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Looking into the sisters' traditional habits

| Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009

If someone told me to join a sisterhood, I wouldn't know where to go.

A Google search of "convent 15217" tells me there are quite a few destinations near my home.

But what would I do once I got there?

The Vatican also is curious as to where the callings of the estimated 60,000 nuns in the United States have taken the country's Roman Catholic sisterhood. A two-part investigation announced earlier this year will review the lifestyles, doctrine, service and recruitment that go on in every community of religious women in the country, or sisterhoods. The investigation is not looking at cloistered communities, or nuns.

A number of sisters are suspicious and resentful of the meddling; understandably so, since "apostolic visitations" like these usually occur only when there's a clear problem or scandal.

But the Vatican has given no official reason for the investigation, describing it only as "a constructive assessment and an expression of genuine concern for the quality of the life" in the communities.

So what is it like to live a day in the life of a sister• That answer would be as complicated and varied as explaining a day in the life of a woman.

Since the 1962 reforms of the Second Vatican Council, sisters have been allowed to forgo wearing habits, live independently outside a convent and enter professions including academia, advocacy, lobbying and social work.

These evolving lifestyles — and not necessarily the aging population of sisterhoods — apparently have piqued the Vatican's interest the most.

But new and potential sisters seem to be least interested in these modern religious lifestyles. According to a study released this month by the National Religious Vocation Conference, two-thirds of new sisters chose orders that wear a habit all the time or regularly during prayer or ministry.

"They're more attracted to a traditional style of religious life, where there is community living, common prayer, having Mass together ... They are much more likely to say fidelity of the church is important to them," Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, told The New York Times.

The habit and the convent tradition was the only option for sisters years ago. It's all they knew. As sisters have grown older, religious lifestyles have changed with them — possibly coming full circle.

The Vatican's investigation might just reveal that what's old is new again.

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