Newly Professed Nuns and Brothers: Mature, Educated, Devout

Nuns and brothers who took their perpetual vows in 2012 are mature adults with work experience who come from Catholic families. 

That’s the basic result of a survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. 

The survey shows that today’s newly professed religious are well-educated, individuals who have had to overcome discouragement from others in seeking a vocation to religious life. 

One thing that interested me is that age appears to be no impediment for many of these people, since the oldest woman was 66 at the time she professed her perpetual vows and two of the men were over 60. I had always heard that no one who was over 40 could enter religious life. It appears I was wrong.

I think this is great news for people who have come to know Jesus later in life and who feel the call to live out their days as vowed members of a religious community. It is particularly important for women.

In a world where the enslavement and trafficking of women and children is growing apace with rape as an instrument of war and the use of child soldiers, the voice of strong Christian women is badly needed.

The Church needs nuns.

There is a female viewpoint that must be present when dealing with crimes against women and children. Also, many times, women are the only ones who can gain the trust and cooperation of severely victimized people. 

I pray for women religious to step up to this challenge. They are so needed. 

Here are a few facts from the survey that stood out to me. You can read the entire survey here.

The average age of newly professed women is 40, while the average of men is 39. Eighty-give percent of the respondents are cradle Catholics. Seventy-eight percent come from families in which both parents are Catholic. Ninety-six percent of them have at least one brother or sister; 45% have four or more siblings.

This is a highly educated group of people. Twenty-two percent have a graduate level degree with 60% having a bachelor’s degree. Eight-two percent of them had worked before entering religious life. Eighty-eight percent had participated in ministry activities before entering and 95% had regularly participated in private prayer activity. Sixty-nine percent had participated in Eucharistic Adoration.

Seventy-four percent of the respondents said that they were discouraged from entering religious life by one of more persons. Women were more likely than men to report that they had encountered discouragement about considering a vocation. Men were more likely than the women to be encouraged by their parish priests to think of religious life as a life’s vocation.

The youngest sister or nun was 23 at the time of her profession, while the oldest was 66 years of age. Eight women professed perpetual vows at age 60 or older. The youngest brother was 25 and the oldest is 62. Two of the men are age 60 or older.

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  • Dale

    We (the Church, the world, and myself as an individual) need more Catholic sisters and brothers. The information gained by the CARA survey will, I hope and pray, lead to more persons finding their vocations.

    The survey consisted of respondents who were about to profess perpetual vows. This would mean they have been members of their religious communities for at least three years prior, and perhaps longer. I would have enjoyed seeing statistics about the age they entered their communities.

    I know that some religious communities are open to late vocations, but others are not. My sense is that the sisters are more flexible about this than the brothers, but I may be wrong.

    • Dale

      I found some information regarding age of entry into religious life. This is from a 2009 CARA survey on behalf of the National Religious Vocation Conference.

      “The average age of entrance is 30 for men (median 27) and 32 for women (median 29). However, there is a ten year age gap in average and median entrance age between women in LCWR institutes and women in CMSWR institutes. Among respondents from LCWR institutes, the average entrance age is 36 and the median is 34; among respondents from CMSWR institutes, the average entrance age is 26 and the median is 23.5″

      The results indicate that a higher percentage of women, compared to men, entered religious life as late vocations (age 40 or over)

  • pagansister

    Wasn’t there a time when men and women could enter religious life right after high school (or what would be similar schooling)? Read somewhere—a good while ago— that now the religious community prefers that those entering be more educated and have more experience in life before committing to the religious life. Perhaps more stay to profess their final vows when they enter the community better educated and a little older.

  • Dan

    Its discouraging and concerning to hear how people are trying to steer others away from religious life. The priest responsible for vocations in our diocese has been saying for years this is one of the biggest issues he’s seen. Has CARA or any other groups put together a study to see what type of impact this is having?

    • Dale

      CARA conducted a large survey of recent vocations and published the report in 2009. The survey was done on behalf of the National Religious Vocation Conference.

      I haven’t read the whole thing, but there is quite a bit of information in it. If you scroll down to page 74, you can see some percentages, but I will quote a couple highlights.

      “Friends, both within and outside the institute, as well as other men and women religious
      were also a significant source of support for many respondents when they first considered
      entering their religious institute. Parents, siblings, and other family members were among the
      least supportive. Most respondents also did not receive “very much” encouragement from
      diocesan priests, people in their parish, or people in their school or workplace.”

      “Although neither group received strong encouragement from various family members, men
      were more likely than women to be report at least “a little” encouragement, especially from

      • Dale

        Yikes. The formatting of that last post is terrible!

