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.
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.
I’m thinking about becoming a priest, but my family and I do not have the financial resources to pay for my seminary education. What should I do?
First I want to let you know that you are already beginning to respond to God's call just by the fact of considering the priesthood and a life of caring and service to God's people.
Money is an issue that needs to be addressed when considering joining the priesthood or another form of consecrated life, as it is in other areas of life. Formation and academic studies for the priesthood cost money and can't be completely absorbed by a diocese or parish community. Likewise, families and individuals can't always afford the total cost either.
Fortunately there are many benefactors who donate directly to seminaries or make funds available through scholarships or grants. Two Catholic organizations that have generously supported vocations are the Knights of Columbus (contact your local council) and the Laboure Society (www.labourefoundation.org).
And consider some fundraising of your own:
• Take a paying job and save the income for your studies
• Network with priests in your diocese and ask for their assistance
• Seek help from your parish (e.g., fundraising events, donations)
• Publish a request for support within your online social networks
And perhaps most importantly, trust in the Holy Spirit who is not only working within you to respond to God's call but within others, too, who have the ability to help you. Providence provides, as my I.H.M. sisters say. Blessings to you, and be sure to discuss your concerns with a vocation director when you are ready.
I was married and am now divorced. I recently decided to become a Catholic. Because my marriage wasn't in the church, can I still be a nun? I want to see if this course is right for me. Where can I start?Thank you for your questions. Let's start with the first one: entering religious life having been married and divorced outside of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church generally respects the marriage vows of people regardless of their religious affiliation; every marriage is considered a promise unto death. Given that you are in the process of becoming a Catholic, I would recommend that you talk with the people who are leading the classes at your parish about your concern. They will be able to assist you in contacting the appropriate church tribunal to determine whether or not the marriage is recognized and what steps, if any, need to be taken.
The process of becoming a Catholic and of working with a tribunal can take some time. In addition, the church generally requires a waiting time (e.g., 2 years) before entering religious life for persons who are converts to the Catholic faith. The journey of becoming a nun can take minimally 5 years.
At this point I would begin by talking with the folks at your parish. Second, it is important that you get to know what being a nun is really like. Each religious community (e.g., Dominican, Loretto, Franciscan) is like a family and as such has its own unique way of expressing and living its mission. Some nuns and sisters live a more contemplative, cloistered life while others live a more active life in ministry. Both kinds of life are rooted in prayer and living the gospel. It's important to spend time seeing what you are attracted to and what God may be calling you to. I've got a number of suggestions on how to get started becoming a Catholic nun on my website. Spend time especially with the suggestions around prayer and getting to know sisters. Your parish will be able to help you locate religious communities in your area.Blessings as you continue your journey into the Catholic faith and as you explore how God is calling you.
It can be tough to respond to a calling from God when one keeps running into obstacles in pursuing that calling. It's especially important to stay close to God during this time and if possible stay connected to a spiritual director.
You are not alone in being over 50 and sensing a calling to a form of consecrated life. We regularly receive requests for information here at VISION and on aNunsLife.org and have looked for dioceses and religious communities that are open to folks over the age of 50. There are not many because of the expectation that a person be in good overall health and capable of participating fully in the mission and ministry of the lifestyle, whether ordained or religious life.
In general I have found that contemplative religious communities are more open to older candidates, and for men that may include the possibility of ordination. Vocation directors, however, are becoming more aware of the growing group of people over 50 who are called to some form of consecrated life. Although there is little precedent in our current forms, the church does have a form of life called the Order of Widows that could be renewed and revitalized for older women and men.
For you, now, I encourage you to go more deeply into God's calling to you with a spiritual director. Also, spend time with others who are sensing a similar calling—consider visiting the Vocation Forum at aNunsLife.org which has a new forum for folks over 50.Trust that God does in fact have something in mind for you, even if at this time you keep bumping into obstacles. I will be praying with you and will continue to keep an eye out for possibilities for you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vocation is one of those words that tends to cue the spooky music. What does it mean that God “calls” us? When the religious imagination runs wild on this topic, we begin to think: You can run but you can’t hide when God drafts you for a particular service. Look at what happened to Jonah, who tried to outrun God and wound up in the belly of a whale!
