FAQ about Religious Life
What is Consecrated Life?
Consecrated life is an extension of our Baptismal commitment and offers a vast spectrum of options for those, “men and women who, obedient to the Father’s call and to the prompting of the Spirit, have chosen this special way of following Christ, in order to devote themselves to Him with an ‘undivided’ heart. Like the Apostles they too have left everything behind in order to be with Christ and to put themselves, as He did, at the service of God and their brothers and sisters.” (Pope John Paul II, Vita Consecrata #1) Each form of Consecrated Life is a unique way of life but there are some common elements:
- A total gift of self in response to the total gift of Jesus
- Total dedication to God who is loved most of all
- Contemplation of divine things and constant union with God in prayer
- The means of salvation modeled for us by Mary, our Blessed Mother, and John, the beloved apostle.
- Public profession of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience
- A life where being celibate, poor and obedient is not a deprivation but a joy
- A life of giving, not a life of giving up
- A life focused entirely on Christ and lived with passion for Christ.
- A life lived within the Church and faithful to the Church
- A founding charism or spirit guides the life.
- A rule, constitutions and plan of life, approved by the Church, which makes concrete the way of life.
- Following Christ more closely under the action of the Holy Spirit
- Striving for the perfection of charity in service to the Kingdom of God
- Public witness to the faith and consecration to God
- Being an outstanding sign in the Church which foretells the heavenly glory
- Doing everything in conformity with the character and purpose of the individual institute
Consecrated Life includes:
Religious Life: Religious Life is the most familiar expression of Consecrated Life. In Religious Life women and men leave the world in response to the call of Jesus to give everything they have and are to Christ. By the means of vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which are freely chosen and publicly professed, they place their entire being at the disposal of Christ and His Church. These sisters, brothers and priests live with other members in community who share the same values, goals, dreams and life style. Most members in Religious Life serve the Church through various ministries such as education, health care and social work. Others known as cloistered or contemplative orders live a hidden life of prayer and sacrifice for the needs of the world.
Societies of Apostolic Life: Societies for Apostolic Life are very similar to institutes of religious life and were initially founded in response to the Church’s tendency to impose a cloistered life on institutes of religious life. Members of Societies of Apostolic Life make an explicit commitment to the evangelical counsels through sacred bonds officially recognized by the Church. Each in its own particular way pursues a specific apostolic or missionary goal, most often showing a preference for those who are poor or for minority persons. Their apostolates include, but are not limited to: education, social work, administration, communication, health care, preaching, missionary work, and parish ministry. These ministries may be carried out anywhere in the world as determined by the society’s constitution and charism.
Secular Institutes: A Secular Institute is an association for single lay people who profess the evangelical counsels and follow a specific constitution for their institute. Members remain in a secular environment and strive for personal holiness and the sanctification of others by communicating the gospel message “as leaven” and practicing social justice according to a particular spirituality.
Consecrated Virgins: Consecrated Virgins are individual women consecrated by the diocesan bishop to serve God through following the evangelical counsels. They commit themselves to follow Christ more closely and to serve the Church by working in the world just as they did before their consecration, seeking to sanctify the world from within.
Hermits: Hermits are individuals either male or female who publicly profess the evangelical counsels by sacred bonds before the diocesan bishop and then separate themselves from the world to devote themselves to silence, solitude, prayer and penance for the needs of the world.
Why do we need Religious Life?
I understand we need priests to say Mass and administer the sacraments but what about brothers and sisters? All the works of religious can and are being done by lay persons in the Church. Why do we need religious life? Are they just a nice addition to the Church but not necessary?
Religious men and women are doing many wonderful and necessary things in the Church. But they are called not only to do for God but to be God’s and to live totally for Him. The entire life of a religious is focused on God and His will. Their apostolic life and the works they do flow from this relationship with God’s called consecration. Consecrated Life has been around since the earliest times of the Church. Mary the Mother of Jesus and John the Apostle modeled this life for us. You can think of the Consecrated Life as the footings of a building. The major portion of their structure is unseen but required for the support of the entire edifice.
What vows do religious take and what do they mean?
Most religious make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Some congregations make additional vows like stability or the performance of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy or the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of human life. Men and women who make profession in religious communities do so by making vows, solemn promises made freely and deliberately to commit themselves to God and to live in community with each other.
Poverty, there are two aspects to the vow of poverty: one is the leaving of all things to follow Christ, just as the apostles left their livelihood and all they had depended on up to that time; the other is giving all one has to Christ. When a religious gives up things he/she is free to give oneself to Christ, because it is usually things that hold one back from giving oneself. Both of these sacrifices require trust. The religious trusts Christ and for that reason does not seek his/her security or satisfaction in anything beyond Him. Since God gives talents and abilities, they are given back to Him for His use, not for ones own enjoyment and pleasure alone. Poverty brings peace into life and allows one to place no barriers to God’s action and no limits to what He might ask.
