All around us are signs of spring, new life and budding, potential loveliness. And yesterday the National Office of Vocation announced signs of new life and potential in the Catholic Church in England and Wales: in 2014 the number of women entering religious life - numbers which had been slowly rising over the past few years - reached 45, the highest since 1990. This bit of good news caught media attention, with stories in most newspapers as well as the Catholic press.
Inevitably, there were inaccuracies, with references to these women "taking holy vows", when the reality is that they have just embarked on the first stage of a formation process which usually takes three or more years before making temporary vows - and several more years to perpetual vows. And we know, of course, that their ongoing discernments mean that - despite their current hopes and ideals - a number of the women will leave their congregations at some stage, discovering that this is not in reality the way of life God has called them to, or the place where they will most flourish. But for now we can cast those thoughts aside, and simply rejoice in the fact that more young women are not only hearing God's compelling call but are responding with generosity and love.
Why this sudden surge? There was talk of the work done by religious women themselves, and the NOV, in encouraging and supporting discerners. But why an increase in women open to considering religious life? One explanation lies in the uncertain and difficult times in which we live, causing young people to question much of life and search for meaning beyond materialism or their daily routines. This certainly echoes the huge increase in entrants after the raw, long-term, life or death uncertainty of World War II. And that, undoubtedly, can be a starting point - but it is not the whole story.
Some of the news stories (such as this one) contained an interview with a young woman who recently became a postulant with the Congregation of Jesus, and who blogs at Happy Begun Freedom. She said: Entering religious life was a decision born of love. It was an acknowledgement that my life has slowly and concretely rearranged itself around the love of God, and around that relationship as the one I prize above all else.
And that, of course, is at the heart of it, at the heart of each of the 45 vocation stories contained in the statistics we celebrated yesterday: a call from Love, to love, which finds a response in love. The details will vary: for one an initial spark, for another a slowly-growing restlessness, or a lifelong attraction, a conversion experience, or much inner questioning... for some discernment groups, for others taster weekends, summer volunteering, growing familiarity, wise words of guidance... but for each one, fundamentally, it is a decision born of love.
As we approach Vocations Sunday we can pray with gratitude for these women, and for the hope and new life they bring - not only to their congregations, but to all of us. But we can also pray for all those who are just beginning to hear Love's call, that they too may respond with generosity, openness, and their own gift of love.