New fervor among young Italian Catholics

Dissatisfied with material life, 550 Italian women became nuns last year - up from 350 two years before.

In 2003, Cristina Pavone, left her Dublin, Ireland, apartment, her boyfriend, and her steady job with Hertz Rent-a-Car, and went home to Italy to join a Franciscan order. Last summer, she took her final vows and became a cloistered nun.

Today, Sister Cristina, 31, lives with 179 other monks and nuns at a small red-brick monastery north of Rome. She reads, does chores, meets visitors, and prays five times daily, starting at 3 a.m.

"I was far from God," she says quietly, wrapping her hands around a hot mug in the monastery's drafty dining hall. "I experimented with everything you can experiment with to find happiness. Now that I've left everything, I've found everything."

She isn't alone in her devotion. A small but burgeoning group of young Italians are turning to Catholicism with new fervor, suggesting a reversal of Catholicism's decades-long decline in Italy.

Sister Cristina is one of 550 young Italian women who joined the country's 7,500 cloistered nuns in 2005 - a dramatic increase from the 350 who became nuns in 2003. Vatican officials say the sudden rise in Italian monasticism mirrors a resurgence in Catholicism among young Italians during recent years.

There's no recruitment to monasteries - each person enters for personal reasons. Some want to live with people who share their values; others are drawn by the structured worship that punctuates each day. The decision comes after much reflection, says Sister Ilaria Magli, who first considered becoming a nun as a teenager and took her final vows in 1997, at age 29.

Now, she scarcely sets foot outside the towering battlements of Monastero Santi Quattro in central Rome. Food is delivered, and the nuns remain behind gates and barred windows. Occasionally, they meet visitors, but only in a special room divided by a long table that separates them from their guests.

"There's a culture of renunciation [to monastic life]," Sister Ilaria says, "but you choose something, too: happiness. It's like falling in love - everything else vanishes from your senses."

Citing drug use and materialism, she says young Italians' misguided pursuit of happiness has led to a crisis of values. "All young people seek happiness," she says. "Unfortunately, the world offers a happiness that ends quickly, like candy melting in your mouth."

Vatican officials say young people's thirst for moral direction is driving a resurging interest in Catholicism. "There's a reawakening after a time of secularization," says Sister Giuseppina Fragasso, vice president of the Vatican's association for cloistered monks and nuns.

The number of Catholic clergy has dwindled worldwide since peaking in the late 1960s. In particular, it's getting harder to attract new blood to the priesthood. According to the Vatican's statistics office, monasteries have been closing too fast for their researchers to keep track. While other Christian sects attract priests by allowing them to marry and by inviting women to ordination, the Catholic church still prohibits such activities.

But the tide is turning in Italy. Nearly half of adult Catholics attend mass at least weekly, up from 35 percent who did so in 1980.

Clergy credit much of young people's interest in Catholicism to the late Pope John Paul II, stressing the impact of the World Youth Days he started in 1984. Catholic fervor reached a crescendo with his death in April 2005. "This pope really brought the faith closer to young people; there was a strong bond between him and us," affirms Giovanna, a young biologist praying by John Paul II's tomb in Rome.

However, not all young Italians are so swept away by Catholicism. Even those who are draw limits on the role of religion in the public sphere.

While the church wields enormous moral power - in June 2005, it successfully lobbied Italians to boycott, and thus invalidate, a referendum on embryo research, artificial insemination, and egg and sperm donation - Italians remain strongly against its involvement in politics. A December 2005 poll found 41.5 percent of Italians are totally against church influence in politics.

It's also questionable whether the church has attracted many converts, says Franco Garelli, professor of social and political sciences at the University of Turin. Rather, he says, the church has mainly succeeded in impassioning young people already firm in their faith. "Ten to 20 percent [of the people attending World Youth Days] are not already Catholic, but the rest are."

Brother Paolo Crivelli, who leads Sister Cristina's Franciscan community, is skeptical of the World Youth Days' showy religiosity, which he worries obscures the substance of faith. "[The young people] are more interested in feeling part of a group than in [Christianity's] true message."

But Sister Cristina and her fellow nun Sister Chiara del Ben point out that Jesus embraced large crowds in his ministry, and maintain that such inclusiveness is important. "A characteristic of our community is receiving visitors," says Sister Chiara. "Many people open up when they feel themselves welcomed." Brother Paolo concedes the point.

Many monasteries reach out to ordinary people, offering them the opportunity to pray, receive advice, or even share in the cloistered life for a few days. "They're a visible sign ... of taking the gospel seriously and letting it shape your life," says Father Raymond Studzinski, a professor of religious studies at the Catholic University of America.

Increasingly, cloistered orders have their own websites and e-mail addresses, easing the transition to the monastic life but also helping to spread their message. Sister Ilaria fields daily e-mails requesting prayers, counsel, and organized visits to the monastery.

"Monasteries can be a beacon, a light for the community," says Sister Ilaria. "One sees a great desire [among young people] to understand God."

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