Catholic Young Adults favor Tradition in Religious Vocations

The following article appeared in the New York Times earlier this week. Written by Laurie Goodstein, it reports on a CARA study showing a strong preference for and return to tradition among young adults who enter priesthood and religious life. I have known this anecdotally for years but now we have some hard data to chew on. Here I publish excerpts of the NY Times article and put my own commentary in red. Note: you can click on the graph to the lower left to see a clearer image of the graph.

 A new study of Roman Catholic nuns and priests in the United States shows that an aging, predominantly white generation is being succeeded by a smaller group of more racially and ethnically diverse recruits who are attracted to the religious orders that practice traditional prayer rituals and wear habits. [In recent years I have personally experienced a lot of ethnic diversity in vocations gatherings. Through a movement known as the Neocatechumenal Way we have we havemen from all over the world studying for the priesthood here in DC. At my own parish there are over 25 Religious sisters in our Convent from the Servant Sisters of the Lord (see photo above right of Sisters, novices and postulants) and they too include some Americans but when I am with them I feel like I’m at the U.N. The Church really is “catholic”  (universal) after all].

0811-nat-SUBwebNUNSThe study found that the graying of American nuns and priests was even more pronounced than many Catholics had realized. Ninety-one percent of nuns and 75 percent of priests are 60 or older, and most of the rest are at least 50. They are the generation defined by the Second Vatican Council, of the 1960s, which modernized the church and many of its religious orders. Many nuns gave up their habits, moved out of convents, earned higher educational degrees and went to work in the professions and in community service. [Well, the article simplifies things a bit. Just because you are old and white doesn’t necessarily mean that you are one of the “modernizers.” To be sure that generation collectively did the things described here but not every member of that generation went as far as moving out of convents, gave up habits etc. It’s about more than age and race].
 The study confirms what has long been suspected: that these more modernized religious orders are attracting the fewest new members….The new study, being released on Tuesday, was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University,  for the National Religious Vocation Conference, which is looking for ways for the Church to attract and retain new nuns and priests. It was financed by an anonymous donor.

“We’ve heard anecdotally that the youngest people coming to religious life are distinctive, and they really are,” said Sister Mary Bendyna, [I have met with a worked with Sr. Bendyna. She is very thorough and very honest in interpreting data. I have a great deal of respect for her work and her insistence on acknowledging what the data says, distinct from what ideologies might wish the data says.]executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. “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.” [I have often wondered by many more “modernized” orders that resist accepting this fact continue down the road which does not have many of these features described Sister. They observe the orders with more traditional features getting numerous vocations while their own orders do not. There is a very strange resistance at work here. Ultimately it seems non-existence is in the future of some of the orders that refuse to adapt. But that doesn’t seem to phase them. I remember talking to several Benedictine Sisters at a recent workshop. Their branch of the Benedictines has become very modernized and hasn’t had a vocation in years. When I asked them why they hadn’t consider changing their approach, they gave me a rather surprising answer. They indicated that maybe it was time for Religious Life to largely go away and to hand the Church back to it’s “rightful owners,” the laity. Wow! They seemed to have lost any notion of the Charism of Religious Life. Great to know the laity are more involved today but religious life is surely still and important gift of the Lord to the Church, seems to me!. Now this was just one group of sisters. I haveno idea how representative  their answer is of other communities that seem to be unable or unwilling to adapt]. Of the new priests and nuns who recently joined religious orders, two-thirds chose orders that wear a habit all the time or regularly during prayer or ministry, the study found.

The study also showed that whites account for 94 percent of current nuns and priests but only 58 percent of those in the process of joining orders. Asians and Pacific Islanders are disproportionately represented among the newcomers, accounting for 14 percent, far above their 3 percent share of the Catholic population in the United States, Sister Bendyna said. Hispanics are 21 percent of the newcomers, compared with only 3 percent of the current priests and nuns.

