The CARA Study and Vocations

It finds that most new ones go to orders that observe a traditional religious life. Here is a look at some of those orders.


A new study of recent vocations to religious life in the United States has found that most new vocations are going to orders that practice more traditional forms of religious life. Some have expressed surprise at this, because orders that have discarded many of those traditions sometimes claim that way of life does not appeal to the young. Other people, however, have noticed this trend toward traditional religious life for 20 years, and now there is empirical data to prove it.


The study, “Recent Vocations to Religious Life: A Report for the National Religious Vocation Conference,” was conducted by the well-respected Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University and published in August 2009. The study concluded:

The most successful institutes in terms of attracting and retaining new members at this time are those that follow a more traditional style of religious life in which members live together in community and participate in daily Eucharist, pray the Divine Office, and engage in devotional practices together. They also wear a religious habit, work together in common apostolates, and are explicit about their fidelity to the Church and the teachings of the Magisterium. All of these characteristics are especially attractive to the young people who are entering religious life today.

The study found several “best practices” for recruiting new members: involving membership and leadership in concerted vocation promotion efforts, having a full-time vocation director, using new media like the Internet, offering discernment or “come-and-see” opportunities for potential members, and exposing young people to the idea of religious life from grade school through young adulthood.

While these practices are important, the most crucial finding of the study relative to vocation recruitment is that “the example of members and the characteristics of the institute…have the most influence on the decision to enter a particular institute.”    

So, what are these religious orders that are attracting new vocations? CWR talked to representatives of some of these orders in order to put a human face on the findings of the CARA report.

The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia

With their motherhouse in Nashville, Tennessee, this teaching order is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. During most of those years, the order was regional and small, but when many other orders started diversifying their apostolates and de-emphasizing community life and prayer, vocations to the Sisters of St. Cecilia started picking up, and they even had to build to accommodate new members.

Sister Catherine Marie, vocation director, reported that her order has seen a surge in vocations since 1988. In the past 10 years the order has grown by 110 sisters, with 12 to 15 women entering each year. The median age is 36, and the congregation now has 250 members. Twenty-three postulants are expected to enter in the fall, something sister calls a “gift” for their jubilee.

The order conducts four discernment retreats a year and has an active website and regular newsletter. The sisters also visit colleges and Newman Centers, Sister Catherine Marie explained, because they realize, “Most young women today do not know sisters, and most have never had any contact with the likes of us.” As teachers in 14 states and Australia, the sisters also come into contact on a daily basis with many young people.

As the CARA study found, there is a “growing spiritual momentum among young people,” Sister Catherine Marie said. What most attracts new members, she continued, is the order’s rich liturgical and prayer life and the “contagious joy” of a strong community life. The young women also want to wear the habit, she said, explaining, “In this world, which has moved so far from religious symbolism, people are hungry for things spiritual.”

And how do the sisters convey what the CARA study called clarity and confidence about their identity and hope for the future?

“We seek to live our religious life in the heart of the Church,” said Sister Catherine Marie. “If we are serving the Body of Christ and are united to him in prayer, then we can live confidently, serve humbly, and look hopefully to the future.”

Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Los Angeles

This order, with the motherhouse in Alhambra, California, was founded in 1921 and has several apostolates: health care, education, and conducting retreats. With a total of 136 sisters in the community, it has been attracting new members consistently in recent years. Currently the order has three postulants and four novices.

Sister Mary Kathleen, directress of formation, said that young women find the community in a number of ways, including recommendations from priests, the sisters’ website, sisters visiting schools, and personal contact the sisters have in their apostolates. Particularly helpful, she said, is their volunteer program for young women to help with retreats the sisters conduct.

“When they get to know sisters, that makes the difference; they get to interact with sisters,” she said, adding that “the thing young ladies notice is joy, and that attracts them, along with seeing that sisters are real.”

