Sunday, July 29, 2007

Catholic leaders seek young religious recruits on the Web

On the popular social networking site Facebook, Tracey Dugas flashes a winsome smile and a peace sign.

But she is not looking to share photos and send instant messages to friends.

Instead, she's using the wonders of the Web to recruit women who might want to follow in her footsteps.

Dugas -- or, as she prefers, Sister Tracey -- is a 35-year-old nun with the Daughters of St. Paul, and as the director of vocations for the congregation's local house, she wants to make herself accessible to those contemplating a commitment to Jesus Christ.

''You have to go where the young people are,'' Dugas explains. ``And young people are on the Web.''

As technology permeates almost every area of secular life, Roman Catholic communities around the world also are adapting it to their efforts to reach out to youth.

Priests blog, nuns correspond via e-mail, and religious orders update their websites to attract young people and tell them about the possibilities of religious life.

''If you're not on the Internet, you're missing an entire audience,'' says Brother Paul Bednarczyk, director of the National Religious Vocation Conference in Chicago.

'Forty years ago, a young person would go to the parish priest for more information on religious life. They now go to Google and type `religious vocations.' ''

When they do, they might find The Benedictine Sisters of Florida whose Web page asks: Did you get your IM from God?

The Marist Brothers, who run Miami's Christopher Columbus High School, maintain a brothers' blog, profiles on MySpace and Facebook and use YouTube and podcasts for a new campaign called ''Real Brothers. Real Stories. A Real Difference.''

And the National Religious Vocation Conference runs an online Vision Vocation Match Service that closely resembles a dating service, with Christ and religious life as the ultimate match.

''I'm not so great with technology,'' admits Brother Peter Guadalupe of Columbus, who is featured in the Marists' campaign. ``But I do know that the present generation is very computer literate. You can't expect them to tear out a card from a magazine. You use what's there to get your message out.''

Religious-community websites are nothing new, but younger priests and nuns are slowly expanding their reach and accessibility by incorporating the latest in communication technology.

The Rev. Manny Alvarez, the 31-year-old vocations director for the Archdiocese of Miami, says is ''still in its infancy. We need to use it more, but we already have young guys coming up who are very tech savvy.'' A new seminarian has offered to blog about his life, and others are interested in doing podcasts.

''When they come to us, they're very well informed, because they've already surfed so many different websites,'' Alvarez says. ``It's like researching colleges.''


Last August, when the National Religious Vocation Conference introduced -- also available in Spanish at -- to help match candidates for religious life with potential communities, the group wasn't sure how the site would be received.

But it has surpassed expectations, with more than 4,700 unique visitors logged on so far, a notable upswing from another online website the group had hosted which produced only 600 inquiries a year.

The new site features animated guides and addresses such issues as education, age, gender, preferred ministry, preferred community size, prayer styles and whether the person would like to wear a habit. More than 300 religious communities participate.

''It's been hugely popular,'' says Patrice Touhy, the site's executive director. ``For the discerner, it helps narrow their search. It's a great place to start.''


The Catholic Church is desperate to reverse a decades-long decline in religious vocations.

According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, the number of Catholic nuns in the United States has plunged from 179,954 in 1965 to 67,773 in 2006.

For priests, the figures are only slightly better: a decline from 58,632 to 41,794.

During the same period, the number of men being ordained priests annually fell by half, from 994 to 431.

The reasons for the downturn are varied: more secular lifestyles, more career options, especially for women, and family pressure not to join a religious order.

In South Florida, there are 45 students currently studying for the priesthood at the two local seminaries, 60 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Though 45 may seem like a small number, it's actually quite healthy. Enrollment has been as low as 20. This year's incoming class will swell the ranks to 71.

But will technology alone help harvest a new crop of priests and nuns?

''Right now we don't really know if it's recruitment that's making a difference, or if we're simply entering a period where there's more interest in religious life,'' says Sister Mary Bendyna, executive director of Georgetown's CARA. ``Either way, we hope it's the beginning of something.''


Recent polls have stirred hope within religious communities beset by dwindling numbers.

A Report on Trends in Religious Life noted that 19 percent more candidates were preparing to become nuns and priests than there were three years ago, though the report's authors polled only some religious orders.

And, 71 percent of the communities polled reported an increase in the number of people inquiring about entering religious life.

Primarily they are younger Catholics -- precisely the audience targeted by websites.

Nonetheless, church leaders are cautious.

''The numbers do say that there are more people in formation'' -- the yearslong spiritual process that culminates in vows -- ''than there were three years ago,'' says Brother Bednarczyk.

``But we don't really know if, in the end, they will make that commitment. It's encouraging, but it's a little early.''

As always, personal contact -- particularly with an admired religious role model at school or church -- seems to be the clincher.

''The Internet is a helpful resource, but it just doesn't replace the one-on-one, face-to-face interaction,'' Alvarez explains. ``You can cast a wider net, but you still have to take out the fish that are not called to embrace this ministry.''

So along with her Facebook presence, Sister Tracey has started a monthly Coffeehouse night with local bands and an open-poetry mike at her community's bookstore in Sweetwater.

''As great as technology is, there's still this thirst for human connection,'' she says.

``It's not about having the best website. It's about what that website can facilitate.''


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Anonymous said...

In using the Web to find recruits the Catholic Church Ltd. would like to thank all the sceptics, unbelievers and seekers of knowledge who made the Web possible by not listening to the CCL.

The CCL would also like to apologise for all such people who did not contribute to the great body of scientific knowledge due to being burned at the steak or tortured to death in one Inquisition after another.

A big whooops on that one...

Crackling Rosie!

Anonymous said...

Sorry I meant burned at the stake.

a big whoops on that one.

My brain is fried...
Cracklin Rosie