This article is reprinted from the fall 2010 issue of HOPE.
Sister Jenny Howard is the Sisters of Providence vocation director, a position she has held for nine years. She also is on the Congregationâ€™s New Membership Team, which focuses on assisting the Congregation in inviting and welcoming new members and facilitates the development of the whole person for those who seek full membership. She serves as chairperson of the Vocations Advisory Team, a group that includes marketing and communications staff members, and she works with various vocation groups within Indiana and outside the state as well.
Sister Jenny is a native of Indianapolis and has been a member of the Congregation for 27 years. She loves camping, canoeing and the outdoors.
Q. Why are there so few people entering religious life today?
A. There is not one easy explanation to that question, but a variety of factors and influences will shed some light. Some people today picture religious life as we knew it from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s when droves of women were joining religious congregations. We tend to think of that time period as the â€śnorm.â€ť If we look back through Church history, we find that there has been great fluctuation in numbers of new members. The influence of society in general, as well as current world needs, often has a significant role. Some young people today have never met a sister. For most of us, we cannot imagine such a scenario. But that is why it is so important for us to connect and share with others about our life and mission.
In the last five years or so, I have seen a noticeable increase in young people exploring the possibility of religious life. It appears that there has been a shift in the perception of its value. In the past, I noticed that young people have been somewhat hesitant to mention they were exploring religious life, but it seems now they are more willing to say thatâ€™s what they are thinking about. Weâ€™ve been very fortunate to have women enter our Congregation fairly consistently throughout this period of time.
Q. From the research and reading you have done, and the workshops in which you have participated, what do you believe young people are looking for today?
A. Young people today are searching for deeper meaning in their lives, and a way to live out their Catholic identity more fully. Several women with whom I am in conversation have shared that they are seeking a deeper spirituality and a sense of community. Todayâ€™s generations are very service-oriented and very generous. Young people today enjoy doing things together, and for many of them, they desire to do that out of their faith and as a way of living out the Gospel message.
There are so many options in life for them. For some making a permanent commitment is very challenging and fearful. If they make a commitment to one thing, that might rule out many of their other options.
Q. How can the Sisters of Providence position themselves to take advantage of renewed interest in a life of service to God and to society, and to religious life?
A. Much of what we already do has helped us to stay connected with a large group of women. We have more than 300 women in our e-mail database or our regular monthly mail database. These are women whom we have met through our various vocation events, and who have asked to stay connected and to receive monthly communications from us. We have increased our visibility about who we are as Sisters of Providence in ways that young people can connect with us, certainly through our marketing abilities and contacts.
However, personal contact a woman has with a Sister of Providence remains most important. It is through that personal interaction, by our presence, by our witness, that women really come to know us. Each Sister of Providence is actively engaged in praying, fasting and inviting women she knows to consider religious life. We believe that each Sister of Providence is a â€śvocation directorâ€ť and that itâ€™s not just the job of the New Membership Team. After all, most sisters joined the Congregation after having personally known a Sister of Providence.
Q. Would you describe the recruitment of women to religious life, or the invitation to answer the call, as a competitive environment among congregations?
A. Competition doesnâ€™t come into it. The desire that we have as vocation directors is to help women explore possibilities of religious life and to find a community where their spirit is most alive and where they feel â€śat home.â€ť Each community has its own personality. Women today have so many options in how they choose to live their lives, let alone a variety of religious communities from which to choose if they feel called to religious life. Web sites have made it more possible to explore religious communities without ever personally contacting anyone. Hundreds of congregations are only a click away.
Q. What is the actual discernment process like for a woman who is considering religious life?
A. For a woman exploring religious life, it would be helpful for her to participate in our â€śCome and Seeâ€ť and discernment weekends, and to spend some time getting to know the Sisters of Providence, and allowing us time to get to know her. We encourage young women to complete college, or to work a few years, in order to gain some life experience before engaging in a more formal discernment process.
Keeping in mind that our discernment is a â€śmutual processâ€ť between the woman and the Congregation, when the time seems appropriate she may request a discernment guide. During these next months, she walks with a Sister of Providence appointed as her discernment guide, usually meeting monthly to discuss various topics to assist in her discernment. At some point in her journey, through prayer and mutual discernment, she may feel ready to begin the application process. The time from the initial contact to the point of actual entrance into the Congregation may be several years. Women who
are interested in discerning with us seem to truly appreciate that the process is not rushed, but is respectful of their needs to explore their many life options, and honors the time needed for prayer, reflection and discernment.
Q. What gives you hope?
A. Several things. I think back to the early days of this community and to the challenges endured by Mother Theodore and our early sisters. Their faith, their love and care for one another, and their trust in the God of Providence sustained them, and I trust it will continue to sustain us in this time and into the future. I believe that religious life is a viable and important way of life today for our Church and for our world. It may look different than it has in the past, but I trust that this way of life will fulfill the need of Godâ€™s design.
The Sisters of Providence recently came together for our Annual Meeting to prepare for our General Chapter next summer. The passion and energy in the room for our future together was literally tangible. The purpose of this Congregation is not to exist for ourselves, but to exist in order to honor Divine Providence through works of love, mercy and justice in service among Godâ€™s people, to be a sign of hope for others. That gives me the greatest hope.