Of women who recently entered religious orders, the average age is 32; for men, it is 30. But retaining new recruits is a challenge. About half of those who have entered religious orders since 1990 have not stayed, and almost all who left did so before making their final vows. [This doesn’t really mean that they “left.” It is like a seminarian going off to seminary. One of the purposes of that time is further discernment, “Is this what God is calling me to do?” A seminarian who chooses to leave the seminary  is not said to have “left the priesthood.” So also those who leave before final vows are not said to have left religious life]. “People come to religious life because they feel they’re being called,” said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, adding that the purpose of the Church’s training process “is to discern that call before a commitment is made.” So “it’s not surprising,” he said, “that you would have people that would leave.”

My favorite vocations video:

Having a Diversity of Friendships

business_diversity_469779This is a second excerpt from Dr. Katherine Yohe’s lecture at the Office of Young Adult Ministry’s Relationship Speaker and Discussion Series. The first may be found here: What is Christian Friendship?

Occasionally I have read authors who have stressed similarity as part of their definitions of friendship (namely, Cicero and Aristotle). If two people are very similar, friendships can form quicker and are easier to maintain. The very ease of these friendships make them a great gift in our lives. But Christians can still be friends when such natural similarities are lacking.

I was recently reading Tom Rath’s book, Vital Friendships, where the author argued that we should never expect any one friend, including a spouse, to meet all our needs. Rather, we should look to build many friendships with people having different temperaments, perspectives, abilities, and talents. For example, some friends will be better at encouraging and motivating us, others at challenging us and opening our minds to see things differently, and others at working along side us. These friendships take longer to form, but can be very enriching as we explore new areas of study, have our assumptions challenged, gain new insights, and enjoy new types of music, art, movies, or food.

St. Paul’s description of the Body of Christ points in a similar direction. While friends in Christ need to have some things in common – such as their commitment to Christ and Christian morals and values – there is plenty of room for diversity. The Spirit unites people of different incomes, places in the social strata, cultures, nationalities, and ages. The Spirit gives different gifts to different members so that together they make up the full body of Christ (Rom. 12:1-8). St. Catherine of Sienna even thought that God gave different people different chief virtues so that we would we need to be in relationship with each other in order to develop all the virtues.

Because Christian friendships are soldered together in the Spirit, anything we do to draw closer to God will in turn strengthen our friendships. Pray for strength, wisdom, and patience. Study Scripture to learn the character of Christ and how he related to his friends. Make use of sacramental graces to unite with Christ and be transformed by Him. The more our friendships are formed by the Spirit, the more these friendships will help us unite even more deeply with God who is Love.

What virtue in one of your friends do you most want to develop? How can your friendship support this development?

Rediscovering the Presence of God

The times in which we live are often described as “secular.”  This word comes from the Latin “saecula” meaning “world.” Hence our modern age is quite worldly. We may think it has always been so but such is not the case. To be sure, it IS the human condition to be a little preoccupied with ourselves. But previous times have featured a much more religious focus than our own. The Middle Ages were especially known for way in which faith permeated the culture and daily experience. The Rose window to the right presents a typically Medieval Notion: Christ (the Lamb of God) at the center and everything surrounding Him. In those days the holidays were the HOLYdays and one’s understanding of the calendar and the time of year centered around the Church’s calendar of saints and feasts. It wasn’t Winter it was advent, and then Christmastide. Even the word Christmas was ChristMASS. Halloween was the “Een (evening before) all Hallows (All Saints Day). Three times every day the Church bells rang the “Angelus” calling Catholics to a moment of prayer in honor of the incarnation. The Bells also rang summoning Catholics to Mass and vespers. In a previous article in this blog (By Their Buildings You Will Know Them) it was noted that even the architecture of the Middle Ages placed a large church at the center of every town: Those days were not perfect days but they were more spiritual and the Christians everywhere were constantly reminded of the presence of God by the culture in which they lived. Seldom so today. Many people today almost never hear of God on a day to day basis.  

