Near the end of the annual Catholic bishops’ meeting in Baltimore last week, Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC), came to the podium to say what’s working and not working in terms of drawing men and women into religious orders.
Speaking from findings in a recent survey: “Recent Vocations to Religious Life: commissioned by the NRVC and carried out by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), he described how dire the situation is.
Compared to the 1960s, when there were 23,000 priests, 12,500 brothers (monks) and about 180,000 sisters (nuns), the religious population has decreased by 65 percent, he said. Today there are about 13,000 priests in religious orders, 5,000 brothers and 59,000 sisters. Seventy-five percent of men and more than 90 percent of the women are at least 60 years old. Of those who are younger than 60, the majority are in their 50s, with only 1 percent younger than 40.
(That 1 percent, I am guessing, belongs to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, now numbering more than 250 women, who limit their candidate pool to women 30 and younger. They’ve got 23 postulants this year alone; the largest number of new nuns in training in the country. Which may be why I’m getting fundraising letters from them asking for money to feed, house and train these women.)
Things have gotten so bad, the Vatican is still conducting two investigations into American nuns, out of concern, it says, over their decreasing numbers. Younger women aren’t buying the modernized version of the sisterhood, which means forsaking religious habits, living outside convents and getting involved in academia or social justice work.
The CARA report emphasizes how those born since 1982 didn’t want to be post-1960s liberated nuns. They prefer the traditional habit, living together in a community (i.e., in a convent), having daily Eucharist and engaging in “devotional practices” together, such as saying the Rosary and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. They are also “explicit about their fidelity to the church.”
They may have also gotten wind of people like Sister Donna Quinn, a Dominican nun who volunteered as an escort at an Illinois abortion clinic for six years until the media got wind of her activities. Her religious order finally rebuked her earlier this month.
Moreover, families of prospective nuns and monks aren’t too enthusiastic about their child’s profession.
“When asked to rate the encouragement they received when they first considered entering their religious institutes,” Brother Bednarczyk told the bishops, “newer entrants ranked family members (parents, brothers and sisters), people in the parish and diocesan priests as giving the least encouragement when they first considered entering their religious institute.”
I’ll repeat that. The people from whom the emerging sister or brother expects to get the most encouragement when considering their radical vocation offer the least. Broken down, 30 percent said they were “very much encouraged” by parents, 22 percent were “very much encouraged” by siblings, 31 percent were “very much encouraged” by fellow parishioners and only 17 percent were “very much encouraged” by diocesan priests. Maybe those priests know something we don’t?
Once the young adult had joined the religious order, those percentages doubled, but still, that’s only 36 percent of their parish priests who offered an encouraging word.
• Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at jduin@washington times.com.