FAQs — and honest answers: Lots of questions you might have about religious life

Print pageEmail page

Want to talk to a sister about your questions? Sisters Lorren Harbin, Dian Hall and Pat Eichner make up the Vocations Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. Sister Lorren is in Colorado; you can reach her at 970/260-2287 or lharbin@csjkansas.org. Sister Dian is in Georgia; her phone number is 770/546-6461 and her email is dianhall5@yahoo.com. Sister Pat is in Concordia; her phone number is 785/243-4428 and her email is eichnerpat@csjkansas.org.

What is a vocation?
Many people use the word vocation (from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call”) in reference to the call to be a priest, sister, or brother. However, the Catholic understanding of vocation is much broader: every baptized person has a vocation — a call — to love and serve God. How you choose to live out that vocation is what each person must discern. Some feel called to live as single or married laypeople; others choose consecrated life and join a secular institute or religious community (as sisters, priests, or brothers); still others choose ordination as deacons or diocesan priests.

What is a sister or nun?
A sister or nun is a woman who belongs to a religious order, or community. Many people use the word nun interchangeably with sister, but technically nuns are those who live a cloistered (or enclosed) monastic life; whereas sisters serve in an active ministry. After a period of preparation (called formation) sisters and nuns take lifelong vows. Usually they take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; that is, they promise to live simply, to live celibately, and to follow the will of God through their community.

Are religious communities dying out?

Religious communities continue to exist even though some individual communities, because of age and fewer members, may merge with others or die out altogether. Religious communities have always had an ebb and flow since the days of the early church. The needs of the time and the movement of the Holy Spirit are the impetus for new communities to form and others to fade away. Today in the U.S., while many religious communities are merging or consolidating, others are being founded or are attracting new members. In addition, there is a rising interest in religious life among North American Catholics, as noted in recent VISION Vocation Guide surveys.

Are young people still choosing to become priests, sisters, and brothers?
Yes, but in fewer numbers. Historically, religious have always been fewer in number. Following an unusual surge in the mid-20th century, the number of men and women religious today more closely reflects a number consistent with the beginning of the last century. According to a recent NRVC/CARA study, 71 percent of those who have entered religious life and are currently in initial formation are under 40. And of the more than 7,000 people who have filled out the NRVC-sponsored VocationMatch.com profiles this year 67 percent are under 40.

How many religious institutes are there in the U.S., and how many priests, sisters, brothers?
There are about 900 separate religious institutes in the United States.

Total priests in 2015: 37,500
Religious sisters in 2015: 48,500

These and additional statistics are found on the CARA website — http://cara.georgetown.edu/

Back to top

Are young adults pressured to join a religious order if they request information?
Trained vocation ministers adhere to a code of ethics that specifically encourages them to allow inquirers a sense of true freedom to choose or not choose religious life or priesthood without any pressure or expectation from others. In fact, extreme pressure to enter religious life is a canonical impediment to admission to vows. Online websites, discussion boards, and email exchanges allow inquirers to seek information anonymously until they feel prepared to make more personal contact.

Most vocation directors acknowledge that their role is to accompany those in discernment, not to recruit them. In addition vocation directors have a duty to their communities and the church to properly assess and offer honest feedback about a candidate’s fitness for religious life.

What is a vocation director?
A vocation director is designated by a religious institute to promote vowed membership, to help others discern their vocation, and to oversee the application process of new members entering the community as a postulant. They assist those who are considering the possibility of religious life by providing support, discernment counseling, and information. The vocation director for a religious congregation answers to the elected superiors of their congregation. Sisters Lorren Harbin and Dian Hall are the vocation co-directors for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. Sister Lorren is in Colorado; you can reach her at 970/260-2287 or lharbin@csjkansas.org. Sister Dian is in Georgia; her phone number is 770/546-6461 and her email is dianhall5@yahoo.com.

How do religious communities screen candidates?

Religious institutes usually require an extensive process of screening candidates to religious life, which usually includes extensive interviews, background checks, and medical and psychological testing. Candidates must demonstrate a lived commitment to the Catholic faith and an appropriate level of maturity and mental and physical health that the rigors of religious life require. Candidates who do not meet specific standards set by both Church law and the individual religious institute are not admitted to religious life.