But the truth is, God is everywhere. He indwells his creation and sustains every aspect of it. The Scriptures say that Jesus hold all creation together in himself (Col 1:17). Most people think of creation as a sort of machine or closed system in which we live. But that is not the case. Creation is a revelation of and experience of God’s love and providence. Not one leaf falls to the ground without God leading it there. Not one hair of our head is unknown and provided for by God. We are enveloped by God, caught up into his presence.

It is especially sad for young people today. Some of us who are a bit older remember a time when God was more recognized. I remember that we prayed every day in my PUBLIC school until I was in 6th grade. I remember my 4th grade teacher often reminding me when I got out of line: “God is Watching!” I remember when Christmas (not “winter holidays”)  in School was actually celebrated and that we sang religious songs even in public school well into my High School years. I remember our public high school choir singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and many songs with religious subjects. Can you imagine a public school choir singing today “O let us adore Him, Christ the Lord”  ?  Gone are the days.

But we need to teach and help our young people get in touch with God’s presence.  The culture today will seldom help them. Deacon Curtis in the post below has encouraged us to return to “public displays of affection” for God along with other things such as grace at meals. It is essential, as our world becomes even more secular,  to intentionally “put”  God in our day. There is a website  LIFE AFTER SUNDAY that is dedicated to assisting in this very thing. I recommend it to your attention.

Here too is a video for young people reminding them that God is near, not far. It’s a toe-tapper with a message:

What is Christian Friendship?

From time to time, we invite guest bloggers to share their wisdom with us, and today I would like to present Dr. Katherine Yohe who earned her PhD in Historical Theology from the Catholic University of America. On July 19th 2009, she gave a lecture for the Office of Young Adult Ministry’s Relationship Speaker and Discussion Series. The following is an excerpt from that presentation.

Christian friendships are relationships of mutual affection and service, with in-depth conversations, enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

While other forms of love can be one sided, friendships are not friendships unless they are seen as such by both parties. We cannot be someone’s friend if he or she do not consider us a friend in turn. Jesus called friends those who, in turn, were friendly toward him such as Lazarus, John, and the disciples at the last supper. However, we can desire a friendship, reach out in friendship, and offer friendship before there is a return of friendship. Jesus offered friendship, it seems, to everyone. For example, who is he talking about when he says: “Greater love has no one than he lay down his life for his friends”? (John 15:13) Who was he laying down his life for? Everyone!

Affection does not referring to signs of affection per se – such as big hugs – but rather to a movement of the heart that radiates through the eyes and says “I am glad to be with you” or “I enjoy being in your presence.” Can you imagine what the gaze of Jesus must have looked like? Or think of times in your own life: What has Jesus’ love felt like during those graced moments when we have encountered Him? Christ’s love is affectionate; it isn’t mechanical. It isn’t “I’ll be nice to this person because I have to.” Rather it has a warmth, a joy, a delight in being with the other – taking time to walk, eat, and even spend eternity with that person.

Friendship goes beyond the emotional component to service. Good friends do not want to just be together, they want to do things for each other. Jesus served his friends in both little and big ways. He washed their feet, he cooked breakfast for them by the Sea of Galilee, and he died for them.

In-depth Conversations
These are conversations which reveal one’s interior life. Jesus spent a lot of time talking with his friends about who he is, how he prays and understands the Scriptures, what his plans are for the world, and how they can participate in this work. At the last supper he says, “I shall not call you servants any longer, because I servant does not know his master’s business,  I call you friends because I have made know to you everything I have learned from my Father.” (John 15:15)

Enlivened by the Holy Spirit
As Saint Augustine states, addressing God, “For friendship cannot be true unless You solder it together among those who cleave to one another by love ‘poured forth into our hearts by the Holy Spirit’” (Confessions 4.7, quoting Romans 5:5) Thus the love that Christian friends have for each other is inspired, moved, empowered, by the very love of God flowing through each of them. Just as the Father and Son are united in the love that is the Holy Spirit, so to do Christian friends love one another with the Spirit’s love.

