Odds are rising that in the coming years, the priest at the neighborhood parish will have roots in Mexico or Vietnam and the sister working at the local health clinic will be dressed in a habit.
The newest and next generation of priests, brothers, sisters and nuns who belong to Roman Catholic religious orders in the U.S. are more ethnically diverse and tradition-bound than their predecessors, according to a new portrait of Catholic religious life released Tuesday.
The underlying numbers remain dire. Most religious orders in the U.S. suffer from aging membership, diminishing numbers and few if any new candidates, according to the study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the National Religious Vocation Conference.
The report confirmed what many have speculated: The few orders that are attracting and retaining younger members are more traditional. That generally means fidelity to the church and members who live together, take part in daily devotions together and explicitly choose religious orders that require habits.
The familiar white and black habit of nuns teaching elementary school or the robes worn by some fathers and brothers were shed by many orders as remnants of clericalism in the last 40 or 50 years but a younger generation sees them as tangible displays of their faith and symbols of fidelity to church and community.
“This younger generation is seeking an identity, a religious identity as well as a Catholic identity,’’ said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the Chicago-based National Religious Vocation Conference, a professional organization of Catholic religious vocation directors. “Symbolism, images and ritual is all very important to this generation, and they want to give witness to their faith.’’
The study focused on members of religious orders – such as the Jesuits and Franciscans – and did not cover diocesan priests, who outnumber religious order priests in the U.S. 2-to-1.
The study identified at least 2,630 men and women in the early stages of joining an order. The growing ethnic diversity of that group reflects shifts in immigration patterns in the U.S.:
Of those now in training to join an order, about 58 percent are white, 21 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 6 percent are African or African-American, the study found. That stands in contrast to the current 94 percent white ethnic makeup of religious orders.
Overall, finding recruits remains a struggle. Thirty-four percent of women’s orders and 22 percent of men’s orders surveyed had no candidates. Almost half the orders that do have someone on the early path toward his or her vows have no more than one or two in the pipeline.
The orders continue to gray at a fast rate, as well. The median age is now in the mid 70s for women’s orders and the late 60s for men. Men have more younger members and fewer very old members.
Bednarczyk drew positives from the fact that 43 percent of those in the early stages of joining an order are under 30 and part of the millennial generation.
“Younger people are re-looking at religious life as a viable life option,’’ he said. “It does speak of a future.’’
The survey comes as the priesthood continues to recover from the clergy sexual abuse crisis and Catholic sisters in the U.S. face intense Vatican scrutiny.
One study, an apostolic visitation, is examining everything from finances to “soundness of doctrine’’ at women’s religious orders. Another narrower “doctrinal assessment’’ is looking at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the more liberal of two umbrella groups of women’s religious orders in the U.S.
Just 1 percent of leadership conference religious orders have more than 10 women in the process of joining, the survey released Tuesday found. Of the orders in the smaller, more conservative umbrella group, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, 28 percent reported having 10 or more candidates.
Recruits to the conservative group also tend to be considerably younger.
The two conferences weren’t far off from each other on another measure: 32 percent of orders in the liberal group and 26 percent of those in the conservative one have zero candidates in early formation.
Unlike earlier generations, new members of orders are drawn to religious life primarily by a sense of call and desire for prayer and spiritual growth and less so out of a desire to do ministry, the survey found. Ministry can involve anything from serving in a parish to being a doctor or lawyer.
“It isn’t that ministry isn’t important’’ to younger candidates, said Sister Mary Bendyna, the principal author of the study. “Volunteering, social work, working for the poor – they can do that elsewhere.’’