FAQs: Frequently asked questions about vocations

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Questions and answers about vocations

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.

What is a brother?
A brother belongs to a religious community of men. A brother takes religious vows, usually poverty, chastity, and obedience.  A brother's life revolves around prayer, communal living in a religious community or monastery, and a ministry within the Church and society.  A brother is not ordained to the priesthood, and thus does not perform the sacramental duties of a priest. Some men's communities include both brothers and priests, and both have equal respect and status in the community.

What is a monk?
A monk is the male member of a monastic or contemplative order. Some monks make solemn vows. Monasticism is a particular form of religious life built around a rule, such as the Rule of Benedict, and the Divine Office, a set of prayers and psalms chanted or sung at various points in the day. Women who choose monastic life are called sisters or nuns.

What is a friar?
A friar is a male member of a mendicant order, such as the Dominicans or Franciscans, although the term is sometimes extended to others in the monastic tradition.

What is the difference between a diocesan priest and a priest from a religious order?
All priests are ordained to the priesthood through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. However, a man may choose to be a diocesan priest (sometimes called a secular priest) or a religious priest (or order priest).

If he chooses to be a diocesan priest, then he enters the diocesan seminary system, and once ordained typically serves within his own diocese (a geographic territory designated by the Catholic Church). He is appointed to his ministry-most often parish work-by the bishop of that diocese. A diocesan priest is accountable to his bishop and the people he serves.

If a man chooses religious priesthood, he joins a men's religious community. While he may perform parish ministry, he generally serves in other ways, typically doing work related to the mission and ministries of his religious congregation. A religious priest is accountable to his major superior and the other men in his community for his religious life and his local bishop and the people he serves for his priestly duties.

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 [See the Religious Life Timeline]. 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 in 2007, 2008, and 2009.

Are young people still choosing to become priests, sisters, and brothers?
Yes, they are. According to the 2009 NRVC/CARA Study on Recent Vocations, 71 percent of those who have entered religious life and are currently in initial formation are under 40. And of the thousands of people who fill out the VISION VocationMatch.com profiles each year the majority (70 percent) are under 40. The number of men and women who choose religious has always been a very small percentage of the Catholic population, but the witness and service of religious sisters, brothers, and priests has been invaluable to the life of the church. 

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. The National Religious Vocation Conference is the professional organization for vocation directors of religious communities.

Vocation Directors who work on behalf of a diocese answer to the bishop.They have  their own professional organization, the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors.)

What is the process to enter religious life?
Typically someone interested in religious life goes through a discernment process where they prayerfully consider the call to religious life, explore vocation options, contact religious communities, and eventually begin a more formal process of discernment with a particular religious institute.

Once a candidate chooses to apply to a community and is accepted, he or she typically begins a formation process starting with postulancy or candidacy, in which the person is introduced to the communal life, ministries, and mission of the community. Following postulancy comes the novitiate, where a person is formally admitted to a religious institute. The novitiate is an extended time of prayer, study and spirituality, which usually lasts for at least one year. After the novitiate, the novice is admitted to temporary vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This period of temporary commitment allows for further discernment before he or she makes perpetual profession of vows within a given religious institute.    

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

Total priests in 2008: 40,580

Diocesan priests: 27,614
Religious priests: 12,966

Permanent deacons in 2008: 15,893
Religious brothers in 2008: 5,001
Religious sisters in 2008: 61,855

These and additional statistics are found on the CARA website.

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 have accepted widowed and divorced people who have had their marriages properly annulled by the Church.

What are the vows of religious life?
The main vows for men and women in religious life are chastity, poverty, and obedience. Individual institutes may require additional vows.

How do priests, nuns, and brothers spend their days?
Men and women religious have an obligation of personal and communal prayer, including daily Mass. They live in community, usually in one house. Apostolic communities, including missionaries, are engaged in ministries, such as healthcare, education, and social service. Contemplative communities are committed to daily prayer and some form of manual labor.

What is the National Vocation Conference?
The National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC) was founded in 1988 as a professional organization of men and women committed to vocation awareness, invitation, and discernment to consecrated life as brothers, sisters, and priests. The NRVC has an annual membership of over 1,300 women and men, most of whom are vocation ministers for religious congregations. The organization is divided into 14 regions plus international members. The NRVC serves its members by providing education, resources, and services for professional growth.

What is VISION Vocation Guide?
VISION Vocation guide is a print, online, and digital resource for those interested in entering religious life. Published by TrueQuest Communications on behalf of the National Religious Vocation Conference, VISION is distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada in print and around the world in its digital format. VISION articles and features are also available in Spanish and French online. The magazine is in its 22 year of publication. In 2006, VISION launched its popular VocationMatch.com service, which assists those discerning a religious vocation to narrow their search for the right community.

Carol Schuck Scheiber is content editor for VISION.




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