Can married people enter religious? Widowed and divorced?
Religious life in the Roman Catholic Church is reserved for celibates only. Some religious institutes accept widowed and divorced people who have had their marriages properly annulled by the Church.

What is a religious vow?
A vow is a solemn promise made freely as an individual gives his or her life to God.

What vows do priests, brothers, and sisters make?
Brothers, sisters, and priests in religious communities make three vows, and some congregations make other vows as well. The three most common vows are:

Poverty —We share our goods in common, live a simple life, and realize that we depend on God.

Celibacy —We choose to love and serve God and all God’s people, rather than to love one person exclusively in marriage. We offer our celibacy as a witness and testimony to God’s love.

Obedience —We live in community and try to listen and follow the will of God by taking part in community life, goals, hopes, and work.

Back to top

What do priests, sisters, and brothers do all day?
Just like most adults, we spend a portion of each day working. We call our work ministry because the model and motivation for what we do is Jesus, who asked that we follow his example of service to God’s people.

But we don’t just work! In order to live in a healthy, balanced way we try to keep a mix of prayer, ministry and play in our lives. These three things — prayer, ministry, and play — help us stay healthy so that we can be more effective ministers and happy people.

In the area of work or ministry, many priests, brothers, and sisters have one main job, such as teaching, parish ministry, social work or hospital work — all of which have somewhat regular hours and predictable demands. Our daily schedule can look different than the typical adult’s. Often we have evening meetings, and those of us who are priests or parish ministers usually work on Saturdays and Sundays and take some time off during the week.

The unpredictable demands also lend richness to our lives. These often center around meeting the needs of people, whether those be children in schools, families preparing to celebrate the sacraments, or the sick, elderly, angry, hurt, hungry, or imprisoned. We try to share our lives with others and to reveal Christ in all we do.

Those of us who are members of contemplative communities (communities dedicated to prayer) fill our days with a combination of work, prayer, and recreation. The difference is that we might dedicate more of our time to prayer than other brothers, sisters, or priests. Sometimes we will grow our own food and do income-producing work, like baking and selling the hosts used for Mass, or making cheese or candy. Our prayer usually consists of Mass, silent prayer (called contemplation), reading, and praying the psalm-based Liturgy of the Hours (an ancient practice of praying psalms together at regular hours throughout the day).

Do you get time off, and what do you do in that time?
We have about the same amount of leisure time as most adults. In this time, we are free to do whatever is legal, moral and reasonable for adults in our situation. Obviously, because priests, brothers and sisters are unique individuals, we won’t all choose the same types of recreation, and none of us chooses the same activity every time. Some of the more common choices are sports, movies, TV, reading, sharing with friends and enjoying the outdoors.

What kinds of ministry do sisters do?
The choice of ministry for the woman religious arises from the founding purpose of the community, a prayerful discernment of her own gifts, and an assessment within her community of the signs of the times. A woman religious and her community together look at the needs of the church and society to determine where best to place their energies.

The way a particular sister spends her day depends on the kind of community to which she belongs. Contemplative nuns often do work to sustain their community in food and shelter such as gardening, baking, and handiwork. Active communities are involved in a myriad of ministries, usually with an emphasis on service such as education, social work, parish pastoral work, etc.

How important is prayer in your life?
Because we’ve chosen a way of life that says that God is most important, prayer is central to our lives. Think of it as a deep level of communication with God, similar to the kind of communication that happens between any two people who love each other. Our relationship with God grows and deepens with prayer.

Since prayer is important, many priests, sisters, and brothers spend about two hours a day praying. Part of that time we pray with others at Mass. We also pray other formal prayers like the Liturgy of the Hours or the rosary, or spend time with others less formally reading and reflecting on readings from the Bible. Part of the time we also pray alone, perhaps reading or just being quiet with God. One of the positive effects of prayer, whatever shape it takes, is to keep us aware of God’s activity in the people, events, and circumstances of daily life.

