Throughout its history religious life has had people who are attracted to and want to be part of the spirit of a particular community but not necessarily become a religious sister or brother, nun, or monk. In response, religious communities have over time established various ways so that such folks can more formally share in the spirit of the community. These formal relationships with a community may involve mutual responsibilities, a renewable or life-long commitment, and a rule of life.
|THIRD ORDER Carmelites (wearing their “profession
scapulars”) gather with Carmelite friars
for prayer at Aylesford Priory in England.
I’ll briefly describe a few of them:
• Third Orders. In some of the early religious communities, the “First Order” referred to the original group of monks or friars. The “Second Order” referred to contemplative nuns who wished to follow in the founding spirit of the First Order. The “Third Order” or “Secular Order” referred to women and men who wanted to live in the spirit of the religious community but remain in their current state of life. The three main congregations with Third Orders are the Carmelites, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans.
• Oblates. The word oblate comes from the word oblation, which in Latin means “offering.” An oblate, then, is one who offers herself or himself to God in and through their association with a particular religious community. This term is most often used within the Benedictines and monastic life.
• Associates. The words associates or affiliates are often used in relation to apostolic religious communities that are not “orders” or monastics as mentioned above.
Each community has different customs in regard to tertiaries (the term for people who belong to a third order), oblates, and associates, so I encourage you to check out their websites and connect with the vocation director of the community. She or he will be able to talk with you not only about religious life but also some of these other approaches to participating.
In addition to these and other formal paths to relationship with a religious community, there are many others. At the I.H.M. Sisters people join us all the time for liturgies, volunteering on a project, helping support the community, visiting with members, attending events, and other activities. Often these are great ways for anyone—including someone discerning a call to religious life—to get to know the community.
A number of communities you can find on the VISION Vocation Network website have third order or other similar organizations, like the associate communities of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.
There is a right time to be called by God, and that time is right now! It can seem as if all the planets have to align or there has to be a choir of angels in the background, but in fact there’s no better time than the present. Regardless of who you are, where you’ve been, or where you are going, God calls you in this very moment. There are great stories in scripture of people being called at ordinary and extraordinary moments—an absurd proposal (Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7), a party (John 2:1-11), a road trip (Acts 9:3-6), and many others.
What does it mean to be called by God? It means that God desires to connect personally with each and every one of us and that our whole life is a response to God. We commit ourselves to a life relationship with person, family, or community. We seek education in order to prepare ourselves for a certain form of service in the world. We build a career using the gifts and talents we have been given. In these and other ways we give our lives to God.
There are also smaller but no less significant choices we make day-to-day in response to God’s call: a kind word to a stressed-out colleague, an opportunity to enjoy the rain, an extra effort to make a good project great.
The key is to be open to God’s invitation to connect with God here and now. In this way we open ourselves to think, feel, and act from a graced place. It can be helpful to have a spiritual friend or mentor with whom you can talk about calling (click here for more on having a spiritual director) and also to read the stories of how others have been called—be sure to check out the stories in scripture and stories about the saints.
Religious communities of women and of men have worked tirelessly on behalf of human rights throughout the centuries. It might be the monastic brother who serves as the monastery’s porter and feeds the hungry who knock on his door. It might be the religious sister trained as a civil lawyer who lobbies in Washington, D.C. on behalf of economic justice for those who are poor and vulnerable. It might be the cloistered nun who has given herself to praying ceaselessly for those who are caught up in drug abuse and drug war violence. It might be a missionary who is helping rural farmers in with land rights and sustainability.
No matter how religious communities live or what their mission is, care for people who are vulnerable, suffering, or poor is a significant aspect of being women and men rooted in the gospel and the social teachings of the church. Some communities may place more of an emphasis on a particular aspect of social justice—for example, setting up a network of homeless shelters and soup kitchens or ministering with people enslaved in human trafficking.
I encourage you to get to know religious communities and see how each is specifically committed to human rights in ways that come out of their particular mission. Ask a sister, brother, or priest how their life and ministry have reflected those very first words of the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”
Take time to ask yourself that same question. You may find that the ways you are attracted to serve and live the gospel resonate well with religious life!
