Discerning Religious Life?

Frequently Asked Questions for those Discerning the Religious Life

  1. What is a religious?
  2. What kind of a person becomes a religious?
  3. What does a religious do in regards to ministry?
  4. How does one become a religious?
  5. How do you know you have a vocation?
  6. What vows does a religious take?
  7. What is a religious brother?
  8. What does it mean to be a sister?
  9. How does God call one to the religious life?
  10. What does it mean to be a contemplative?
  11. How important is prayer in the life of a religious?
  12. How do congregations differ from one another?
  13. What are some of these orders and what is their charism?
  14. What is a day in the life of a contemplative religious like?
  15. Why do some religious dress in clerical garb or habits and others don’t?
  16. Why are there fewer sisters today than in the past?
  17. How does one discern a vocation to the religious life?
  18. How do you know if God is calling you?
  19. Discernment Prayer


What is a religious? 

A religious is a man or a woman who has given their life to God in the service of others. They live, pray, and work in community according to the rule of their particular order. We commonly call men religious who live in monasteries, monks; and women who live in convents, nuns or sisters.

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What kind of a person becomes a religious?

The following is a list of those qualities, gifts and talents that are helpful for anyone who is discerning a call to the religious life:

Physical Health:

  • generally good health
  • attentive to maintaining good physical health

Intellectual Development:

  • an active mind; is willing to learn and to seek for truth
  • adequate intellectual ability for additional a education

Personal and Social Development:

  • a positive life direction, has a sense of purpose
  • considers close personal friendships as important
  • has normal, healthy relationships with peers and others
  • has a sense of perspective and humor
  • is able to make a positive choice for celibacy

Spiritual Development:

  • is an active member of the Roman Catholic Church, with an appreciation for the past and a sense of hope for the future, while being engaged in the Church as it is here and now
  • is a person of faith and integrity
  • has a relationship with God which is alive and life-giving

Ministerial Development:

  • is responsive to the needs of others and demonstrates a desire and ability to serve generously in a variety of settings
  • has the ability to invite and enable others to use their gifts; can collaborate with women, men, all ages, and ethnic backgrounds

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What does a religious do in regards to ministry?

The choice of ministry for the religious arises from the founding purpose of the community, a prayerful discernment of their own gifts, and an assessment with their community pf the signs of the times. A religious and their community together look at the needs of the church and society to determine where best to place their energies. The way a particular religious spends their day depends on the kind of community to which they belong. For example, contemplative nuns often do work to sustain their community in food and shelter such as gardening, baking, and handiwork. Active communities, however, are involved is many ministries, usually with an emphasis on service such as education, social work, parish pastoral work, etc.

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How does one become a religious?

Acquaintance: Start by visiting the community that you are interested in and stay in touch by phone, e-mail or letter

Application: A process of self reflection, interview, physical and psychological tests, and gathering input from reference which helps both you and the community to further discern whether you are called to join that community.

Postulancy: Your first year in the community is a chance to live the life of a religious, enter more deeply into prayer and have some introductory classes, and further discern you call.

Novitiate: Your next two years are used as a time for more intense discernment, study, and preparation for first Vows.

First, Simple or Temporary Profession: If you and the community discern that you are ready to enter fully into the life of the congregation, you make your First Profession.

Final Profession: Three to five later, when you and the community discern that you are ready, you make Final Profession. This means you commit yourself to God and the order forever.

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How do you know you have a vocation?

Making a decision about the religious life is not as complicated as it seems. It is a process of discovering, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what God’s will is for you. Spiritual directors call it ‘discernment’. As you work through this process, you will deal with two persons – you and God – and before you have finished, you will begin to know both better. You will also begin to realize that you and God ultimately desire the same thing your happiness. As you strive to make an intelligent and informed decision, therefore, God is on your side.

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What vows does a religious take?

A religious takes the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to assist the religious to live their lives in the service of God. By these vows the religious promises to live simply, to love celibate, and to do the will of God.

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What is a religious brother?

Religious brothers offer invaluable service to God’s people, though the vocation of religious brothers is one that is lesser known in our church.

Brothers belong to religious communities that have a certain spirit, or charism, which defines their live. The life of a brother is characterized by the common bonds of living in community, and commitment to prayer and service.

Religious brothers take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows are what distinguish brothers in their vocation. The vow of poverty means a total sharing of possessions rather than private ownership of goods. This sharing not only provides for a simple lifestyle, but also encourages a spirit of unity in the religious order. The vow of chastity is the particular way that religious promise to love. It is not a loveless life; on the contrary a brother shares his love with many people in many different ways. It is a total gift of self. The vow of obedience is a pledge to a spirit of cooperation within ones religious order, and adherence to the order’s charism.

Brothers help people to see the sacred in the ordinary moments of life. The sacraments are important to brothers, as they are to all Catholics. They participate in the sacraments as people do rather than an ordained priest of the Church.

