The iPod generation, it doesn’t get more radical than wearing a veil. The hijab worn by traditional Muslim women might have people talking, but it’s the wimple that really turns heads.
And in the U.S. today, the nuns most likely to wear that headdress are the ones young enough to have a playlist.
Over the past five years, Roman Catholic communities around the country have experienced a curious phenomenon: more women, most in their 20s and 30s, are trying on that veil. Convents in Nashville, Tenn.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and New York City all admitted at least 15 entrants over the past year and fielded hundreds of inquiries.
One convent is hurriedly raising funds for a new building to house the inflow, and at another a rush of new blood has lowered the median age of its 225 sisters to 36.
Catholic centers at universities, including Illinois and Texas A&M, report growing numbers of women entering discernment, or the official period of considering a vocation.
Career women seeking more meaning in their lives and empty-nest moms are also finding their way to convent doors.
This is a welcome turnabout for the church. As opportunities opened for women in the 1960s and ’70s, fewer of them viewed the asceticism and confinements of religious life as a tempting career choice.
Since 1965, the number of Catholic nuns in the U.S. has declined from 179,954 to just 67,773, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
The average age of nuns today is 69. But over the past decade or so, expressing their religious beliefs openly has become hip for many young people, a trend intensified among Catholic women by the charismatic appeal of Pope John Paul II’s youth rallies and his interpretation of modern feminism as a way for women to express Christian values.
As this so-called JP2 generation has come of age, religious orders have begun to reach out again to young people–and to do so in the language that young people speak.
Convents conduct e-mail correspondence with interested women, blogs written by sisters give a peek into the habited life and websites offer online personality questionnaires to test vocations.
And although the extreme conservatism of a nun’s life may seem wholly counter cultural for young American women today, that is exactly what attracts many of them, say experts and the women themselves.
“Religious life itself is a radical choice,” says Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago.
“In an age where our primary secular values are sex, power and money, for someone to choose chastity, obedience and poverty is a radical statement.”
That radicalism is, ironically, embodied by the wearing of the veil. Decreed unnecessary by Vatican II and shed happily by many older nuns, the headdress is for many of today’s newcomers a desired accessory.
“A lot of my older sisters would never wear the veil,” says Sister Sarah Roy, 29, who is the only member of her Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception in Peoria, Ill., to do so. (The others wear a simple dark dress adorned by a pin.) Though she admits “people just stare at you like you’re a freak,” she adds, “It’s a trend with younger women wanting to wear the veil now.”
Newer nuns see the veil as a public expression of faith, says Cheryl Reed, author of Unveiled: Inside the Hidden Lives of Nuns.
“You can understand why a woman who has given up sex, freedom and money would want to wear her wedding dress–which is what they consider their habits to be. You want to say, ‘I’m special. I gave this up.'”
Katharine Johnson isn’t sure yet which wedding dress she will choose–a white one or a black one. At 21, she is in her third year of discernment. For now the senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign dresses as her classmates do, though on her ring finger she wears a miniature rosary and a favorite T shirt reads, EVERYONE LOVES A CATHOLIC GIRL.
She still dates but limits physical contact to kissing. “As I date men and I date convents, I am waiting for God to say, ‘This is where your heart belongs,'” she says.
Becoming a nun typically takes seven to nine years.
After the period of discernment, a woman enters a religious community as a postulant, and she reflects upon her vocation and helps with chores around the convent.
At the end of what is primarily a yearlong spiritual retreat, the postulant and her advisers in the community decide whether she will become a novice and study Catholic theology and ministry for up to two years. She may then take her temporary vows.
After an additional four to eight years during which she serves the convent’s mission, she makes her final vows and becomes a professed nun.
At the Sisters of Life Formation House in the Bronx, N.Y., 16 young women are making their way through that journey.
They include a former Marine, a professional opera singer, a United Nations aide and a recent Yale grad.
They have left behind paychecks, apartments, even boyfriends. Sister Thérèse Saglimbeni, 27, a novice who joined the convent in 2005, recalls watching the sisters playing volleyball while she was a student at the nearby State University of New York Maritime College.
“I was with my boyfriend and had said how fun the sisters looked,” she says. “He said, ‘Well, why don’t you join them?’ And I replied, ‘Well, maybe I will!'”
The other sisters chuckle when Saglimbeni recounts her saucy retort. But many of their loved ones feel less jovial about the women’s decision to take the veil. “For those who are called, there is a real falling in love.* It was summarized of TIME, November 2006