A More Diverse Group Heeds 'The Call'

An overwhelming majority of American nuns and priests are 60 years or older and white. But a study released this week shows that an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse group of Roman Catholics is pursuing vocations in the faith. Sister Mary Bendyna, of the the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which conducted the recent study for the National Religious Vocation Conference, explains the trend.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

The Barber Shop is coming up. But first, our weekly Faith Matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Today, two different stories about how religious life is changing in the U.S. In a few minutes, we will hear from a man who is a champion of atheism in what has been called the Bible Belt, the Deep South. He says the numbers of those who follow his way of thinking are growing. We'll find out more.

But now, we hear new information about a changing of the guard, so to speak, among Roman Catholic nuns and priests. Currently, the vast majority of American nuns and priests are 60 years old or older, and white. But a study released this week shows that those taking up vocations are increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. And those seeking vocations also favor more conservative orders, where they can practice traditional life and prayer, and wear habits.

To hear more, we called Sister Mary Bendyna, director of the Center for Applied Research and the Apostolate at Georgetown University, which conducted the study for the National Religious Vocation Conference. Sister Bendyna was the lead author of the study, and she joins us now from New Orleans, where she's attending the annual gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Sister Mary, thank you so much for joining us.

Sister MARY BENDYNA (Director, Applied Research and Apostolate): Thank you. I'm happy to be here with you.

MARTIN: Two issues in the study are attracting some attention. One is, of course, the increasing diversity of those attracted to vocations. For example, Asians and Pacific Islanders, or those of that heritage, are disproportionately represented among the newcomers - 14 percent, for example. Hispanics are 21 percent of the newcomers, compared with only 3 percent of the current population of priests and nuns. Why do think this is? Is this the result of deliberate outreach, or is it something that just happened?

Sister BENDYNA: Well, I think part of it is simply the changing demographics of the Catholic Church in the United States. At one time, on the whole, the church was predominantly White-Anglo, European background. And the church has been changing with larger influxes of people of Hispanic or Latino background as well as some from Asian backgrounds, like Vietnam and the Philippines.

MARTIN: Do you think that, for example, outreach or recruitment efforts have just been more successful with this particular group of people or you think - as you said, it's just more of that this is who is Catholic in the U.S. now?

Sister BENDYNA: I think it's a little of both. I think largely it's because it's who is Catholic. But I think some religious communities have made some efforts to try to attract a more diverse membership.

MARTIN: Another finding from the study that attracted note is that the current population of priests and nuns is probably older than many people may have thought. Ninety-one percent of nuns, and 75 percent of priests, are 60 or older. Is the Catholic Church attracting people in the numbers that will be needed to replace this population?

Sister BENDYAN: They may not be attracting them to religious life, which is what the study was about. This is not a new pattern. It's been happening for some time. It's just that we found that it was even more pronounced than I think we expected.

MARTIN: One thing that struck me is that the average age of women who joined is 32. The average age of men who are recent - recently embraced the vocation is 30. But retention is still a concern. About half of those who entered religious order since 1990 have not stayed, most leaving before making final vows. I think the reason this stood out for me is that I think a lot of people think of people embracing a vocation at a very young age, like as a teenager, maybe 18 or 19 or just before the college years.

With this finding, it suggests that even people who are more mature in life are still, for some reason, they're not finding religious life a good fit. And I'm just wondering how you interpret that number.

Sister BENDYNA: I think there are several things happening there. Historically, people did enter religious life in high school or shortly after high school, or as young adults. There has been a trend towards doing it at an older age. But we know in American culture, people are doing all kinds of things later in life. They're getting married later, they're deciding on a career later in life. So, I think it's part of that larger trend, to make those kinds of life decisions in older age. And there may be a little bit of a trend now going back to a younger age. So, we need to wait and see how that all plays out.

MARTIN: You said you also found that many of the new members are seeking orders that are more traditional in practice. What do you make of that?

Sister BENDYNA: I think there's just an attraction to some of the traditions of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has a very rich heritage in terms of ritual and practice. And a younger generation is rediscovering those things and embracing them. So, they are attracted to those religious orders that have more of an emphasis on those kinds of practices, devotional practices, common prayer, things like that.

MARTIN: One of the things I was curious about is that given that so many of the newer people seeking vocations are more attracted to the traditional life, I'm wondering if there isn't a bit of a culture clash happening between the more senior clergy and the newer ones.

Sister BENDYNA: Well, I think, again, we did find that in the course of the study - that those who are the predominant age groups, in their 60s, 70s, early 80s, are more progressive or liberal in their attitudes on many things and in their religious practices, whereas these younger people coming in tend to be more conservative. So, it is causing some tensions in some religious communities.

MARTIN: Like over what? People argue, you know, and the old days it used to be fighting over music, you know. Turn that stuff down, turn that nonsense down, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sister BENDYNA: Well, there's still some of that, too. Right, because now you have the younger people wanting Gregorian chant, and maybe the older people wanting folk music. I don't know what the clash is. But I think it probably is over - some of it over music and different kind of prayer styles. That may be one area.

MARTIN: Sister Mary Bendyna is director of the center for Applied Research and the Apostolate at Georgetown University. You can find the study, and learn more about the evolving U.S. Catholic community, on our Web site. Please visit the new npr.org. Just go to programs, and click on TELL ME MORE. Sister Mary, thank you so much for joining us.

Sister BENDYNA: Thank you.

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