A website visitor’s question continues: “Does God plan our professional life, whom we marry, and who will come to be our children?” This line of thinking gets us to the crux of the matter, which is: How free is our freedom? Is free will a polite fiction, when God has our destiny all worked out in advance? The short answers are: Our freedom is real, human history has no blueprint, and God is prepared to greet any choice we might make with a constellation of grace and possibility. So feel—really and seriously—free.
Like any divine gift, our freedom comes complete with responsibility. It does, after all, make a difference which choices we make. Choose the way of destruction, and you’re in for a world of hurt. Choose the way of planting and building, and the future blossoms into fuller and greater life. What we reap, we sow. That isn’t God rewarding us or getting even with us, as the case may be. It’s just the natural consequences of our free decision.
Yet we say God calls us. To what, if not to particular things? God calls us to fullness of life. God wants you to be everything you can be, to the height and breadth and depth of your being. God wants you to be fully alive, which means loving, giving, expressing, and radiant—just as God is. We’re made in the image and likeness of God, right? So answer that call, and you have stepped into your vocation for sure.
Book of Jonah; then compare to: Genesis 1:26-31; 12:1-3; Deuteronomy 30:19-20; 1 Samuel 3:1-10; Ruth 1:16-17; Isaiah 6:8; Mark 1:16-20; Romans 5-7; 1 Corinthians 1-3
Running into the Arms of God: Stories of Prayers, Prayer as Story by Patrick Hannon (ACTA Publications)
Finding God in Each Moment: The Practice of Discernment in Everyday Life by Carol Ann Smith, S.H.C.J. and Eugene F. Merz, S.J. (Ave Maria Press)
I have to begin by quoting Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw's wonderful play about her trial. When Joan's interrogators doubt that the voices she hears are from God and suggest that they spring from her imagination, Joan replies as if her accusers are hopelessly ignorant: "I know. That is how God speaks to me."
We tend to belittle the imagination as the realm of children. We forget that Jesus had a high opinion of children, favored their company, and thought we should be more like them: "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." Many saints agreed with Joan's assessment that imagination plays an important role in the spiritual life. Teresa of Avila, no slouch about spiritual matters, employed religious imagination deliberately and recommended it over theological reflection: "I continued to picture Christ within me. . . . I did very simple things of this kind. . . . I believe my soul gained very much in this way, because I began to practice prayer without knowing what it was."
It's safe to say that the call to religious life most probably begins in the imagination, and in no sense does that imply it's to be ignored. But obviously if any vocation remains in the daydream stage—whether it's about becoming a bookseller or a Benedictine—it won't progress far. I would advocate three tools in the early discernment stage: regular prayer, reading, and retreat. How you pray best is up to you, but make it a habit. Daily mass attendance, praying the rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, meditation on the Bible, or using a daily prayer guide from your local Catholic bookstore may help.
Reading is next. Read about topics like chastity and celibacy but also about the specific aspects of vocation that interests you: contemplation, ordination, communal life, or a particular form of service. When you're ready, schedule a retreat and ask for a spiritual director. And remember Joan of Arc's prayer about being in God's grace: "If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me."
Matt. 18:1-5; Mark 9:36-37; Luke 9:46-48; Ephesians 4:11-16; Philippians 3:12-15; Colossians 1:9-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; 2 Thessalonians 1:11-12
Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints by James Martin, S.J. (HiddenSpring)
Finding God in Each Moment: The Practice of Discernment in Everyday Life by Carol Ann Smith, S.H.C.J. and Eugene Merz, S.J. (Ave Maria Press)
I’m happy to count among my friends Franciscans, Jesuits, Oblates, Paulists, Marists, and even the rare Camaldolese monk. I also know and love a small army of diocesan priests. I’ve often wondered why each one entered the ministry and, in particular, wound up in the “lifestyle” he currently enjoys. Because I’m curious and also pretty bold, I always ask.
