Back in the Habit: Creedal Faith and “Sister Act”

In my denomination, there is an official checklist of things you are supposed to say […]

Sarah Condon / 8.21.19

In my denomination, there is an official checklist of things you are supposed to say when people ask why you feel called to ordained ministry. You need a solid story about feeling a call when you were serving the poor. Or, maybe it was when you were receiving the Eucharist. I have these stories. And they did impact my vocational calling, but they were not the central thing that pulled me in.

That, my friends, was Whoopi Goldberg.

Sister Act came out in 1992 when I was ten years old. My mother (or the Lord’s will) saw fit to take me to see it in the movie theatre. If you are not familiar with the plot, then we are obviously not friends in real life.

Basically Deloris Van Cartier (as portrayed by Ms. Goldberg) is a lounge singer in Reno, Nevada, when she sees her boyfriend murder someone. He’s in the mob, naturally. Deloris is put into witness protection program in a convent where she becomes known as Sister Mary Clarence. She was the kind of lady who could manage herself in a convent and who also had a penchant for gold lamé. In other words, she was as close as I had ever seen to an ordained woman.

I honestly do not know how every third grade girl who saw this movie in 1992 is not now an Episcopal priest.

The movie captivated me for so many reasons. I had always felt a kind of calling towards ministry. But at that point in my life I had never seen a woman pastor or priest. I had not even seen a picture of one. I had been told that they existed but had no proof. They felt like unachievable feats of the imagination, like unicorns.

But then I saw Sister Mary Clarence and her unlikely gang of fellow nuns. They were funny and loud and opinionated and a little nutty. And they loved Jesus. And because they loved Jesus, they came to accept Mary Clarence as a member of their convent. These were not the nuns of The Sound of Music. These were religious women that I could see myself in.

As a result, I have always loved nuns and in some ways identified with their devotion to God and honest expression of themselves. So when a story came through my newsfeed entitled “Behold the Millennials Nuns,” by Eve Fairbanks, I read it immediately. And I realized that all of these years later, I may still find some identity and encouragement from convent life.

There is good news about nuns. It turns out they are a growing group. Perhaps Sister Act has had its own happy impact in the Catholic Church? Fairbanks notes:

After 50 years of decline, the number of young women “discerning the religious life”—or going through the long process of becoming a Catholic sister—is substantially increasing. In 2017, 13 percent of women from age 18 to 35 who answered a Georgetown University-affiliated survey of American Catholics reported that they had considered becoming a Catholic sister. That’s more than 900,000 young women, enough to repopulate the corps of “women religious” in a couple of decades, even if only a fraction of them actually go through with it.

Those numbers are staggering. And while I could guess at all of the reasons that these women are seeking a different life (other than that they saw Kathy Najimy as Sister Mary Patrick), I am actually very interested in what they are professing theologically. These young women are adhering to a kind of creedal faith that I find my own heart desires. And it seems that they are echoing their generation:

A fascinating study showed that millennials—even Protestants and atheists—are attracted to churches with old-fashioned gilded altars and “classic” worship styles over modern ones. Young Americans are often more likely than their elders to believe in core elements of traditional religious belief like heaven and hell, miracles, and angels, and young religious people are more likely than older ones to assert that their faith is the “one true path to eternal life.”

Speaking broadly, there  is a sense from the baby boomer generation that they “freed” us up to not have to adhere to certain theological concepts. The concept of personal sin and our need for redemption, the value and meaning of the creeds, and even the bodily resurrection have all been marked as “optional” by certain voices in the church. And as my generation of clergy and religious people have taken our own places at the table, there is an overt tension. Because we are longing for the old paths where we should, as the prophet Jeremiah says, ask for the good way and find our rest there.

This is not to suggest superiority. It is simply to suggest that without these fundamentals of the faith I simply would not make it. The world feels so angry, self-righteous, and aggressive that I need to know that a Savior came and died to redeem it. My heart feels so troubled and sinful that I need to confess it. When I often do not know where my place in the world is, I need the creedal statements that tell me what God has done, how Jesus was given to us, and where the Holy Spirit dwells. Maybe that makes me weak. That’s okay with me.

And I have always needed this. It turns out I continue to admire and see myself in the company of women in habits. It turns out I might still long to be Sister Mary Clarence. Belting out “I Will Follow Him” at the top of my lungs, and clinging to every last word of it.