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A new study of Catholic religious orders shows that their dwindling ranks are predominantly white and aging, but some groups are drawing interest from more diverse seekers.
The new members particularly seem drawn to the conservative communities that live a communal life, celebrate the Eucharist each day, and don traditional religious habits, according to the study.
Conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) for the National Religious Vocation Conference, the study found that about 58 percent of the members-in-training are white, compared to 94 percent of full members.
The vast majority of full members are over 60, including three-quarters of men and nine in ten women. Most of those not in their 60s are at least 50 years old.
The study comes as the Vatican is conducting two investigations of U.S. nuns. One aims to study the “quality of life” of all orders of women religious. The other is probing the fidelity of an umbrella group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, to church teaching.
Religious communities are struggling to gain new members — about half of those studied have no more than one or two in initial formation — and potential members often pursue this spiritual path with little encouragement from family, friends, and even priests.
“They face many challenges and are making a choice that family and friends don’t understand, but they are embracing their call with faith and enthusiasm,” said Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of CARA and principal author of the study.
The center hoped to find “best practices” through the study that might encourage future interest in religious communities.
The study identified almost 4,000 people who were either in initial formation or had professed final vows since 1993. Responses from religious communities represented 62,250 men and women religious, or more than 80 percent of all women and men religious in the country.
Other findings about new members included:
— More than nine in 10 were employed full-time.
— The average age of entrance is 30 for men, 32 for women.
— More than two-thirds first considered religious life by age 21.
— Almost three-quarters (73 percent) attended a Catholic school.
— Seven percent have been married and 5 percent have children.
By Adelle M. Banks
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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