of contemporary vocation discernment. From that first crazy step of contacting a vocation director to my discernment retreat for final vows, it’s been a major hurdle to jump over. You can’t really ignore questions about the future or walk around them, but need to take a deep breath and jump. On reflection, I realize this is not a new experience. Our founders and pioneer community members certainly found it necessary to jump multiple hurdles in their day.

It has helped me tremendously to have a group of religious life age peers with whom I can ponder the future and jump the hurdles. Since my novitiate days, I have been part of Giving Voice, a grassroots network of women religious under 50. My Giving Voice friends bring their own insights and perspectives to the shifting landscape that lies before us. We pray and reflect on these realities and dream together about the future at retreats and conferences sponsored by Giving Voice. Increasingly, we also engage in meaningful conversations online.

Dealing with the demographics

In fact, I recently had a very enlightening online conversation on changing demographics via the Giving Voice private Facebook Group. We were discussing what has come to be known in our circle as the “Blue People/ Green People” chart. You may know the one. It is in the NRRO Statistical report and graphically tells the story of the shifts in wage earners in religious congregations. The numbers of religious under 70 (wage earners or “green people”) and over 70 (retired or “blue people”) were relatively equal when I began my own discernment journey in 2003. By 2023, the ratio of wage earners to retired religious is projected to be 1:4. That is one wage earner to every four retired religious (see chart). Just reading those words or looking at the chart might be enough to make one anxious!

What struck me most, however, about our online conversation was that, as “green people,” we weren’t particularly anxious or surprised. We know that the religious life we entered will not be the religious life we will live in coming decades. Most of us expressed deep gratitude that our communities are doing the work now to make sure that we will have enough resources to care for the large numbers of retired “blue people.” Some of us expressed concern about how to ensure that the “green people” are not tied down by administrative or caretaking duties in the future, but are able to go about the mission of Jesus.

For the most part however, there was great excitement and energy, particularly when the conversation turned to implications for leadership. We recognize that given this demographic reality, the traditional path of mentoring and gradually assuming increased responsibility, leading to credentials for leadership, won’t work for us. For one thing, we don’t have time as we enter this period of rapid demographic change. Perhaps more importantly, we realize that we need new models and paradigms for leadership. We already experience leadership in our lives and networks such as Giving Voice more as self-organization, and we anticipate carrying that over into future leadership roles in our religious communities. We are also inherently connected—across congregations and to the wider world. Social media, technology, globalization and intercongregational collaboration are just a few of the trends and experiences that will shape our style of leadership into the future.

Glimpsing possibility

To be honest, my simplest advice to vocation directors would be to reach out to young men and women who are filled with excitement about the future, capacity for leadership and creativity. This seems to be who is being called by God to religious life these days any way. In my circle of younger women and men religious friends, I know doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, community organizers, campus ministers, law enforcement officers, scientists, artists, writers, chaplains, government officials and theologians, just to name a few. Keep in mind, these are work and ministry experiences they bring to religious life. Even the younger religious I know who entered shortly after college bring a depth of knowledge and experience. Many of them participated in life-changing volunteer or mission programs, such as Jesuit Volunteer Corps or Peace Corps, that set them on fire for mission.

There is also a great deal more diversity present in this group than has been part of American religious life to date. For example, CARA reports that the group of brothers and sisters who professed perpetual vows in 2011—my year of final profession—was “more diverse than other perpetually professed religious in terms of their racial and ethnic diversity.” Sixty-five percent identified as white, 19 percent Asian and 9 percent Hispanic. 30 percent were born outside of the United States. (CARA, New Sisters and Brothers, 2) This is just a taste of the diverse cultures and backgrounds that are coming together in religious life for the sake of the Gospel.