Sister Mary Kathleen said that, just as the CARA study found, living and praying in community are very important to the young women, as is wearing the habit. Their apostolate really flows out of their life and prayer in community, she explained.

Like the other orders profiled here, the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart have a rich liturgical and prayer life, rising at 4:55 AM for community prayer, Divine Office, meditation, and Mass. They pray the Liturgy of the Hours together morning, evening, and night and participate in daily meditation and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

“It’s all one life,” Sister Mary Kathleen said, “so it’s essential we be living and praying in community with one another to be able to give that, to help the total person in our apostolate, to bring people closer to a relationship with our Lord.”

Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration

This is an international order headquartered in Germany, and the sisters of the American province have been in Indiana since 1875. Their apostolates are health care, education, and ecclesial ministries. Presently the American province has 130 members, including two postulants and four novices. Their provincial house is in Mishawaka, Indiana.

Sister Lois BeLee, who has been vocation director for 10 years, said that inquiries from potential candidates have picked up in the past five or six years. Just as the CARA report concluded, she believes their up-to-date Internet presence has been crucial in helping young women find them, particularly women who are loyal to the Church and interested in the Franciscan way of life and Perpetual Adoration.

Sister Lois hears from women all over the country, with current members coming from as far away as Alabama, California, New York, and South Dakota. She runs discernment retreats twice a year, as well as a “come-and-see program” in which high school girls or young women “shadow” a novice or postulant for three or four days.

“They do the same things: get up early, pray, live the life,” Sister Lois said of the program. “It gives them a good idea of what it would be like if they came to the convent.”

Sister Lois especially appreciates the annual vocations day in the diocesan high schools, where the sisters give presentations. However, sister agrees with the CARA report that the greatest reason young women get interested in the order is a positive experience interacting with one of the sisters.

“The whole personality that is exhibited to people is just one of joy because you’ve given your life to God,” Sister Lois explained.

Additionally, the sisters always live together, she said, and young women are looking for the relationship in community, a family spirit. They also want to wear the habit as a sign of their consecration and “to be distinct and let people know they’ve given their life to Christ,” she said.

Norbertine Fathers of St. Michael’s Abbey

The Norbertines (also known as Canons Regular) of St. Michael’s Abbey first came to California from Hungary in 1958 with seven priests. Their abbey in Silverado, California, now has 47 priests and 18 seminarians. Their average age is 42.

The life of the Norbertines revolves around the solemn celebration of the liturgy in choir. The priests also pray the Liturgy of the Hours seven times a day. Since the hallmark of the Norbertine charism is sacred liturgy and Marian devotion, explained Father Ambrose Criste, novice master and vocation director, the young men who come to them are attracted to their liturgical life.

“Those are the traditional things the young men are looking for. It’s a very observant religious life, with silence in the refectory and table reading, and we wear the habit all the time except for exercise or work,” said Father Ambrose. This confirms another conclusion of the CARA study, that young people considering religious life desire an emphasis on daily prayer.

“Both in my own vocational experience and with the young men I work with, they want it all; they don’t want to live the religious life by halves. If they’re going to give their lives to God, they’re going to give all their lives to God.”

And how do young men become interested in joining? Again, the Norbertines’ experience echoes the findings of the CARA study: “Mostly it’s when people meet one of our priests,” said Father Ambrose.

The apostolic work of the Norbertines includes education, parish ministry, spiritual direction, retreats, and prison ministry, so the priests are out and about where they have a lot of daily contact with people.

“Ultimately, I think when young people decide to enter a religious community, it’s because they see the joyful witness of the people there,” Father Ambrose said. “That’s what attracted me to religious life: I wanted to be happy, and you see these people who are genuinely happy.”

The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist

These sisters lately have been called “Oprah’s nuns,” for they were featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show February 9. A relatively new order that was founded in 1997 with four sisters, the order now has 96 members. The average age is 26, and more than 20 postulants are expected to enter next year, the largest group ever. Their motherhouse is in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The sisters are teachers and presently teach in six states.

