A woman religious is a lay person who commits herself to Christ and to the Church by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She lives in a religious community that follows a constantly renewed tradition, patterned on the life and teaching of the founder of the community. The work she does will depend upon the particular community as influenced by the needs of the the Church and its people, and includes such ministries as pastoral; social service; education (in many different forms and ways); hospital/medical; youth/campus ministry; missionary; retreats/conferences; spiritual direction; peace and justice; evangelization/faith formation; social outreach; work with the poor, elderly, broken oppressed and distressed and so on.
The role of women in the Church is constantly developing and expanding. A significant part of that renewal is occurring within the faith communities of women religious. Prayer and work are part of the tradition of all communities, yet some are primarily contemplative while others are more active.
Many if not most active women religious do not wear a full habit. They prefer to blend with the people with whom they work. Some wear a modified habit. Others are identified by a ring or pin of their religious community.
Vocation Quest is a website for women discerning a call to become a Catholic Sister.
The Council for Major Superiors of Women Religious also has a website for women discerning a call to become a Catholic Sister.
There are several stages involved in the process of becoming a religious nun or sister. Each community has its own rules, but they generally involve four stages.
The first stage involves the time period when a prospective candidate becomes acquainted with the community, and the community with the candidate. This may occur as early as high school or college years. The vocation director is usually the point of contact between the individual and the community. The candidate may spend short periods of time living with the community in order to become exposed to the spiritual and community life of the members.
The second stage begins when the candidate is ready for a more formal relationship. This usually involves full-time residency with the community and gives the candidate the opportunity to experience the life of the community. During this stage, the candidate may be continuing outside studies or employment. This stage may last one or two years.
The third stage occurs when the candidate enters the community’s novitiate. This marks the official entry into the community and is a period of one to two years during which the novice spends time in prayer and study to learn more about his or her relationship with God, with the community, and with the decision to make a lifetime commitment to the religious life.
The final stage involves temporary promises. Depending on the community, promises of poverty, celibacy and obedience may be taken for periods of one to three years at a time, up to nine years. Final vows may be taken after as few as three years of temporary promises.
This information was taken from the book “A Guide to Religious Ministries for Catholic Men and Women”: 32nd Annual Edition. Published by the Catholic News Publishing Company.
If you are experiencing a sense that God is calling you to a religious vocation or if you have a question in regard to religious life or a question regarding discerning God’s call in your life, I can help! Please contact:
Fr. Brad Pelzel
Director, Office of Vocations
Tel: (712) 233-7523
Fax: (712) 233-7598
Diocese of Sioux City
PO Box 3379
1821 Jackson Street
Sioux City, IA 51102-3379
Q: Why do some sisters wear habits and some don’t?
A: Each religious community of sisters determine if the members will wear a habit or not. Many of those who wore a religious habit from the time the community was founded changed with the renewal that was called for by the Second Vatican Council (1960 – 1965). Some were given the option to wear the original habit, a modified (simplified) habit, or no habit. Most communities that are active do not wear a habit; these usually have a ring, pin or other symbol that signifies their community.
Q: When someone decides to become a sister, what happens to her savings and possessions? What happens to her debts?
A: Initially, a woman can explore becoming a sister while she retains her wealth and possessions, or has some amount of debt. By the time that she makes her first profession of vows, however, she must be debt free. At that time, she also makes a decision about retaining or disposing of her savings, assets, and valuable possessions (e.g., house, land, IRA’s, etc.).
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Almost anything you really like to do, for example: biking, skating, walking with a friend, swimming, running. Many Sisters enjoy reading, listening to music, or playing a musical instrument or singing. There is a wide variety of crafts and hobbies that are also enjoyed, including playing cards, creating on the computer. Of course, we all enjoy getting together for parties and celebrations for all occasions.
Q: What is a vocation and how is it different from a career?
A: A vocation is the way of life that we choose in order to live out our baptismal call. Religious life is part of a vocation. A career has to do with how we go about using our gifts and talents that have been given to us by God. A career is also part of a vocation. So, for instance, in the same way you can be married (and that is a calling in the church), and also be a doctor (and that too is a calling), so too you can be a religious Sister and also a doctor, teacher or any other type of professional.
Q: Do I have to wear black and white dresses and cut off my hair in order to become a sister?
A: Some communities of Sisters wear simple dress in order to model a life of simplicity, some communities choose to wear habits and that is fine, while other communities choose regular clothes, and that is fine too. What you can wear and how and if you show your hair depends upon the rules of the individual women’s community.
Q: Do all the sisters live at one convent?
A: Where Sisters live depends upon the community and their charism. Most Sisters go where they are needed in order to carry out the mission of making God’s love more visible in our world. This may mean living in a large “mother-house” with 100’s of Sisters, living in small groups of 3-7, living in pairs, or even when circumstances call for it, living alone.
