The number of people entering religious life has tripled over the last eight years, according to revised figures from the National Office for Vocation. Last year 64 people joined religious orders, compared to just 19 in 2004. It seems like the long decline in vocations has been reversed.
In much of Europe, the decline continues. In France, for instance, the total number of novices fell by a third from 2004 to 2011 (from 311 to 204). So what’s the secret – what is Britain doing differently?
1. Pope Benedict XVI’s visit
Vocations officials say they owe a lot to Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in 2010. Sister Cathy Jones, religious life promoter of the National Office for Vocation, says it strengthened people’s faith and pride at being Catholic. “People who had been discerning a good number of years thought, ‘I’ll give this a go’,” she says.
2. A culture of vocation
Fr Christopher Jamison, director of the National Office for Vocation, says that, in the early 2000s, “lots of different people woke up to the same idea” – that is, that everyone had a vocation, whether that’s to be a priest, a religious, a single or married person. “Vocation” simply means to live out the baptismal call to holiness. A “culture of vocation” is what Catholic culture ideally should be.
This is the idea that vocations ministry is built on. And it leads directly to numbers three and four…
3. Discernment groups
Discernment groups have sprung up all over the country. These help people decide what their particular path to holiness will be. They come in various forms, from the national Invocation festival to the Compass programme, run by religious orders, to local Samuel groups. Many religious orders also run their own “come and see” weekends, where interested people can get a taste of religious life.
Fr Stephen Langridge, vocations director at Southwark, says: “It’s not about trying to recruit people – it’s about making people better disciples.”
The Church used to act like a recruitment agency, with adverts on posters and beer mats. That seems to be a thing of the past.
4. Vocations directors
Vocations ministry has expanded enormously in recent years. Fr Langridge says that when he was thinking about becoming a priest years ago he saw his vocations director just once. Now, he says, “I wouldn’t let someone apply if I haven’t spent 100 hours with them”.
Fr Jamison says religious orders used to have the idea that they should only pray for vocations. “If you did more than that it showed a lack of faith in God,” he says. Now, he explains, a “significant number” of religious orders have full-time vocations directors. That means they can engage much more with people who are interested in religious life.