Five things that surprised me about religious life
Religious life is something I thought I knew a lot about. I went to Catholic school for 10 years, had several nuns as teachers, was involved in my parish, met many priests over the years, and never missed the chance to watch The Trouble with Angels or Sister Act. However, I recently discovered through my blogging for VISION that all of that Catholic culture hardly qualified me as an expert on religious life. In fact, what I didn’t know about religious life could be stacked about as high as that mountain Maria climbs in The Sound of Music. Here’s a sampling of some surprising things I’ve learned:
1. It takes a long time to become an official “finally professed” member of a religious order.While you are considering entering a religious community, there is a long period of prayer, more discernment, training, and learning—as well as the community determining if you’re a good fit—before you take what are called “final vows.” Prior to final vows, people take and renew temporary vows for a period of three to nine years.
On average, it takes about six to 10 years after completing a bachelor’s degree for a man or woman to become a “finally professed” member of a religious community. Men who seek ordination must earn a Master of Divinity degree, which can add additional time to the process. Both men and women who join a community usually live and work in it during this long initiation phase.
2. Most members of religious communities have advanced degrees and almost all have college degrees.While I knew that many religious were highly educated in various areas, I didn’t know to what extent. Many religious orders prefer that members have an undergraduate degree before entering. Members are not only educated in theology and pastoral care but often have advanced degrees—be it in English, mathematics, philosophy, science, music—wherever their interests and talents lie. I think many young people fear their specific studies will go unused if they enter a religious community, but that is not the case.
3. Young people are still joining religious communities. Like many others in their 20s, I always pictured sisters, brothers, and priests—if I pictured them at all—as older members of the Catholic community. It was not until my senior year of high school when a classmate of mine contemplated priesthood and I also came to know two Jesuit novices that I became aware of a younger generation of religious.
In fact, according to a 2009 study commissioned by the National Religious Vocation Conference, the average age of entrance to religious life is 30 for men and 32 for women, and nearly 1,000 women are in formation to become sisters. In 2014, 190 women and men in the United States professed final vows, and their average age was 37, according to a report from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
So young people play a vital role in religious communities, and the fact that young people continue to be interested in becoming sisters, brothers, and priests ensures the future of religious life.
4. Members of religious communities have differences of opinion.I always thought of religious men and women as extremely obedient and believed they followed the directives of the church and their communities without question. But faithful, lively debate and questioning in good conscience exists within communities and among various religious orders and the wider church.
Knowing that differences exist helps young people have a more realistic understanding of religious life. I’ve learned that you don’t stop being human and feeling passionate about your ideals when you enter religious life. In fact, if the life is right for you, you will become all the more yourself—the person you were meant to be. And though you may not always see eye to eye with other members of your community, other Catholics, or church leaders, you will strive to listen, learn, and grow in the process of becoming a more faithful and loving person and help others do the same.
5. Men and women in religious life are not visible everywhere.Maybe it’s because of my Catholic schooling or the fact that I grew up in a big city with a large Catholic population, but I always thought that religious life and opportunities to meet sisters, brothers, and priests and see them in action were not hard to come by, but this is not the case in many places. Some small towns and rural parishes have little or no interaction with men and women in religious life, and even the parish priest may only be available once a month as he must make the rounds to several understaffed parishes in the diocese. This means many young Catholics never witness firsthand the life and work of men and women in religious life and never realize that a religious vocation is an option for them.
Discovering all these surprising things about religious sisters, brothers, and priests makes me acutely aware of what a daily blessing they are to all of us.
Related article: vocationnetwork.org, Eight myths about religious life, Vision 2002.
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