Dating while discerning depends a lot on where you are in your discernment. If you are looking at your life and trying to figure out what path would best help you become fully who you are, then I encourage you to explore the possibilities! Date, visit religious communities, do a year of service, try out a new job, and go where you feel alive.
Do these things responsibly of course. Be honest with the person you are dating and be honest with yourself. As you continue to explore, you will find that some of your choices feel more in sync with how you want to be in the world and how you feel God is calling you. That’s the time when you might begin to focus yourself and your search.
If you are at a point in your life where you have explored many options and are ready to commit yourself more fully to one pathway and give yourself to pursuing God in that manner (whether it is a relationship or ministry or way of life), then you will have to make serious choices in regard to the possibilities you have been exploring.
Becoming a member of a religious community or a hermit or a priest doesn’t magically happen on the day you enter. It occurs gradually because you’ve already begun to make choices in your life that resonate with consecrated life. You aren’t dating because “you are not supposed to do that in discernment” but because it’s not where you feel most alive to your calling from God. That doesn’t mean that a relationship was no good or wrong, only that you want to pursue wholeheartedly another way of being for God.
My prayers are with each of you who are called to find their way in the midst of relationships, commitments, and longings. I highly recommend that you have a good spiritual director who can help you navigate these waters and remain true to yourself and God.
Discerning religious life is one thing—deciding with which community to live that calling can be quite another! In the United States alone there are over 400 religious communities of women! It can be confusing, but there is a way through it.
Sometimes the call to religious life and a particular community are one and the same. Very early in my discernment, for example, I knew that the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters were for me. As I spent time with them I knew I was “home” and that my vocation was as much to I.H.M. as it was to religious life. Other people feel a call to religious life and then further along in their discernment they begin to consider within which community that call will become incarnate.
Here’s a bit of an analogy to consider. Think about what it’s like when a person wants to get married. Do they need to check every available potential spouse? Thankfully, no! What do they do? They get to know people, befriend them, and sooner or later they hit it off with someone and that may be the beginning of a life-long commitment.
In religious life it is a similar situation because you need to be in relationship with sisters, or brothers for men discerning a vocation, in order to know what they are like and see if there’s a good connection. You can certainly read about them online and in brochures, but to truly know a community you have to know the members. You need to develop real relationships with them as individuals and as a community. You need to immerse yourself in their life and spirituality and at the same time open your life to them.
What are some things you might look for in finding a congregation that fits? First and foremost it is important that the community have a healthy sense of Catholic faith, community, ministry, and spirituality. These will be expressed and emphasized in many different ways, but that they are there is essential.
On a more personal level, take a look at how the community resonates with you. Does the community feel like “home” to you? Can you be fully yourself when you are with the community and as you envision your life with them? Do your values sync up with theirs? Do you feel a sense of joy, of “lightness” when you are with them? These are all questions to carry with you as you are with sisters or brothers, as you pray and discern, and as you talk with spiritual mentors and trusted friends.
My prayers are with you as you deepen your connections with God and with sisters.
Editor’s note: Another good way to sort through all the community possibilities is to take the VISION VocationNetwork Match!
It can be challenging to know what to do with feelings of being called to religious life when you are younger than the typical minimum age requirements to enter a community. What should you do? What is God saying to you? How could this possibly be for real?
You are not alone in feeling this way, and there is no doubt in my mind that God is calling you into deeper relationship. That is very exciting and also probably a bit scary because it can be tough to know what to do, especially because most religious communities require that a candidate for membership be at least 18 years old—and it’s also tough when your friends and classmates might not be thinking the same thing!
I am glad to hear that you are a friend of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She is a very good companion for you during this time because she herself desired to become a Carmelite nun even though she was too young to formally enter. But Thérèse did not take “too young” as the end of the story. She followed through on the calling she felt. Writes Father James Martin, S.J. on the blog In All Things in honor of the feast day of Thérèse:
“Faced with the sad prospect of having to wait until the age of 16 to enter the monastery, an adolescent Thérèse travels to Rome with her father to petition the pope for a special dispensation to enter earlier. Her request is granted a few months later by the local bishop, and Thérèse enters the ‘Carmel’ on April 9, 1888, at age 15.”
