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Vocations rise six-fold . . . to 45

01 May 2015

YOU would have thought that a story about 45 middle-aged women who don't have sex would be a hard sell to the newspapers; but wrap it up in a trend and all at once it looks like news.

I found five pieces on the rise on vocations among Roman Catholic nuns, all presumably sparked by the same press release from the Catholic Communications network. It was interesting to see who had put in the most work and got the most understanding out of it.

The first thing is that only one paper talked to an actual nun. Four of the papers had quotes from 29-year-old Theodora Hawksley, a former post-doc who had joined the Congregation of Jesus, and who made the religious life sound extremely attractive to sane and clever people. But she's still only a postulant, having joined in January.

As the press release puts it, she is "making the first steps towards making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience".

The Independent didn't even have Ms Hawksley, and contended itself with recycling the press release. It did, however have the most sensational spin on the numbers: "The number of women going into convents has risen six-fold in the past decade, and is at its highest in 25 years according to new figures released by the Catholic Church." That would be from seven to 45.

The Mail also ran a recycled press release, adding one interesting detail, that 14 of the 45 women who joined last year were under the age of 30.

The Times picked up on the same figure and the same quotes, but added a second paragraph inaccuracy all of its own: "The number of women in Britain becoming nuns has reached a 25-year high, according to figures released by the Catholic Church.

"Last year 45 women took their holy vows, three times more than in 2009 and up from an all-time low of just seven in 2004.

"The figures have been steadily rising for the past decade and reflect, experts say, the 'gap in the market for meaning in our culture' which the religious life offers."

For "experts" read "Fr Christopher Jamison", who is credited with the quote everywhere else; and for "took their holy vows" (which they didn't) read "entered convents".

The Telegraph and The Guardian both put some effort into their reports, and were rewarded with real illumination. John Bingham managed to keep the canned Theodora Hawksley quotes to the very last paragraph, and before then got in the relevant statistics showing that things have, in fact, changed since the turn of the century, and some explanation as to why this might be.

"Under Fr Jamison, the Catholic Church has adopted tactics once more associated with Evangelical protestant groups - setting up a network of small groups for young Catholics to discuss their plans for life on university campuses or through dioceses, as well as running youth festivals and even a mass rally at Wembley Arena earlier this year. The message will be underlined in parishes across the country this weekend on what is now known as Vocations Sunday.

"The work of nuns in settings as far removed from the traditional Sound of Music image has also played a key role in making life in religious communities more appealing to younger Catholics.

"One group of nuns based in London have become key players in the Government's drive to tackle modern slavery, caring for trafficked women rescued from brothels, even routinely accompanying the police on raids."

The Guardian, meanwhile, got in a proper interview, by Rachel Williams, with the tireless Ms Hawksley, and one of her colleagues, Sister Naomi Hamilton, who has been four years in the Order. Williams got some lovely detail out of the convent kitchen: "The nuns take it in turn to cook, sharing a meal at 7 p.m. each evening.

"Older members tend to cook 'the kind of food my grandparents eat', Hawksley says (without complaint), while the younger women serve up more pasta dishes. The kitchen shelves reveal a mix of styles that includes Slow Cooking for Yourself and Delia Smith's 1976 classic Frugal Food, plus a Nigella Lawson and a Nigel Slater.

"Hawksley, who has cooked rabbit pie, enchiladas, and falafel for the group ('I'm kind of experimenting on them - they're tremendously game'), keeps her Marcella Hazan, Thomasina Miers and Allegra McEvedy upstairs." 

A LITTLE further up the hierarchy, The New York Times had a piece on the pre-emptive fight-back against Pope Francis's encyclical on climate change.

"Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, invited the Pope to speak to Congress, but some Catholics say that Mr Boehner should prepare for some uncomfortable moments.

"I think Boehner was out of his mind to invite the Pope to speak to Congress," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an analyst at the National Catholic Reporter. "Can you imagine what the Republicans will do when he says: 'You've got to do something about global warming'?"

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