Blog Post

Study Says New Recruits Flocking to Traditional Religious Orders

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Writer A landmark study of Roman Catholic nuns and priests in the U.S. reveals that the aging ranks of predominantly white members is giving way to a smaller but more ethnically diverse group of recruits who embrace traditional prayer and wear religious habits. The landmark “Study of Recent Vocations to Religious Life” was undertaken by the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Georgetown University-based research center. The study surveyed 4,000 men and women who were in training or final vows in U.S. religious communities since 1993. The results reveal dramatic changes from the generation of nuns and priests who entered religious orders in the turbulent days following Vatican II. Religious who entered in the 1960’s attempted to modernize the Church, giving up their habits and moving out of convents to earn higher educational degrees and to work in professional fields or in community service.   However, the study found that these modernized religious orders are attracting the fewest new members. Of the new priests and nuns who recently joined orders, two-thirds chose those that wear a habit. “We’ve heard anecdotally that the youngest people coming to religious life are distinctive, and they really are,” said Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to The New York Times. “They’re more attracted to a traditional style of religious life, where there is community living, common prayer, having Mass together, praying the Liturgy of the Hours together. They are much more likely to say fidelity to the church is important to them. And they really are looking for communities where members wear habits.” The study, which did not include the diocesan priesthood, found an increased diversity in ethnicity, age and life experiences. For instance, whites account for 94 percent of current nuns and priests but only 58 percent of those in the process of joining orders. Hispanics account for 21 percent and Asians and Pacific Islanders for 14 percent of new recruits. The average age of women entering orders is 32; for men it’s 30. Approximately 75 percent say they were drawn to religious life by a sense of call and desire for prayer and spiritual growth. An overwhelming 85 percent say what attracted them to a community was its members, citing their sense of joy, commitment, and zeal. Beyond the example of professed members, the most significant draw for new members is community life and prayer.   • Most new members want to live, work, and pray with other members of their community. • Younger new entrants look for an institute’s fidelity to the church; older new entrants are drawn to its mission. • New entrants prefer to live in large communities (8 or more). Institutes in which members live alone face challenges attracting new members. • Many younger members seek to wear a religious habit, a practice that has diminished in most religious institutes in the past 40 years. New members are hopeful for the future of religious life. One study participant said religious life “has been here a long time, and it will continue in whatever shape that God wants it to be.” Another said: “Community life--if it’s lived well, if it’s joy-filled--attracts people.” © All Rights Reserved, Living His Life Abundantly®/Women of Grace®