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Religious Orders Use Pope's Visit To Recruit Young Postulants

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The Quinta de Boa Vista park is far away from the celebrations in Copacabana Beach, where three million people gathered Saturday to hear Pope Francis speak. But the park is attracting a crowd of young people.

Kiosks for religious orders like the Carmelites, the Franciscans and the Legion of Mary line the park. It looks like a job fair, and in a way, it is.

Nuns from the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady of Lourdes dance around in front of their stand, to the banging of drums and the strumming of guitars.

The point of all this? To recruit new members to their orders.

Fewer and fewer young people are willing to give up their worldly lives these days to become monks, nuns and priests. Recent Vatican figures show a dramatic decline: There are 300,000 fewer nuns and priests in religious orders than there were 40 years ago. Nuns in particular have been hard-hit, but so has the pope's own order, the Jesuits, whose numbers have halved since the 1970s.

More than 130 orders and groups are represented at the park event. Everyone is trying to capitalize on the new pope's popularity. With over one million young Catholics from all over the world in town for World Youth Day celebrations, the various orders are pulling out all the stops to get young Catholics interested in working for the church.

The priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for example, are trying to get an edge by distributing free cake. Their stall is being mobbed.

Like any good sales event, The tactic is to lure them in and keep them talking.

Brother Jose Manuel has his pitch down pat. "We have a big operation here in Brazil," he says in Portuguese. "We are known as communications specialists, but we do education, charity work, social work. We run orphanages for street children, also."

Russell Abdullah, 22, from Orange County, Calif., looks like a surfer, but in a few months he'll join the Norbertine order. He says his friends wonder why.

"Some people are attracted to becoming a lawyer or a doctor or something like that," Abdullah says. "I'm kind of attracted to becoming a priest. You see what they do — they help people, they counsel people, they bring the sacraments to people, they bring people closer to a higher good. which is God and is love."

His friend, Kevin Griego, is also considering joining an order. Griego, 23, says the way it works is kind of like an internship, although that's not what it's called.

"They way they might intern you is you might spend a week at monastery or at the abbey and live their life for like a week or a weekend," Griego says. "Just pray with them, work with them and serve the poor with them, do whatever they do, and then that's how you get an idea if it's something you are fit for or not."

So he's making the rounds here, talking to people. The different groups are getting his details and then later they will follow up with an email or a phone call.

One missionary order had his-and-her cardboard cutouts that people were lining up to take pictures with.

Suelani Martins was among them. When asked if it made her any more likely to join the order she diplomatically replied, "No. I'm just looking around trying to understand, but God hasn't touched my heart for that. No."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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