Chastity, the religious is a spouse of Christ whom the Lord has asked to forego marriage and family life in order to belong to Him alone. And yet, while spousal love is for God alone, the energies of mind, heart, body, and spirit are directed to the whole Church and to mankind in an inclusive manner. The call to live an exclusive spousal life with the Lord along with an inclusive love for all of His people draws one to profess a vow of celibate chastity for the sake of the Kingdom.
Obedience, a religious desires above all that the will of God be accomplished in the world (Thy Kingdom come …) and, therefore, submits his/her will to Him. The choice of loving obedience to God’s representatives, given in community to those who serve as leaders, reveals God’s will for the individual and for the community. The religious is bound to obey in all things except sin. If there are differences of view in a given area, the decision of the superior is to be obeyed with joy.
Why do some religious wear a distinctive uniform dress?
The primary reason for wearing a “habit” is to be a sign of Christ’s presence in the world. The religious habit identifies the community of which the person is a member and indicates that this individual belongs to God and His Church in a particular and special way. It allows people to know that one is not available for marriage, because he/she is already espoused to Christ. The wearing of a religious habit can tell people that there is something (actually SOMEONE) worth living for beyond the world that we see. It often speaks to people of the life to come in eternity. A religious may not always feel like he/she is very Christ-like, but the habit is a reminder to self and others that this individual belongs to Christ and is called to serve Him out of love. The wearing of the habit is an outward expression of the vow of poverty and an act of penitence. It can allow for fewer distractions, so that the Lord can be loved and served more fully.
Can I learn and try out being a sister or brother without becoming one?
Many religious communities provide opportunities for interested persons to visit or “Come and See” what their congregation is like. Some also require an extended period of visitation before one can be accepted even in the initial stages of formation. The Church in its Canon Law requires that prospective members receive an extensive program of religious formation before any commitment can be made. This affords the candidate a minimum of one year before temporary vows and up to nine years before a lifetime commitment is made.
What are the stages of religious formation?
Postulant or Candidate, the pre-novitiate, commonly called postulancy or candidacy, is a period usually of one year or less when the postulant lives with the congregation and engages in its prayer, community, and apostolic life while receiving instruction and guidance in the ways of the congregation. It is a time for the candidate and the community to grow in familiarity with one another. The candidate is free to leave the postulancy at any time.
Novice, the novitiate can be a minimum of one year or a maximum of two years in duration. The novice takes on the dress or habit of the congregation wearing a white veil if it is the custom. During the novitiate, the novice deepens his/her prayer life, learns about and practices the life of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, experiences the manner of living of the congregation, forms the mind and heart in the spirit of the congregation, and has his/her intention and suitability tested. The novice is free to leave at any time.
Temporary Professed, after having completed the novitiate, the novice requests permission to profess temporary vows. These vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience are professed freely and publicly for a period of one to three years and are renewed at the time of expiration. The individual is also free to leave at this time. During temporary vows, the religious is committed to the life of the congregation, participates in its apostolic works, and has all the rights and duties of membership. After a minimum of three and not more than six years the religious professes perpetual vows.
Are all religious orders, like the Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, or Sisters of Mercy, the same?
No. All religious orders have a unique founder or foundress and therefore have a unique charism or gift of the Holy Spirit for the Church. Even within an individual tradition, for example the Benedictines, each congregation has its own traditions, ministries, history, and constitutions which flavor the life of the members. There are 446 women’s and 143 men’s communities listed in the Catholic Directory, some of which have multiple provinces, and each has its own distinctive charism and lifestyle. Within the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph there are 23 women’s and 12 men’s Religious Communities and Societies of Apostolic Life represented as well as Secular Institutes, Consecrated Virgins and Hermits.
What is the difference between a religious order priest and a diocesan priest?
A religious order priest belongs to a religious community, such as the Franciscans or the Benedictines, who live out the charism of their founder and often have a particular type of ministry e.g. education or health care. They usually live in community and take vows of poverty chastity and obedience. Diocesan priests are ordained for a specific diocese and generally serve in parishes, although they also assist in schools, hospitals and prisons. Although diocesan priests do not take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they do make a commitment to lead a celibate life and promise respect and obedience to their diocesan bishop.
Does it make a difference which community I join?
Yes it does matter. God has called each religious to a specific congregation as well as a specific vocation.
What is the contemplative life? How do I know if I am called to it?
A contemplative community is made up of nuns, brothers, or priests who live together in a monastery and normally would stay in that same community for life. Although the community must support itself with some kind of work, life is centered around communal and personal prayer. The work they are involved in is usually carried out within the monastery and helps to financially support the community; for example, some contemplative communities make and sell altar breads, and others may be involved in making the vestments that priests wear during Mass. Generally those in contemplative orders have minimal contact with people outside the monastery so that they can nurture a quiet, prayerful atmosphere in the community. These communities carry out a wonderful ministry in that they offer prayers and sacrifices for the world and the people around them. In so in many ways they are often quite in touch with what is happening in the world around them. There are different types and traditions of contemplative orders; e.g., the Benedictines, the Carmelites, and the Franciscan Poor Clares.
