I will admit to a smile whenever I see that one of my Horizons columns has been posted online, although the reason for my smile may not be the one you expect. I smile because of the tagline for the column on the Global Sisters Report website: “Young sisters speak.” Only in religious life would a 42-year-old woman be counted among the “young.”
Of course, as it happens I am the chronological elder among the Horizons columnists. That is something that doesn’t happen very often in my religious life where I am the third youngest member in my own community. My friends and Sister columnists Colleen Gibson, Tracy Kemme and Julia Walsh each fall into the Millennial category, while I suppose it is up to me to represent Generation X.
There are definite differences between our two generations, but we also have much in common. And, in religious life, we comprise the younger end of what Amy Hereford calls the “minority cohort.” According to the latest statistical report from the National Religious Retirement Office, less than 10 percent of women religious in this country are under 60 years of age:
- 4.7 percent are in their 50s;
- 2.4 percent in their 40s;
- 1.8 percent in their 30s and
- 1 percent in their 20s.
In case you are curious, 16.9 percent of U.S. Catholic sisters are in their 60s, with a whopping 73.2 percent over the age of 70.
While the generational mix present in religious life today is more than a little bit unbalanced, in other ways it mirrors what is happening in the larger society. There are presently four generations co-existing in the workplace, a phenomenon that sociologists tell us is somewhat unprecedented. Millennials continue to enter the workforce in droves and will make up 40 percent of workers by 2020. This is admittedly a marked contrast to the small numbers in religious life. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation are slower to retire than their predecessors, as they find renewed creativity and productivity in later years. And what about the infamous “slacker” Generation X? Well, as it happens, my Generation X cohorts have been quietly moving into positions of leadership: 50 percent of CEOs of major corporations are members of Generation X.
The leadership gap is another way that the current reality in religious life mirrors what is happening in the larger society. As Susan S. LaMotte observed in a recent TIME magazine column: “Because Generation Xers will make up only 20% of the workforce, as leadership roles are vacated by older workers, there are fewer Generation Xers available. And Millennials may not have the experience and maturity needed for such roles.”
I was struck by the similarity between this observation and one in the recently released report of the Apostolic Visitation, which noted that some sisters “expressed concern about the difficulty of identifying and forming new sisters for leadership because of the increasing median age of the members.”
From the flip side of the equation, Colleen Gibson commented on this same reality in a recent Global Sisters Report column: “Recognizing and fostering leadership among our ranks and not just in the concentrated hands of an age group that predominates is part of the dialogue that needs to continue to happen.”
Those of us on the younger end of the age spectrum are a small yet mighty group of women religious who have chosen to enter religious life at this particular time. We come knowing intimately the challenges of the generational imbalance. We discern and make our life-long commitment knowing that religious life is on the precipice of changes we cannot really even begin to imagine.
From my perspective, we are in fact privileged to be here at a very exciting time. It is a time of change, risk and incredible need for witnesses to joy and love in the midst of much division, pain and suffering. It is a time of hope in our church where the winds of change can once again be felt, even in the halls of the Vatican.
Because of our present demographic mix, it is also a graced time when the many generations present in religious life can pray, play, learn and dream together. Given the large percentage of sisters over 70, this moment is time limited, with not one second to be wasted.
In his letter marking the beginning of the Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis recognizes this special moment in his words to younger religious: “This Year should see you actively engaged in dialogue with the previous generation. In fraternal communion you will be enriched by their experiences and wisdom, while at the same time inspiring them, by your own energy and enthusiasm, to recapture their original idealism.”
The other day I had the chance to visit one of my own beloved elder sisters in the infirmary. Now in her 90s, Sister Jeanne played an instrumental role in the post Vatican II renewal of our community, as we responded to the Council’s call to return to our original spirit and respond to the signs of the times. She is also keenly aware of our present reality – and hopeful for the future. I love being able to have her as a conversation partner as we dream about what it is this particular time might be calling forth from our community and wider religious life.
I’ve started thinking of this special moment in religious life as “our time.” Contrary to what you might expect, the “our” does not refer only to my generation, but rather to the unique mix of multiple generations presently living religious life. We are the bridge to a future full of hope. In the words of Pope Francis:
This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:2), the One for whom ‘nothing is impossible’ (Lk 1:37). This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future. It is to that future that we must always look, conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us.
The generations presently living religious life have been called to this particular time. We stand on the shoulders of, and in company with, “brave, noble, large-minded and courageous souls,” to borrow a phrase from Margaret Anna Cusack (Mother Francis Clare), the founder of my community. I have no doubt that this is our time. The open question seems to be, what are we going to do with this time to help make religious life sustainable for future generations?
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]
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