Questions people may ask about your vocation . . .
Parents and friends of people who express an interest in joining a religious community often have serious concerns about their loved one embracing a way of life that is countercultural, often misunderstood, and sometimes mysterious. The following questions and answers are meant to shed light on this joyful and fulfilling life choice.
1. Won’t you be living with mostly elderly people?
Not necessarily. Current younger members stand not on the shoulders of old members but on those of great wisdom, faithfulness, and experience. While every community has elderly members, there are many younger members in congregations across the country and the world. “One of the great gifts religious life has to offer, and to model for the rest of the world,” said Sister Julie Vieira, I.H.M., “is an intergenerational community that values the energy and new ideas of the young and reverences the perspective and insight of elders.”
People from all walks of life, ages, and ethnic backgrounds continue to feel called to religious life. It is not uncommon for high school students and young adults to experience curiosity about a religious vocation. Admission requirements vary from community to community, but according to the 2009 National Religious Vocation Conference (NRVC)/Center for Research in the Apostolate Study on Recent Vocations, 71 percent of those who have entered religious life and are currently in initial formation are under the age of 40.
2. Why are there so many different communities?
Many communities have similar ministries, but each is distinct in one respect or another. Many groups of religious men and women were founded at a time when travel and communication were limited. Some congregations were established for similar purposes and at the same time but in different places by people who didn’t know each other.
The history of religious life attests to a long legacy of orders founded in response to contemporary needs to answer God’s call to love and service. Each of these religious orders has a charism—a special gift—that determines their lifestyle, spirituality, and mission and ministry to the church and the world.
3. What do priests, sisters, and brothers do these days?
Like most adults they spend a portion of each day working—and giving Christian witness. Many priests, brothers, and sisters have one main job, such as teaching, parish ministry, social work, or hospital work—all of which have somewhat regular hours and predictable demands. Their daily schedule, however, can look different than the typical adult’s. Often they have evening meetings, and those who are priests or parish ministers usually work on Saturdays and Sundays and take some time off during the week. The unpredictable demands lend richness to their lives and often center around meeting the needs of people.
But they don’t only work. To live in a healthy, balanced way they try to keep a mix of prayer, ministry, and play in their lives, which helps them stay healthy so that they can be more effective ministers and happy people.
Those who are members of contemplative communities (communities dedicated to prayer) fill their days with a combination of work, prayer, and recreation. The difference is that they might dedicate more of their time to prayer than other brothers, sisters, or priests and will often work within the confines of a monastery or convent. Sometimes they will grow their own food and do income-producing work. Prayer usually consists of Mass, silent prayer (called contemplation), reading, and praying the Liturgy of the Hours (an ancient practice of praying psalms together at regular hours each day).
4. Will we get to see and talk with you?
Religious communities have different guidelines regarding visits with family and friends, and different policies may apply at different stages of initial formation, but all communities encourage members to remain deeply united to their loved ones even as they commit their lives to the community.
When people enter a religious community today, they are encouraged to invite family and friends to visit and are provided many opportunities to maintain relationships with them. Letters, telephone calls, visits home, email, and social networking enable members to keep in touch. Religious communities recognize that the support of others is crucial. Healthy relationships are essential to a holy and healthy religious personality.
Articles on the VISION Catholic Religious Vocation Network website: “How is your family taking it?” by Heidi Schlumpf; “Family matters” by Carol Schuck Scheiber; “Celibate chastity: One way to be a sexual person” by Brother Seán D. Sammon, F.M.S.; “But what if you fall in love?” by Julia Dibona.
For a current listing of discernment opportunities, go to vocationnetwork.org and click on “Events.”
To see which communities and vocations might be right for you, go to VocationMatch.com
Every human being has some lonely moments, whether he or she is married, single, or in consecrated life. When a person has a sense of being where God wants him or her to be, however, engaging in meaningful ministry and enjoying good friendships, that person is not lonely. Many priests, brothers, and sisters report that their lives are highly satisfying and rich in meaningful relationships.
Of course those committed to poverty, chastity, and obedience will still experience normal human longings. But, says Sister Renée Daigle, M.S.C., if someone’s understanding of the vow of celibacy is one-dimensional, they will never be able to live it. “In choosing celibacy,” she says, “. . . the vow of celibacy is much more a positive choice than a set of ‘cannots’ and ‘don’t haves.’ That is the frame of mind in which I choose to live, and my life is very full of people I love, some more deeply and intimately than others.”