This distinctive fraternity has a wealth of talent where the brothers are involved in ministries that are varied as the brothers themselves. Whether it be as educators, administrators, missionaries, or any other of their numerous areas of involvement, brothers bring with them a strong sense of dedication to the Church. There is also an overwhelming sense that religious brothers are our peers; living and working in our midst as companions on our journey of faith.

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What does it mean to be a sister?

Spending a faith-filled life devoted to God in service to God’s people is the way a religious sister lives out her vocation.

Religious sisters take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These vows are central to the lives of all religious and are what gives them their identity. Religious women live in community and give witness to their commitment in various forms of ministry; each congregation possessing a different spirit, or charism.

The Catholic Church would not be what it is today if it were not for the gifts and talents of countless women who have lived out their baptismal call with such a deep love of Jesus. Religious sisters have given our church a strong identity and character by their setting a worthy example of Christian service in so many ministries. It is easy for each of us to think of a way that a religious sister has touched our lives.

Contemplative nuns spend a great deal of time in prayer, both private and communal. Much of their work is done to sustain life in their particular community. Religious sisters in active communities might work a educators, doctors, lawyers, administrators, missionaries, social workers or take part in some form of pastoral work. The ministries are as many as the talents of the sisters.

With the presence and prayer of religious sisters in our midst, we all grow in the love of Jesus Christ!

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How does God call one to the religious life?

The call to the religious life is an evolving and unending one. God draws us ever closer into the mystery of life and love.

Everyone has a vocation. A vocation is a gift from God that allows us to be our best selves when it is followed. For some, it is marriage, for others it is the single life for still others it is the ordained or religious life. Each state is graced and calls us to put our gifts at the service of God and others. We must respond in the way that best suits the will of God.

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What does it mean to be a contemplative?

“The contemplative life? How precious it is in the eyes of God? How precious it is to the Church? In all truth, it is these souls who by their suffering, their love and their prayers exercise in silence within the Church the apostolate which is the most universal and the most fruitful.”
Pope John XXIII

To understand the contemplative vocation is to know that its apostolate is universal and timeless. The contemplative has stepped apart from the world and thus has a better perspective of it. He or she has left the world not because they hate it, but because they want to love it more purely and more realistically.

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How important is prayer in the life of a religious?

Because the religious has chosen a way of life which says by its very nature that God is most important, prayer has a central role in their lives. Prayer is communication with the Lord whom we love and is as necessary for us as communication is for any two persons who expect their relationship to continue. Can you imagine having a best friend (or husband or wife) to whom you never spoke?

Since prayer is so important, most priests and religious spend approximately two hours a day in prayer; part of that time with others, at Mass and in common oral prayer; part alone, in reading and quiet attentiveness. Probably the main benefit of prayer is that it makes us more sensitive to God’s activity in the people, events and circumstances of daily life.

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How do congregations differ from one another?

Most groups of religious were founded at a time in history when travel and communication were very limited. Many congregations were founded at the same time for the same purpose, but at different places by people who didn’t know each other.

Founders had a specific spirit or charism they wanted to develop in their community (such as hospitality, simplicity or unity.) The charism, the specific ministries of the community, and a varying emphasis on prayer and community life are te basic differences among religious communities. All are alike in that their primary concern is to spread the Gospel message of Jesus.

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What are some of these orders and what is their charism?

Three of the largest religious orders of men and women are the Benedictine, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans. Each of these orders have elements in common with each other. For example prayer is at the center of each of these orders. The lives of all of the members revolves around this prayer life. The work the do, however, is distinct to each of these orders. The Benedictine order was founded by St. Benedict himself. The monks of this order live in common and work as educators, retreat masters, and spiritual directors. The nuns are involved in health care and nursing in addition to education. The Dominicans, founded by St. Dominic, began as an order of men whose main work was preaching. This expanded into an order of both men and women who are missionaries, scholars, educators, and advocates of social justice. Lastly, the Franciscans, begun by St. Francis, are most heavily involved in education and retreat work while remaining true to the rule established by St. Francis.

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What is a day in the life of a contemplative religious like?

Many people are curious about what it’s like living as a religious. The following is an outline of sorts of a day in the life of a Benedictine nun. As you will see, the great thing about the life of a religious is that they never get bored.

The reason we are here is to pray. We are in love with God and want to share His love with those who are in need through our prayer. We also share in his love with one another as we work, pray, eat and have fun together. People who come to visit and pray with us experience the power of God’s presence.

Many of us get up pretty early in the morning to spend time in prayer. Each of us tries to spend at least a couple hours each day in personal prayer. This includes praying with the Bible, prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and other forms of prayer.

Bread, cereal, fruit, juice and coffee are available for us to have breakfast when we want. We don’t talk late at night or early in the morning to help us be open to listening to God.

Our first prayer together is lauds or Morning prayer. We sing the Psalm, listen to Scripture and for those in need.

After that we have a short meeting to hear about anything important which might be happening or special prayer requests. Then we have about an hour for prayer with the Bible before Mass. After mass we go to work.

