FRESNO — Sister Celia Ann Cavazos oversees a "house of discernment," a new technique to help women decide whether to become Roman Catholic nuns.
Such facilities are becoming more common because nuns and women considering becoming nuns "both have a sense that this is a decision that is not entered into lightly," said Sister Sarah Marie Sherman, executive director of the National Sister Vocation Conference.
Residents must agree to live in the house for six months to a year. Rent is $200 a month.
They must participate in a discernment process aimed at increasing their perception. It includes counseling sessions with a spiritual adviser, weekend retreats and twice-a-week prayer meetings with Cavazos and the other residents.
Only One Remains
The Fresno house has had three residents since it opened in September. Only one, Suzanne Price, remains, and she moved in knowing she wanted to be a nun.
"You can think straight here," said the 23-year-old Fresno State University student, a convert to Catholicism. "You don't have people shoving down your throat what you're supposed to do."
Cavazos said most women came "not saying yes or no, but asking questions. They're talking about what they want to be."
She must gingerly walk the line between parents who are concerned about their daughters choosing a non-traditional life style and the daughters' interest in full-time religious service.
"Once they have a call to ministry, they need to have a community to support them," she said.
"You need to have friends with the same questions," Price added.
Some of the questions are individual.
Gail White, 36, a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. employee, is thinking about moving into the house and beginning the formal discernment process.
She wonders, though, if she could give up her privacy and total independence in becoming a nun. "I'm so used to coming and going when I please. I'm old and set in my ways."
Cavazos advised her to "live with this group and see if you can."
Other questions are more universal--like how a nun deals with her sexuality and her commitment to a celibate life.
Cavazos' response: Nuns have relationships with men, but those relationships aren't exclusive or sexual.
Women who live in the house are allowed to date. "I think that's healthy. It's part of the discernment," she said.
After a woman has lived at the house for at least six months, she may be ready to begin several years of study leading to final vows as a nun.
But if she is undecided, Cavazos counsels independent living someplace else. "We have to give room for the girls to have other experiences. That's OK."
Cavazos says the house of discernment helps educate women about the greater options available to nuns today in everything from choosing clothes to suggesting where they want to serve.
"If we think religious life is important," she said, "we have to make the investment to convince young women that it's still valid."