AT FIRST GLANCE, the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles may seem like a vision from another era. Their motherhouse is a half-block property in a quiet suburb, with multiple building surrounded by tall shrubs, a wall and a double gate entrance. Far from being closed off, though, their retreat house is busy with retreats for lay women nearly every weekend between September and June. During weekdays, laypeople and priests come in and out to meet with sisters, who are dressed in long dark robes and full wimples, with a white cloth covering their necks, heads, ears and chest and a veil over it.
The Verbum Dei Missionaries of Long Beach, in contrast, wear plain clothes adorned only with a simple cross and a ring to symbolize their marriage to Christ. Their convent is a former parish office next to St. Anthony’s Church in Long Beach. At its entrance is a hand-painted scroll, with the print, “We will dedicate ourselves to prayer and service of the Word” (Acts 6:4). On the other end of the entry way, a Dalai Lama quote hangs from a wall in a Zen-like meditation space. Later that day, some of the sisters will meet with their parishioners, a large group composed of couples and families, for a Spanish Bible-study group, where they “learn how to pray.”
Despite their differences, both congregations have had success in cultivating new vocations and in engaging with a robust Catholic ecosystem around them. Even as more young people—and young Catholics in particular—leave their religious traditions, some young women are making the radical decision to follow a call into religious life. Some attribute the continued growth of orders like the Carmelites to their conservative values, counter-cultural lifestyles and even their traditional aesthetic. Yet, the focus on the habit obscures what it takes for a religious congregation to thrive today.
In order to better understand vitality in religious life today, the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture conducted interviews and ethnographic observation with the Carmelites and Verbum Dei Missionaries, as well as two other congregations in Southern California. This research is part of CRCC’s activities as the Measurement, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) Partner for the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Catholic Sisters Initiative.
One of the goals of the Sisters Initiative is to support the vitality of congregations of women religious. In the global north, it aimed to do so, in part, by increasing the number of women becoming sisters. As the Sisters Initiative’s MEL partner, CRCC has documented how larger trends in religion and society impede this goal. At the same time, CRCC recommended in its second MEL report that the Foundation pursue research into places where Catholicism is charismatic and/or vibrant and where congregations are attracting vocations to better understand how the Initiative can shape the future of religious life. This qualitatively-based research study is a starting point for such work. As an exploratory overview of a limited number of congregations in one geographical location, this report cannot be said to definitively describe the vitality of religious life. Nonetheless, its findings reflect common themes in other research on religion, including CRCC’s research on religious creativity and innovation.
Contrary to the idea that the popularity of orders such as the Carmelites comes from their being a throwback to the 1950s, CRCC has found that the young women attracted to the four congregations are modern women, engaged with today’s technology and culture. The sisters also delve energetically and innovatively into their ministerial work alongside laypeople in the midst of ordinary secular life. At the same time, collective prayer life and intimate communal bonds cultivated in the convent are foundational to spiritual development of the sisters. It is from these life-giving sources that the sisters then engage with the outside world.
Based on this exploration of a limited number of congregations, CRCC posits that the vitality—and moreover the sustainability—of congregations is informed by the adaptive manner in which a congregation engages with spirituality, community life, service and outreach across the whole lifetime of a sister. In other words, the four congregations CRCC has examined are responsive to the needs and desires of women throughout their lives, supporting both sisters and the wider Catholic community.