For many people, the word "nun" conjures up a plethora of stereotypes -- from images of a black-robed Julie Andrews whose contagious joie de vivre is a problem that needs to be solved, to the heart-wrenching cruelty of the nuns in "The Magdalene Sisters," or the cartoonish naïveté of the nuns in "Sister Act."
But the real lives of women religious, a phrase used to describe women who enter a Catholic religious order, are much more complex.
Catholic women who feel called to serve as women religious can become either nuns, whose prayerful lives revolve around a monastery, or sisters, who are engaged in the world as teachers, medical workers, counselors, social justice activists, and a number of other fields.
We are normal people who said yes to a call from God.
All women who enter this consecrated life traditionally take vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity -- pledging to live simply and share their resources with other members of their religious community, be obedient to what God is calling them to do for the world, and to never marry in order to offer all of their love to those who are suffering. It's a life that looks increasingly different from what many American women imagine for themselves.
While there has been a recent rise in the number of Catholic men entering the priesthood over the past year, the number of women religious has been steadily decreasing. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates that in 2015 there were about 50,000 women religious in the United States, compared to about 180,000 in 1965.
Sister Cynthia Serjak is the director of the Institute New Membership Office for The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, one of the largest congregations of Catholic sisters in the United States. There are currently over 2,900 Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in North, South and Central America, the Caribbean, Guam and the Philippines.
Serjak attributes the decrease in the number of religious sisters to the fact that women who have a desire to serve the poor and marginalized and make a difference in the world now have opportunities to do that outside of religious life.
"Forty years ago, if you were a young Catholic woman and you wanted to serve, the best way to do that was to be a sister," Serjak told The Huffington Post. "Now, women who want to be of service and also have a family, it's possible for them."
Despite this cultural shift, some Catholic women are still expressing an interest in becoming part of a religious order. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas welcomed six women into their congregation in 2015. In addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the sisters in this order also take a vow of service to the poor, sick and uneducated.
The new Sisters of Mercy come from many different walks of life -- they are nurses, teachers, and administrators. What they have in common is that they have all become convinced of the fact that God was calling them to live in a way that is decidedly countercultural.
The Huffington Post asked these six new Catholic sisters to tell us what they wish more people knew about people who chose to enter religious life. Scroll down to read their answers.
Date of Final Profession: August 2, 2015
Home State: Ohio
"We are normal people who said yes to a call from God. We are not holier or better than others. We want to live our lives with purpose. We are still a part of society and often do things that other people do. Many younger newer members enjoy activities such as running, hiking and reading. We are not closed off from the world but hopefully a prophetic voice in it."
Date of Final Profession: August 8, 2015
Home State: Texas
"I wish more people knew that women who enter religious life are regular people who have their own experiences with the joys and sorrows of life, who continue to enjoy a good game of football, or like to watch "NCIS." I really wish people knew more about the ‘Why?’ Why do women enter religious life?
I wish more people knew that women who enter religious life are regular people who have their own experiences with the joys and sorrows of life, who continue to enjoy a good game of football, or like to watch "NCIS."
Women who enter a religious life are freely responding to live a life that will bring an abundance of experiences that will enrich their spirituality and deepen their relationship with God. The bonuses are that in living this life the women are able to be a tremendous impact on the people they serve and be impacted by the people they serve via their ministries, and the women are able to share vibrant community living with their sisters in community.
It takes much more than a leap of faith to freely make a decision that will call upon you to surrender it all and place all the trust in the One who knew you before you were in your mother’s womb. Religious life is a beautiful journey and the ones called to walk this journey are women responding to what they trust is their purpose."
Date of Final Profession: October 11, 2015
Home State: Virginia
"Most women who enter religious life are not 100 percent sure this is the life for them. It takes prayer, time and others to help us discern the call. Despite fewer people entering religious life today, there are communities who are very attentive to the needs of newer members and have companionship and wisdom to share."
Date of Final Profession: October 11, 2015
Home Country: Guyana
"That we are ordinary everyday people, who’re striving to honor our spirits and our call to live holy lives as we work to bring about the reign of God here on earth. We seek to create a better life, environment, and world, for ourselves and others, to be our best selves, as happy, healthy, holy and loving individuals."
Date of Final Profession: July 11, 2015
Home State: California
"Our community values our individuality and encourages us to speak openly to one another. We are human and no more holy than any other person. We are all God's children and we live that in different ways. I choose to live as a religious women."
Durly Diane Salazar Granja
Date of Final Profession: November 7, 2015
Home Country: Peru
"I feel that there are some things I would like women to know about the religious life ... That these are women who take a chance and give themselves wholeheartedly to this life -- that total happiness is not a guarantee; instead, each day is lived opting for happiness. That it is a life in which you discover your true self; thus, you live a life with meaning ... That entering this life is a freely chosen option [and that] it is a living community of unique individuals, but that we are all one in the desire to share this life and give ourselves to those most in need in these times."