Their candid replies have helped me appreciate the process of discernment, the power of the Spirit, and the beauty of personal testimony. Diocesan priests are characterized primarily by their priestly call to serve a specific community of faith. Their avenue of service is literally a geographic region—a diocese—and within that patch of land they pledge to pastor, preach, teach, and lead. Most diocesan priests talk about feeling called to serve in parishes, to lead the assembly at Mass, to share in the whole cycle of people’s lives from birth to death. They hope to minister in seasons of sorrow and joy to the love of God and the hope we bear in Jesus.
Priests who belong to a religious order may also feel the profound call to lead worship, preach, and teach. But they also speak of being powerfully drawn to a special charism or spiritual gift a particular religious community embodies. For example, Franciscans are noted for their commitment to poverty; Jesuits for their academic excellence; Paulists for their pioneering media-savvy; and monks to a life defined by prayer and silence.
Although diocesan priests may or may not share a residence with other priests, religious order priests are usually dedicated to a communal lifestyle by design. If you spiritually yearn for communal life or to serve in parish ministry, those promptings might be trusted as the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But nearly every priest I know begins the story of his call with the story of another vocation: the priest he knew whose generous ministry first compelled him to draw more closely to a life of service. So priests of every variety and charism continue to give birth to the next generation of leaders.
Psalm 110:4; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; 1 Timothy 4:6-16; 2 Timothy 1:6-14; 4:1-5
Look no further! You have arrived! See the many resources on the Vocation Network website for descriptions of religious communities of men and to take advantage of the Vocation Match.
Paths of Love: The Discernment of Vocation According to Aquinas, Ignatius, and Pope John Paul II by Joseph Bolin (CreateSpace)
Diversity of Vocations by Marie Dennis (Orbis Books)
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.
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.
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.
If we take as our example the lives of the saints who were ordained and/or members of religious orders, there's no cookie-cutter approach to vocations. Some exhibited great piety as children and entered consecrated life in their youth. Others were dissolute until a late conversion propelled them directly into their mission. The road you and I take to fulfilling our baptismal call will follow its own rhythms. However long it takes and whatever we bring to it, we trust God will use us for divine purposes.
With that in mind, here are some practical criteria to consider in your discernment. If you're a lifelong practicing Catholic who "presided" at Necco-wafer Masses in childhood or wore rosary beads dangling from your skirt button in imitation of the sisters at school, the seeds of vocation may have been expressing themselves in you playfully for a long time. After a few decades of absorbing sacraments and deepening virtuous practices, it may seem that the call to consecrated or ordained life is new when it's really as old as your baptism.
I generally caution new Catholics, however, not to leap directly from the Easter Rites of Initiation into a deeper form of commitment for at least a year, and certainly not without a dedicated spiritual director to walk them through the discernment process.
Which brings us to the next point: Discernment is never a solitary pursuit. The church is the umpire when it comes to vocations. Until a church official deems it a strike or a foul, so to speak, it's not on the board. Along with spiritual direction, periods of retreat and pastoral counsel accompany the average journey into a church vocation.
Both seminaries and religious communities require a period of testing and evaluation before they admit candidates. The ensuing process of academic study and/or community formation are themselves additional phases of discernment on both sides, properly understood. Even short discernment processes, therefore, are technically long ones. And there are no losers in this process, because whatever the verdict, what you learn about the nature of your call is not wasted.
• The Art of Discernment: Making Good Decisions in Your World of Choices by Stefan Kiechle, S.J. (Ave Maria Press, 2005)
• The Meaning of Vocation by Pope John Paul II (Scepter, 1999)
• Still Called By Name: Why I Love Being a Priest by Dominic Grassi (Loyola Press, 2003)
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.
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.
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!