|Change in approach results in vocations bump in England, Wales
Catholic News ServiceNEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, England — Janet Hopper said that when she started as a novice at the Society of the Sacred Heart, she thought, "This is completely mad."
She had never imagined herself as a religious. Growing up, she felt she was "too independent and mischievous." She liked soccer and music too much. But, when she met sisters from the Society of the Sacred Heart, she felt that she fit in.
"Something clicked," she said.
Hopper, 33, is one of three novices who joined the society in England and Wales last year. Before that, no one had joined for 15 years.
The bump in interest illustrates a national trend. The number of people entering religious orders is at its highest level in England and Wales for 17 years. The figure has grown from 19 in 2004 to 64 last year.
The increase does not seem to be matched in the rest of Western Europe. In France, for instance, the number of novices dropped by a third between 2004 and 2011. In Germany, over the same period, the number fell by a tenth.
At the Society of the Sacred Heart, a turning point was the appointment of Sister Barbara Sweeney as vocations director, a post that had not previously existed. She and her team set up a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a vocations website. They re-designed and re-wrote all the material about the society.
"It had to be brief, interesting and to the point," Sister Barbara said.
The sisters cleared rooms in three houses so that interested women could come and stay. And they started offering discernment weekends, which now happen three times a year, where women could meet the sisters, pray with them and hear about their lives.
For Hopper, the discernment weekend was crucial. Without it, she said, "I would have shoved the question (of religious life) to the back of my head."
Sister Barbara said she had been "banging on" about vocations for years. Out of the society's 70 or so members, only two were under 50 -- the same number was over 100. Many were in their 70s.
But not all sisters saw the need for vocations work. Sister Barbara said there was a sense "that religious life was not for today." It was not an option she could accept.
"Our life is about discovering God's heart in the world and bringing that to people -- you can't say that's out of date," she said.
Part of the problem, she explains, is visibility. When Sister Barbara joined, 49 years ago, the sisters wore habits and taught in schools. Now, "we look like everybody else. We do jobs like everybody else. If we don't share our life, no one is going to hear about it."
Benedictine Father Christopher Jamison, director of the National Office for Vocation in England and Wales, said the work of Sister Barbara reflects a general trend. In the past, he said, religious orders had the idea that "you should simply pray for vocations. If you did more than that it showed a lack of faith in God." Now, he said, a "significant number" of orders in England and Wales have a full-time vocations director.
That means, in turn, that these orders have "a better understanding of where young Catholics are and where to go out to meet them," he said.
Both Father Jamison and Father Stephen Langridge, chairman of vocations directors in England and Wales, argue that the whole approach to vocations has changed in recent years. In the past, said Father Langridge, the model was one of recruitment.
"Posters would be put at the back of the church," he said. "People would walk past and not even see them."
Now, he said, the focus is on offering "discernment opportunities" where people can figure out what their vocation is -- whether that's to be a priest, a religious, a single or married person. These vary from monthly evenings organized by priests or laypeople to national events such as the Invocation festival, which takes place over several days.
Assumptionist Sister Cathy Jones, religious life promoter at the National Office for Vocation, said these opportunities have led to a situation where "at least half" of very committed young Catholics "consider (religious life) seriously at one point or another. It is almost the norm."
Another factor in the increase of interest, said Sister Cathy, was Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Britain in 2010.
"There was a great strengthening of faith and pride at being Catholic," she says. "People who had been discerning a good number of years thought, 'I'll give this a go.'"
Sister Barbara laughed at the idea she might be a vocations guru.
"The really important thing is to love religious life, to love your own vocation," she said. Someone who can communicate that can show that "religious life isn't for weirdos. It's just ordinary. It just happens that the Lord becomes everything to you."