What is important is not necessarily how Thérèse followed through on her calling but that she followed through. As we follow in the footsteps of Thérèse and other saints, we are called to take their stories to heart and prayerfully consider how their stories can illuminate our own. One of the biggest messages in Thérèse’s story is that she didn’t give up even though others would say it was impossible or foolish or childish of her to think she could be called to become a nun.
So what are some steps that you can take in order to be faithful to the calling you feel? You don’t have to petition the pope to get moving on responding to God’s call! Here are a few resources to help get you going:
• “Four steps to hearing your call” by Sister Anita Louise Lowe, O.S.B.
• “How to become a Catholic nun” by A Nun’s Life Ministry
• “Nine ways to open up God's will for you” by Father Michael Scanlan, T.O.R
So keep on the path of Saint Thérèse by pursuing your calling, praying, seeking counsel from others, and exploring how you can most fully be yourself in God.
With today’s economic crisis, debt is on the minds of many of us—from legislators to families to businesses across the country and beyond. While a student loan isn’t exactly a multi-trillion dollar burden, it can feel like one given post-college finances and negotiating a doable loan repayment plan.
Thinking about religious life poses additional considerations because in order to become a religious sister or brother or a nun or monk, a person may not have any debt. Discerning a life choice like religious life calls a person to be free to enter fully into a community. The church wants people in discernment to be free of undue distractions—and paying back tens of thousands of dollars is definitely a distraction!
So what’s a person to do when they feel called to religious life but have student loans to repay?
1. Don’t close the door to your vocation! Keep faithful to prayer and to exploring God’s call in your life. It’s very important that you have a spiritual director during this time to help you sort out how God is working in your life.
2. Work diligently to manage your debt and to repay it. Check in with your loan company or with a trusted financial advisor who can help you make good decisions about repayment plans, loan consolidation, debt relief, and other financial options. Start repayment as soon as possible and don’t miss a payment. Take an extra job, start a fundraiser, be creative!
3. Spend time with religious communities. There are lots of ways to be part of them. Pray with them, minister with them, learn about their life. Seek out opportunities to connect with them. You might consider becoming a volunteer or associate or oblate of the community in order to immerse yourself in their way of life and give them a chance to get to know you.
4. Check out The Laboure Society. Their mission is “to provide financial assistance and spiritual support to individuals who must resolve student loans in order to pursue their vocation to priestly and/or religious life in the Catholic Church.”
There are some religious communities that may allow you to begin the process of becoming a religious sister or brother even though you have student debt. That is more common in communities which are involved in education and/or that place a significant emphasis on a college education as important training for apostolic work. These communities work with discerners on a one-to-one basis, depending on their circumstances.
For more info on dealing with student loans, download and listen to my conversation with Sister Maxine on our Ask Sister podcast episode 41.
Editors' note: The National Religious Vocation Conference is sponsoring a study funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, currently underway, to examine the debt problem more thoroughly. Project completion is scheduled for late fall. We will keep you abreast of study updates and results as they become available.
Sometimes one of the most challenging steps in pursuing a vocation to consecrated life is telling those we love! I waited months before telling my parents because I knew they’d have a lot of questions for me and I wasn’t sure how or if I’d be able to answer them. I was also afraid they would disapprove or think it was a crazy idea or some “fad” that I was going through.
As for me, I knew it was a crazy idea, and at the same time I knew it was something I felt drawn to explore! So I gave myself the space and time to explore religious life—what it is, how it’s grown over the years, and what it would be like to envision myself as a Catholic sister. I had tons of questions and needed time to feel my way around and be OK with the idea that was slowly breaking into reality.
At some point it’s time to tell your parents and the ones you love. You’ll know when it’s right—or it will slip out of its own accord. Of course they’ll have a lot of questions. You did, too, remember? Often they’ll have to go through a process similar to what you experienced: getting over the initial newness of the idea (“newness” is a gentle way to say what for me was pure shock), learning about what your vocation actually involves (“you mean that you’ll still be able to come for a family dinner once in a while”), and then envisioning you in that way of life (“my baby’s becoming a nun!”). So while it’s tough for you to be with them in all of that because you’ve got lots of questions yourself, hang in there and give it some time.
