WASHINGTON –– A study issued Feb. 4 by the Washington-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found that “a great majority” of those entering religious life had prior experience serving in at least one parish ministry.
“The most common ministry service reported was liturgical ministry,” said the report, “followed by some form of faith formation.” The study said 84 percent had taken part in some form of ministry either as a volunteer or in a paid position.
The survey was sent to 411 men and women entering religious institutes — a catchall term encompassing religious congregations and orders — with 278 responding, for a response rate of 68 percent.
While half had attended a Catholic grade school, a bit more than the 42 percent for the total U.S. adult Catholic population, the differences were more pronounced for Catholic high school (39 percent vs. 22 percent) and college (40 percent vs. 6 percent) attendance. Those entering religious life were well educated, with 49 percent having an undergraduate degree and another 21 percent having a graduate degree.
One troubling note in the report was that 68 percent, or more than two-thirds, of all U.S. religious institutes reported no one entering religious life last year. One in seven institutes had one entrant, and about one in five reported having two or more.
While a majority of respondents reported receiving positive responses from their families about their consideration of a vocation, those numbers were in the mid-50 percent range, while they zoomed into the mid-90s when it came to support from vocation and spiritual directors and the institute itself.
While 64 percent said they had gotten to know a priest or a religious brother or religious sister while growing up who was not a relative, and 55 percent said starting a discussion with their family about their vocation was easy for them, only 19 to 29 percent can recall their mother, father or another relative talking to them about a vocation.
The top attractions to religious life, with at least half of those saying they “very much” were attracted to these aspects, were a desire for prayer and spiritual growth, a sense of call to religious life, a desire to be of service, a desire to be part of a community, and a desire to be more committed to the church.
The qualities that attracted them most to the religious institute they entered were its spirituality, its mission, its community life, its prayer life, the example set by its members, the ministries of the institute, its fidelity to the church, and welcome and encouragement by members.
Items they said were most helpful in arriving at a decision for choosing a particular instate were contact with the vocation director, contact with institute members and a “come and see”-type experience.
The top Influences behind their choice of institute were its community life, its prayer life and prayer styles, its members’ lifestyles, the types of ministry of its members, and its practice regarding a religious habit.
Respondents reported that the top aspects of community life were living and praying with other members, socializing and sharing leisure time together, sharing meals together and working with other members.
They rated their respective institutes most highly on faithfulness to prayer and spiritual growth, commitment to ministry, opportunities for spiritual growth, fidelity to the church and its teachings, opportunities for personal growth, the welcome and support of newer members, the focus on mission, and opportunities for ongoing formation.
Asked in a separate series of questions to rate their institute, at least half of those responding said they were excellent in projecting a sense of identity as institute members, their sense of identity as religious, the quality of community life, educational opportunities, relationships with one another, responding to “the needs of our time,” the institute’s formation programs, communal prayer experiences, preparation for ministry, efforts to promote vocations, and efforts to promote social justice.
Still, life has its challenges, and religious life is no exception.
“Asked what was the most challenging about the religious life, the respondents most commonly report that they find community life the most challenging aspect of their religious life experience. They have learned that living in community may involve loss of privacy, as well as struggles in living with the members who have different cultural backgrounds, points of views, ages, personalities and preferences,” the study said.

“Respondents also report the challenge of recognizing and addressing limitations in themselves and others, while desiring to grow in religious life. They regularly mentioned their difficulty in overcoming ‘myself,’ ‘temptations,’ ‘weakness’ and ‘sins.'”

CARA said, “Respondents found challenges in adapting to the new lifestyle in their religious communities. This adjustment includes daily schedule, new life pace, food, prayer life (and) community life, among other things.   

The report added, “Another emerging challenge that respondents shared was their decreased connection with their family members and friends. The schedule and lifestyle in religious life lead religious to reduce their connections with families and friends. They live far away from their family and friends that sometimes leads them to homesickness. Some of them also felt that their family and friends did not understand religious life and their decision to enter the religious life. They also missed some other relationships and felt that religious life somehow reduces their opportunity for communication.”

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