What’s the difference between a Sister and a Nun?

The Catholic Church makes a legal distinction between two basic categories of women religious. Women religious who are actively engaged in some sort of apostolate are referred to as “Sisters.” Those who leave the world and willingly embrace the monastic life are “nuns.” This gets confusing because both Sisters and nuns are ordinarily addressed directly as “Sister.” While a cloistered nun is called “Sister,” this does not mean that all Sisters are nuns.

If I want to be a Sister or Brother, should I go to college?

It depends on the Religious Congregation or Order. Some religious congregations have as a requirement a college education, while some require only a high-school diploma. There are a lot of benefits to attending college; but if that entails risking your vocation to the consecrated life, then you must think twice. Also, some religious congregations will not admit candidates who carry college loans.

Can I enter if I have student loans?

Most communities do not accept candidates with personal or student loans. Research has revealed that of the 10,000 individuals currently discerning a vocation in the U.S., an astonishing 42% are turned away due to outstanding student loans. Because of this current situation, several organizations exist to provide financial assistance and spiritual support to individuals who must resolve student loans in order to pursue a vocation to the priesthood and/or consecrated life in the Catholic Church. If student loans are an obstacle to your discernment, please talk with a vocation director of the order you’re interested in about your situation.

What do religious do all day?

The majority of the day is filled with prayers, ministry, and community living. Members pray and eat together, do spiritual reading, spend time in recreation as a community, and fulfill their obligations according to their ministry or apostolate in society. They work as teachers, counselors, nurses, principals, social workers, parish leaders, and so on.

What are vows? Do all religious take vows?

A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God. Most members of religious communities commit themselves, by means of vows, to poverty, chastity, and obedience. The vows take different forms, depending on the community. Some communities require simple vows that allow the ownership of personal property. Others take solemn vows, which do not permit ownership of personal property. (Still others make promises instead of vows.)
The vows are also known as “evangelical counsels,” for they reflect the desire to live lives of holiness according to the “counsels” that the Lord proposed for all of his followers, as found in the Gospels (Lumen Gentium, 43). They are a sign that the people of God have no lasting city here below, but look forward to the one that is to come (Lumen Gentium, 44).
The vow of chastity is the commitment to maintain a chaste life, foregoing sexual acts. Through this vow, women and men strive to devote themselves to God with an undivided heart (1 Corinthians 7: 32-34), and by taking this vow of freedom, it allows them to love all who they encounter with a single-hearted love of Christ.
The vow of poverty is the choice to live simply and share goods in common, in imitation of the simplicity and freedom of Christ and his earliest followers (Acts 2: 44-45). This freedom from attachments also allows religious women and men to undividedly follow God’s call.
The vow of obedience is an imitation of Christ, who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…and became obedient unto death (Philippians 2: 7-8). It is a surrender to the will of God.
Some religious communities have particular vows, for example, to serve the missions, to be at the disposal of the pope, or to live one’s life in the same monastery.

What are the stages of formation to become a member of a religious community?

The stages of formation generally begin with a pre-novitiate, which can include a time as aspirant, candidate, and/or postulant, during which one is getting to know the community and vice versa. This is usually followed by a novitiate period of one or two years, during which time the focus is on developing your relationship with Christ and living the life of the community. After the novitiate, one makes temporary vows (a few years’ duration). The last stage begins with the profession of final vows and full entry into community life. Each stage has its own objective and time period to serve the candidate in his or her formation process. Learn more on the process here.

Why don’t all religious wear habits?

When religious orders were established, their founders usually required the members to wear some simple, distinctive uniform. Often it reflected the contemporary dress of the period. In congregations of women, the habit was usually an adaptation of the customary garb of widows. While some communities have chosen to retain their distinctive habit, even as society’s fashion changed, other communities have adapted their garb to reflect more modern styles of dress. Some communities choose not to wear a distinctive habit because it might impede ministry.

Will I have to change my name if I become a religious?

In most cases, no. Members of most religious communities keep their baptismal names. However, some communities do permit or require their members to accept new names.

Do all religious live in community?

In general, religious seek to share a common life. There are, however, some exceptions — as when ministry assignments require an individual to go where there are no other community members.

Why do some religious wear wedding rings?

