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Number of new Catholic nuns in Britain at 25-year high

06/07/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/06/2016 05:59 EDT
In a small room just steps away from one of London's busiest underground stations, four women sit together in casual clothes. Ranging in age from 27 to 90, they ask aloud for British students to do well on their exams, peace in South Sudan and a missing local girl to be found safe.

As soon as they fall silent, one rushes out to make sure their dinner doesn't burn, and the rest joke and laugh as they leave the unassuming chapel and head to the kitchen.

These are the faces of a modern British convent.

"Most of what you think you might know about religious life is probably wrong," said Michelle Langlois, originally from Winnipeg, who became a novice in Britain in 2014.

Misconceptions about life as a modern nun are perpetuated by Hollywood in films like Sister Act, but in reality, the way certain convents are adapting is clearly attracting more women.

The number of women choosing to become Catholic nuns in the U.K. has hit a 25-year high, according to 2014 statistics, flying in the face of commonly held beliefs that support for organized religion is dwindling. In the birthplace of the Church of England, the rise is significant for the Catholic minority.

From 1991 to 2004 the number of new nuns decreased markedly, according to the British Office for Vocation, hitting all-time low of just seven women. From there, the numbers have risen steadily, with 45 joining convents in 2014.

Langlois, 40, is one of them. She was a teacher in Canada before she joined the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ) as a novice. She dated, loved shopping, and tried to attend church every Sunday.

"I was very much living a normal life, I had no thought of religious life at all," Langlois said. "I would have thought the idea quite laughable, actually. But for some reason, one particular Sunday, there was a little something inside of me that said this is speaking to me in some way."

Though the overall number of women taking religious vows remains small, it is still more than double the number of men choosing to become priests in Britain — there were only 18 last year.  

The FCJ Sisters in London currently have two novices: Langlois and Roisin McGrogan, 27.  

"Religious life is not necessarily old-fashioned now. Like, I'm sitting here with a podcast as part of my daily prayer," said McGrogan, sitting on the floor of the convent's chapel with her iPod and a Bible.  

McGrogan is wearing khaki cargo pants and Langlois a bright, eggplant-coloured cardigan. There's no-one in a habit here.  The only things that reveal their vocation are small, matching wooden cross pendants.  As novices, both live the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The FCJ Sisters are what's called an apostolic order, as they are involved in all kinds of community outreach, from programs with sex workers to prison ministry. Both Langlois and McGrogan contend that the focus on social justice is something that has a strong pull with modern women.

The Pope Francis effect

Langlois also suspects that a renewed interest in the order may also be linked to Pope Francis, the lively Jesuit Pope who has attracted attention, adoration, and Twitter followers all over the world.

"You go to church sometimes and you have your doubts when you look around, and there's a lot of grey hair," she said.

"Pope Francis has grey hair, so I'm not saying anything bad about that, but you sometimes have the sense of 'where is the church going to be in the next 50 years?'  I think when you see someone like Pope Francis, it says there's still something here and the Church still has something really important to offer the world."

Francis has only been in the office since March of 2013, so he likely played little role in the spike in the number of new nuns in 2014.  But his influence shouldn't be disregarded, according to Sister Cathy Jones of the National Office for Vocation.

"He might not have had a huge effect on the numbers yet, but I think he has been encouraging women to discover their vocation, and we may in a year or two see even more women joining because of him," said Sister Cathy.

Religious life offers women a choice removed from a consumerist culture, something that Pope Francis has highlighted. He's also been active in promoting the role of women in the church, acknowledging that they are called to being more than just helpers to religious men. The Pope has stopped short of advocating women's ordination, but he's repeatedly made efforts to involve them in religious discussion.

Modest increases

Neither Sister Cathy nor Michelle Langlois expect the Church will ever see the numbers of nuns it used to — as recently at the 1980s, almost 100 women were joining orders every year. But those familiar with religious life think the modest increases will continue.

"I suppose things like this might have a sort of infectious dimension, that once one or two women say 'I'm thinking about this,' they give permission to others," said Tina Beattie, theologian and professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University in London.  

She suggests the numbers are moving upwards because of the modern world, rather than in spite of it.

"We have an economic crisis, we have an atrocious social problem of the gap between rich and poor, we have a migrant crisis. I think people are beginning to realize that maybe kicking religion out altogether was not the answer to humanity's problems."

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