Q: Do sisters sit in church all day long and pray?
A: Our schedules are determined by our ministry and our local communities. Every Sister, of course, reserves time for personal and communal prayer and daily mass, but there is always time for recreation, friends, and family.
Q: If I become a sister, will I ever see my family and friends again?
A: Of course. Sisters do have a responsibility to their communities, but are also encouraged to stay in contact with family and friends. This is seen as a healthy part of living community. We take advantage of the blessings of this internet age to keep us closely in touch with our family and friends. Beyond that, our local community and province is our “immediate family”, but just like your married friends, that doesn’t stop us from going back to mom, dad, and our friends.
Q: Do I have any choices once I become a sister?
A: Once a person becomes a Sister, she still has many choices in her life. The difference is that a Sister will make choices in collaboration with other Sisters and with the whole community in mind.
Q: Will people think I cannot find a husband if I choose to become a sister?
A: Most people know that women choose to become Sisters because they are living out what they believe to be their call from God.
Q: If the life of a Sister is for me, what are the signs?
A: If being a Sister engages your imagination and makes you feel energized, then you may have a call to religious life. That doesn’t mean there might not be some hesitation and resistance as well. That is healthy. But if being a religious sister gives you also some sense of peace and you feel drawn to look into it, then by all means do so. Sometimes the only way to know if something is the right fit is to try it out… with visits and time spent with the Sisters of the religious community that you feel drawn/called to.
Q: Can someone become a sister if they have been dating? If they have been engaged? If they have been married?
A: Dating is a normal part of a young person’s lifestyle. It is perfectly okay and expected that a woman dated during high school, college, or during her life prior to considering religious life. However, after a woman begins to seriously respond to a call to religious life, she is expected to discontinue dating in preparation for a chaste and celibate lifestyle. For some women, a healthy experience of dating has helped them to discern the call to love celibately in a community setting. If a woman was married, there are some requirements set by the laws of the Church that would be part of the admissions process.
Q: Is there an age limit to becoming a Sister?
A: Yes and no, many communities of women’s religious have an upper age limit of 35. This can be waived for good reason. Most communities have an age limit because they have found that women who are beyond this age often have a more difficult time adapting to their new way of life. If you feel a strong call to a religious communities’ way of life, however, it never hurts to ask.
Q: What do I do if I am a “mature” vocation (in my 40’s, 50’s, or beyond)?
A: God can and does call women beyond the so-called “traditional” age of beginning religious life. If you are one of those called by God at a mature age, don’t give up! Be very clear and explicit about your age when you correspond with religious communities, so that you can know right away where you stand with that particular community.
Q: How do I choose a community?
A: There are as many ways of choosing a community as there are people. Some people choose according to a spirituality, for example, Ignatian, Benedictine, etc. Others choose in search of a prayer style, for example, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or Liturgy of the Hours. Others may begin their search from their background of education or health care or foreign mission experience. Some seek local congregations instead of international ones. Some may have special circumstances, such as physical challenges, that limit their choices. It is important to be in touch with yourself, your own desires and dreams, and how you find God working in your life, before you decide on a particular community. Pray with several communities, and visit a few that appeal to you. This will give you a better idea of what’s out there, before you apply to enter one. Find the community that seems to fit you, one that appeals to the life God is calling you to. Try to be open to all paths of life from contemplative to active, monastic to missionary.
Q: Do I need a college degree to become a Sister?
A: You do not have to have a college degree to become a Sister. However, most communities do ask that candidates have life experience beyond high school, especially in some sort of service, or in the working world or an educational setting.
Q: Do you have to be “conservative” or “liberal” to be a Sister?
A: Yes. (Smile). The members of the women’s religious communities that serve the Church are as diverse as the Church itself is, which means we have many different points of view. Being a Sister means we do not identify ourselves by a political moniker. Rather, we use the teachings of Jesus and the charisms of our founder/foundress as our context of determining how to respond to differing situations. We conserve what is holy and move to liberate what is in need of freedom. So, yes, we are conservative and liberal. We think with the church, whose leader, Jesus, both fully conserves who God is for us and liberates all that lacks truth, justice, and love. We, as Sisters, strive to do the same.
Q: What do I do if I think I want to be a Sister?
A: The first step to becoming a Sister is to get to know us. If you live nearby one of our communities come and meet us! If you live farther away, e-mail us a little information about yourself and we can start getting to know you through cyberspace. If you are feeling called but do not have in mind a particular community, contact the vocations director for the Diocese where you live for assistance or feel free to contact the vocations director for a nearby religious community and they will help you investigate what your options are and discern where God is leading you.
Q: Is it always easy to pray?
A: Most certainly not. Prayer can sometimes seem dry, distant or uneventful, but our community structure helps during difficult times. It is important to try to be faithful even when prayer seems dull.
