Yes, women are entering religious congregations today, but certainly not in the numbers that they did 40 years ago. The regularity by which congregations receive candidates varies. Some communities receive women on a consistent basis, others on a sporadic basis, and some are not receiving candidates at all.
Congregations are using multiple strategies to care for their elders. Priorities are quality, cost effective care that promotes the value of the member, meaningful participation in community activities and opportunities for ongoing personal development and spiritual growth. In major urban areas such as Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans multiple congregations sponsor inter-congregational retirement care facilities. Smaller congregations sometimes partner with larger congregations to share space in the larger congregation's facility. Some congregations provide assisted living care within their convents but rely on outside facilities for skilled care.
We do not know precisely how many congregations are considering merger or re-configuration. Reconfiguration is a trend in large congregations with multiple provinces, and mergers tend to take place with small congregations that are part of a spiritual family or federation. These congregations seek to merge with one or more congregations of like mission and spirit.
This is true for only a small percentage of younger Catholic women who are aware of religious life as a life option. Another segment of the younger Catholic population is not necessarily opposed to religious life; they are just indifferent to it or unfamiliar with it.
Where women may have at one time have come to apostolic religious life for ministry, today's candidate may already be engaged in ministry, but is spiritually seeking more. In general, women come to religious life today to live and to share their faith with a group of women committed to the Church, to Jesus Christ and to Gospel values. They are attracted to group living and they seek honesty and integrity from the women with whom they live. They are attracted to members and communities that have a vitality and vibrancy about their life and mission.
Congregations are doing serious planning for the future. This planning includes the future of the congregation's mission, the recruitment of new membership, and providing cost-effective, quality care for senior members. There is no single decision or strategy that makes the difference between success and failure. Rather a combination of wise choices creates the conditions necessary for congregations to reach their goals. Best Practices Research sponsored by the Commission on Religious Life and Ministry with the National Religious Retirement Office addresses this question in detail and can be downloaded from the NRRO website, www.usccb.org/nrro
Congregations that attract newer members are generally focused with a clear mission that responds to a vital need in the church and society. This usually is accompanied by a corporate identity and a strong belief in the future. Some congregations, in particular newer foundations, seem to be experiencing an increase of newer members. This would apply to some monastic congregations as well.
The National Religious Retirement Office sponsored by LCWR with the national conference of bishops and the other conferences of religious leaders, provides a variety of methods of assistance. The Retirement Fund for Religious appeal raises an average of $26 million annually. Any religious congregation that needs assistance with funding for retirement may apply for grants. Workshops, on- site peer consulting and other educational services also are offered by the National Religious Retirement Office. See www.usccb.org/nrro or call the office at 202-541-3215 for more information.