Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Who is Entering Religious Life?

Note: This blog is from CARA Senior Research Associate Mary L. Gautier, Ph.D. and Sr. Bibiana M. Ngundo, L.S.O.S.F., Ph.D. Sr. Bibiana is a visiting scholar to CARA from Kenya. Her work is supported by a grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

For many years, CARA has surveyed men and women religious who are professing perpetual vows in religious institutes in our “Profession Class” series. Last year, we also began surveying postulants and novices who formally entered a religious congregation, province, or monastery based in the United States. We have just completed our second annual study of this kind in our “Entrance Class” series (reports can be downloaded below).
This year, we found that about a third of responding religious institutes (32 percent) had at least one postulant or novice entering religious life in 2016. The average age of respondents of the Entrance Class of 2016 is 28.  Half of the respondents are age 26 or younger.  Nearly six in ten are women and just over four in ten are men.  Among the men, four in five expect to become priests and one in five plans to become a perpetually professed brother.

Most new entrants were born in the United States.  Of those born outside the United States, the most commonly mentioned regions are Asia and Latin America, with Vietnam and Mexico emerging as the most frequently mentioned countries of birth. Seven in ten responding entrants identify as non-Hispanic white, just over one in ten identifies as Asian, one in ten identifies as Hispanic or Latino(a), and one in 20 identifies as either African/African American/black or as “other.”

Nine in ten new entrants have been Catholic since birth and eight in ten come from families in which both parents are Catholic. Almost all respondents of the entrance class of 2016 have at least one sibling and respondents are typically one of the middle children in their family. 

Altogether, respondents report 34 countries of birth. Members of the Entrance Class of 2016 are slightly more likely than other U.S. Catholics to have attended a Catholic elementary school. In a 2016 national poll conducted by CARA, 39 percent of U.S. adult Catholics report having attended a Catholic elementary school, compared to 47 percent among these respondents. Nearly four in ten entrants in 2016 have attended a Catholic high school compared to two in ten other U.S adult Catholics. In addition, entrants are more likely than other U.S Catholics to have attended a Catholic college/university. 

The responding members of the Entrance Class of 2016 were highly educated before entering.  Half reported having earned a bachelor’s degree and about two in ten earned a graduate degree before entering their religious institute. Men are more likely than women to have attended a Catholic college before entering their religious institute while women are more likely than men to have been home schooled.

Many respondents were active in parish life as well as other religious programs or activities before entering their religious institute. Nearly all respondents participated in at least one of these programs or activities before entering religious life. Slightly less than eight in ten respondents participated in retreats. Half participated in a parish youth group, Life Teen, or campus ministry during their high school years. Nearly four in ten participated in a parish young adult group. Nearly two in three participated in a liturgical ministry in a parish, such as being a lector. Half reported participating in faith formation, catechetical ministry, or in RCIA and slightly less than half participated in music ministry, cantoring, or in the choir. Two in three participated in various types of voluntary work in a parish or other setting. One in ten participated in a volunteer program with a religious institute. Slightly more than half participated in campus ministry during college. About one-third participated in a Right to Life March in Washington. One in six participated in World Youth Day.

On average, respondents were 18 years old when they first considered a vocation to religious life. Entrants to religious life were asked how much encouragement they received from various people when they first considered entering a religious institute.  More than nine in ten mentioned a spiritual director, members of the institute, other men and women religious, and/or a vocational director/team as at least “somewhat” encouraging to them when they first considered entering a religious institute.

Two in three (66 percent) report that they got to know a priest or a religious brother or sister who was not a family member while they were growing up. Nearly another four in ten have a relative who is a priest or a religious brother or sister/nun.

Between three-fourths and nine-tenths of respondents entering religious congregations report being encouraged at least “somewhat” by these sources outside of their families: people in the parish, friends outside the institute, campus ministers, and people in their school or workplace. Between six and seven in ten report being at least “somewhat” encouraged by their parents, siblings, and other family members.

Men are more likely than women to have ever had another family member speak to them about a vocation to priesthood or religious life (37 percent for men as compared to 21 percent for women), and to say that starting a discussion with their family about their vocation was easy for them (57 percent for women as compared to 45 percent for men).

Nearly all respondents were “somewhat” or “very much” attracted to religious life by a desire for prayer and spiritual growth and by a sense of call to religious life.  Three in four or more were “very” attracted by these. About nine in ten were at least “somewhat” attracted to religious life by a desire to be of service and a desire to be part of a community.  Between about six and seven in ten say each of these attracted them “very much.” About eight in ten were at least “somewhat” attracted to religious life by a desire to be more committed to the Church.  Slightly more than half say this attracted them “very much.”

Men and women entering religious life were asked to indicate how they first became acquainted with their religious institute. About three in ten respondents report that they first became acquainted with their institute in an institute where members served, through their own internet search, and through the recommendation of a friend or advisor. Between one and two in ten respondents indicate that they became acquainted with their institute through the reputation or history of the institute, through a relative or a friend in the institute, through working with a member of the institute and through the web or social media promotional materials. Between one in 20 and one in ten respondents report that that they first became acquainted with their religious institute through an event sponsored by the institute, through print promotional materials, through a vocation match or placement service, through a vocational fair, as through a media story about the institute.

Entrants were asked how much influence various aspects of their religious institute had on their decision to enter that institute. About nine in ten respondents report community life in the institute, the lifestyles of members and the prayer styles in the institute influenced their decision to enter their religious institute at least “somewhat.”  Between half and just over six in ten say these elements influenced them “very much.”

The full report is available for download, free of charge, here: The Entrance Class of 2016. The previous year's study or the Entrance Class of 2015 is also available for download.

About the Survey
To obtain the names and contact information for entrants, CARA contacted the major superiors of all religious institutes that belong to either the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) or the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), the two leadership conferences of apostolic women religious in the United States. CARA also contacted the major superiors of all religious institutes who belong to the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM).  Finally, CARA contacted the major superiors of 138 contemplative communities of women in the United States that were identified by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.  Each major superior was asked to provide contact information for every person who entered the institute (for the first time, as a postulant or novice) in the United States since January 1, 2016. CARA then mailed a survey to each new entrant and asked them to return their completed survey to CARA.

After repeated follow-ups, CARA received a response from 610 of 759 major superiors, for an overall response rate of 80 percent among religious institutes.  In all, 93 percent of LCWR superiors, 84 percent of CMSWR superiors, 76 percent of CMSM superiors, and 59 percent of superiors of contemplative communities provided contact information for 502 novices or postulants that entered religious life for the first time in the United States in 2016.  The Entrance Class of 2016 consists of 272 men (reported by CMSM superiors), 144 women reported by CMSWR, 66 women reported by LCWR, and 20 new entrants into contemplative communities of women. Of these 502 identified women and men, a total of 278 responded to the survey by February 2, 2017.  This represents a response rate of 55 percent among the new entrants to religious life that were reported to CARA by major superiors.

Photos show recent entrants to the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother and the Capuchin Franciscans, Province of St, Mary.

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