Young Catholics shun modern life, embrace religion in U.K.

Statistics compiled by the National Office for Vocation show that just seven women joined religious orders in England and Wales in 2004.

By 2014, that number increased to 45 — the highest number in a quarter-century. An average of 25 has joined annually in the last three years.

“This new committedness among at least some younger Catholics, precisely in that age group of 20s and 30s, is very evident to me,” says Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. “I see this as a side effect of decades of secularization. In a sense, the ones who are left, almost by necessity, have to be more committed.”

Image: Pope Benedict XVI visits Scotland in 2010
Huge crowds gathered to get a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI as he was driven down Princes Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Sept. 16, 2010. It was the first state visit by a pontiff to Britain.ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP – Getty Images, file

While their parents were “brought up in a world where it was completely normal to have some kind of religious affiliation,” that is no longer the case for young Britons, he said.

Bullivant added: “The few who say that they have some religion are likely to say it for a reason. Religion is becoming more about commitment.”

American Olympic speedskater-turned-Franciscan nun Kirstin Holum swapped her life in Wisconsin for a convent with no TV or internet in Leeds, a former industrial city in northern England.

Now known as Sister Catherine, Holum says choosing a life of prayer with few modern conveniences is about as “radical” and “countercultural” as can be.

“We don’t have all those distractions,” she said. “You are face-to-face with your own weaknesses. I’m grateful that we don’t have those escape hatches. We can really become more free, to love and be who we are meant to be.”

Image: Kirstin Holum at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics
Kirstin Holum set a new junior world record in the women’s 5,000-meter speedskating event at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.Mike Powell / Getty Images file

Holum was 17 when she competed at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games. But after placing sixth and seventh in her two events, she retired from the sport. She had already set eight U.S. speedskating records and six junior world records.

To the surprise of her family and friends, Holum entered the community of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal in the Bronx after finishing college. Six years later, she was among the Americans sent to open a new convent on the invitation of the bishop of Leeds.

“I was asked to be a part of the first group of sisters who were sent over as missionaries,” she said.

Instead of training four hours a day, she now spends that time in prayer. And she has no regrets about giving up speedskating and dedicating her life to God.

“The excitement and the joy of competing and doing well, even just doing your personal best, there’s a great thrill in that,” said Holum, now 38. “But it was always a fleeting joy: You’re on to the next event, so you get nervous for that.”

The Olympian added: “I think deep down, everyone is desiring to be great and to do something great. It’s only when you get really in touch with God’s plan for you that you really find a peace in doing the great thing, whatever it might be.”