Discerning Religious Life

The questions to ask and the resources to read.

What is a Religious Sister?

A woman religious is a member of a religious congregation who shares in a particular apostolate.  After a period of promising simple vows, the sister makes perpetual simple vows for life. These vows are poverty, chastity and obedience. Most of the institutes whose members are called Sisters were established since the nineteenth century.  Congregations of sisters typically live and are active in the world.  They serve in a variety of active ministries reaching out into the world to assist the Church in a variety of areas: health, schools, parishes, etc.

What is the difference between a Religious Sister and a Religious Nun?

While the titles are often used interchangeably there is a difference.  Nuns take solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live a contemplative lifestyle most often in a cloistered environment.  They live a life of silence and prayer.  They engage in some work to help support themselves.

What is a Religious Brother?

A brother is a single, Catholic layman who lives his baptismal commitment by joining a religious community of vowed members dedicated to serving God and those around them. Religious brothers profess the evangelical counsels (vows) of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They also commit themselves to a life of ministry, prayer and Gospel witness within the context of community.

What is the difference between a Religious Brother and a Religious Priest?

A brother lives in a religious community and works in nearly any ministry: teacher, cook, lawyer, etc. Brothers do not feel called by God to the ordained ministry as priests and deacons are. Thus, since brothers are not ordained, they are not sacramental ministers.  A religious priest takes the same vows as a brother and may also work in a variety of positions, but he is also ordained to the priesthood and serves as a sacramental minister.

What is the difference between a Diocesan Priest and a Religious Priest?

A diocesan priest ordinarily serves the church within a geographic area called a Diocese. He ordinarily serves the people as a parish priest, but he may also be involved in many other forms of ministry like teaching, hospital ministry, campus ministry, or prison ministry. Diocesan priests make promises of celibacy as well as obedience and respect to their bishop. They do not make a vow of poverty, but are to live simply so they can be of service to God’s people.

A religious priest is a member of a religious congregation whose ministry goes beyond the geographic limits of any diocese. A religious priest seeks to live a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience within a community of men. The community shares a common vision and spirituality and often emphasizes a particular type of ministry.

What is a religious community?

Groups of men or women who live under a religious rule and who publicly profess vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience form a religious community.  They are referred to as an order or congregation who are recognized by Church authority. Religious communities typically follow the rule of their founder, which can be apostolic and characterized by working in the world, or contemplative, which is characterized by a life of solitude and prayer.  One way to identify an individual’s connection to a specific order or congregation is by the initials following their name, which identifies the order to which they belong.

What are the formal stages in joining a religious community?

The time frame is dependent on the religious community but always includes: Postulancy or Candidacy; Novitiate; First Vows – Temporary; and, Final Vows – Perpetual.

How do religious communities come to serve in a Diocese?

Religious communities can be invited by the Bishop to come and serve in his Diocese, or the head of a religious order may request that the Bishop of a particular diocese allow that community to come and serve within the diocese. In both cases the religious order serves with the agreement of the Bishop.

Religious Vocations in the US

You can find a more comprehensive guide to discerning religious life at these sites:

Discernment Books

A Living Sacrifice

A comprehensive guide to help men discern if God is calling them to religious life. Written by Fr. Benedict Croell, O.P. and Fr. Andrew Hofer. O.P.

Discerning Religious Life

A comprehensive guide to help women discern Religious Life with clarity, confidence, and joy. Foreword by Cardinal Dolan.

Discerning the Will of God

Father Timothy Gallagher uses Ignatian principles to lay out a clear, well-structured path for seeking God’s will.