Why Would a Millennial Become a Priest or a Nun?

But perhaps counter-intuitively, according to a CARA survey from 2009, 78 percent of women who join CMSWR organizations are under 30, compared to just 35 percent of those who join LCWR organizations.

"I will wear a habit -- that's my choice," said Toni Garrett, who, at 31, is about to start her formal training with the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Most recently, Garrett worked as a vice president at Bank of America in Dallas, and for the past year, she has been working from home -- the convent. "[The habit] is attractive to me because I think that I need it. We have sisters who entered convent at 14, at 18, and have been sisters for 40, 50, 60 years. I've lived a pretty good portion of my life not in this way. For me, a habit is like a healthy reminder of who I've chosen to be."

No matter how traditional their lives become, however, these millennials still have millennial problems. For example, aspiring priests, nuns, and religious brothers and sisters increasingly face one of the great worries of their generation: student loans. In a 2012 survey, a third of religious orders and institutes reported that at least some people who had seriously considered joining their ranks decided not to apply because of educational debt. A fifth of those organizations reported financial strain from the debt of current or prospective members, and most shockingly, 70 percent of the organizations reported that they had turned away serious applicants because of their student loans.

Millennials who enter religious life are like their peers in another interesting way, too: They're more racially diverse. According to the 2009 CARA survey, 94 percent of the older women and men who have "finished" the process of joining a religious community by taking final vows were white, compared to just 58 percent of those in early stages. The next largest groups were Hispanic (21 percent) and Asian or Pacific Islander (14 percent).

Young religious "recruits" also fit into the mainstream image of millennial culture. Brother Jim Siwicki, a 59-year-old working with people who are considering joining the Jesuits, sees something distinctive about the new generation of novices. "There's a strong desire for a sense of community, both local and global," he said. But "the thing that's difficult that I see with millennials is that they want to keep all options open. It's not a lack of interest -- it's that fear of making a commitment."

Siwicki also noted that this generation is much more digitally inclined than some of the older Jesuits. "Sometimes I have to figure out who it is who's texting me," he admitted.

"I am a millennial, through and through," said Gibson, the young sister whose inbox was flooded when she expressed interest in becoming a nun. "There's a hunger within people for intentional living and intentional community... that crosses bounds. I don't see myself as turning my back on my generation. In bringing faith back to my generation and sharing it with people... It's trying to be in the culture, but not necessarily of the culture."

22-year-old Ryan Muldoon, who is about to enter seminary for the Archdiocese of New York, explained his choice in terms of discernment, a reflective process for understanding one's vocation, or purpose. "This isn't really a decision that anybody makes of their own volition. This really does stem from a deeper calling -- a call by God and a response by an individual," he said.

But the process isn't so different from any big decision twentysomethings have to make.

"Like an onion, there are various layers of discernment [and] what that word or process means to different people," Muldoon said. "The word 'discernment' does a great job of capturing what everybody, and young people especially in making big life decisions, is called to engage in."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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