One of the most helpful things for me was to have my parents meet a couple of the nuns from the community I was joining. It gave them a chance to see what I.H.M. Sisters were really like, to see that they were normal, healthy women who weren’t going to brainwash me or lock me up in a cell someplace never to be seen again. It also helped for me to realize that my parents loved me so dearly that they would ask the hard and uncomfortable questions and that they simply wanted the best for me. So be sure to listen to and engage their concerns, objections, questions, and ideas. You’ll find them very instructive and helpful in your discernment.
Depending on where parents or loved ones are coming from, they may not always be able to support you. There can be many reasons why, and these sometimes have little to do with you. Some women and men have had to make the difficult choice to pursue their calling even with no support or even outright objections from their parents. During these times it’s important to have others who can be there to support and encourage you. And having a spiritual director is very helpful during this time to assist you in sorting out how you will peacefully be in the midst of growing in these relationships.
The simple answer to your question is: Yes, a person who is a member of a religious community or order can transfer to another community or order. Here are a few other considerations that arise with this question.
First, if the person happens to still be in first (or temporary) vows or is not yet vowed, she or he can leave freely because they are not yet full members of the community. Such leaving, however, is undertaken with much discernment, prayer, and conversation. The person must also faithfully tend to any responsibilities and relationships that have been established.
Second, the decision of a full member, someone who has professed final vows, to leave her or his community and, in some cases, join another community is a serious situation. This process is not engaged in lightly and is a time of great discernment, prayer, and conversation for both the individual and the community. After all, final vows means for life, not “for as long as I feel like it” or “’till something better comes along.” That being said, serious reasons do arise when a person can legitimately no longer live as a member of a particular community. These reasons are for the person and the leadership of the community to discern and are later witnessed by Rome for the valid dispensation from vows or transfer of vows.
Third, no religious community wants a person to feel “stuck” with them. On the contrary, religious communities want the very best for their members—to be free to love and serve God and God’s mission with other women or men who share the same vision. The community is built on real relationships and is not simply a structure within which one lives out one’s commitment for better or for worse. The pain of one member who feels “stuck” affects the whole of the community and must be tended to if the community and the individual are to be healthy and vibrant.
The Franciscans have a long history in the church, beginning with the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) and Saint Clare of Assisi (d. 1253). Over the years many Franciscan religious communities have emerged within Catholicism and beyond. In addition many people have incorporated the spirit and values of Franciscan spirituality into their own ways of life. While there’s no way to cover all aspects of Franciscanism, we can make some general distinctions.
The main categories of Franciscans are the three orders:
The first is the Order of Friars Minor which is comprised of the Observants, the Conventuals, and the Capuchins. The Observants (O.F.M.) and the Conventuals (O.F.M. Conv.) were the Franciscans of Francis’s day and later to this day. The Observants were friars who typically lived in hermitages tucked into the mountains. Conventuals were friars who felt called to follow Francis by serving people in urban areas. These friars ministered and lived together in houses (or “convents”) among the people. The Capuchins (O.F.M. Cap.) were a reform of Franciscanism in the 16th century spearheaded by Friar Matteo da Bascio who felt called to go back to a more rigorous way of Franciscan life that he saw in Saint Francis.
The second order of Franciscans are the Poor Clare nuns, communities of contemplative women founded by or in the spirit of Saint Clare of Assisi along with her good friend Francis.
The third order of Franciscans is diverse, comprising religious Franciscans (Third Order Regular), who profess public vows and live in community, and lay Franciscans (Secular Franciscan Order), single and married men and women who live a Franciscan lifestyle in their own situations and lives.
Within the above orders, you will find even more diversity of customs and traditions unique to each individual Franciscan community.
So what’s a person to do if they are attracted to the Franciscan way of life? My best advice is to get out there and explore different communities, meet friars, sisters, or nuns, and allow yourself to envision your life with them. Can you see yourself in their shoes or sandals? I also encourage you to read and experience more of the lives of Francis and Clare and other Franciscan saints and holy people. In their stories you will find pieces of your own which will help you to discern and know which Franciscan community feels most at home to you.
