Who's that "lady in the blue dress"?

From Baltimore comes this story about efforts to reach young people and encourage vocations:

A panel of Roman Catholic priests and others in church life faced an audience of lively fifth graders Thursday, offering snippets of their personal history histories and the motivation for their career choices. But many children were so unfamiliar with a nun’s habit and veil that several directed remarks to “the lady in the blue dress.”

“We have regular teachers, not nuns,” said Craig Kelly, a student at St. Ursula School in Parkville who attended a conference Thursday at Notre Dame of Maryland University. Classmate Cathyrose Odoh added, “They are not the ordinary people we see every day.”

In Maryland and across the country, the Roman Catholic Church is looking to inspire younger students with a zeal for religious life and help stem decades of decline in the ranks of nuns and priests. National research suggests that students start to consider the priesthood or sisterhood at as young as 11.

But overcoming students’ unfamiliarity — even at Catholic schools — can be a challenge.

“With the declining numbers, religious are less visible in terms of culture and population than they were generations ago,” said Mark Gray, senior research associate with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based at Georgetown University. “It is less likely that a child today would interact with a priest or nun.”

The center conducted a nationwide survey that showed many priests, brothers and nuns first considered religious life before they were teens. That data prompted the National Religious Vocation Conference to develop a “Focus 11″ program as an appeal to 11-year-olds. About 700 students participated in the daylong event at Notre Dame.

“It crossed my mind, when I was about that age,” said Sister Patricia Dowling, vocation director for the Sisters of Bon Secours and co-chair of the event. “I even played at saying Mass.”

The Catholic Church has for the last several decades experienced declining numbers of candidates for the priesthood and the religious life. Some of the factors blamed for the decrease are the required vows of celibacy and the fact that priesthood is limited to men. Church sex abuse scandals have hurt as well, said Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference.

He cited a 2009 study that found a slight increase in the number of young adults entering religious life and said there is cause for optimism.

“We saw numbers dipped after the scandals in the 1990s, but since 2000, we have seen renewed interest,” he said. “Many are coming to religious life wanting to show it is a valid way to live with a sense of authenticity and integrity, almost as though they wanted to correct the wrongs of the past.”

Dowling helped organize the first Focus 11 in Maryland and is planning several others. It drew students from Catholic elementary schools throughout the area. They met with priests, brothers and sisters, prayed and sang together and participated in activities designed to give insights into the life of a Catholic cleric.

“There is anecdotal evidence that many know from a young age that they want to become a priest or religious,” said Gray.”Our survey asked, ‘When did you feel the call?’ and the responses remained consistent that it came early.”

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  • FrMichael

    Women religious have nobody to blame but themselves for the “blue dress” syndrome. There are still twice as many of them in the US as priests, yet their dropping of the habit and exodus from parochial schools and ministries has made them invisible to a large percentage of Catholic youth for decades.

  • Southern Deacon

    Where are the deacons? Just sayin’!

    A seed planted towards a vocation to the church might flourish as a deacon or even progress to a thought towards a priesthood in our male youth. Any seed that flourishes is a good seed.

    It doesn’t surprise me that the children attending this event might not recognize a religious sister, brother or an ordained clerics. The face of Catholic religious is fading away and is causing harm.

    The bishops need to rethink the idea of nuns and brothers not being in distinctive garb and clerics to be in clerics when in public ministry.

    If this is truly a battle of good against evil, the bishop’s army needs to be seen doing battle!

  • François Fournier

    The bishops are not responsible for that. The religiouys orders brothers or nuns are! Here where I live they are afraid to show by any singns they are members of a religious order.
    No more vocations is the answer. Go and see where they still were there habits, you will see the difference.

  • Greta

    When the nuns left their habits, the set in place the decline of their orders. They went out of the convents and started to live as if they were more lay than religious. Many got involved in battles around social justice issues as they saw them over trying to lead souls to find God and eternity in heaven. SAD

    The great news as well laid out often by The Anchoress is the huge growth of vocations to those religious ourders that do where the habit and are devoted to solid Catholic teaching.

  • Southern Deacon

    @ Francois – You are correct that the orders themselves did away with the garb but the diocesian bishop where they are living and working should be able to have some say in what transpires. If not, the abbotts and superiors of these orders are as much to blame. On the diocesian clergy, the bishop does have the ability to mandate dress. Whether it is a bishop or superior of a religious order, somebody dropped the ball and is continuing to do so.

    @ Greta – Nuns, sisters and brothers are counted among the lay people. While they have made vows and might be considered part of a religious order, they are lay people. I agree that it is sad that by losing their identity, they lost also their numbers.


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