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story.lead_photo.caption A bible sits in a meeting room at the Mercy Center in Burlingame, Calif., where a pilot program called Nuns and Nones moved religion-free millennials into a Sisters of Mercy convent for six months.

BURLINGAME, Calif. -- Sarah Jane Bradley was an unmarried, "spiritual but not religious" professional in her early 30s, with a rowdy group of friends and a startup when she moved out of her communal house and into a convent.

A bunch of friends went with her.

They called the project Nuns and Nones, and they were the "nones" -- progressive millennials, none of whom were practicing Roman Catholics. Intended to be a pilot project, the unusual roommate situation with the Sisters of Mercy would last for six months.

The idea was spearheaded by Adam Horowitz, a 32-year-old Jewish man, and the pilot program was guided by Judy Carle, a 79-year-old Catholic Sister of Mercy in the Bay Area. Horowitz and his friends heard the call after a road trip to visit intentional communities. They were brainstorming ways they could live radical activist lives, lives of total devotion to their causes. They were trying to figure out who was already doing this, and when Horowitz talked to a minister, it came to him. The answer was nuns.

"These are radical ... women who have lived lives devoted to social justice," Bradley said. "And we can learn from them."

These are also hard times for the sisters. The average age of a Roman Catholic nun in the United States is close to 80. Convents around the country are closing. The number of nuns in the United States has collapsed from 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 50,000 today. Sisters are passing leadership at Catholic hospitals and schools to lay people. Some have even begun talking about their mission here in the United States as being complete.

At the same time, millennials are the least religious group of people in the United States -- only about 27% attend weekly religious services. Young women who aspire to lives of good works without the burden of a husband are quite able to do that now without Catholicism.

Yet for small pockets of the young, urban and progressive, the convent is calling. Their radical politics took them all the way around and back to the Catholic Church.


The millennials arrived by Subaru. The sisters had prepared small rooms for the women and men alike, in the wing where they originally housed novices but now use for retreats. Each room had a twin bed, a small wooden desk, a chair and a Bible. The sisters also made them an office with specifically chosen sacred art, including a painting of Moses because some of the Nones were Jewish.

The sisters were not sure what exactly the young people wanted to know about them, and the first meeting came as a shock.

"I was stunned, and I said to the other sisters, 'You will never guess what the millennials want to talk about: the vows,'" said Sister Patsy Harney. "Everybody laughed. It was kind of like a joke, you know?"

But the millennials were nothing if not earnest.

Harney found a book on the vows -- poverty, obedience, chastity -- that she had bought once but never read.

"I saw [one person] creeping around with his cellphone to take a picture of the cover, and then next time I saw it Sarah had been reading it and it was full of Post-it notes all over," Harney said. "Millennials were looking at it like this is the glue. They were looking for the secret sauce of how we do this."

The sisters began to see that the millennials wanted a road map for life and ritual, rather than a belief system. On one of the first nights, Sister Judy Carle said, one of the young people casually asked the sisters, "So, what's your spiritual practice?"

"That's the first question, not, 'What do you believe?'" she said, noting that throughout history, the specifics of belief were so important that people fought wars about it.

"So many of the millennials would say, 'I'm looking for rituals. I'm looking for rituals to work in my lesbian community or social justice or I need rituals for this other thing," Carle said. One young woman wanted ritual so much that she started going to Mass every morning.


Nuns and Nones is now running groups in about a dozen cities, including Grand Rapids, Mich., Minneapolis, New York City and Boston. In each locale, groups of sisters and millennials meet regularly. (The sisters are colloquially known as nuns, though technically that term only refers to the cloistered women who do not engage in work at outside schools or hospitals.) The just-concluded pilot residency in California is the first attempt at cohabitation.

Wayne Muller, a minister in Santa Fe, N.M., was the one who originally suggested to Horowitz that a partnership between millennial activists and sisters might be worth exploring. He has been surprised at how well the activists have taken to the program and how quickly they have begun to see the sisters as comrades.

"It's like, 'There's a pope you know; they're in his Rolodex, and it's always a him -- and you guys are OK with this?'" Muller said in an interview.

That these young progressives -- working as community organizers, artists and social workers -- are finding answers in the Catholic Church is a surprise to them, as well. Many of the young people say they view convent culture as an almost separate, rebel force, hardly related to the Catholic Church at all -- though of course it is an integral part of the church.

And that church has hardly seemed like a place for young progressives. In recent years, the church has been in a prolonged crisis around sexual abuse and systematic cover-ups.

To Muller, Nuns and Nones is also, in part, a real estate story. Moving young people into convents can help sisters hold onto their property amid rising nursing home care costs. The young people get low-income housing in exchange for helping take care of the sisters.

Muller said another benefit for young activists is to learn to avoid burnout by studying the sisters, who have made social change a lifestyle.

"The call itself is very similar," Muller said. "The sisters have been doing radical social justice work for forever."


The Nones, many of whom said they felt overwhelmed by life's choices, were drawn to the discipline and the notion of sacrifice. A life of chastity was especially appealing to them.

"I started to realize chastity was an invitation to 'right relationship' and not just about celibacy," Bradley said. "In an era of Me Too, we need right relationships. We need to know what it means to respect someone's personhood and to respect your own personhood and to be a conduit for love rather than ego needs."

Bradley is the co-founder of an adult learning support community called Open Master's, which includes a program for those interested in religion called Alt*Div. She is not planning on a life of celibacy, but she does want a little infusion of chastity.

"It's about deciding what's the price we're willing to pay for the world that we want to live in and the life we want to live," Bradley said.

The millennials started rethinking other vows. The vow of poverty is about stewardship of resources and shared prosperity, they said. But obedience, as a concept, was tricky.

"It sounds like it's about taking orders, but the sisters helped me see it's about preparing the heart for dialogue and a deep internal listening for truth," Bradley said. "The vows opened up this portal in which to really appreciate how countercultural the lives these sisters have led are."

The sisters' days are full. Many start prayer at 6:30 a.m. in the chapel and then work on the large hospital network their order founded or their affordable housing program, which serves 152,000 people nationally. The millennials kept more flexible hours.

"I was envious," Carle said to the millennials one morning. "Our lives are going on and sometimes faster. Yours was more like what I would call a retreat-type experience."


The night the Bay Area residency came to end, the sisters and millennials gathered in a circle around a small altar. Sisters and millennials wrote and read poems to one another. And they sang one of the sisters' chants: Sacred is the Call. Awesome indeed the entrustment. Tending the Holy, tending the Holy.

When the millennials moved out in mid-May, they scattered back around the country. The Sisters of Mercy, of course, remain at the convent.

Some of the sisters are now answering a call to go to the U.S.-Mexico border for an extended stay. They plan to work with asylum-seekers. The Nones could come too, if they are up for it.

Photo by The New York Times/DAMIEN MALONEY
Sister Janet Rozzano, Sister of Mercy, at the Mercy Center, was part of the program that paired nuns with millennials for a six-month trial period. Since that time Nuns and Nones now has groups in nearly a dozen cities.

Religion on 06/15/2019

Print Headline: Nuns and Nones

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