March 20, 2015

Editorial

How to attract more vocations

Studies and surveys done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington are usually more than interesting. The whole idea of CARA is that the research should be applied in some way for the welfare of the Church.

(Full disclosure: the writer of this editorial served on CARA’s board of directors from 1978-85.)

Since this is the Year of Consecrated Life, it’s both interesting and beneficial to study CARA’s survey of men and women who professed solemn vows in religious orders during 2014. Responses to the survey came from 77 women and 41 men. Some of the men were preparing for the priesthood, but not all.

So what could be learned from the survey that could be applied to efforts to attract more vocations to religious life?

One thing learned was that people who are active in parish ministry can be prime candidates for the religious life. That’s hardly an earth-shattering fact; it should probably be expected. However, the study confirms it:

“Almost nine in 10 [88 percent] had ministry experience before entering their religious institute, most commonly as lector [50 percent], followed by ministry in faith formation [47 percent]. Four in 10 served as extraordinary ministers of [holy] Communion or as an altar server. Over one-quarter served in a social service ministry, and one in 10 taught in a Catholic school or served in hospital or prison ministry.”

The survey might confirm that education in Catholic schools can affect a decision to recognize a religious vocation, but perhaps not. Results showed that 42 percent of those who professed final vows in 2014 attended a Catholic school. However, that means that 58 percent did not. So the percentage is smaller than we’d expect.

If we’re applying that research, perhaps we should be doing more in our Catholic schools to promote religious vocations. Doing so is more difficult today because many Catholic schools don’t have professed religious men or women teaching in them.

The CARA survey confirms a trend that has been around for a while: older people are entering religious life. The average age of the 118 people who responded was 37. The youngest was 24, and the oldest was 64.

Those entering religious life are more educated than those of earlier generations. For this year’s class of those who made perpetual vows, 68 percent entered their communities with a bachelor degree (61 percent for the women and 80 percent for the men), and 18 percent already had a graduate degree.

Since older people are entering religious life, it’s hardly surprising that they have work experience before entering. In 2014, 88 percent did, with 61 percent employed full time and 27 percent part time.

CARA’s report said, “Women religious are more likely than men to have been employed in health care, while men religious are more likely than women to have been employed in business and education.”

Obviously, these are a lot of dry statistics, so they have to be interpreted. Sister of Mercy Mary Ann Walsh did so in a column in America magazine. The statistic that stood out for her was that “the survey shows a preponderance of Caucasians in the class of 2014 and a smaller number of Hispanics.”

Fifteen percent of the class identified as Hispanic/Latino(a). Sister Mary Ann wrote, “Young Hispanics need to see their own people in leadership. Hispanic adults need peers to whom they can relate in parish life. Yet two-thirds of this class are Caucasian. One in seven identifies as Asian, and those born outside the United States come primarily from the Philippines and Vietnam.”

Another statistic is also disheartening: CARA said that “58 percent report that they were discouraged from considering a vocation by one or more persons.”

The message that we get from this study is that parishes should renew their efforts to make sure that young adults—whether Caucasian, Hispanic or Asian—have opportunities to become involved in parish life. That seems to be the best way for them to discern a possible call to religious life.

—John F. Fink

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