Nuns without habits

Melissa Camardo is young, bright, pretty and politically active. And she's a nun. What is she thinking?

Published November 22, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

Melissa Camardo isn't just cute for a nun. At 25, she has the appeal of a radiant, young idealist. Her clear blue eyes are animated, her taste in music cool. She turns pink trying to avoid talking about her persistent male suitors. They don't make her choice any easier to live with.

The Catholic Church is hardly the center for the young, brilliant and inspired these days. As Camardo's peers and even some family members assert pressure on her to abandon her holy promises, dioceses around the country are cutting back and consolidating Masses. The church is researching and reaching desperately for answers and solutions in one of its most dramatic vocational crises in history.

"But this is my calling," says the popular, upper-middle-class Duke graduate, referring to her commitment to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Joining religious life is a long journey, however, and she recognizes that she can still change her mind.

Last week, Camardo entered her novitiate year, the third and final year of religious life before she takes her first, temporary vows. She lives with eight women between the ages of 50 and 80, and one 27-year-old, at the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, Kan. There are no exact figures, but there are probably fewer than 100 nuns under 40 in the United States.

Camardo is radical, by any standards. Her room in the "Motherhouse" -- a wing of a huge brick building that houses retired and infirm sisters -- is decorated only by a portrait of Dorothy Day, the Catholic, Communist, feminist activist who anticipated Liberation Theology by 30 years. She writes letters to Congress and protests the School of Americas, the government organization that trains foreign soldiers in anti-guerrilla warfare. She votes Democratic, no matter the candidate's stance on abortion. In fact, she dropped out of her school's pro-life association, uncomfortable with its demonstration tactics. And she believes that it's downright un-Christian to discriminate against gays, as the major tenet of Catholicism holds that every person has an inherent dignity. "I won't use the Bible to justify oppressing others," she says. "The way Scripture works, you can use it to justify anything you want without taking into regard the historical context of the time it was written."

Camardo knows her views on the Bible aren't popular among traditional Catholics and admits that, in the end, she will submit to the law of the church. But if she's so frustrated with some of the church's stances, why would she become a nun? Why can't she devote herself to social work on her own terms? Why must she acquiesce to standards she rejects? And why be celibate? At first, this last question is only half-answered:

"I have yet to meet a man who shares the same commitment to caring. And it's hard to imagine that ever happening," she says. She is referring to her two main exes: Ken, her high school sweetheart, now a high-powered yuppie, and Sean, a man she met while studying for her novitiate in Denver. Sean sounded like the more promising match. A former priest candidate, he remains committed to social justice through God. But even he put unrelenting pressure on her to spend time with him, and she found herself again torn between her ideals and a partner.

"I am committed to social work," she says. "And I don't want to compromise my values in any way for a relationship."

Camardo's ex-boyfriends may be tortured by the prospect of her vows, but not exactly surprised by them. During college, this straight-A student spent most of her free time tutoring Hispanic fourth-graders in English, clearing fields of leftover crops to be brought to food pantries and bringing Communion to Catholic hospital patients. During her sophomore year, she helped build a school in a tiny village in Honduras. As a senior, she was elected vice president of her "alternative" sorority. She and her secular sisters focused on philanthropy, AIDS and building a women's community. This sisterhood wasn't outwardly about God, but it wasn't about hazing and fashion, either.

After graduation, Camardo moved to Kansas to join a program for socially concerned Catholic women, and for those considering religious life. She coordinated a job training program for welfare moms, encouraged employers to hire the less privileged and managed a program that encouraged good fathering and mothering. "I don't have a particular cause. I just try to stay balanced," she says.

So two things are clear: Camardo is a devoted activist and is bothered by the pressures of relationships. But where is God in all this? She was beginning to sound more like a hopelessly single, atheist, post-Holocaust Jew -- driven by guilt and overeducation to making the world a better place -- than a Catholic woman betrothed to the Lord.

It was in 1998 when Camardo had a "real God moment." After years of reading and talking about religious life, she decided to attend a religious retreat for women who were trying to discern their calling. "In the year before, I woke up so many times in the middle of the night, thinking, 'Oh my God, I can't do this!'" But something changed on her first morning at the retreat: She says she was finally blessed with a moment of "heightened awareness." Camardo, isolated within a world of spiritual sisters, finds it nearly impossible to explain in lay terms the course of events or feelings that led her to join the sisterhood.

"I woke up in the early hours with an unusual depth of peace and joy. I knew I wanted to be a Sister of Charity," she explains. "I rested in that feeling of freedom and peace for quite a while, wrote it all down in my journal and started my day with a reassurance that I was on the right path." Since then, she says, she has had many occasions to reevaluate her decision. "But even when it doesn't make sense, I still choose to stay on this path because I believe that it is grounded in my experience of loving God." She went through the application process the next day.

This fall she turns inward. A novitiate day begins with the 8 a.m. Mass and a meditative walk. After meeting in the common room over a bowl of Special K and straightening up her bed and things, she prepares for class. In this critical year of her religious training she is immersed in study of the Old Testament, psalms, vows, the history of religious life and the history of her particular community. She and the other novices will leave the premises only on rare occasions -- a family wedding or death. She will be missing numerous weddings this year.

Camardo and her roommates talk daily about what the vows -- poverty, obedience and celibacy -- really mean. They pray, maintain the house, cook and take evening walks together. The sisterhood provides room and board, and a $60 monthly allowance for extras such as clothes, shampoo, toothpaste and long-distance phone calls. She does her shopping at thrift or discount stores.