Is prayer always easy for you?
Not always! Even those of us in contemplative life — whose ministry is prayer — go through “dry spells” when our prayer time seems dull or uneventful. As we grow in our experience of prayer we learn how to adjust to these changes. We often depend on the support of our communities or the help of a spiritual director (someone like a coach) to help us keep praying during difficult times. Those of us who are parish priests have our parish communities and our fellow priests to lead us toward prayer even when we’d rather not be bothered. We try to be faithful even when we don’t feel like it.

Back to top

How are religious orders different from one another?
Each religious order or congregation has a charism — a gift given for the service of the church — that helps them focus on the mission members hope to accomplish in community. That mission could be prayer in a cloistered convent (a home that community members rarely leave), or it could be an active ministry aimed at working with people.

Many congregations are like-minded or have similar ministries, but each is distinct in one respect or another. Many groups of religious men and women were founded at a time when travel and communication were limited. Some congregations were founded for similar purposes and at the same time but in different places by people who didn’t know each other.

New communities continue to be formed today in response to God calling men and women to particular forms of spirituality, community, and mission.

How would I know which religious community is best for me?
Religious communities share so much in common with each other, and yet, each one has its own unique spirit or charism. All communities are called to manifest the Gospel to our church and world, but the Holy Spirit has led each one to grow in its own unique way in reflecting Jesus’ Good News.

Hand in hand with your outer journey exploring various religious communities, will be your inner journey of identifying your own unique spirit. When you find the community you feel especially drawn to, you will have found something of yourself. You see, the spirit of those community members is the same spirit that has been present within you all through your life. At a certain point, you will know that your discernment journey has reached a conclusion when you, through your sense of joy and peace, recognize a “kinship in grace” with one particular community.

How do you join a religious community?
The process of joining a religious community actually takes some time and involves several stages. While these vary from community to community in name, length of time, and format, the basic stages include:

Contact:
A person of high-school age or older who is interested in religious life but is still searching to answer the question “What does God want of me?” can join a program of contact with a religious community. The formation program is usually very flexible. The person may meet monthly with a priest, brother, or sister and share in experiences of prayer and community life. Others may take part in a “come and see” program to visit a community and experience its way of life.

Candidate or Postulant:
This period enables the candidate to observe and participate in religious life from the inside. He or she must indicate interest and have the community agree to accept him or her as a person in the process of joining. The candidate lives within the community while continuing his or her education or work experience. This period enables the candidate to observe and participate in religious life. It also allows the community to see whether the candidate shows promise in living the community’s life. A person may be a candidate for one or two years.

Novice:
The novitiate is the next stage of formation. This is a special one-to-two-year period that marks a more official entrance into a community.

Novices spend time in study and prayer to learn more about themselves, the community, and their relationship with Jesus. At the end of the novitiate, novices prepare for temporary promises, or vows.

Vows
: Promises of poverty, celibacy, and obedience may be taken for one, two, or three years, depending upon the decision of the individual. These promises are renewable for up to nine years. As soon as three years after making temporary vows, a person can make a promise to live the vows for life.

Can priests, brothers, and sisters date?
No, they can’t because dating is meant to lead to marriage, and as celibates we plan not to marry. However, we very much want and need friendships, and we have friends of both sexes.

Are you ever attracted to others in a romantic way?
Of course! We still experience normal human needs, feelings, and desires. As celibate people we choose to channel these feelings — our sexual energies — into other healthy directions. We work at remaining faithful to our vow of celibacy through prayer, closeness to Jesus, good friendships, and healthy physical exercise.

What if you fall in love?
It does happen. The basic responsibility in such a situation is to preserve the original, existing commitment we’ve made — which is to live as a sister, brother, or priest. We try to develop the relationship within the limits and responsibilities of our commitment to celibacy.

Obviously, falling in love can be a very difficult situation for a sister, priest, or brother. Yet we know that all Christians eventually face pain and difficulty in their lives. It isn’t always easy to be a faithful spouse or a single person of integrity either. Dealing with such a challenge can make us stronger than ever in our vocations.

Do you have to be a virgin to be a brother, sister, or priest?
This is a common question we hear from young people! Past sexual activity does not in itself prevent someone from becoming a brother, sister, or priest. A person’s past life is not the main concern. If it were, men and women who were once married could not become priests, brothers, or sisters (and they do). The question is whether a person is willing and able to now live and love as a celibate in the service of others. Some of the great saints — Saint Augustine and Saint Francis of Assisi for example — made other choices before turning to religious life.