The wedding ring is a symbol of one’s commitment to God and community. For some communities, the ring symbolizes being the Bride of Christ.

How do I discern if consecrated life is for me?

One of the best ways to discern is to seek a spiritual and vocation director. It is also helpful to visit different communities, ask questions, and build relationships with religious.

What should I do if I am thinking about becoming a member of a particular religious community?

Can you see yourself working and living with the members of the community? Ask yourself, “What gifts and talents do I have to offer that community?”

Why are some religious cloistered?

Some religious live separated from society so that they can be more focused on prayer, including prayer for the needs of the world. As cloistered religious, they rarely leave their monasteries, and all or most of their work is done within the monastery itself, depending on the degree of their enclosure.

How much silence is there each day?

Some communities have periods of silence; others maintain silence throughout the day; while others have no mandatory period of silence.

How much do religious pray?

For religious, prayer is a pillar of life. Most communities gather for daily prayer, some more frequently than others. Many religious devote a portion of their day to personal prayer, reflection, and reading of Scripture and spiritual books.

Where do religious work?

Religious work in a wide variety of ministries, often related to their founders’ charisms. These can include teaching, healing, sacramental preparation and celebration, parish work, and so on.

Do members ever get to see family?

Remaining connected with family is important and encouraged in most communities.

What do you do for fun?

Communities are different from one another, and so are individuals within a given community. Religious — like everyone else — have hobbies, play sports, read, write, watch movies, hike or go to the beach, do crafts, make art, sing, play an instrument, or spend time with family and friends.

How can I think I am worthy of a Church vocation?

This is a very common concern among people discerning life as priests, Sisters, and Brothers. The truth is that none of us are worthy of the vocation we have been given, but we are all called to holiness through our baptism. We are worthy of a Church vocation because of Jesus Christ, and not because of our own merit. No one vocation is better or worse than another. They are all ways to live out our discipleship.

How can anyone live with all the sacrifices it takes to follow the call?

It is true that God sometimes demands a great deal from those he calls to Church vocations — but God asks a great deal of everyone else, too! God will always give us the grace we need to carry out our call. When we live in God’s will, we will never go wanting.
We don’t face our challenges alone. In consecrated life, we have others who will help us with the sacrifices and challenges we face.

My family is skeptical of my call to this vocation. What does that mean?

It is not uncommon for families to question a member’s vocation to consecrated life. Sometimes they are afraid they will never again see that son or daughter, brother or sister. Sometimes, it is a fear of the unknown. However, in the end, most families simply want happiness for their members. If one finds happiness in the consecrated life, their family members often find peace themselves.

I am currently in a relationship, but may feel the call to a Church vocation, what should I do?

This happens more often than you might think. The most important thing is to be honest with your “significant other” about what you are discerning. You are deciding between two goods. Being in a relationship will typically not stop you from talking with vocation directors. You can talk about the basics of your discernment and even get a spiritual director. Many of the vocation retreats and reflections are reserved for single people, because usually those events are for people who are further along in the process of discernment. Still, you should keep communication open. You and your significant other may even be able to discern together.

Can I enter a Church vocation if I already have a career?

Many people enter Church vocations as a so-called “second vocation.” People who come in from a career in the lay world offer a richness of experience to their communities and dioceses. There are sometimes age limits for entering particular communities or formation programs.

Can you be a priest and a brother?

There are communities that have both priests and Brothers. However, you must discern between the call to be a priest and the call to be a Brother. They are different, so you cannot be both.

How long does it take to be a Sister, Brother, or religious priest?

The duration of formation is usually five to eight years, though some communities go up to twelve years.

Do religious get to have a life?

Absolutely! The call of consecrated life is to live as an example for the world of a truly fulfilled life. So “having a life” is the whole point of entering a religious community. Brothers and Sisters, depending on the character and charism of the community, may be found working in various industries, going out together to have fun or celebrate, going to the movies, seeing their friends, caring for pets, and doing all sorts of other activities. These activities are part of a balanced life that shows the world a certain way to live in God’s will with joy and vibrancy. Now, some communities live more contemplative lives. Even for these Sisters and Brothers, though, their cloistered living is an expression of their life. They are fulfilled by this quieter, more solitary life, and this is a gift for them and for the Church.

Do you pray all the time?