A vocation to religious life also means having the gifts, disposition, and health necessary to carry out the mission of a particular religious community. In terms of health, a person must be in good overall health, though sometimes she or he may have an illness or disability that is manageable and does not impede their engagement with the mission of the community.
In some communities—in particular active religious communities (as distinct from cloistered or monastic ones)—there may be a greater emphasis placed on health because of the sometimes physically and/or emotionally challenging ministries in which the community may be involved. I encourage you to get to know a religious community—it’s mission, members, ministries, and way of life. You’ll get a sense of how at home you feel with them. Once you have begun relating to a vocation director, or if you have a mentor in the community, talk with them about your concerns. That doesn’t have to be the first thing you tell them about yourself, but you should raise you concerns early in your discernment with them.
I also encourage you to connect with persons who’ve been where you are and to check out resources for discerners like yourself. A resource right here on this website has information about religious communities that actively welcome persons with chronic illnesses.
For as many people who are called to religious life (sisters, nuns, monks, brothers) or to ordained life (priests, deacons) there are as many reasons why they are called to that particular way of life! Ask a religious brother or a contemplative nun or a married deacon and you’ll get a variety of responses as to why she or he chose that specific vocation. Often, however, you’ll hear common threads in their responses:
• A desire to give oneself wholeheartedly to God
• A passion for ministry and outreach
• A love of the Catholic faith
• A sense of the movement of the Holy Spirit
• A commitment to a prayerful way of life
In addition to these you’d find that each particular way of life has additional attractions—women and men in religious life are often drawn to community living as celibate persons; deacons and priests have a passion for serving within parish communities and dioceses; hermits desire solitude with God, and so on.
So there are many reasons (and sometimes it may even seem as if there’s not even a whole lot of reason!) why people become priests or hermits or sisters. But just like people who are called to marriage or single life or lay ministry, it all comes down to how the Spirit is moving in a person’s life and inviting them into a lifelong commitment to relationship with God and service to the world.
In most cases, yes, you can enter a religious order without a college degree. Many communities, however, will strongly encourage you to get a degree either before entering the community or while you are in formation.
There are a couple of significant reasons why religious communities often prefer persons entering to have a college degree. First, education and college life are significant experiences that expand the doorways of one’s mind and one’s life experience. We discover new ideas and ways of relating with other people, God, and the world around us. We also learn a lot about ourselves. All of that is key to being in a good space to make a life commitment in a religious community.
Second, a college education is essential to discovering and becoming skilled in our talents and gifts. As a religious you will use this training well in whatever you do in your ministry and community life. Your education can help you in a particular ministry (e.g., social work, medicine, education, pastoral care) and it can help you with community responsibilities (e.g., administration, facilitation, interpersonal relationships, and so on).
Religious communities also recognize that a college education is not always possible due to personal finances or life circumstances. There is often room to work things out, especially if a person entering has had other life experience such as a full-time job.
Get to know the religious community you hope to join and talk with their vocation director to see what the possibilities are.
Some of us know and respond instantly to a calling from God. Others, like you and me, hear God’s call gradually and sometimes over the course of many years. These “in between” times are always worthwhile as God’s call deepens within us and we grow in our understanding of ourselves and God.
You seem to be at a crossroads and ready to explore God’s call more intentionally. A first step is to get to know priests and brothers and their way of life. That can be done casually or formally, whatever works best for you at first. See how it feels to imagine yourself in their way of life and involved in their mission. It may help to learn more about the particular vocations to become a diocesan priest, a religious priest, or a religious brother. You’ll find more information about these vocations on the FAQ page of this website.
While you actively explore what it’s like to be a brother or priest, be sure to take all of these experiences to prayer. Check in with God daily, telling God of your desires, feelings, and thoughts. And don’t forget to listen! Spend time in silence, opening your heart to God. For some guidance, read through the article ”Four steps to hearing your call” by Benedictine Sister Anita Louise Lowe. You might also consider working with a spiritual director, someone who is skilled in helping people discern God’s calling in their lives.
Another avenue for discerning God’s call is to engage in some form of ministry. Become a catechist at your parish, volunteer as at a hospice, advocate for those in need as a board member or in your job, spend your vacation time on a service trip.