Back to top

Can I still be a priest, sister, or brother if I have personal debts?
Usually dioceses and religious congregations require applicants to resolve any personal debts or liabilities before entering a formation program. Many, however, will make exceptions for student loans and will have specific policies regarding a plan for fair and just payment. If someone has a history of excessive spending and accumulated personal debts, especially credit-card related, the person is usually asked to consider seriously his or her ability to live a life of simplicity inherent to a religious vocation.

Why do some of you wear religious clothes while others don’t?
Those who wear habits or clerical collars do so for various reasons. One is that religious dress is a sign that may be instantly recognized as a symbol of faith in God and commitment to Christianity.

Another frequent rationale is that religious clothing is simple dress and therefore a way to live out the vow of poverty. A sister, brother, or priest who wears religious garb may own a few changes of clothing and be free of the expense of a more contemporary wardrobe.

Many communities wear street clothes, preferring to make their lifestyle, rather than their clothing, their main outward sign of faith. They feel religious dress may create a barrier between them and other people. Furthermore, those who have discontinued wearing habits often say the original reason for them was to wear the dress of the common people, and street clothes are now the common people’s dress.

Am I holy enough to become a religious?
No one is “worthy” of the gifts God bestows, but each of us, regardless of the vocation we are given, is called to holiness. Still, we are all sinners. But, Jesus always surrounded himself with sinners! His 12 apostles were far from being perfect! Our Lord can and does call generous, faithful and imperfect persons to grow in holiness as married, single, priests or religious. God loves and calls us just the way we are.

Will I be lonely as a religious?
Periods of loneliness are a part of every person’s life, including those who are married. Extended loneliness occurs when a person is disconnected from others and does not have close, healthy relationships with other people. Because of the nature of our work, religious brothers and sisters have numerous occasions to develop life-long friendships with other men and women. The idea that religious life is lonelier than other professions or vocations is false.

Why should I consider the possibility of becoming a religious brother or sister?
Because the Church needs some of our best young people to serve as religious! If God is asking you to spend your life in this way, go for it! Religious brothers and sisters witness God’s unconditional love by our very lives! People greatly value the role religious brothers or sisters play in their lives. In times of great joy and times of great pain, a religious sister or brother can bring the compassion of Christ to others. How wonderful!

Why is religious life often called consecrated religious life?
A man or woman consecrates themselves to God through the promise of the religious vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. This means that they freely and willingly choose to live their lives in an exclusive relationship with God. As a man or woman says “no” to other life vocations, when he or she pronounces marriage vows, so too, religious woman and men commit to live their lives only for God. All that they do in regard to their ministry is an overflow and expression of this consecration. Their consecration does not make them “better.” It is a different way of living the holiness to which each human being is called.

Are most consecrated religious happy?
Yes. A recent survey showed that the vast majority of consecrated religious would chose religious life again if we had to do it over again.

Back to top

Do you lose your freedom as a religious brother or sister?
Yes and no. No responsible person can live free of all obligations to others; otherwise, that person would lead a totally selfish life. A consecrated religious freely chooses to live a life of service to God and God’s people, and freely chooses to reject a self-centered life. In that decision, there is a loss of some freedom. But religious women and men can testify to the fact that there is a great freedom to be creative in religious life. The religious community tries to match the religious with the work for which he/she is well suited. This allows the person to freely exercise creativity in the service of God.

Do you have to pray a lot as a religious?
You’d better pray or your “well” will dry up! Prayer is at the very heart of religious life. It’s difficult to have a close, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ without prayer. Religious men and women are of little use to their people if we are not people of prayer. Consecrated religious pray together as a community and also take time each day for personal prayer. Daily Mass is important to us. For those who work in active ministry, the rest of the day is spent serving our faithful people in the many ways that is accomplished.

Do you earn money as a consecrated religious?
Yes. Religious sisters and brothers receive a modest salary from the diocese or institution they serve, or the secular organization in which they work. The money they receive is used to pay medical and other necessity expenses. It is given to the Community to which we belong and, in turn, the Community provides for our room and board, food and clothing and other human needs. Out of that salary we buy our personal items, although religious men and women are encouraged to live a simple lifestyle. If you’re looking for wealth and accumulation of material goods, try a different website!

