Evolution of the committed life in the 21st century

Loreto Sister with a child in Haiti

In Catholic circles these days, discussions of religious life for women are often accompanied by laments. 


- Mauren Fiedler, NCR

That used to be my attitude. I often worried that religious life, to which I feel personally called, might be dead in the next couple decades. But now, I'm convinced that I was asking the wrong questions and that nostalgia for the good old days is probably a waste of energy. Maybe the model of "committed life" we've been living is evolving, and needs to evolve, as it already has since the days of the desert mothers and fathers. So I set out to explore new models of commitment.

I want to be clear, however: I am not writing off religious life as we have known it. Although it is apparently attractive to fewer young women these days, it will most likely continue, albeit with lower numbers. It is good to remind ourselves that the numbers entering religious life today are much like they were in the 1930s. The large surge in vocations followed World War II. Who knows when the next surge will come?

That said, the major need today is to search out new models of the committed life for the 21st century, to discover how the concept and the reality of a committed life is evolving, and can evolve further, in the 21st century. Such lives offer real and needed service to our church and our world. I use the phrase "committed life" quite purposely. It speaks to a life commitment beyond the requirements of baptism, but it does not necessarily encompass the three vows -- poverty, chastity and obedience -- that are at the heart of religious life.

One incident that got me thinking about this was a meeting about co-membership in the Loretto Community, my religious community. In late 2012, Martha Alderson, who was then coordinating our co-membership program, commented that she had so many candidates applying to be co-members, she was stretched for time! She was flooded with work responding to requests for information and managing the co-membership process for those who had already begun their journeys.

That struck me like a bolt of lightning. Maybe there's a message here, a "sign of the times" in the sense meant by the Second Vatican Council.

Co-membership in Loretto began in 1970 and, even then, our president at the time, Helen Sanders, insisted that these new members be called co-members, not associates. The vision took time to develop, but after 42 years, those seeds are bearing fruit. In the first few years, most co-members were former vowed members who had left the community to marry -- or for other reasons -- but wanted to stay in contact and participate to some degree. Many co-members have often been, and still are, people whom we know and work with in schools or justice ministries.

But today, co-membership is growing more diverse. Current co-members are recruiting new co-members. Although most are age 50 and up, some are in their 20s or 30s. More are married couples. Some have less direct connections with us than those who first shaped the program. We have a couple priests, and we were proud to count Bishop Charles Buswell of Pueblo, Colo., as a co-member before he passed away.

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