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Father Nicholas Nelson: Women religious are integral to our diocese and parishes

Ecosystems are such that if you remove one integral part of it, the ecosystem is forced to rebalance and adjust. Take Yellowstone National Park, for example. In the 1930s, farmers and ranchers decided to kill off the wolves. This led to an increase in the elk population, but it had other consequences as well, such as the elimination of many species of birds and smaller animals and rodents. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

But then in 1995, Yellowstone slowly reintroduced a small number of wolves. The elk weren’t all killed, but the wolves caused the elk to move a little. They could no longer just stay in the low areas, they had to go up the hills and mountains. This allowed the willow trees there to mature, which caused the beavers to increase as their food and building source increased. The beavers began to build dams, which caused the waters to pool and more willows to grow. The larger trees created homes for birds to return. Rodents and mice, as well as scavenger animals such as bald eagles, were able to find a friendly habitat. The grasses and trees provided stable banks along the streams. 

All in all, the reintroduction of wolves brought back the rich and diverse Yellowstone ecosystem. 

The church as a body, the Body of Christ, is also an ecosystem, such that if you remove something integral to the church, it forces the church to rebalance and try to adjust. Consider the lack of priests. The lack of priests has been one of the reasons for parish closures, but maybe even more significant is the decrease in women religious vocations. In the 1960s, there were 180,000 sisters in the United States. Today, there are less than 43,000, and the majority are elderly. 

There was a time in the 1900s when sisters were the majority of teachers in Catholic schools. They were a large percentage of nurses in hospitals and in nursing homes. As president of a Catholic school, I know that Catholic schools have yet to adequately rebalance and adjust to not having sisters. I am guessing a person could make a good argument that hospitals and nursing homes haven’t totally adjusted either. 

Besides the practical adjustments that go along with not having religious sisters, there is an ontological loss as well, that even if we could find the adequate number and quality of laity who were competent and mission oriented and found a way to compensate them justly while still making Catholic schools basically free, we are still lacking what sisters symbolize and point to in their being. 

Father John Burns, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, has a unique assignment. He is assigned to the Promotion of Women Religious. He said, “Our parishes today are like families run by single dads, and there is a poverty to single-dad families.” There is something to that analogy. We have spiritual fathers in our pastors, but we lack the spiritual motherhood that religious women offer. And families are not complete without fathers and mothers. 

The priest is an image of Christ in the world. He shows the church what it means to be loved with a complete spousal love. But it is the women religious who are an image of the church. The women religious show us as a church how we are to relate to Christ. If we don’t have the presence of women religious, we don’t fully grasp who we are as a church. 

The lack of religious sisters has affected the number of priests. Who do you think kept the priestly vocation at the forefront of young boys’ minds as they grew up? It was the sisters in the classroom. 

A brother priest of mine was asked to preach about women religious vocations. He said, “It’s so hard because it’s like talking about unicorns!” Most people have very little and very rare encounters with religious sisters. 

In our diocese, we have the Benedictine Sisters at St. Scholastica and the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus in Duluth, but we are far from the number of sisters serving in our diocese during the mid-1900s. 

I recently returned from the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors. After listening to Father John Burns speak, I am motivated to do what I can to promote women religious vocations in our diocese. It will take time, it is a long game, but we have to start somewhere. 

We all need to start talking about religious vocations more. We need to intentionally pray for them. At Queen of Peace, we are fasting from meat on Fridays for the specific intention that God send religious sisters to serve our parish and school again. We need to have our daughters spend time with sisters. That means also inviting religious orders to come visit our diocese and parishes. 

We have the Carmelites of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Los Angeles visiting Nov. 11-13. Please let me know if you are interested in participating in the visit. I also want to start short, only six-week, discernment groups for women. In these groups, young women will learn what religious life is like but also develop good friendships with other good Catholic women. 

So yes, we can do our best to adjust to a future without women religious, or we can just refuse to accept a future without them and we can rededicate ourselves to fostering women religious vocations again. I choose the latter! 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet and vocations director for the Diocese of Duluth. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].