What can you do today to strengthen your Christian friendships?

In Search of Community

 A few weeks ago in my Pick a Parish blog, I shared one of difficulties in ministering to the young adult population (parish-hopping), and today I introduce a second, more problematic, issue.

A recent conversation between two young adults and a deacon went something like this:

Young Adult 1: I think as a single person it’s hard to find community, ya know?

Deacon: Well, are you serving in any of your parish ministries?

Young Adult 1: No.

Deacon: There are so many places to serve in your parish and neighborhood where you would be surrounded by a strong community.

Young Adult 2: Well, I think what he’s saying is that those are all communities where you give. And I think we’re looking for a community where we can receive.


Who is teaching us that it’s better to receive than to give? Where did we learn that self-centered activities would bring us happiness? How did we become such a disconnected generation?

Keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”(Acts 20:35)

Now, I’m certainly not discounting the feelings of loneliness that some single young adults feel or the need for intimate friendships that we all have.  But here is one solution that’s proven to work!

Pray daily.
Commit to a parish.
Discern your God-given gifts. (Time-Talent-Treasure)
Use these gifts to serve in your parish and your neighborhood.

This is how we can create supportive, loving communities full of vibrant friendships which reflect the self-giving love of the Most Holy Trinity.

In God’s House


I’m sure like me you have watched the video of the couple who danced down the aisle at the start of their wedding ceremony. The Washington Post hailed the video as a picture of unbridled joy. Christian bloggers are questioning the appropriateness of such a dance in a Church. If you have not seen the video. You can find it here.

Is there a place for dance in Church? Sometimes, yes.  The first liturgy I attended at Saint Peter’s in Rome was the closing Mass of the Synod on the Church in Africa in 1991. The liturgy began with a liturgical dance in which the dancers gave thanks to God for the gifts of the earth of Africa. Dancers processed in carrying on their head huge baskets of the native fruits of the Africa. Drums beat in thanksgiving for the gift of the music of Africa and the Book of the Gospels proclaimed the gift the Good News to the people of Africa. The procession was magnificent.

Liturgical Dance

Closer to home, I’ve seen liturgical dancers, before the liturgy begins, carry in candles as a celebration of Jesus who is light of the world and we who are the light of Christ for others. Some choirs will process in a simple two-step pattern singing God’s praises.  In cases like this, dance can help raise our minds and hearts to God.

In God’s House

What is so appalling about this choice of dance is that it said nothing about God, it was all about the dancers. It was self-indulgent in a way that has no place in the house of the Lord.  When in God’s house, it’s all about God. We go to church to give praise and thanks to God. We marry in the church to thank God for the gift of our spouse , to ask God to bless the marriage and to to be a part of the every day life of the marriage.  If there is the be dancing, it should be in praise of  God.

Scripture is in fact filled with God’s people dancing in praise at  the right time and in the right place.  The right place and the right time for this procession was at the reception, there, it indeed would have been good fun.

“Do or not do. There is no try.” Or is there?

pathsIn the article “How to Discern Elements of Your Personal Vocation” by Fr. Peter Ryan, Professor of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, he says,

With respect to future possibilities, we cannot discern whether we should do something, but only whether we should try to do it…The real possibility that we could die before we carry something out or that other things could intervene and make something impossible should warn us not to conclude that we are definitely called to do something in the future, but only that we are called to try to do it. Often enough, all God wants is the effort; and if we make the effort, we produce the results he desires.”

Takes a lot of the pressure off, doesn’t it!

Brian doesn’t have to discern whether he will marry Leslie; he only has to try to date her. Cheryl doesn’t have to discern whether she will be a religious sister; she only has to try to live in the community for a time. Tim doesn’t have to discern whether he will be a priest; he only has to apply to the seminary and see if he is accepted. Where these people end up on the other side of their decision to try is in God’s hands.