Q: How are religious orders different from one another?
A: Each religious order or congregation has its own founder or foundress, charism or spiritual gift, and focused mission that members hope to accomplish in community.
Q: What’s the difference between a sister and a nun?
A: A nun is a part of a congregation that is contemplative (dedicated to prayer) and they fill their days with a combination of prayer and work within their community. Sometimes they raise their own food and do income-producing work such as baking and selling altar breads or making and selling candy. Their prayer usually consists of Mass, silent prayer, spiritual reading, and praying the psalms-based Liturgy of the Hours (an ancient collection of psalms and prayers prayed together every few hours).
A sister is part of an apostolic congregation and they fill their days with their ministry, which is usually outside of their community, while balancing prayer and recreation with their ministry.
The words ‘nun’ and ‘sister’ are often used interchangeably by lay people.
Q: What vows do religious take?
A: The three vows we take are:
Poverty – Sharing our goods in common, living a simple life and realizing we depend on God and our community for our needs.
Celibacy – Choosing to love God, serve God and all God’s people in a chaste manner rather then choosing to love one person exclusively in an intimately marital manner.
Obedience – Living in community with our congregation and trying to obey the will of God when taking part in the congregation’s goals, hopes and work.
Q: Can sisters date?
A: No, we can’t. Dating is an activity where individuals spend time together, growing closer with an openness to their relationship becoming romantic and leading to marriage. Sisters, as chaste, celibates plan not to marry, so while it is important to have and grow our friendships and other relationships, we refrain from entering into romantic relationships or other activities that would lead us away from maintaining our vow of celibacy.
A: Of course! We still experience normal human needs, feelings and desires. As chaste, celibate persons we choose to channel these feelings (sexual energies) into other healthy directions. We work at remaining faithful to our vow of celibacy through prayer, closeness to Jesus, good friends and healthy physical exercise.Q: Do you have to be a virgin to be a sister?
A: Past sexual activity does not in itself prevent someone from becoming a sister. A person’s past life and any mistakes they may have made is not our main concern. The question is whether from now on a person is willing and able to live and love in our community as a chaste, celibate in service to others.Q: Does it matter what your sexual orientation is if you want to be a sister?
A: Religious communities are seeking women who are sexually integrated, which means having a strong sense of self and an understanding of their personal needs for affection and closeness. No matter what her sexual orientation may be, a woman seeking to join a religious community needs to understand what are appropriate expressions of love in a celibate context and possess the gifts and talents necessary to live chastely and celibately.
Q: Why do some religious sisters wear a habit and others don’t?
A: Those who wear habits do so for various reasons. One is that religious dress is a sign or recognized symbol of dedication to God and commitment to a Religious Congregation. Another frequent rationale is that religious clothing is simple dress and a way to live out the vow of poverty.
Some communities wear street clothes, preferring to make their lifestyle, rather than their clothing, the identifiable outward sign of their faith and dedication. They believe that wearing a particular religious dress may create an undesirable barrier between them and the people they seek to serve. Furthermore, religious communities who have discontinued wearing habits often cite the fact that their congregation’s original custom was to wear the dress of the common people (as their founder or foundress often did), and street clothes are now the common people’s dress.
Q: What does the term ‘apostolic’ refer to?
A: A religious community is called apostolic because it is founded on the directive Jesus gave the apostles: to go forth and witness the Gospels to the world. Some congregations are called contemplative, because they are founded for it’s members to focus on a life of prayer.
Q: What does the term ‘discernment’ refer to?
A: Discernment is the practice of distinguishing God’s voice through prayer and reflection, followed by a willingness to act in faith on the sense of what God is asking of you.
Q: What is a Vocation Director?
A: The Vocation Director for a religious community is a sister who is the contact person for people seeking information about that community and the person who assists the women who express an interest in religious life. Your home diocese will also have a vocations director, usually a priest, who primarily works with young men discerning priestly vocations, but will also assist young women trying to discover God’s will for their lives.
Q: What are mission, ministry and charism?
A: Mission – Refers to the overriding vision of each religious congregation or community in how they serve the Church and extend the Kingdom of God.
Ministry – Refers to the main work that the members of that community do to accomplish their mission; such as parish ministry, counseling, teaching, nursing, social work, hospital chaplain, etc.
Charism – Refers to the main purpose for which the congregation was founded, prompted by the Holy Spirit, which directly or indirectly benefits the church. Charisms differ from congregation to congregation.
If you are experiencing a sense that God is calling you to a religious vocation or if you have a question in regard to religious life or a question regarding discerning God’s call in your life, I can help! Feel free to contact me:
Fr. Brad Pelzel
Director, Office of Vocations
Tel: (712) 233-7523
Fax: (712) 233-7598
Diocese of Sioux City
PO Box 3379
1821 Jackson Street
Sioux City, IA 51102-3379