The thought of consecrated religious life scares me a bit. Any advice?
Jesus’ disciples often experienced the same fear as you in their attempt to follow our Lord. Jesus’ response to their anxiety was always the same: “Do not fear” (Matthew 14:27). Don’t allow fear to prevent you from seriously considering the possibility of religious life; fear is one of the subtle ways employed by Satan to prevent us from following the will of God and having a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. There are many communities that will take the time to help you gradually understand what the life of a religious is all about and thus, dispel any fears of the unknown, which a person may have. Some even allow serious discerners to live for an extended amount of time within the community, to see first-hand how normal and regular consecrated religious life is. The Vocation Office is here to help you connect with the religious community that you may want to explore.

I’ve thought about the possibility of religious life in the past but I’m not ready to make any kind of commitment. What should I do?
(For high school-age) First, stay active in your parish as an altar server, parish council member, lector, Eucharistic minister, choir member or in the youth group. Second, get involved in some service work and see how you react to it. Does it bring you joy or is it a burden? Third, pray regularly. Ask God what he wants you to do with your life. Keep your heart open to wherever God needs you to use your gifts and talents. Fourth, learn more about religious life by participating in activities offered by the vocation office. See “upcoming events”. Not only will you learn more about consecrated religious life by participating in these activities, you will not get any pressure or “hard-sell” and you’ll find that you’re not the only one thinking about religious life! Fifth, visit a religious community or a religious order and talk to them.

(For college-age)
First, get involved in your Newman Association on campus as an altar server, parish council member, lector, Eucharistic minister, religious education teacher or sing in the choir. Second, join a Newman service group or volunteer in a parish outreach program. Reflect on your experience of ministry. Does it excite you or does it drag you down? Third, pray regularly. None of us can figure our God’s will for us if we don’t spend time with the Master. Ask God what he wants you to do with your life. Keep your heart open to wherever our Lord needs you to use your gifts and talents. Fourth, get a spiritual director with whom you can talk openly and honestly. Fifth, learn more about religious life by participating in activities offered by the vocation office. See “upcoming events”. Not only will you learn more about consecrated life by participating in these activities, but you’ll meet other people who are dreaming of, and struggling with, the same things you are.

(For adults)
First, stay active in your parish as a parish council member, lector, Eucharistic minister, choir member or religious education teacher. Second, get involved in some kind of service work and see how you react to it. Does it bring you joy or is it a burden? Third, pray regularly. None of us can figure our God’s will for us if we don’t spend time with the Master. Ask God what he wants you to do with your life. Keep your heart open to wherever our Lord needs you to use your gifts and talents. Fourth, get a spiritual director with whom you can talk openly and honestly. Fifth, learn more about religious life by participating in activities offered by the vocation office. See “upcoming events”. Not only will you learn more about consecrated life by participating in these activities, but you’ll meet other people who are dreaming of, and struggling with, the same things you are.

Back to top

What qualities does one look for in a candidate for religious life?
The qualities include a practicing Catholic who: attends mass regularly, has an active prayer life with God, lives out the commandments, has a desire to serve God and others, is emotionally/spiritually/physically healthy, has a love for the poor, is generous and compassionate, has at least average intelligence, likes working with people and has the social skills to do so, is open to will of God in his life, has a love for the Church, is open to a diversity of cultures, and loves life. Remember, this does not mean that a person is expected to be perfect.

What if I feel unworthy?
Then you are in good company. Simon Peter told Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am sinful man.” Yet Jesus called him. This is a common worry among people considering the priestly or religious life.

You might ask: Am I worthy? So often, your feeling is: No. Who am I to aspire to such a life and position? You are not alone. In ordinary parish ministry, people wonder: Who am I to be a Eucharistic Minister and give out communion? Who am I to lector at Mass? To teach RCIA? I am a sinner.

To this feeling, the only answer is: Welcome, sinner!