And if you are doing these things, and still feel drawn to become a priest or brother, then get in touch with the vocation director of your local diocese (for diocesan priesthood) or in the religious community with whom you feel most at home. It may simply be time to go for it!
My prayers are with you as you move more deeply into God’s calling to you.
I love sports, in particular running. As a sister, would I have to give that up? –Rachel W.
I adore sports as well and am dying to find a local roller derby club that will take on a nun with questionable skating skills! Many of we religious enjoy sports whether as players or spectators. In my IHM congregation, for example, we have a sister who is in a basketball league, another who runs weekly, and many who are cyclists at all levels. In addition we have annual Michigan vs. Ohio State tailgating parties where being a spectator can become a full contact sport!
In many if not all religious communities, there is a place for sports and exercise. The degree to which that is possible varies across communities depending on their mission and customs. Engaging in most kinds of sport is not only good for one’s health but for one’s spirit as well. We recognize that God speaks to us in a variety of ways, including the “languages” that are most native to us—for you it sounds as if running may be that kind of language (check out a blog post I wrote on cycling and meditation).
So there is a very real way that a sport like running can be incorporated into your life of prayer as a sister. There’s also the possibility that it can be a form of ministry, too. Some of the sisters belonging to the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love have turned running into a way to help children deal with behavioral issues and improve their school work.
I encourage you to keep running and explore how this gift can help you in your own spiritual journey, as well as help others.
Music is a wonderful gift whether you are a composer or performer or listener. Let me first encourage you to think about your music. What kind of messages does it send? Are the lyrics gospel-affirming? In what ways does your music build you up into a person of God or allow you to speak a word of encouragement to others? Music does not have to be “religious” to do that; it just has to be real and touch the soul.
Second, as you think about beginning the process of entering a religious community or seminary, know that you will have to make some sacrifices. Some formation programs may have greater limits than others which will affect how you can express yourself musically. But that does not mean abandoning things completely. The process of formation can be an opportunity to come to a new appreciation of your music and perhaps even a new or enhanced expression of your music. As you grow in your vocation, you may find a ministry or form of prayer that incorporates music.
And you may find others in your community who share your love of music. Speaking to the vocation director or other members of the community will help you with specifics about how music is a part of the life and mission of the community.
Finally, remember that the God who fostered your love of music is the same God who calls you to pursue your vocation.
A spiritual director is a wonderful companion on your life’s journey. Whether you are discerning your vocation or want to tune in to how God is moving in your life, a spiritual director can help you along the way. There are a number of things to consider when looking for a spiritual director.
First, think about the reasons why you are drawn to spiritual direction. What are some of the spiritual or life questions that are on your mind and in your heart? What are some of the significant landmarks of your faith journey?
Second, what are important characteristics of a spiritual director that attract you? Do you prefer a female or male director, someone from your own faith tradition, someone with a sense of humor or familiarity with a particular spirituality or culture?
Third, check out the spiritual directors in your area. Start by asking around and seeing if a leader at your parish or a school chaplain can recommend any spiritual directors. You can also contact local retreat centers. Most will have certified spiritual directors on staff. Attending a retreat led by a spiritual director can be a good way to see if you are comfortable with a person before making a one-on-one appointment. You might also check with local theology schools or religious communities to see if they have a list of spiritual directors. A good resource is Spiritual Directors International which has a “Seek and Find” guide as well as a number of resources on spiritual direction and discernment.
Fourth, meet with a few different spiritual directors. Spiritual directors expect that you will need time to decide if the relationship is a good “fit.” Feel free to ask them questions about how they do spiritual direction, what they think about prayer, and what they find helpful when in discernment. Pay attention to how you feel when talking with the spiritual director and listen to how the Spirit is leading you.
For more suggestions on finding a spiritual director, see Finding a Spiritual Director on the Spiritual Directors International website.
Recently Sister Julie was asked about suggestions for a meaningful gift to someone making their final vows as a member of religious community. She actually gets asked this question a lot and has a page on her website devoted to this topic.
