Who’s Entering Religious Life These Days?

A new study offers insight into the potential impact of vocational programs, Catholic schools and encouragement in discerning.

(photo: franciscansisterscfr.com)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Catholics are being encouraged to get to know local religious communities, as a new study offers insight into the potential impact of vocational programs, Catholic schools and encouragement in discerning.

“I encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to visit local religious communities in their own area during the Day of Religious Open Houses, Sunday, Feb. 8,” Bishop Michael Burbidge of Raleigh, N.C., said Jan. 26.

Bishop Burbidge, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, stressed the importance for youth and young adults to have “greater exposure and familiarity with the community life of religious.”

His comments came in response to the latest survey of Catholics who professed perpetual vows last year in nearly 800 communities of religious life in the U.S. According to the U.S. bishops’ conference, the survey reported that 89% of the professed religious had participated in some kind of vocation program or experience before joining their religious institutes.

The survey, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, involved 41 brothers and 77 sisters and nuns. The respondents were among the 190 vowed religious whose contact information major superiors had provided to the center.

Those who made perpetual vows in 2014 had an average age of 37. About 67% identified as white, 15% as Hispanic and 14% as Asian. About 94% of Asian respondents and one-third of Hispanic respondents were foreign-born.  The most numerous foreign-born vowed religious came from the Philippines, followed by Vietnam.

About 40% attended a Catholic elementary school, about the same percentage for all Catholic adults in the U.S. They were more likely than the general Catholic population to have attended a Catholic high school and much more likely to have attended a Catholic college.

Most vowed religious said that educational debt did not delay their applications to their religious institutes, though those with debt owed an average of $15,750. Several women religious, but no male religious, reported receiving help in paying down their debts.

Brother Humbert Kilanowski, a member of the St. Joseph Province of the Dominican friars, said he didn’t consider a priestly religious vocation in earnest until he was “well into graduate school.”

“But even though I couldn’t have foreseen it, I’m happier as a religious than I could be anywhere else, and I thank God for surprising me with his grace,” he said.

About 86% of the vowed-religious respondents were raised Catholic from birth. About 91% said they regularly practiced private prayer before entering their religious institutes.

The average age at which respondents said they started considering a religious vocation was 19. About half said a parish priest or a religious sister or brother encouraged their vocations. Twenty-five percent said their mother had encouraged them to pursue their vocation, while 15% said their father had. Nearly 60% said they had been discouraged from considering a religious vocation, often by a family member, friend or classmate.

Sister Ann Kateri Hamm of the Franciscan Sisters of Renewal, a Harvard graduate, said she felt called to religious life “from a young age,” but “I was hesitant to share openly about it.”

“It was not until I was engaged to be married that I knew for sure that God had made my heart to be totally his — and he gave the grace to finally say Yes to my religious vocation,” she said.

The Catholic Church’s observance of the Year of Consecrated Life began Nov. 30 last year.