God’s resources

My thoughts about anxiety and abundance have been deeply informed by the writings of Walter Brueggemann. When we put on the lens of anxiety, we have a tendency to try to become self-sufficient and fool ourselves that we are in control as we attempt to plan our way through chaos. “But the downside of such theological autonomy is that without the restraint of God, one is also without the resource of God” (Brueggemann). Our anxiety can blind us to the gifts of abundance in our midst. We know, of course, that scripture is filled with examples of groups of people who faced impossible situations and yet were gifted with abundance. “Biblical faith, having vetoed autonomy, is an invitation away from anxiety to the abundance of God. The God of the gospel is the God who keeps giving” (Brueggemann).

Sometimes of course, the gift may not be packaged exactly as we expect it. I spent part of my summer vacation this year visiting our retired sisters at our regional center in Bellevue, Washington. The two sisters who normally act as sacristan were both having surgery, and so I agreed to help out, even though it was not a role I had ever filled before. As you might imagine, I spent a lot of time in the chapel as a result, arriving early, setting up, etc… One day, praying before Mass, I remembered an experience I had praying in that same chapel as an inquirer, during one of my hurdle-jumping moments. At the time I was struggling with my feelings of being so at home with the community yet unsure if I could handle the large age gap and the unknown future. I remembered looking out the chapel windows at Lake Washington, my head filled with these thoughts, when I felt a sudden deep peace. It was as if God had a hand on my shoulder and told me everything would be OK. I would have ten to fifteen great years with these women, and then things would start to get messy, but all would be well.

Flash forward 10 years or so. I have indeed had a great time in community with a wonderful group of faithful women of peace, but we have reached the messy period. I have been to more funerals than I can count. I’ve lost dear friends. It has not been easy. Then, sitting in that same chapel, I had a moment of clarity and solidarity with Jeremiah. “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” (Jeremiah 20:7). I imagined God smiling at me as I finally figured it out. You see, it dawned on me that I am part of the equation—along with those who entered with and after me—for how all will be well as we navigate through and beyond this messy period. My experience as substitute sacristan was just a glimpse of the adventure that lies ahead.

Giving voice to abundance

The journey with God is often filled with surprises, especially when we choose to look through the lens of abundance. Just one week before my vacation/sacristan experience, I was in a space where it is very easy to see abundance—the Giving Voice National Gathering in Belmont, California. I wish that anyone who is anxious about the future of religious life could have shared that experience. Seventy women religious in their 20s, 30s and 40s from 33 different congregations engaged in four days of prayer and conversation around “Mission and Ministry in the 21st Century.” I’d like to share two reflections by Giving Voice sisters that have further informed my understanding of abundance and where it might be leading us.

Giving voice

Christin Tomy; Jessica Taylor, SP; Hong Nga Nguyen, SP; and Alison Green, SSMO take a break at the 2013 Giving Voice National Gathering.

Sister Nicole Trahan, FMI reflected on the story of the sending of the 72. She noted that it is significant that it is only found in Luke’s Gospel, “the Gospel of the anawim—the Gospel written for the poor, marginalized, the forgotten and neglected.” She named the call as one to “be the anawim—a call to vulnerability—to poverty.” Then she raised the question that I have been sitting with ever since. “[W]e have to ask ourselves whether or not our measures of security or our conceptual structures keep us from responding to the real, concrete needs of our world in the way we are called and in the way our Foundresses and Founders would have hoped” (Trahan, 1).

Perhaps there is indeed a gift of abundance bundled in diminishment. As we are called to a smaller, leaner and less institutionally-tied future, might we also be gifted with an abundance of energy, resources and on-the- ground connections for mission and ministry? One implication of the “Blue People/Green People” chart that I have often reflected on is the potential reality in 2033, when I will be 61. By that point, I suspect, the ratio between wage earners and retired will have shifted again, with a greater percentage of religious in active ministry and a small number of retired religious. What will be the gifts and challenges of that new landscape, when the majority of religious are once again engaged in active ministry with the wider community? I am excited about the creative possibilities of this potential reality.