Every Wednesday, Camardo meets with a novice advisor to share her epiphanies, struggles and doubts about committing to religious life. Fridays are for personal reflection -- a day for her to integrate everything she's explored. She listens to music a lot -- Indigo Girls lyrics are an inspiration to her. She turns off her lights by 10 p.m., prays, reviews the day and remembers her family and friends.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Camardo is in Boston for a friend's wedding, and she and her parents are genially disagreeing about social welfare and politics. "But Dad," Camardo pleads, "I really don't think that inner-city women get themselves pregnant in order to boost their welfare checks." Her parents each run small, successful businesses, attend weekly Mass and donate to the Republican Party and to Birthright, a nonprofit organization that supports women who choose not to abort their unplanned pregnancies.

Despite political and lifestyle differences, Camardo's parents are as understated and gentle as she is. She has tremendous respect for them and says the roots of her own compassion lie in the moral fabric of their home: "In third grade, there was a little boy who used to steal my lunch every day," Camardo says. "When I told my mother she said, 'Well, he doesn't have lunch, he's hungry.' And she made an extra sandwich or prepared a little something for him every day for the rest of the year."

Camardo's mother didn't realize quite how seriously her daughter would take the lesson. Today Camardo minds the poor full time, giving them everything she can. When she makes her first vows next year, she'll give her savings and all other possessions to the church or to her family.

"I am drawn to a system that holds you accountable to your ideals," she says, as she walks back to her hotel with her family. "It provides a supportive social structure to cultivate them."

This kind of support can come in particularly handy after a weekend like this, where she sees not only a friend's wedding, but her ex, as well.

"When Ken is sitting this close to me, asking me about my life decisions over some beers at my friend's wedding, sometimes it makes you wonder," she laughs.

Her father chimes in: "But if Melissa was to settle down with Ken, she would be living in a house with a white picket fence and she'd be dressed to the hilt when he came home from work ... and then they'd be off to the country club. And that's not Melissa."

It took her father a while to get to this point of understanding. Both her parents expected their intellectually gifted child to go to Duke and become a doctor. Other family members remain bewildered. Camardo describes her sister as her opposite: a New York professional, engaged to be married to a non-Christian. "She is sad that we won't be hanging out with husbands together, doing couple things," explains Camardo. "I can understand that."

Her grandfather and various aunts hesitate to approve for different reasons. "Many of the older folk remember the nuns from their schools," explains her mother. "They remember a rigid group of women in strange dress, alienated from society, and worse, from their families."

"And they are worried that Melissa is missing out on something," her mother adds. "That she's going to miss opportunities of youth."

But times have changed, Camardo points out. Most young people spend their prime years in mismatched relationships, trying on different careers and clothes. Women and men today mature and marry later in life. "I'm not that afraid of what I'm missing." And the sisterhood has changed, too, she adds. "We are no longer cut off."

Dress codes and social segregation were abandoned in the '60s at Vatican II, when Pope John XXIII revolutionized the church. He called on the leaders of each Catholic order to compare their practices to their original missions. After much reflection, clergy throughout the world agreed that the church had lost its connection to the people, and began to change rules, permitting religious leaders more freedom.

And most noticeably, while women in secular society burned their bras, religious sisters in the '60s shed their habits. But not with feminism in mind. "Habits were the dress of widows in some parts of Europe in the 19th century. Religious orders then decided that dressing like widows would allow sisters to both blend in with society and appear unavailable to men," explains Virginia Piecuch, program coordinator at the Center for the Study of Religious Life in Maryland.

But today the habit serves the opposite purpose: It makes sisters stand out. And yet without the severe, all-black gear, sisters become completely invisible, reinforcing the fear among Catholics that religious life is disappearing. And their fears aren't unfounded. Whereas in the '50s many orders reported dozens of new candidates annually, vocational leaders across the country today hope for one new candidate every few years.

But many Catholics don't see the decline as a crisis. Piecuch points out that Catholics see religious life as a calling, not as a career. "It's all dependent on the Spirit. The cycles of growth and decline of religious life are God's will."

Other outspoken laymen and clergy reject this perspective.

"You can blame the crisis on coercive celibacy," says Elizabeth Abbott, author of "A History of Celibacy." Abbott contends that the church -- and Camardo -- are making a big mistake by focusing their spirituality around celibacy.

"It took over a millennium to get celibacy established in the Catholic Church, and it was motivated purely with profit in mind," she says. It wasn't until the 12th century that celibacy was finally imposed. Abbott, dean of women at Trinity College at University of Toronto, claims that the church introduced celibacy to protect the wealth of the church. Feeding, clothing and caring for the children and spouses of clergy drained resources.

"And it never works," she adds. "Throughout history, people cheated, and today in anonymous surveys we see that 40 to 50 percent are not celibate at given points in their professional careers. Why would you keep a tenet that turns religious people into guilt-ridden hypocrites and liars?"

But many in the clergy see the two -- devotion to God and celibacy -- as intrinsically linked.

"Throughout history, even before celibacy became an institution, few religious women opted to marry," says the Rev. Ciprian Davis, professor of church history at Saint Minrad College in Indiana. Like Camardo and Abbott, Davis sees sexual-emotional relationships as a distraction from conviction and personal, or spiritual, growth.

"But that doesn't take away from the point that the church is in crisis," he adds. "We have to begin to address the problems. We must still go out there and let youngsters know us, we must look for the vocations -- those who yearn for religious life -- and help them find us."

Still, Camardo seems distant from the spiritual, religious crisis.

"Look at her," says her father at one point. "She is so emotionally content for now."

For now? Camardo doesn't look offended by her father's implicit doubts in the permanence of her decision. Is there a chance she may change her mind?

"I have seven years until I have to make final vows. I doubt I'll change my mind in that time. But I guess there is that possibility."

By Rebecca Segall

Rebecca Segall is a freelance writer in New York, and has co-directed a documentary on arranged marriage in America.

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