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Priests, nuns have faith they’ll survive drop in vocations

Carmelite Brother Edgar Enrique Lopez hands out information about his order at the recent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim.
Carmelite Brother Edgar Enrique Lopez hands out information about his order at the recent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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Like the population in general, nuns and priests are inching toward retirement. That’s a worry for Catholic religious orders that have seen a steep drop in vocations.

At the recent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, brothers, priests and sisters set up booths among the vendors to try to get out the word about their orders.

Amid the busy booths, Carmelite Brother Edgar Enrique Lopez wears a brown robe with a rope tied around the waist. He hands out blessed devotional necklaces called scapulars and hands out cards with a prayer for vocations.

Brother Lopez joined the Carmelites about eight years ago after a Carmelite priest invited him to a baptism.

"You know, the way he carried himself with the people, just talking to them and just being part of that family, you know. It was just great," Lopez says. "And so the more I kept asking questions and doing ministry, I realized that God was calling me to religious life."

But fewer people are hearing that call than a few decades ago. And Lopez says when they do, they face overwhelming choices.

"There’s too many options out there," he says. "I remember when I was considering the Carmelites, you know, it was just — which one should I choose? Because I could have chosen the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Dominicans."

Each order has its own personality.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Nelson chose the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange. She says they’ve been averaging about one new sister a year, women either in their early 20s — or close to 50 and older.

"The women that are interested today, especially the ones in their mid 20s, they’re looking for a way to deepen their spirituality and some type of community life. They can do the ministry already," says Nelson.

Around the corner, Sister Jenny Howard chats with passersby at the Sisters of Providence booth. She passes out prayer cards with the order's "Litany of Non-Violence" and talks about the order's founder, Mother Theodore Guerin, one of the newest saints in the Roman Catholic Church.

Howard says eight women are seriously considering sisterhood at their mother house in Indiana. She says the days in the 1950s and '60s when women poured into the sisterhood were a historical blip.

"We kind of have this mindset that it used to be 50 and 60 a year, you know. That was our experience," Howard says. "But now, when you look back through church history, you realize that what we’re kind of experiencing now maybe is a decline, but throughout church history, it’s not an unusual event."

Howard says part of the reason is that women’s roles in the Catholic Church have changed.

"If you think back into the 1950s and '60s, when there was such a huge number of persons entering, when you think about the choices that women had during that time and the choice they had if they wanted to be in any kind of service in the church, the only way really to do that was to be a sister," she says.

Father David Loftus of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles says women today have more career choices, too.

"There was a time in history when, for example, if a woman wanted to be a doctor, she wasn’t going to do it unless she was a nun," Loftus says. "I mean, we’ve got circumstances in this country where the sisters became — effectively they ran health organizations at a time when in society it still wasn’t okay for women to be working."

Father Loftus says the size of today’s families makes a difference, as well. He says his own parents were open to religious life.

"When we talk about experiences where your families are smaller, where there’s maybe one or two children, then parents have other concerns that they’re going to have in a family like that," Loftus says. "So I become a priest. I’ve got two brothers and two sisters. The family’s going to continue without me."

But will the religious orders continue to exist with members retiring faster than fresh faces coming in?

"Would the community ever die out? You know, I really don’t know that answer," says Sister Howard. "But I believe that the community will, the mission will go on as long as God intends it to."

And Howard says that takes a lot of faith.

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