A phrase gifted to the Giving Voice conference by our speaker, Sister Yolanda Tarango, CCVI, became a sort of mantra at this year’s gathering—“charism happens.” Sister Anna Keim, SNJM built upon this theme in her witness talk. She spoke of charism as energy, noting that “we should allow that energy to flow freely.” She pointed to the need to “let go” of old structures as “part of that free flow of energy, a firing and melting of all that which no longer serves us.” She also pointed to the combining of our energies through collaboration across congregations as another way the energy might flow freely. “Maybe it is through collaboration that we can finally rid ourselves of hierarchical models and mind sets and demonstrate new models of leadership for our church and for our world” (Keim).

Flow of blessings

Flow of blessingsKeim’s words remind me of the “Cycle of Blessings” model proposed by Eric H.F. Law (see image). He names six interrelated currencies as essential for ministries to be both “sustainable and missional.” While he writes for a different audience—mostly Protestant churches—his ideas are easily transferrable to our context. The mission of Jesus is central to our call to religious life, and our anxiety around the changing demographics is at its core, a concern about how sustainable this way of life will be for future generations.

Law offers a potential way of proceeding, through developing and nurturing the currencies in the Cycle of Blessings. He names these currencies as time and place, gracious leadership, relationship, truth, wellness and money. They are dynamic and interrelated, “flowing inward to renew and strengthen internal relationships and increase gracious leadership capacity, and flowing outward to connect, discern the truth, and foster wellness in the wider community.” Law notes that it is essential to learn how to “develop, access, and ‘flow’ these currencies” if a church or community is to be sustainable and focused on mission (Law, 13).

How might this apply to religious life? Your community might devote adequate resources—money, time and leadership—to vocation ministry, enabling you to be in a place where you can engage with young people burning with creativity, passion and capacity for leadership. Your community might choose to live more intentionally so as to become a place into which blessings flow and out of which blessings come. You might expend energy on renewing relationships within your community, the strength of which will then flow outwards. You might flow resources inward to ensure that your elder members are adequately cared for, thereby freeing more active members to flow wellness, truth and relationship outwards to the wider community through ministry. You might foster gracious leadership in younger and newer members and be open to the experiences and new styles of leadership they bring. The dynamic possibilities that flow from this model for the future of religious life are endless.

Currencies and abundant gifts also flow to religious life. Each of our congregations hold cherished memories in our histories of generous benefactors and fortuitous invitations that increased our capacity and called us to ministry in surprising places. Such relationships are not only in our past, however, as evidenced by the men and women who join us as lay associates and partners in ministry. At this crucial moment in religious life, God’s gift of abundance can also be seen in the influx of millions of dollars by layrun foundations, such as Lily Foundation, GHR Foundation and the Conrad Hilton Foundation, into programs to strengthen and build up religious life for the future. Such moments and relationships are reminders of the Cycle of Blessings. They also call us to keep our eyes, ears and hearts open for surprises.

When it comes down to it, the future will happen no matter what we do. We cannot stop it, but we can help shape and welcome the future. Our role is not to be anxious or to try to plan our way through chaos—although some amount of planning is necessary and important. Rather, we are called to cultivate open hearts and communities, to seek out and welcome the abundance in our midst and to listen and respond to the needs of the anawim, for the sake of the Gospel.

Works Cited 

Brueggemann, Walter. “From Anxiety and Greed to Milk and Honey.” Sojourners. February 2009.

Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). “Frequently Requested Church Statistics.”

Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). “New Sisters and Brothers in Perpetual Vows.” December 2011.

Keim, Anna. “Witness Talk.” Giving Voice National Gathering. July 2013.

Law, Eric H.F. Holy Currencies: 6 Blessings for Sustainable Missional Ministries. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2013.

National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO). “Statistical Report.” August 2013.

Trahan, Nicole, FMI. “Saturday Evening Reflection.” Giving Voice National Gathering. July 2013.


Sister Susan Rose Francois, CSJP is a perpetually professed Sister of St. Joseph of Peace. She is a Bernardin Scholar and a Master of Arts in Theology candidate at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She also serves on the Giving Voice National Core Team. Her previous ministries have included justice education and advocacy and local government administration. Her blog is “Musings of a Discerning Woman” (www.actjustly. blogspot.com). Sister Susan is also a member of the NRVC Editorial Advisory Board.


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