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New fervor among young Italian Catholics

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

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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."

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