At the core of a call from God to be a contemplative is a continuing conversion of the human heart away from following its false gods, to a definitive choice of the one transcendent loving God, renewed an infinite number of times. DETERMINED DETERMINATION must become the seeker’s motive, because the human heart is a natural idol-making machine. Another necessary quality is intelligence; this does not necessarily mean great reasoning powers, a brilliant mind, or a sharp intellect but rather the intelligence of a heart which passionately desires that the living, true God be the one and only center of the heart and its affections. If one seeks to be a contemplative, but is unwilling, or resists daily challenges to conversion of heart, he/she will not only end up as an unhappy, but as an unfulfilled individual. On entering religion, the aspirant is not just entering a building, joining a community, or taking on a life of prayer. Her life-long commitment will be to build on her foundational desire a framework of conversions, which will change a self-centered heart gradually into a loving, listening, liberated, and pure undivided heart ready to be transformed, enlivened, and re-orientated by the Divine Lover. As well, her “intention” for engaging in this journey must be for the good of Christ’s Church and the glory of the Blessed Trinity. To complete all the above, normal health, a sense of humor, common sense, and affability will go a long way to ensure that the one called to a contemplative life will be a joy to her community, and live happily not only in this life but for all eternity.
With so many communities to choose from how do I know the one to which I am being called?
Vocational decisions are made through a process called discernment. Vocational discernment applies to all walks of life including marriage and dedicated single life. So what does it really mean to “discern your vocation?” I like to think of it as PLOTting your future. Let me explain.
P is for Prayer. Prayer must be the basis for all the decisions in every life no matter what the vocation to which you are called. This prayer includes participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, seeking direction through private prayer with Jesus, and using the Sacrament of Penance as well as reading and praying the Scriptures.
L is for Listen. When you pray, you must listen to what God has to say. Don’t just ask God and then pay no attention to what He has to say. When someone asks you a question, you expect him to be attentive to your response. So does God and He does respond. Our Lord speaks in your heart but He also speaks through others. Having a personal spiritual director who can help you to reflect on what God is telling you is of invaluable assistance.
O is for Openness. Be open to what you hear God telling you. Docility is a necessary quality for anyone who seeks God’s will, who wishes to develop a relationship with another, and who wants to seek perfection on the path to eternal life. God speaks in many ways but it is all wasted if you are not open to what you hear.
T is for Trust. Trust that what you have heard is from God. God has a plan for you and that plan includes fulfillment and happiness. Trust so that you will be able to act in accordance with God’s will.
This PLOTting must continue throughout your life, but in vocational discernment you would like to have some assurance that what you are doing is God’s will. You really want insurance for your vocational choice. God does offer this to you. This assurance comes in marriage, priesthood, and consecrated life because there is a mutual discernment between you and others, namely, your potential spouse, diocese, or congregation. Let’s call this insurance AAFFLAC. (Not to be confused with any commercial insurance company.)
AA is for Awareness and Attraction. As in any situation you must know your options and be aware that a decision must be made. In this awareness you will find that there is a personal attraction to one or the other vocation, congregation, or, in the case of marriage, to one particular person. This attraction leads you to seek out more specific information and to build a relationship with a particular vocation, community, or person.
FF is for Familiarity and Formation. In discernment for marriage, familiarity grows through dating, engagement, and marriage preparation. In the priesthood, this familiarity grows in the seminary and in consecrated life it grows in the postulancy, novitiate, and a period of temporary vows. All of these are periods of formation for deepening your relationship with God and with community members, with other seminarians and priests or with your future spouse.
L is for Love. This process of growth at some point develops into a relationship of love, love of the other person, the congregation, or the priesthood. You become aware of exactly how you fit into this life. Love of God and love of the Church are assumed and necessary for all vocations.
A is for Acceptance. Your personal acceptance of this life is not the only acceptance necessary in vocational discernment. You must be accepted by your potential spouse, congregation, or bishop. If your personal acceptance and theirs are not both present, then that is a sign that this is either not your vocation or it is not the proper person to marry, congregation to join, or diocese in which to minister.
C is for Commitment. When all of these steps have taken place and you are truly at peace in your heart, it is time for the big “C” : Commitment, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, the profession of vows or consecration completes this period of vocational discernment. Without permanent commitment, all of these labors are incomplete. Each different commitment ensures the grace of God which helps you to live the life to the full all of your days. It brings fulfillment and happiness, And more importantly it brings holiness, the path to eternal life with God.
So be not afraid to PLOT your life and use AAFFLAC to assure that you are making the right decision Place your life in God’s hands. He is the only insurance you have.
What if I do not follow the vocation to which God is calling me?
God knows us and loves us as we are. He knows our weaknesses and sinfulness. If you do not follow the vocation to which He has called you, He will still be faithful and will give you the graces necessary to know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this life and be with Him forever in the next. That does not excuse you from seeking out God’s will for your vocation. He has given you specific graces to know and live that vocation.