Like the other orders profiled here, the Dominican Sisters of Mary live the traditional religious life identified in the CARA study.  They rise at 5 AM, have an hour in chapel before Mass for Eucharistic holy hour, the Office of Readings, meditation, and Morning Prayer. After a day of teaching or study, they are in chapel again by 4:30 PM for spiritual reading, Evening Prayer, and the Rosary, and back again at 7:30 PM for short spiritual reading, Night Prayer, and the Salve Regina procession, a Dominican custom.

Sister Maria Guadalupe, director of mission advancement, admits that this is a very busy life for sisters who are in the classroom all day, but she said their prayer life enables their apostolate.

“We are meant to represent the Church, the bride of Christ, in a very special way, so we absolutely draw our life from the Eucharist,” she said. “Our daily hour of adoration is a time for us to connect directly with our spouse, to be there in his presence, to be listening for him, for direction in what he’s asking of us personally and asking of us in the apostolate. We wouldn’t be able to do it without that.”

She explained that one of the Church canons for religious says their first duty is “assiduous union with God in prayer,” and a Dominican motto from St. Thomas Aquinas goes along with that: Religious contemplate and then give to others the fruits of their contemplation.

“So, we take that very seriously, that our prayer life is what is meant to feed everything that we do in the apostolate,” Sister Maria Guadalupe said. Obviously this philosophy is attractive to young women, for they have come to the order from 32 states and Canada.

Order of Friars Minor Conventual, St. Bonaventure Province

The St. Bonaventure Province of this ancient order was established in 1939 in Chicago. This province has always been small, now numbering 55, according to Brother Joseph Wood, vocation director. However, in the past 10 years, the province has had a rebirth of vocations, he said, and presently has 14 men studying to be priests or brothers.

Brother Joseph also has seen a rebirth of interest in the brotherhood since the Second Vatican Council. Brothers previously tended to do domestic work, he explained, but Vatican II opened the doors for brothers to do many ministries. Thus, more men are looking at the brotherhood as an option and those men usually are well educated.

The province has about equal numbers of priests and brothers, all of whom engage in a variety of ministries: parish work, counseling, health care, catechetics, work with the elderly and refugees, prison ministry, and missionary work. 

Brother Joseph said that the average age of men entering the order is around 30, the same overall average age reported by CARA for men entering religious life. Likewise, the friars’ experience reflects the report’s finding that the primary component in vocation recruitment is personal contact. That contact comes through visits by prospective candidates to the monastery, through the Franciscans’ ministry, and through Marytown, the National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Libertyville, Illinois that is run by the friars and has Perpetual Adoration.

The Internet also has been important, Brother Joseph said, confirming the findings of the CARA report. In addition to an attractive and informative website, Brother Joseph said he uses an online vocation agency that matches up discerning people with particular communities that suit their needs.

And what attracts men to the order? Again, the CARA findings are echoed by Brother Joseph.

People know that Franciscans and Dominicans tend to wear a habit, he said, so the young men coming to the order expect that and are comfortable with the habit. However, Brother Joseph said they try to be balanced and not “weird.” They would not wear the habit while working in the yard, for example, but always wear the habit for ministry and prayer.

“Our particular community, the Conventual Franciscans, tends to be traditional. The men who contact me love the Blessed Mother, the Rosary, the pope. But they also love sports, watching television, and pizza; they are healthy young men who are not repressed,” Brother Joseph said.

“What is attractive about us is that there is respect for the Holy Father, for Church teachings.”

Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma

The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan were established in 1973 and now serve in 10 dioceses as well as in Rome, Australia, and Germany. There are 80 sisters in the order, with an average age in the mid-40s. Presently there are five postulants and 10 novices. The sisters average two to seven new members each year, with six scheduled to enter in the fall, but that number may increase, according to Sister Joseph Marie, generalate secretary. Their apostolate includes education and health care, built on their charism of performing spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

Sister Joseph Marie confirmed the CARA finding that most new members are attracted to an order because of personal contact with one of the members.

