Here we go again, yet another positive GetReligion post about an elite newsroom's coverage of a religious issue on foreign soil. I hope that readers won't hold all of these positive vibes against me, especially since, in this case, we're talking about The New York Times.
But first, do you remember the semi-shock felt by many traditional Catholics when National Public Radio did that glowing report on the Dominican sisters in Nashville? That was the report that opened like this:
For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.
The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 -- four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.
Unlike many older sisters in previous generations, who wear street clothes and live alone, the Nashville Dominicans wear traditional habits and adhere to a strict life of prayer, teaching and silence.
Now the Times has gone to Cork, Ireland, and discovered a very similar story focusing on a house of Dominican friars. The narrator, in the beginning, is recruiter Father Gerard Dunne and the topic is the medieval habit and rosary that, in a significant way, symbolize this order's approach to the faith.
Spot any themes that are similar to the earlier NPR piece?
Other religious orders largely stopped wearing their traditional garb in recent years, as they tried to attract new followers in secularizing societies. But the friars deliberately went on wearing the robes and promoting the spiritual benefits of shared prayer and a communal lifestyle -- with a little help, too, from a chatty blog.
“We made a conscious decision a few years ago to wear the habit because we had no vocations and we were in a bad way,” said Father Dunne, 46, who estimates that he has traveled nearly a half-million miles along Ireland’s country lanes and highways in search of recruits. “If we didn’t present ourselves in an authentic manner, who would join us? And that meant going back to the fundamentals.”
Those fundamentals -- which include the signature white tunic and black capuce of the Dominican friars, fashioned almost 800 years ago -- have helped lead to an improbable revival of the Dominican order of preachers. Even as other orders close houses and parish priests in Ireland are vanishing at a time of clerical sexual abuse scandals, the Dominican order is growing, and not just in Ireland.
There is, of course, a slightly misleading reference to Pope Francis -- a Jesuit -- and his choice to live in a small community of priests and bishops near the Vatican. However, the story then plunges right back into the interesting details of what make these friars different and how their combination of community service and private, communal life is striking a note of authenticity for a growing number of young men.
Yes, the story talks about the clerical abuse scandals. In fact, you could argue that, especially in the context of Ireland, the story doesn't throw enough digital ink that way. But the story here unfolds on two levels: (1) The remarkable growth of the order and (2) the fine details of the life these men lead. Come and see.
“People see the habit in a much more positive light then clerical clothing, the black shirt, white collar and suit,” said Martin Ganeri, who is a Dominican vocations promoter for England, where five people entered the order this year. “The habit doesn’t have the negative image of the clergy, the child abuse issue.”
In fact the Dominicans have faced child abuse accusations in Ireland. But perhaps because of a garb that harks back to the more austere and disciplined traditions of the church, the Dominican friars have managed to flourish even in the Irish Republic, where surveys show Catholics are deserting the church pews faster than in almost any other country.
In tough economic times, the stability of community may also be appealing, and the resurgence for the Dominicans has coincided with Ireland’s economic crisis. But Father Dunne and others said most potential candidates were already prospering in existing jobs in professional fields, and came to the order because of a yearning for greater spirituality.
I know, I know. "Greater spirituality" is the kind of language that newspapers use to avoid actual professions of faith and all of that holy language that priests often use. But keep reading,
I kept wondering if the actual theology in this order is different than the norm at the level of Irish dioceses. The Times team notes that a mere 12 men, a record low, started the educational process to the priesthood last year in all 26 of Ireland's dioceses, combined.
In contrast, in January a Dominican vocations retreat in Cork was oversubscribed at St. Mary’s Priory and two more were added in March and April. The early events drew a total of 20 men to whom the idea of a simple lifestyle and a clear identity appealed at a time of uncertainty in the lives of many.
In the fall, the Dublin-based order enrolled five men, joining 20 other Dominican theology students. They will become part of a community of 175 priests in 18 priories or communal houses across Ireland.
In the second half of the story, the key is that new friars are simply allowed to talk. There are also enough details about communal life to catch the flavor of the order's life, or at least the social-media-friendly elements.
Maurice Colgan, 41, a former social worker for drug addicts who was ordained as a Dominican priest in 2011, said he was still adapting to his lifestyle.
“My hat goes off to diocesan priests, but I don’t know how they do it without community life,” he said. “Today, you need the support of your brothers. Now, of course they may annoy you and you annoy them, but that’s natural in a community.”
At one recent retreat, prospective recruits were invited to imagine themselves as black friars, as the Dominicans are nicknamed, gathering for evening prayer at the 19th-century St. Mary’s Church in Cork, where the order first arrived in 1229.
The guests included a university student, a government lawyer and a schoolteacher drawn by the order’s Web site, which is stocked with videos, among them one of a friar snowball fight set to the song “Eye of the Tiger.” Later, the group crowded at a long wooden table for a traditional Irish fry dinner of potatoes and sausages.
What is missing? Well, many readers will want to know if any of this sacrifice -- including the sacrifice of marriage and family -- has anything to do with God and discerning a call to share the Christian faith with other people. You know, all that Jesus stuff.
Frankly, the NPR piece on the sisters in Nashville did a better job of capturing that side of this remarkable story. Was it easier to talk about beautiful voices, sacraments and adoration when dealing with young women than with a circle of young men?
Still, this is a remarkably non-snarky piece that touches on some important issues, in this crisis age for vocations in many corners of the Catholic world. Here is hoping that the Times editors are brave enough to keep researching the links between doctrine, tradition and new priests.
My suggestion? Send a reporter to this American campus in a few weeks as a new school year begins. Hey, there is a link to Francis, as in the saint.