"The main question is not "How can we hide our wounds?" so we don't have to be embarrassed, but "How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?" When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers." (Henri Nouwen)
There has been much focus today on a "crisis" in religious vocations. We know that there are fewer numbers of younger women entering religious communities, but the "crisis" is not how many young women enter the convent, but how many leave the religious life after an often traumatic experience with regards to abuse by a religious superior. Although some young women leave the convent in peace, many do not. We should not only pray for more vocations to the religious life, but also pray for a reform in many convents. I am writing this article to bring awareness to the truth of what is taking place in many convents, not to "attack" religious life and the communities of women religious who are authentically living out their vows as "spiritual mothers" who love and nurture the vocations that they receive in their communities.
Religious life is a precious and essential gift to the Church when women religious live out their consecration to Jesus Christ with a spirit of sincerity and truth. The statistics show from the 2014 CARA report executive summary that although fewer women are entering religious life young women are in fact answering God's call to become a religious sister, and there are communities that are flourishing in numbers. From analysis of the report these questions though arise:
How many of the women who enter the religious life leave and why do they leave?
The report fails to include such information. Even if a community over a period of time has an overall up-tick in vocations, how many of the young women who enter stay? There are many communities that appear to be authentic and "healthy" from the outside, but are actually "sick" internally, with abusive religious superiors destroying their communities from within.
How can the wheat grow and flourish if the weeds surrounding it are choking it? How can a rotten tree bear good fruit? If there are Sisters in a religious community, such as a superior or novice mistress, who abuse their position of authority then often young women who enter these communities end up leaving on their own or being asked to leave. The women in charge of formation often use the vow of obedience to enforce power and control over younger members of the community. Younger sisters are to have blind obedience, and never question anything, which encourages an environment of toxicity and abuse.
The pain and suffering that these young women endure at the hands of women who are supposed to be living as witnesses of Christ in the world is simply shocking and appalling. There seems to be no accountability set in place for women religious who wrongfully use their authority as a position of power and control. According to Canon Law only "members who are carefully prepared and who, not impeded by other duties, can carry out this function fruitfully and in a stable manner are to be placed in charge of the formation of novices." Instead of young Sisters being cared for and being formed gradually to lead correctly the life by their novice mistress they are treated as if they joined the military.
As the "hazing" of the young woman continues there is a constant fear and anxiety that envelops her due to a never-ending sexual, verbal, psychological, or emotional "beating" that she receives from someone who is supposed to be her "spiritual mother." She finds herself in a ruthless, battle of spiritual combat; one that is not only a struggle between flesh and blood, but that which is against the heavenly realm; the supernatural. With every smile she chokes back a hundred tears as she continues to run the race, in the midst of the turbulent storm, towards the finish line; where she hopes to one day give her "fiat" to her Beloved Spouse.
But the truth is that there will never be a wedding for the young woman; she does not even make it to the altar. She never has the opportunity to cross the finish line because she does not get to say, "I do." She either leaves the Community after being unable to tolerate anymore cruelty, or is tossed out into the cold after a bout of malicious mind games played by the religious sisters who were supposed to be her family. Many of the young women who have shared their stories with me are not only no longer in religious life, but are no longer even practicing the faith. Often these young women have even turned to the new age movement, completely abandoning the belief that there is a God. It breaks my heart to know that their incredibly negative experience has left them to walk away from the Eucharist; to turn away from the love of Christ.
We should pray that more young women accept the invitation to become a laborer in the vineyard, but we need to also pray for a reform in many convents. Let us help bring forth a positive change in religious life, so that it can be the beautiful vocation that the Lord intends it to be for young women who give up everything to follow Christ.