When you join a religious order, you make a life commitment to become part of a community. That means that the mission and life of the community become your primary way of living for and with God. What you actually do (your job, or ministry, or career) is “filtered” through this life commitment, just as when you marry, your significant decisions (and even insignificant ones!) are considered with your spouse and in light of your relationship.
So when thinking about what you might do as a religious priest, sister, nun, or brother, you must take into consideration not only your own gifts, talents, and passion but also what is good for your community. You need input from other members of the community to get a sense of the common good and how a job possibility or career path might further the community’s mission. In doing this kind of discernment (both personal and communal) you are also tending to what is good for you, too.
That’s the long way of saying that if you are looking into an active community, then yes, you can have a job or career. If you are looking into a contemplative community, then your primary ministry is going to be prayer.
It is possible for a person who has converted to Catholicism to become a religious sister or brother. Many converts to Catholicism are from other Christian traditions but they may also be from other religious traditions or no tradition at all. It can take a year or several years for a person to learn about the Catholic faith and become a full member of the Catholic Church.
Typically religious communities require that a convert be Catholic for at least two years before they can formally seek entrance. That gives the person who converted time and space to live the Catholic faith in “ordinary time”—that is, everyday life with all its ups and downs and in betweens.
During the time that one is preparing to become a Catholic, usually a process that follows the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a person can certainly explore religious life and learn about sisters and brothers and their mission and way of life. It’s important, however, to tend to the calling to become Catholic, because that is its own calling from God.
When a person and a religious community are ready to begin a formal discernment with one another, there is nothing that is really different between a convert’s experience and a lifelong Catholic’s experience. It is important in so far as it is a significant landmark on our spiritual journey, and for each of us those landmarks will be different or have different meanings attached to them. And if there are areas that a new member needs more study or training in—be it Catholic theology, or pastoral care, or professional skills—the community may encourage them to pursue those.
These are good things to talk about with your spiritual director or vocation director who can help you integrate your calling to the Catholic faith with a calling to religious life or any other form of consecrated life as a Catholic person.
Discerning a vocation can be like the old adage: A watched pot never boils. I know that to be true. During my discernment when I was trying to figure out how God was calling me, I felt as if I would never get to the point of knowing for sure that God was calling me, let alone exactly to what that call was. I had some helps along the way—a spiritual director, supportive friends, and an inquisitive mind that always kept me asking questions of myself and of God. Though I felt as if I were getting nowhere, I realized later that the more I consciously tended to God and sorted through my life with all its hopes and dreams and struggles, the more I was growing into my calling. All of a sudden, so it seemed, the pot was boiling. I wasn’t exactly sure how I got there, but I felt ready to take a step towards what God was calling me.
The process was both an active one and one of simply living life. In terms of an active process I was conscious that I wanted my life to be more oriented around God. And I realized I didn’t have to wait for God to send me a big sign in the sky to act on that. The first step for me was to be more faithful to prayer. That meant praying each day and also learning about different ways to pray. I was attracted to praying with the psalms and also to silent prayer, so I tried them. I also began seeing a spiritual director, someone who could walk with me on my spiritual journey and help me to see the ways God was moving in my life. I began reading more of the saints (Saint Teresa of Avila in particular) and also, when I was finally willing to admit I might be attracted to religious life, to get to know sisters around me. I went on retreat and I tried to make concrete in my daily life the gospel that I was committed to following.
In the midst of taking these kinds of concrete steps I also kept living my life. While the discernment part of things was a real struggle for me, I was free in my “normal” life to just be. I was a grad student, so I was studying, hanging out with friends, working, and enjoying life. Over time I began to feel shifts within my own self, shifts toward feeling more like myself, feeling more alive than ever. My friends started noticing that, too. By being intentional about my discernment and also integrating it with my everyday life, I found that I had already been living into the calling that God was nudging me toward.
If you are wondering if God is nudging you in a particular direction, I encourage you to explore your life and faith and to pick up a few discernment tools. There are lots of articles dealing with discernment and prayer on this website. Look into spiritual direction and find a saint or spiritual book that speaks to you. Take action to practice and grow the values you wish to reflect in your life. And along the way trust in the God who has known you your whole life and is with you every step of your journey.