According to a report released in January by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, nearly 95 percent of 84 respondents in religious communities participated in some type of private prayer before entering religious life. Two-thirds attended retreats or regularly prayed the Rosary, three in five participated in Eucharistic adoration and half were involved in faith-sharing, Bible study groups or spiritual direction. 

So, which came first? Did being active in their faith lead to vocations? Or did desiring a vocation make them more active in their faith? 

Like the philosophical causality dilemma about the chicken and the egg, there may be no easy answer, nor any answer at all. 

“The issue is correlation versus causation,” Mark Gray, CARA research associate, told Our Sunday Visitor. “We know that men who were altar servers disproportionately seek vocations, and also those who have done Eucharistic adoration. But it is hard to tease out what causes people to seek vocations, the things that are some of the underlying tendencies to be active in faith, in the parish, and even in ministries.” 

More youthful

The CARA study, “New Sisters and Brothers in Perpetual Life,” was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. The respondents represent 52 women’s and eight men’s religious congregations, provinces or monasteries. None were priests. 

On average, respondents reported that they were 19 when they considered a vocation, and half were 17 or younger. Mercy Sister Mary Joanna Ruhland, associate director of the clergy, consecrated life and vocations secretariat, called that encouraging. 

“As Catholics recognize their responsibility to build a vocation culture in its parishes, schools and families, children and youth are being introduced to various vocations in the church,” she said. 

Main factors

Gray credits three main factors in building vocations for religious and clergy. Encouragement from vocation directors is important, he said. 

So is family support. Yet families are not always supportive. According to CARA studies, only 32 percent of Catholics in a survey responded “yes” to the question: “Would you encourage your own child to pursue a vocation as a priest, deacon, religious brother, nun or sister?” Of those who said yes, 55 percent attend Mass weekly or more. Of those who said no, 78 percent attended Mass a few times a year or less. 

Having priests and religious brothers and sisters as role models also is crucial, Gray said, and that was easier in the “huge explosion of vocations” in the boom of post-World War II. Then, in addition to their religious lives, priests, brothers and sisters filled many roles in teaching, nursing, mission work and running parishes. 

Not so anymore. CARA senior research associate Mary Gautier attributes the drop in religious vocations, in part, to a changing society with more opportunities for the laity, especially women, to serve the Church. 

“They don’t have to go into religious life to do something meaningful,” she said. 

Gray expects the downward curve to stabilize. “The encouraging part is that we still have a good number of people each year making this choice for future growth in vocations,” he said. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

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