“At some of our local communities, our sisters attend daily Mass at the parish church, and we participate in other parish and diocesan events,” she said.  “And our apostolic work gives us an opportunity to interact with other people in a variety of settings, such as in schools as teachers or as students, in hospitals or clinics, in seminaries or diocesan offices.”

The order has discernment weekends frequently, and local communities sometimes host a day of reflection for interested laypersons, or lead an adult catechesis group. Through the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the sisters help organize and guide the young people doing volunteer work at World Youth Days.

The Sisters of Mercy of Alma believe the habit is “a very important part of religious life,” Sister Joseph Marie said, for it manifests consecration to God, makes religious a visible sign within the Church, expresses union within their community, reminds the sister of her union with the Lord, and is a way to live the vow of poverty. 

Part of the sisters’ spirituality is maintaining union and charity among themselves, along with “cordiality of heart,” Sister Joseph Marie said. Thus, community is stressed along with a strong community prayer life that includes daily Mass, the Office of Readings, a meditation period, Eucharistic Holy Hour, and the Liturgy of the Hours. The sisters also make it a point to pray for vocations, and those prayers are bearing fruit.

Oblates of the Virgin Mary

The Oblates of the Virgin Mary, an international religious order of priests and brothers, is nearly 200 years old, but the United States province is relatively young, having been established in 1976. Currently the province has 36 perpetually professed members and seven seminarians studying in the US and five studying in the Philippines. In addition to the Philippines, the order has a presence in four states, with its provincial house in Boston, Massachusetts.

Father Daniel Barron, provincial seminary rector and director of novices, said that the Oblates primarily do spiritual direction and retreats as well as parish work. They minister in a “particularly Oblate way” that resonates very directly with the findings of the CARA study. That “Oblate way” includes five characteristics, according to Father Barron:

  1. mercy, seeking to “combine the fullness of the truth with the gentleness and mercy of God”;
  2. Marian devotion, which includes a “Marian approach” that forms their work with people as well as their community life. Oblates always live in community and foster a sense of family;
  3. fidelity to the Holy Father and the Magisterium of the Church, which in turns fosters solidarity in the order;
  4. Ignatian spirituality that involves taking people where they are and helping them respond to what God is doing in their lives;
  5. zeal for their own sanctification and for the salvation of souls.

Father Barron said he has found that young people who are discerning a vocation want to be needed, and want authenticity in a religious order, “people who really live what they say they live and believe.” As the CARA study also found, he agrees that the young long for holiness.

“It seems to me that the Holy Sprit is really calling young people and preserving them from the values of the world and giving them this desire to be saints. Even now in the 21st century, it’s really encouraging to see—a new springtime, as John Paul II said.”

Space prohibits profiling all the religious orders that are successfully attracting new candidates, for there are many more. And some other orders that also are living a faithful, traditional religious life still have difficulty getting new vocations. As one vocation director noted, it is a “Catch 22” situation, because an order that has few or no younger members has great difficulty in attracting young people who want to see other young people in an order they are considering.

Of course, not every person entering religious life stays, either. The CARA study found retention rates since 1990 to be 50 percent in women’s orders and 42 percent in men’s. However, it also found that “[f]ew men and women religious depart after final/perpetual vows/commitment.”

The CARA study concluded that, while religious are an aging population overall, participants in the study “believe religious life will persevere and that the Sprit can and will move in that diminishment. Some already see signs of hope, especially in a younger generation that they believe is bringing a new energy and optimism to religious life.”

The future also looks bright for the orders that are living the traditional and timeless essentials of religious life adapted to current times, as the Second Vatican Council directed, for those are the orders that the majority of young people are choosing. 



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About Ann Carey 17 Articles
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013).

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