We all work at home in the monastery – helping make communion hosts, answering prayer requests, taking care of visitors, cooking, gardening, taking care of the building and grounds, caring for our older sisters and whatever else needs to be done. Making communion hosts is one of the main ways we support ourselves. What ever we’re doing we try to remain aware of God’s presence throughout the day.

At noon we gather again to pray the Psalms and listen to Scripture. Following this, we have lunch – our main meal of the day. We eat everything from chicken to tacos to pizza to hamburgers to tofu. We often have guests. Afterwards we help with the dishes.

In the afternoon we spend a couple more hours at work and then have time for exercise, enjoying the outdoors, study, music or art and prayer.

In the late afternoon or early evening we gather for Vespers or the evening Psalms. Then we have a light supper which is followed by dishes and time for fun and relaxation.

In the evening we pray compline or night prayer. It’s very beautiful singing of the Psalms to end our day and pray for peace in the world.

Following compline, we have silence so the sisters can pray, read, study or go to bed. Morning will come early.

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Why do some religious dress in clerical garb or habits and others don’t?

Those who maintain habits or clerical garb today do so for various reasons. One of the primary reasons is that religious dress is a sign. The garb is an instantly recognized symbol of faith in God and commitment to Christianity.

Another frequent rationale for religious garb is that it is simple dress and therefore a way to live out the vow of poverty. A sister, brother, or priest who wears religious garb can own just two or three changes of dress and be free of the expense that may be involved in a more extensive contemporary wardrobe. Other communities say that the habit is an important sign of penitence for them.

Some communities have opted to wear street clothes, saying that the most valid sign of Christian faith is lifestyle, rather than garb. They contend that religious dress creates an undesirable barrier between them and the laity with whom they work, and that some Catholics and non-Catholics distance themselves from people in traditional religious dress.

Furthermore, those who have discontinued wearing habits often say that the original reason for it was to wear dress of the common people; therefore street clothes are the common people’s clothes nowadays.

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Why are there fewer sisters today than in the past?

While no one can say with any kind of certainty why fewer men and women are choosing to leave the world and live a life of silence and prayer, there are some factors or elements of contemporary society that are contributors to this phenomenon. The first of these is the fear of making lifelong commitments. In this post-modern era people have an inherent fear of giving of themselves on any long term basis. This is most evident in the divorce rate that unfortunately increases annually. Therefore, the number of people interested in giving their lives in either way is equally as undesirable.

Second, there is a decrease in the number of people inviting and encouraging vocations to the religious life. Unfortunate as it may seem, because of the lack vocations to begin with there seems to be a reluctancy to promote more vocations from those who are a religious already. Thus, a vicious circle has begun resulting in a vocation crisis.

Lastly, society has undergone great changes in the last thirty years that have given rise to the vocational shortage to the religious life. Increased consumerism and materialism have stemmed from an increase of selfishness in many people today which are elements that are not conducive to such a sacrifice as a religious vocation.

These are not the only reasons behind this problem but it is safe to say that each of these elements have contributed in some way to the decrease of vocations to the religious life.

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How does one discern a vocation to the religious life?

There is no hard and fast way to discern one’s vocation because each vocation is unique to each individual; thus the way of discernment is just as unique. However there is one hard and fast rule that is universal in every faith journey and must be adhered to if one wishes to discern a vocation: Thou must pray! There is only one way that we are able to converse with God and that is, of course, through prayer. However, if one does not use his or her time in prayer to not only speak to God but to listen to Him, it becomes impossible to find out what God wants to do with your life. Therefore, a basic formula can be drawn: if one does not pray one cannot listen to God, if one cannot listen to the will of God one cannot find what God wills for that person, and if one cannot find what God wills for him or her that person will not find true happiness in this life and eternal joy in the next.

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How do you know if God is calling you?

The following is a autobiography written by a Benedictine sister of Perpetual Adoration explaining how she was called to the religious life.

Most of us didn’t grow up planning to be a sister. Some of us thought that there was no way that we would ever be sister. God surprised us with a gift we could have never imagined. It wasn’t like we heard a voice telling us, ‘Be a Benedictine sister of Perpetual Adoration.’ It was more like a whisper that wasn’t clear at first. We found ourselves seeking more than money could buy. We found ourselves wanting to pray and attend mass. We found ourselves grateful for the goodness and beauty around us and wanting to end suffering and injustice. We found ourselves wanting to be part of something bigger than ourselves – community as a Benedictine Sister of Perpetual Adoration.

God continues to call young women to join us. Maybe you think, ‘It couldn’t happen to me,’ or maybe you think, ‘Maybe, it will.’ It is important to continue to be open and to listen for God’s call to your vocation, whatever it may be.

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Discernment Prayer: 

Loving God,
Your presence stirring within me
calls me to a new way of life.
My desire is to follow your will,
but I’m not sure what that is.

Grant me patience to keep listening
and to allow your dream to unfold within me.
Grant me wisdom to recognize your whisperings
in every moment of my life.
Grant me courage to respond in faith-filled love.

Thank-you for your guidance and for your
mysterious gift which is awakening within me.


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