Prior to spreading the Gospel, Peter denied Christ. Paul persecuted the Church. Thomas doubted Him. James and John misunderstood Him. Yet Jesus called them, as he calls all to be a disciple and follow him.

No one is actually “worthy,” and no one starts out as a saint. You don’t earn God’s call. Instead, He calls you. “Remember, it was not you who chose me, rather it was I who chose you.” (John 15:16)

Pope Benedict XVI writes: “If Jesus calls you, do not be afraid to respond to him with generosity, especially when he asks you to follow him in the consecrated life or in the priesthood. Do not be afraid; trust in Him and you will not be disappointed.”

Will I have to give up friends and family in order to join?
No, in fact friends and family are a very important support for priests, sisters, and brothers.

Do I have to agree with all Church teachings to be a priest or a member of a religious order?
Church teachings vary in gravity and centrality to the faith. It is one thing to differ with the Church in matters of ordinary discipline — priestly celibacy, for example — and quite another to disagree about the morality concerning abortion, or the dogma concerning the divine nature of Jesus. To be a priest, brother, or sister is to be a public person in the Church, so if you have serious differences with matters essential to the faith, then vowed or ordained life might be a conflict for you.

Having said that, consider this: Some of the Church’s greatest saints dissented on certain matters. Many founders of religious communities met with this very challenge as they sought to bring something new for God’s people. Do you think that St. Martin de Porres, the mixed-race Peruvian slave who doctored and fed the poor of Lima, was comfortable with the institutional Church’s position on slavery at that time?

It might be helpful to consult with a few people-vocation directors, priests, religious, or theology teachers-to ascertain what the Church actually teaches today. Many times our conflicts can be addressed and overcome with greater study, reflection, and dialogue, or simply by receiving accurate information. Ideally, through the formation at the seminary, through years of education and prayer, one will come to a deeper understanding of the Church’s true teaching and how that must be lived out in one’s life.

What does a call from God sound like?
God calls people in many different ways. 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. It might manifest itself in different ways such as a desire to help others or to know God more deeply. If you enjoy being with people, especially during some of the bigger moments in their lives — their weddings, the birth of their children, the death of a loved one — the priesthood could be for you. No two callings are the same, just like no two priests are the same. If you think you are being called, follow your heart. If you do not, you will be left wondering for the rest of your life.

If someone has lived an immoral life for a long time, can they still become a priest?
God is very loving and forgiving. Redemption can take place anytime throughout our lives. Sometimes after people have turned their lives around with the help of God, and then dedicate themselves to Christ, they may be aware of a still deeper call from God. Generally speaking, it is less important what someone has done in the past than what one is willing to embrace in the present and future. Some immorality takes the form of public crimes, which might then compromise one’s ability to be the religious leader of a parish community. Honesty is always the best policy. Speak to your Vocation Director about any concerns or reservations you may have in this matter.

Back to top

FAQ, Especially for Post-College and Second Career Women and Men

I’ve been sexually active in the past? Will that prevent me from becoming a religious?
Not necessarily. Before applying to a Community, you are required to be chaste (not involved in sexual activity) for a minimum of two to three years. It’s very important that a candidate be able to prove to oneself and to the Church that he or she can lead a chaste life, and be happy and healthy in doing so.

I’m widowed. Is religious life a possibility for me?
Yes. There are many fine examples of men and women who married, were widowed and are now religious. Most Communities require widows or widowers to allow a minimum of three years between the death of their spouse and applying for religious life. Further, if children are involved, a widow or widower cannot apply until the children have been raised and had the opportunity for a college education.

Is there an upper age limit for someone to apply to religious life?
Generally, yes. But you should inquire with the religious community that interests you, regarding their age requirements.

Still have questions? Sisters Lorren Harbin, Dian Hall and Pat Eichner make up the Vocations Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia. Sister Lorren is in Colorado; you can reach her at 970/260-2287 or lharbin@csjkansas.org. Sister Dian is in Georgia; her phone number is 770/546-6461 and her email is dianhall5@yahoo.com. Sister Pat is in Concordia; her phone number is 785/243-4428 and her email is eichnerpat@csjkansas.org.

These questions and answers have been compiled from the National Coalition for Church Vocations, the National Religious Vocation Conference, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., and the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kan.