Prayer is the central function of consecrated life. The prayers of Brothers and Sisters sustain the Church and fill us with God’s grace. Still, any balanced life must include other human activities. The amount of formal prayer will depend on the character and charism of one’s community. You can find communities that spend most of the day in prayer, and others who come together as a community to pray once a day. Prayer, however, is a part of every day. Through their formal prayer (the Liturgy of the Hours, for instance), through informal prayer, and through the way they interact with God’s people, the whole life of a Sister or Brother becomes a prayer.

Do all religious get along with their Brothers/Sisters?

Since religious are human beings — with the same flaws as everyone else — they, too, at times struggle to get along with each other. However they do strive to treat each other with respect and reconciliation.

Can I still visit my family?

Yes. Some communities allow more time away than others, but every community wants its members to maintain a connection to their family ties. The families we grew up with so profoundly influence the person we are, that to separate ourselves from it would be to split ourselves. This is not desirable. So, have no fear (and let you family hear this, too); you will not be cut off from those you love.

How will I know if I’m being called from God?

There are many different ways God calls people. You don’t have to wait for a lightning bolt or a supernatural vision. Most often the call from God is found deep within your own heart (planted there by God, left to be discovered by you). It might manifest itself in different ways, such as a desire to want to help others or a desire to know God more deeply. Start discernment here.

Is prayer always easy?

Not always. Even monks and nuns in contemplative life, whose ministry is prayer, go through dry spells when prayer time seems dull or uneventful. As we grow in our experience of prayer, we learn to adjust to these changes. We often depend on the support of our communities or the help of a spiritual director (like a coach or trainer in the ways of prayer). These companions help us to keep praying during difficult times.

What is the difference between a diocesan priest and a religious priest?

A diocesan priest is under the direction of his local ordinary (bishop), while a religious is under the direction of his superior/provincial.
Diocesan priests do not take vows. They make promises of obedience and celibacy (not to marry) to their ordinary. Religious profess three or more vows before their provincial/superior.

What’s the difference between priests, Brothers, and monks?

Priests are ordained to celebrate the sacraments. Brothers desire to fully live their baptismal call to discipleship in a public way, but are not ordained to the clergy. Monks can be either priests or Brothers who adhere to the monastic rule of life.

What is the ideal age to enter consecrated life?

The best age to enter is when God calls. The greatest impetus comes when God’s grace makes us “ready.” For some this call comes around the age of 25, while others he surprises at the age of 18. Occasionally, circumstances are such that someone has not considered the religious life until much later in life. God’s call is mysterious. What is most important is not full maturity, but deep self-knowledge. If people know themselves and have prayerfully considered religious life in its essentials, they may possess a sincere and well-informed desire. This is God’s gift. When discussing the idea with friends and family, it is important that it be seen not as a career choice, but as a call from God.

What is a house of formation like? What can I expect?

A house of formation is a building designated by the community for the formation of its candidates and those who have professed temporary vows. Individuals live in community with professed members, who can assist them in education and spiritual formation.

The members will grow in self-knowledge as they enter the rhythm of religious life, balancing prayer (personal and community), study, ministry, and interpersonal living.

How do congregations and orders differ?

The distinction between the two are that orders require solemn vows and congregations require simple vows.

What if someone enters religious life and then decides they don’t want to continue?

This is why religious formation lasts several years. People have the freedom to leave if they discern that their call is not to religious life. Many who have left remain grateful for the lessons learned while in religious life.

What if God is calling me to religious life, but I don’t answer the call?

God always gives us freedom to respond or not. God will not strike us down. But many who have not answered the call have lived with a sense of regret or unresolved feelings of “what if.”

This is the reason many vocation directors encourage people to check it out and not close the door hastily.

Why do religious have to remain celibate?

Celibacy is freeing. It empowers a person for total self-giving in a life of service to God and community. Celibacy gives us freedom of availability to serve wherever there is a need. This is why the Church requires celibacy for those who enter religious life.

I think I might be called to religious life, but I also want to get married and have kids. Does the fact that I would love to be married and have a family mean that God isn’t calling me to religious life?

Being attracted to marriage is natural to the human person. So wanting to get married and have kids does not necessarily mean you are not called to religious life. Your desire to have children is the desire to nurture; and many religious still have this opportunity to nurture through their ministry to others.


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