        • Rebecca Hamilton

          I don’t know what causes the formatting to go so wonky from time to time, but I do am using poltergeists as a working theory. :-)

      • pagansister

        Honestly, Dale, as a mother, and a recent Grandmother for the first time, I can understand parents not wanting their daughter/son to enter religious life—especially if she/he might be the only child. I looked forward to having a grandchild, and since both my children married later in life, I waited longer than some for our beautiful grandson. Thank you for the info you looked up. Interesting. My “vocation” in life, after marrying and having 2 children was to be a Grandmother. :-)

        • Dale

          Congratulations on becoming a grandmother! I have heard it said that being a grandparent helps to make up for the trials of being a parent. :)

          As for Catholic parents discouraging their children to become priests, sisters or brothers, your view is shared by many observers. In this view, back when Catholic parents often had eight children, getting grandchildren was pretty much guaranteed. And if some of the kids chose a celibate devotion to Christ, it was considered to be almost a tithe. I don’t know if any statistics support that theory, but it does make sense.

          A somewhat different perspective has been offered by Fr. Dwight Longnecker. Although he currently writes a column for Patheos, I will refer to an article written three years ago in a different venue. In his view, part of the decline in vocations is due the shift of American culture away from extended families living in the same area, to isolated nuclear families living far from their extended relatives. At the risk of this reply going too long, I will quote from the article since I don’t think I can summarize him well.

          “Before the sexual revolution, a young man or woman from a Catholic family was likely to have grown up in a large, local extended family. He or she would have been part of a network of brothers and sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who all lived within visiting distance. Within that context of a large family, the Catholic boy or girl would have seen first hand the joys and sorrows of family life.

          If he felt called to the priesthood or religious life, a boy would most likely have entered the local diocesan seminary or entered a religious order with houses in his diocese. A girl would most likely have entered a religious house in her locality. They would have lived the celibate life, therefore, within the larger context of that supportive extended family and Catholic culture. In other words, they would be living within community, not just in their religious order or diocesan presbyterate, but within their own natural extended family.

          Artificial contraception changed all that. “Reproductive freedom” allowed women to enter the workplace. Families enjoyed a double income. Increasing affluence and fewer children meant the smaller families were more manageable and less dependent on the extended family. As a result, the nature of the American family changed….”

          “Suddenly, being a priest, brother, nun, or sister meant you were not only isolated, but isolated without the consolation of spouse and small family. Furthermore, the celibate would naturally be cut off from all the cozy support systems that proliferate in American suburbia. The old, localized extended family always had room for the spinster aunt, the cousin who was a religious sister, or the uncle who was a priest. But who wants a single person at a dinner party, the PTA, or the country club — especially a single religious person? ”

          Fr. Longnecker also points to a second cause which is more profound:

          “We have experienced a radical change in the deeper understanding and expectations of marriage. Before the sexual revolution, a young Catholic boy or girl experienced a family context in which being a husband or wife, father or mother, would have demanded a natural kind of self sacrifice.

          In most families, the man would have worked hard to support a wife and many children, and the woman would have given her life in bringing up a large family. Both the man and woman were expected to lay down their lives in a vocation of self-sacrifice, and the Catholic young man or woman would have accepted this vocation within marriage as the norm.

          It was within this context of self-sacrificial family life that a young man or woman’s vocation to the priesthood or religious life would have been formed. The young person therefore did not question the demand for a life of self-sacrifice; it was assumed that this was the foundation of a good life. The question, then, was which manner of sacrifice is best for the individual: Dying to self through marriage and family, or dying to self through a religious vocation?

          Now, because of artificial contraception, the whole underlying assumptions and expectations about marriage have shifted. Marriage is no longer a way to give all, but a way to have it all.”

          • pagansister

            Dale, Thanks for your kind words—yes, being a Grandmother is having all the fun and then returning them to the parents—–:-) . Our boy is very special—and SO worth the wait!
            The information you so generously offered makes a lot of sense—-in the Catholic school where I spent 10 years as a teacher (K-8) the largest family had 8 children, but after a few years they couldn’t afford to send them to our school, so they had to transfer to public school. The only other family had 5, due to the fact the the “4th planned pregnancy” turned out to be twins! So, yes, the typical Catholic family is no longer large. With a large family, the chances of having grandchildren is higher—and a couple of kids could join the convent or the priesthood. Also as mentioned in your post, relatives are not always close in distance anymore.

  • Jo Ann

    This reinforces what I saw at Focus 11 last week in our own diocese. The priests, seminarians, brothers, and sisters who were there told the 6th graders their faith story. Without exception they had all come from devout Catholic families. This was a little disheartening to me because in the small parish and parochial school where I am the director of faith formation, so few children live in families that are intact and practicing their Catholic faith. Where will the next generation of priests and religious come from? The pope was right to defend marriage and family — healthy families are the building blocks of healthy faith communities and a healthy society.