Friars Find Renewal by Sticking to Tradition

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CORK, Ireland -- The Rev. Gerard Dunne has worked for 12 years essentially as a human resources recruiter -- albeit one in a habit cinched with a dangling wooden rosary -- for the ancient order of the Dominican friars. Once, his medieval robes may have deterred some. But today he is convinced that the garment is his greatest selling point for enlisting new priests.

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.

The friars are something of a hybrid between monks and diocesan priests. They live together in a priory, sharing prayers and meals. But unlike monks, they work in the broader community in preaching and teaching roles in churches, universities and secondary schools. It is a way of life that Pope Francis himself has chosen, shunning the papal palace for a guesthouse to ''live in community'' with bishops and priests at the Vatican.

In the United States, the largest northeastern branch is expecting 18 novices to enter its theology school in Washington, which was expanded three years ago. In the smaller southern region based in New Orleans, the Dominicans are scrambling to finance an influx of novices -- six this year -- with annual expenses of $30,000 for lodging and theology education over seven years.

"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 harkens 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.

The revival of the order has been particularly striking in a country where diocesan parish priests have been disappearing. Just 12 men started theology studies for all of Ireland's 26 dioceses last fall -- a record low.

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.

Their rising numbers in Ireland have made the Dominicans the envy of other orders, which have sought to copy their recruitment methods.

"They're the most successful to the degree that they were online and on the Internet at an early age, and had a blog before the other orders were catching up," said Terence Harrington, a vocations director for the Capuchin order in Ireland, which has taken to Facebook and Twitter. The Irish diocese now has an iPad application for people considering the priesthood.

Typically, it takes eight months to two years for prospective candidates to decide whether to join the order while working with a Dominican mentor, like Father Dunne. With that period to reflect, the attrition rate for new entrants has dropped to 15 percent, Father Dunne said.

Maurice Colgan, 41, a former social worker for drug addicts who was ordained as a Dominican priest in 2011, said he was still adopting 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 of "Eye of the Tiger." Later, the group crowded at a long wooden table for a traditional Irish fry dinner of potatoes and sausages.

Some of the Irish candidates said they were impressed by the order's rising numbers and openness to newcomers.

Matthew Farrell, 38, a former bartender from County Offaly and a novice, said he had sampled other orders, like the Carmelites. "I've been searching a long time for a vocation," he said. "I wanted to get married or wanted to do something else. I tried to visualize myself as a priest."

But in the end, he said, the Dominicans won out. "The Dominicans have a lot of enthusiasm and energy," he said, "and I liked the fact that they wore habits."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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