Catholic Orders Seek Recruits in Cyberspace

Some Catholic religious orders, shaken by church sex scandals and a drop in priesthood volunteers, are turning to cyberspace to attract new vocations, church officials said on Monday.

Among those taking to the Internet for new recruits are the Congregation of the Mission, the Vincentian order of priests and monks who follow the teachings of St. Vincent de Paul.

"Like most religious communities, we've gotten smaller and grayer," said the Rev. John Maher, director of the Vincentian vocation ministry for the Philadelphia-based Eastern Province USA, which has seen its membership shrink from 400 in 1976 to fewer than 200 today.

The order, founded in the 1600s to minister to the poor, has launched its own Web site at and begun distributing CD-Roms to prospects. It is also planning an advertising campaign in January.

"More religious communities and dioceses are doing it than not. The Jesuits, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Benedictines -- they're all doing it," said Maher.

Many orders have joined the umbrella Web site at Others have set up their own Web sites.

While the U.S. Catholic population has swelled to over 63 million people compared to 45 million in 1965, priests have been leaving in record numbers and new recruits have fallen off dramatically. The nonprofit Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimated that the number of graduate level seminarians in the United States now stands at about 3,400, down from 8,300 a generation ago.

As a result, the average age of U.S. priests has soared from 47 in 1970 to 60 years in 2002. There are now more priests over the age of 90, than under 30.

Father Maher said the Vincentians decided to use the Internet after meeting consultants who specialize in religious marketing and advertising at a conference last year.

"They told us to 'get with it -- if you want to be known, real and relevant, you need a Web site that's known, real and relevant,"' he said.