Catholic nuns embrace the Internet–and the recruits that it brings
Story by Chloe Bayhack
MADRID–In the sixth year since her mother’s death, Esmeralda Dominguez Rodriguez struggled to extract meaning from her studies in biology, nights out with her friends and boyfriend and even the uninspired life she led.
After visiting patients with AIDS through her church, she realized the worst they suffered was not the disease, but the crippling loneliness. Something divine happened to her that day. She was 21.
“I started reading the Bible more and was experiencing something different,” she recalls, brushing her short red hair out of her eyes.
So, like any inquisitive millennial, Rodriguez, now 23, took to the web, where she found the answer to what she was asking. She stumbled upon a website entitled Busco Algo Más, which translates to “Looking for Something More.”
“I had no idea what it meant to be a nun,” says Rodriguez. Within weeks, she left her home to join the convent, where she lives and prays today.
Dedicated to helping young people find their religious path, Busco Algo Más strives to explain that feeling a gaping void in life could be a sign that God is calling. With more than 50,000 hits on the site since it was created in 2011, Busco Algo Más has helped more than 200 young women find homes in convents in Spain.
Over the past several decades, devout Catholicism in Spain has undergone radical transformation. The dawn and death of the Franco dictatorship gave the religion a new face, at first dominating the country’s cultural landscape, and then disintegrating as fewer believers adhered to the church’s teachings. As convents and monasteries struggled to keep up their numbers, they had no other choice than to access the youth through a previously untapped pipeline: the internet.
Carmen Marquez Beunza, a professor of theology at Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid, explains that this change was inevitable: “When you preach, you’re not preaching to a Christian people or society anymore. We need to adapt this message for people here in Spain. The church must change its mentality.”
After the end of the Catholic Franco dictatorship, Catholicism was tainted in the eyes of Spaniards. “The generation in the ‘70s and ‘80s were very anti-Christian,” says Beunza. Leading into the ‘90s, their kids started to become nonbelievers. “The statistic of people who practice is going down. Less people get married under the church. Less people get baptized,” she notes.
Sister Marian Macias Rodríguez, a nun of the Missionary Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Mary Immaculate in Madrid, explains this phenomenon. As families have gotten smaller, having one to two kids, it has become increasingly difficult to spread religion. “All attention is on the children, and not the teachings of God,” she says. “Parents are losing faith. They’re not transmitting it.” Additionally, families in the past who had more children could afford to support one into the religious life, while trusting other children to yield offspring and perpetuate the familial bloodline.
According to the archdiocese of Madrid, the percentage of self-identifying Catholics in Spain went from 99.7 percent in 1970 to 85.6 percent in 2013. Those diminished numbers are reflected in the younger generations, as opposed to older Spaniards who remain largely loyal to the church. “If you go to church,” says Beunza, “most people are over 60 years old. Young people are leaving.”
Furthermore, the number of nuns in Spain decreased in the same time. In 1970, there were 12,365 nuns in the country; by 2013, that number had plummeted to 7,060.
It remains true that Catholicism is vital to Spain’s identity. One can’t understand and appreciate architecture, arts, history or philosophy in Spain without knowing something about religion, Beunza says. The missing piece is preserving what she calls “enculturation:” the church’s adaptation to both time and people. “This hasn’t happened in Europe,” says Beunza.
The website Busco Algo Más, created by Noemí Saiz, is an attempt to reverse that. Now a young wife and mother, Saiz, 38, spent two years in a convent herself before deciding the lifestyle wasn’t for her. This didn’t stop her from serving the church, as Saiz is deeply dedicated to the site’s mission: to educate young people about the truth behind life as a nun.
The site goes lengths to debunk the myth that nuns live sad, serious lives in closed convents. Many of the congregations affiliated with Busco Algo Más have nuns who visit the sick, feed the hungry, care for underprivileged children and travel worldwide to do missionary work.
However, she explains that the main problem in recruiting is the fact that young people are uninformed. “We need marketing,” she says, explaining that God could be calling, but those destined to do God’s work wouldn’t know unless they were shown how. “If you have never seen a doctor before, you’ll never want to be a doctor,” she parallels.
She also notes that modern society is no longer conducive to considering this kind of religious dedication. The chaos of technology and flood of distraction prevent girls from even knowing this as an option. “I get it. I have two mobiles, a tablet and a computer,” Saiz says. “We don’t stop. We don’t think about what’s coming.”
Since its conception, Busco Algo Más has maintained a presence on Facebook and Twitter. It offers links to sisters, 70 congregations and even events for young people to attend to meet others on a similar journey.
“With Busco Algo Más, we wanted to create a presence for ourselves online, for those who are looking for something more in life,” says Sister Marian. “In the past, if you were considering becoming a nun, you would talk to your priest about it. Now people go online to try to find answers.” Young women can read testimonies of others who have gone through the vocation process to see what it’s like.
Sister Marian notes a shift in mentality she has seen among recent recruits. Women tend to study, have a career and then join. “It’s a new phenomenon,” she says. The new demographic is 25 to 30. “One of the newest members graduated from medical school,” she says. “Another, a lawyer.”
Young Rodriguez reached out to Saiz online, exchanged emails and then met her in person at a group prayer session. The 23-year old stresses that while the internet has become a valuable tool for the modern-day Catholic church, it doesn’t make recruitment any less serious. “It’s not something you just find online and join. It’s about having a call from God to become part of it,” she persists. “It’s about personally experiencing it and knowing it’s for you.”
Rodriguez now knows what it is to know herself. But even that was a battle in the face of disapproval from her own father and brother, who did not understand or accept at first her decision. When she revealed she was destined for the religious life, her father told her to pack her bags. No grandchildren, he thundered? No family? Had he failed her? How could she be so selfish?
“It destroyed me,” she admits. “I left the next day.” But then he saw what she needed him to see. Today, their relationship is stronger than ever because in the end, he couldn’t deny the change in her and the love of the life she had chosen.
Saiz is optimistic about the future, as her site views skyrocket and more young women explore what could be a powerful life change. Sister Marian agrees, saying she believes in young people. “I’m happy about the future,” she says, her smile warm. “We are in a fantastic moment in history.” While she does believe there will be fewer nuns and priests in the future, she thinks they will be more authentic and committed to following the teachings of the church.
While numbers will never reach historic heights again, the spirit and mission of the Roman Catholic Church has stood the test of time. Now, young women are just a click away from divine connection.
“In the Gospel, Jesus told the disciples when they were fishing to cast their net and that if they followed him, he would make them fishers of men,” recalls Sister Marian. “Today, that net is the internet.”