Young adults are at a point in their lives where they are discerning many things including personal vocations. Personally, I’m often frustrated with the fact that I can’t see the future, and even more frustrated when what I think will happen doesn’t end up happening. (What can I say, I’m a planner.) But as Fr. Ryan says, our effort to try is often what God desires as it shows faith and hope. God wants us to say to him, “I don’t know where this path will lead, but Yes Lord, I’m going to follow you anyway.” We can act within these uncertainties saying and believing, Thy Will be done.

Last One Out Turn Out the Lights! – The serious consequences of low Mass attendance, low birthrates, and, my own politically incorrect solution.

I’ve been catching up with news from other nearby dioceses. The Diocese of Allentown Pennsylvania recently decided to close 44 of its  140 parishes. The Diocese of Scranton closed 90 parishes last year. Similar things are happening all over the country. Luckily here in Washington, nothing yet in terms of parishes, although schools have closed.

What is happening? The Catholic Population has almost doubled in 60 years. Yet Churches and schools close. How is this? Well, consider that in 1950 more than 80% of Catholics attended Mass every Sunday. That number has dropped to below 30%. The number is probably lower in urban areas of the Northeast and higher in the Midwest. This is a grave loss of faith and the fact is we cannot sustain what previous generations gave us on 30% attendance.The younger generation coming of age has much lower attendance numbers generally below 20% . Stated soberly we are in serious trouble.

Regarding our schools, birthrates among Catholics have plummeted. When I was a kid back in the 1960s it was common for families to have 5 or 6 kids. Today one or two is the norm. We seem to be contracepting and aborting ourselves right out of existence. If it wasn’t for our vigorous Latino immigration, the Catholic Church in America would be in far more serious trouble. More on birthrates in a minute.

The decision that the majority of Catholics have made to no longer attend Church has consequences. Many once filled Church buildings have grown empty in recent years. At a certain point a parish is no longer sustainable financially. Neither are schools, hospitals, and seminaries.

Usual Solutions: Some will argue that the Church needs to “update” to attract more members and lighten up on her moral teachings. But look at the main-lne Protestant Churches who have done that. They are in worse shape than we. Departing from Biblical truth is not the answer. We DO need to work on our liturgies, priests need to be better preachers, and we need to reinvigorate an evangelical spirit among Catholics.  But in the end we simply have to state it plain, we have experienced a wide spread loss of faith and that is why there is such a drop. Preaching and liturgy weren’t great in the past either but we still packed em in. This is ultimately about a loss of faith. 80% to 30% is a huge drop. We cannot sustain what we had with this kind of a drop. There are consequences. Closed churches were once filled to standing room only and are sad evidence of the non-sustainability due to the current attitude among Catholics who think Church attendance and support is not a necessary component of being Catholic. We need to reinvigorate the notion that it is a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday. The New Catechism teaches this clearly (cf CCC #2181). We also need to reconnect people with the necessity of the sacraments for their salvation. For example Jesus says “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and Drink His Blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). Thus, to be away from Holy Communion is a kind of spiritual suicide.

Politically Incorrect Solution – We also need to have bigger families. Sorry to be politically incorrect but Catholics and Christians in general are simply being replaced. The Muslims have big families we have tiny ones. You do the math. It is almost as if God is saying to us, if you do not love life, then you will be replaced by others who do.  Contraception in the end is a form of cultural suicide. Abortion that tags along with it has also devastated our numbers.

In the end, it is about faith and being faithful to God’s House. Either we all are faithful and we thrive or we are not and we start shutting down. Further it is about loving life. Either we marry, are fruitful and multiply, and thus thrive or we turn away from life, decrease and die. If we fail to choose life, then last one out turn out the lights.

OK, So here it is fellow Catholics: Be faithful, be fruitful. Sow abundantly and reap abundantly. Get to Mass every Sunday. Get married (first), then have lots of baies and raise them Catholic!  🙂   It’s not brain surgery is it?  God has a plan and it’s not that hard to decipher.

Here’s a graph of mass attendance by age and another of why people say they miss Mass. You can double click on the graphs below to enlarge them.      SOURCE: CARA