Once a month, female students pack the cozy chapel at the Holy Spirit Friary that overlooks the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
These gatherings are confidential, with no one discussing who is or who isn't among the 50 to 60 gathered in the pews. Students come to listen and to pray as they seek discernment about whether to pursue religious vocations -- as nuns.
"They keep this private for an interesting reason," said Father Seraphim Beshoner, a history professor. "If word gets out that someone is trying to discern if she has a vocation, then our guys are afraid to date her. I mean, how can you compete with Christ and his church?"
Meanwhile, the campus offers a similar program for young men considering the priesthood. In its 25 years of existence, this Priestly Formation Program has produced about 400 priests for various orders and dioceses and, at the moment, another 40 or more students are taking part.
Many of America's 244 Catholic colleges and universities offer similar programs, of course, in part because of rising concerns about the thinning and graying ranks of priests, brothers, sisters and nuns. The number of priests in America has declined from 59,000 in the 1960s to 40,600 last year. There has been an even sharper decline in the number of sisters and nuns, from 180,000 in the '60s to approximately 59,000 today -- with 90 percent of them 60 years old or older.
One factor that shapes Franciscan University life is the presence of three male and four female religious orders that maintain houses near the campus and its 2,040 undergraduates, noted Father Richard Davis, leader of the campus friary and former regional vocations director for the Third Order Regular Franciscans. Many other orders regularly send younger members to visit the campus or study there.
"Our students are very sensitive to this," said Davis. "New styles of habits and robes keep appearing here all the time. The students see that and it makes them curious. ... This campus produces a large number of priests, but I believe even more of our young women become sisters and nuns."
While the atmosphere is highly charged -- Franciscan is known for its standing-room-only Masses, even on weekdays -- students face the same tough questions that shape the decisions of young Catholics elsewhere, said the friar. Based on his experiences over four decades, these include:
* How to respond if family members say they will -- in one memorable phrase -- be "wasting their lives." In an era of increasingly smaller Catholic families, many parents worry about "losing" a child and future grandchildren. In February, the U.S. Catholic bishops released a survey noting that 51 percent of women who recently took final vows said their parents or other family members actively opposed this choice.
* After decades of sexual scandals and abuse, Davis said some students literally ask: "Will I be safe? ... If I visit a monastery or a convent, will someone hit on me?"
* Students often want to know which orders are "faithful to the Magisterium" -- meaning the Vatican and core Catholic doctrines -- and which are not. The majority of students today, he said, are seeking orders that emphasize a life of prayer and service to the poor, in America and abroad.
* Many students bluntly ask: "Do I have what it takes?" This question may center on celibacy, poverty, a rigorous prayer life or some other personal issue. The key, said Davis, is that "you don't take religious vows to run away from marriage and family, or from hard questions about your own weaknesses or talents. You have to face these issues."
* Another question -- "Will I be alone?" -- is especially poignant in an age of fading religious orders. Some students in this highly social generation fear that choosing the religious life will mean a shortage of friends and companions.
"They don't want to join a community in which the life they will live looks pretty much like the life they would have lived if they had never joined a religious community in the first place," said Father Seraphim, dressed in his plain black Franciscan habit.
"However, they also want to join a community that has other young people in it. They don't want to be the ones left to turn out the lights someday when their order dies."