What the 2020 study reveals about attraction to religious life

What the 2020 study reveals about attraction to religious life

FOR NEARLY 2,000 YEARS people have sought a distinct way to lay down their lives for Christ and the church through consecrated life. Their motivations are usually layered, with the full rationale for an entrance not always apparent to even the person involved. Still, vocation ministers for religious institutes want to at least know the motivations that people can name. With that end in mind, the National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) gathered information in two ways when it investigated what attracts people to religious life in its 2020 survey of newer religious. NRVC asked newer members of religious institutes to directly name what attracted them, selecting from several choices.

Desire for spiritual depth

The top three choices essentially have to do with a desire for spiritual depth (spirituality, charism, mission); and community and ministry are close behind. Most of the survey respondents were under age 40, but a fair number were over 40, sometimes by many years, so the survey does not strictly reflect the thinking of young adults in religious life, although it approximates it.

 To come at this complex question about attraction in another way, the 2020 study also asked religious who had been in an institute for 15 years or less to simply talk about their attraction at several focus group sessions. And talk they did. The transcripts of the study’s 13 focus groups amounted to hundreds of pages, with conversations touching on many themes. Themes from the survey answer choices showed up frequently, but other ideas also emerged. When left on their own to explain their personal attraction to consecrated life, respondents repeatedly told stories about their discernment that brought up these concepts:

• Joy of members

• Positive relationships among members

• Witness of members

• Meaningfulness of consecrated life

• Community life (eating, praying, recreating, ministering together)

• Shared ministry

• Totality of consecrated-life commitment

• Sense of belonging and feeling at home and at peace with the community

• Charism that resonated with them
Other themes not directly about attraction also arose as people tried to answer the attraction question.

• impact of particular encounters with people both in and out of religious life

• slowness of their own vocational understanding

• emptiness of career and material achievements and the desire for “something more”

• importance of spiritual direction and/or serious, regular prayer

To flesh out these points, here are the voices of respondents themselves in excerpted passages from study focus groups. (NRVC members may request a PDF of the full transcripts from the study focus groups by writing to mailer@nrvc.net.)
I was first attracted because of the examples of the sisters I had in school and in my community. Some [were] teachers in our school. [Others] ran a nursing home in my hometown and ran a retreat center out on the lake. So, I think the example they set of happiness, faithfulness, and service to God [made me] want that joy that they seemed to have.
I think the very heart of what attracted me to religious life was that it is a daily dwelling with God—every moment of being in [God’s] presence—and that everything in our life is ordered to that.
I studied abroad in Rome when I was in college. While we were there, a couple of us went to the countryside, not intentionally to visit a religious community, but our chaplain brought us to a religious community. And it was there [that] I was really struck by their community life; it was brothers and sisters and priests [who were] all part of one community. And the love between them … realizing it was all rooted in Christ. And that’s when I felt an invitation to that same love, if I would be willing to look at religious life.
I think for me, what really attracted me was community living, you know, their prayer life, the charism of the foundress, how she went out to look after women, she took women into her home, the vulnerable, the children.
I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school, left the Catholic Church for 12 years as a young adult, came back to the church, and was really drawn to the social mission of the church, through peace and justice in particular.
What attracted me to my community was the witness of joy that our sisters had. I had a teacher who was from our community when I was a freshman in high school, and there was something about her presence. She had a joy that I had never seen anyone else have before. And
I wanted what she had. I wanted that joy…. I didn’t know how she had it, but I wanted it. So, she brought us to our motherhouse. And when I went there, the experience I had with the sisters, that initial experience… [I saw] joy and connectedness with Jesus and the Blessed Mother.
When I drove on campus, there were like 50 sisters … I’m thinking, “This is like Sister Act.” I just felt that sense of home, like I’m where I’m supposed to be. Just, kind of, everything fit. Ever since I was a little girl I liked being a teacher; that’s what our apostolate is.
After college I moved out, taught on a Navajo reservation. I met one of the sisters from our community out there. It was not the spiritual stuff [that attracted me], it was more of the faith through action. She was always doing things like cutting bushes, mowing grass, doing that kind of stuff, waxing, stripping floors. She’d ask for help. I could help with those things. Those were safe things. I kind of helped with that, cleaning the church, doing those different things. [I was] finding God in those things, kind of meeting her through doing those non-spiritual things. Faith in action is kind of what drew me to community, and it blossomed from there.
I felt this desire to do something more with my life than study economics and date the girls I was dating. A lot of them were sort of in a relationship just to fit in with other people, to fit into the college scene. I was sort of disenchanted with a lot of things. I just felt I needed something more.… I think what attracted me to the idea [of community life] was that I had known a lot of priests, and the idea of just being alone at night, or potentially being alone at night, or just being with one person in a rectory, it just seemed really unattractive for me.

 I was attracted to the charism. I became a lay [associate] for a number of years. Then I started thinking about religious life because living on my own, it just felt like something was missing. I was attracted to living in community with other people with the same charism, with the same spirit, with the same hopes for the world [even] with our differences.
I saw men who are priests, but men who are, as religious, also doing other things as professors, as doctors, lawyers. That really attracted me, to be able to be a priest and to bring the Eucharist to people, but also to have a profession and to relate to people in other ways as well. I also had the opportunity to work in my community at my university.

I think what might have attracted me the most to this community was just that it seemed to fit. I could see myself there.

I started to go to spiritual direction with a [member of the community]. It was really learning how to pray in that tradition that attracted me to religious life, learning how to place myself in scripture imaginatively and realizing that God communicates through my internal movements and my emotions. That drew me to go to a discernment retreat.

This article draws from the 2020 Study on Recent Vocations, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the National Religious Vocation Conference. The full report, summaries, and other resources for exploring the study’s conclusions can be found at nrvc.net.

Published on: 2021-11-02

Edition: 2021 HORIZON No. 4 Fall, Volume 46

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