Why women are flocking to religious orders in England and Wales

Sister Camilla Oberding of Community of Our Lady of Walsingham after making her final profession in 2010 (Mazur/

It’s a fact! The National Office for Vocations has announced that the number of women seeking admittance to religious life in England and Wales is at its highest for 25 years.

No wonder Fr Christopher Jamison and Sister Cathy Jones are smiling. The Director and the Religious Life Promoter have both noticed a steady increase over the past 10 years, but now it is official: in England and Wales, God is still calling women to follow him through the religious life and they are still responding to his invitation.

So what is making the difference?

Perhaps one crucial factor is that religious congregations themselves have changed. Careful self-examination and rediscovery of their roots and inspiration have generated a new self-confidence and ability to explain their relevance in today’s world. There is no longer a sense of recruitment and persuasion in vocations promotion as congregations “walk with” enquirers in an ongoing discernment process.

Religious congregations have also changed the way they communicate their message, making maximum use of the internet and social media as they offer invitations to “come and see” without any obligation to sign on any dotted lines.

Happily, what is happening for the Sisters is also happening with vocations to the religious and diocesan priesthood. There, too, numbers are on the increase.

Has the “Francis effect” made any difference to encouraging young people to consider a religious vocation? Fr Christopher thinks that, so far, it is too early to say. It is true, however, that the Pope’s emphasis on reaching out to the marginalised, especially through religious life, offers a very positive image of what it means to be a religious.

In today’s increasingly materialistic world many find that there is a gap in the market. In searching for meaning in life, they discover that the Church addresses their concerns. Religious life suddenly becomes a relevant, viable and personally meaningful option. Whereas some people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, a small but growing number of individuals are discovering that it is entirely possible to be both spiritual and religious – and that this makes life worth living.

Youth 2000, Compass, Invocation and Flame have repeatedly shown the value of Catholic youth movements and events. There is something uniquely different from the experience of a football match or a concert: participants go home inspired and energised to make a difference to their world.

Those who are drawn to religious life do not fit into one little box. In America, the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) conducted a very detailed survey in 2014 and subsequently released their report on the reasons why individuals are drawn to follow a religious vocation. They found that the primary draw was clarity of identity. This did not necessarily mean wearing a habit, but, instead, had an identifiable community life engaged in regular prayer and a mission which is relevant to today’s world – and they could confidently explain themselves.

A similar survey is unlikely in England and Wales, partly because of expense but also because the bishops’ conference and the Conference of Religious (COR) opted to take a different path. With funding from COR, Sister Cathy was engaged as the religious life promoter, working with and alongside the bishops’ conference. She began working in this role in 2011 and, after four years, has made an invaluable contribution to the growing confidence of religious congregations in the field of vocation promotion.

Sister Cathy says: “Developing a network of trained vocation guides is another new initiative of the National Office for Vocation, who work together with a team of religious and laity from different spiritual traditions.” The vocation guides offer sensitive support as someone tries to discern the direction in which God is calling.

So why would young people today consider religious life? A prayerful, vowed community life is not “a lifestyle choice” for contemporary society. Instead, it is an expression of Catholic identity and mission. In spite of a fulfilling career and way of life – in spite of the many opportunities available in today’s world – an increasing number of young men and women are discovering that God is calling them to something deeper and more meaningful.

Already actively involved in the Church, they find a nagging yearning for a life of commitment and service. Sometimes, deep down, they know that they will not find peace until they give religious life “a go”. Although they might not put it in these words, in the most private part of their hearts, they realise that they are saying to God: “Here I am. Send me.”

The increasing number of young people who are following God’s call into religious life are discovering that is a life that is worth living – and living to the full.