"Who can predict what will happen?" said Father John O'Malley, a Jesuit who teaches at Georgetown and studies the history of the Church, when asked how Pope Francis might affect the number of young men entering religious life. "I must say, however, that I am a little optimistic."
And perhaps there's reason for Catholic clergy to be optimistic -- many Catholic millennials at least think about entering religious life. In a survey of non-married Catholics over the age of 14, researchers at CARA found that 12 percent of men and 10 percent of women respondents thought about becoming a priest, nun, or religious brother or sister "at least a little seriously." Millennials were also more likely to have considered joining religious life than people born between 1961 and 1981, who researchers called the "post Vatican II" generation.
Although it's harder to tell how many young women are entering religious life each year than it is to measure the number of young men pursuing priesthood, it's worth noting that the women joining more traditional orders are, in fact, young women.. Most of the religious orders of women in the U.S. belong to one of two umbrella organizations: The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which accounts for about 80 percent of orders, and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), which accounts for the other twenty percent. The LCWR is generally considered to be the less traditional of the two -- for example, they have experienced tension with the Vatican over their silence on the issue of abortion. Women in CMSWR organizations are also much more likely to wear traditional habits, whereas most women in LCWR organizations wear street clothes.
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.