Orla MacIntosh-Graham discovers that one of the roads to the religious life runs through the Isle of Wight where there is a mini vocations boom.
The underwhelming statistics for those entering religious life do not bode well for the coming years in Scotland. There are fewer than 20 men training for
the priesthood in the Scots College in Rome. In recent years young Scottish women professing religious vows have been rarer than hen’s teeth.
In response to these bleak conditions, the Church often looks for the latest programme, initiative, or marketing scheme to solve their ‘vocations crisis’.
While this may be the picture throughout most of the UK, it is not an issue on the Isle of Wight. After a recent retreat at the Benedictine monastery, Quarr Abbey, and Sunday Mass at St Cecelia’s Convent, it is clear to me that female religious vocations on the island are booming.
St Cecelia’s has a huge number of young postulants and novices, more than 30 at the moment, drawn to the Abbey’s promotion of orthodoxy and loyalty to the Church and liturgy.
In the community, there are just as many different vocational pathways and stories as there are nuns.
Some of the women have felt close to God since childhood; for others, this relationship didn’t develop until a length of time outside the Church.
Some only went to the Abbey once, but it was love at first sight. Others went through a stage of discovery and assessing the pros and cons before making the jump.
Some have worked out in the world for many years, some arrived straight from school. The nuns at St Cecilia’s are a beautiful example that God can call anyone, at any time.
For me, the attractions of living a fully enclosed life for the glory of God is best explained in the words of the Sisters themselves, on their website: “We freely and joyfully choose to live within this enclosed space, so that we can concentrate on God and the search for him.”
For these nuns, the search for God continues in whatever work they do. Be that in art and literacy circles, in cooking, gardening, or caring for the sick and elderly sisters in the community.
But above all else, God is to be found in the ordinary tasks done to build a life where liturgy, work, prayer and the love and service of one another are interconnected and enriching.
It is a simple, balanced, demanding way of living that leads us to pursue life to its fullest.
Is it any wonder that so many young people are finding their home, living a life constantly absorbed in this divine worship?
The beauty of Gregorian chant echoes in the cloisters of this Abbey nestled among greenery, hidden from the seashore.
As a lay person on the other side of the chapel to the nuns, the chant acts as a spiritual antidote to the world’s other noise that can be absurd, violent, or saddening.
There is a growing interest in Gregorian chant as more people become aware of the Church’s teachings on sacred music, particularly those of Pope St Pius X and Vatican II.
I can’t help but think this has got to be one of the biggest causes of vocation growth at St Cecelia’s.
The Church is clear that the purpose of sacred music is first and foremost to glorify God, and then to sanctify and edify those who hear it; Gregorian chant is held up as a model of how music fulfils these lofty goals because it is holy, truly beautiful, and capable of transcending cultural boundaries, drawing any heart who hears it to God. And this is what the nuns at St Cecelia’s live and breathe.
But how do we replicate what’s happening in St Cecilia’s in Scotland?
Those trying to change the nature of the Church’s agenda, those who do not support orthodox candidates devoted to the magisterial teaching of the Pope and bishops, and people who discourage viable candidates from seeking vowed religious life as the Church defines the ministries, it appears to me, are causing and perpetuating the vocation ‘crisis’.
Our Catholic schools, though not all of the children are practising the Faith, are an opportunity to introduce them to the Gospel, instil Catholic values, and foster committed Faith, and in this, nurture vocations.
However, to develop and provide effective programmes and pastoral strategies to make this possible, the real situation of young people, the lack of parish participation, and the corrosive nature of much of modern culture must be taken seriously.
One of the Quarr monks told me that, after the Covid-19 lockdown, each time he went to say Mass at St Cecelia’s there was a new postulant. I think we need not worry about the future of the Church with such prayer radiating from the walls of this quiet convent.
Orla MacIntosh-Graham is a theology student at St Mary’s University in London.