Many members of religious communities usually live together in small groups and set time aside to pray together, share meals, and talk about the day’s events. Community life is a source of support and strength as one seeks to live a life of evangelical chastity, poverty, and obedience.
6. What happens to your possessions?
Each religious community has its own policies concerning which items new members can bring with them. Most encourage people to bring along items that would fit into one carload—things like clothes, shoes, coats, toiletries, books, and personal mementos. Most also encourage bringing along laptop computers and any items that may be helpful in their new life.
If a candidate owns a car, many communities advise the candidate to bring it along and only give it away when they enter the novitiate—the period when discerners live with the community and become involved in study and formation activities before taking temporary vows. If new members have any treasured items, they are encouraged to leave them with a trusted friend or family member. Then they can choose at a later date which items to keep and which to give away.
Many communities also ask that candidates maintain their financial accounts until they enter the novitiate. If they own property, they usually work with the vocation director to determine the appropriate time to sell it. Because members do occasionally leave the community, time and care is taken when it comes to liquidating assets.
7. From parents: What if we get sick or need help?
Many parents worry about how their daughter or son can help with family matters. Sister Anita Louise Lowe, O.S.B of the Benedictine Sisters of Ferdinand, Indiana says her community assures families “that sisters from our community have requested periods of time away to help with family members who have a health issue or some other crisis. There’s no guarantee of how that might look for their daughter’s situation some day, but we are open to it.” Other religious orders say they deal with the needs of loved ones outside the community on a case-by-case basis.
8. From families: What about your financial contribution to the family?
Each finally professed member in consecrated life freely vows poverty, chastity, and obedience. As a part of these vows, the professed member has the responsibility that all money they receive, which includes paychecks, stipends, and gifts, is freely given to the treasurer of the community. Each community has policies for personal budgets and needs.
If a member has personal financial resources available before entering a community, they may be able to establish a fund for family members and at the same time protect the nonprofit status of the religious community. It is also possible for a member to make a will in which they leave their assets to family, friends, and others outside the community.
9. What if you change your mind or things don’t work out?
Becoming a candidate with a religious community does not mean that someone is obligated to become a priest, sister, or brother. There is absolutely nothing wrong with trying out religious life, discerning that it is not one’s vocation, and moving on. Entrants normally have years before they make a permanent commitment, and most communities make provisions so that a new member’s financial assets are not turned over to the community until after final vows. Never exploring a vocation can be the real mistake. In addition, many people who have spent time with a religious community report that—even if they did not join—the experience helped them to develop a closer relationship with God and come to a deeper level of self-knowledge.
10. What if you fall in love?
It does happen. The basic responsibility in such a situation is to preserve the original, existing commitment made—which is to live as a sister, brother, or priest. Relationships need to develop within the limits and responsibilities of the commitment to celibacy.
Obviously falling in love can be a very difficult situation for a sister, priest, or brother. Yet all Christians eventually face pain and difficulty in their lives. It isn’t always easy to be a faithful spouse or a single person of integrity either. Living through such a challenge can make members of religious communities stronger in their commitment.
11. Is it wrong for us not to want you to enter religious life?
“Friends and family care about you and want the best for you,” says Sister Julie Vieira. “They try to make sense of what your calling means in your life and how it will affect the relationship that they are used to having with you.
“Remember that just as God is nudging you along in your exploration of religious life, God is also at work in the lives of your family and friends,” she says. “That may not make things go smoothly, but it’s also not the end of the world—or your vocation. Many family and friends become a lot more comfortable with your decision once they get to know the community you plan on joining and perhaps rethink some of the ideas they may have had about religious life.”
When new members coming into a community are upset that their parents seem opposed to them entering religious life, vocation directors will remind them, says Sister Anita Louise Lowe, “that the questions are coming out of a place of love.” Concerned mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and others are doing what they’ve always done: Watching out for your best interest and wanting you to be happy.
Adapted in part from the NRVC publication “10 questions parents ask about vocations” and the VISION Vocation Network articles “Sixteen questions about church vocations,” “Family matters,” and “Words for the wise: Defining the vocabulary of religious life” by Carol Schuck Scheiber; “Six compelling excuses for not becoming a nun—debunked” by Sister Julie Vieira, I.H.M.; and “Living the vows” by Sister Renée Daigle, M.S.C. Thanks also to Sister Deborah Borneman, SS.C.M. for additional information.
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