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Can women religious work in law enforcement or in forensic labs?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 10, June 2023 Categories: Vocation and Discernment
The spirit of the community's founder should be represented by the work of the institute and its members.

This is a question best addressed by canon law, and the answers are less clear than might be expected. The section that describes "Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life" (cc. 573-746) notes that laws governing religious life are to meet certain criteria—most fundamentally, the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience (c. 573.1). It's also presumed that the individual and her community are mutually responsive to a call by the Holy Spirit, which must be confirmed by the proper church authorities (c. 573.2). However, it's not specified in every instance whether that authority implies the superior of the order, the local bishop, the Holy See, or any combination of the above.

The spirit of the community's founder should be represented by the work of the institute and its members (c. 578). Which means an order founded to be contemplative should pursue this vocation, just as those founded for teaching, healing, service to the poor, etc. should maintain this calling. These guidelines are deliberately drawn very broadly, to admit the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit as well as the evolving need of each new generation. For example, Mother Frances Cabrini's Missionary Institute of the Sacred Heart originally embraced service to Italian immigrants in the U.S. In later generations, their service expanded to other immigrant groups and to other countries.

Does the flexibility purposely built into these canons expand to admit a woman religious to the field of law enforcement if her religious community was founded on the charism of justice for the poor or prison ministry? Might she fulfill her calling serving in a forensic lab if her intent is to ensure that DNA testing is properly done for incarcerated persons who were poorly represented at trial or whose guilty sentence may have been racially motivated? These occupations likely didn't exist at the time of her community's founder. Yet were the founder alive today, would she see this work as an extension of the charism?

Other canons concern "unbecoming activity" for church leaders (see canons 285-289), but these explicitly refer to ordained clergy. These activities presently include holding public office, but historically included fox hunting, bartending, cab driving, professional prize-fighting, horse racing, and serving as a jailor. The "Worker Priest" movement of the 1940s and 50s—in which some clergy worked among the people at manual labor—was dimly viewed, yet there's still no canonical impediment for clergy to do so.

Scriptures: Amos 1:1; 7:12-15; Acts 18:3; 20:33-35; 1 Corinthians 4:11-13; 9:1-18; 1 Thessalonians 2:9

Books: God's Call Is Everywhere: A Global Analysis of Contemporary Vocations for Women, by Patricia Wittberg, SC, Mary L. Gautier, Gemma Simmonds, CJ (Liturgical Press, 2023)

Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America, by Margaret M. McGuinness (New York University Press, 2015)

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What's the vocation of a religious brother about?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 10, June 2023 Categories: Vocation and Discernment
The communal life is key, as it becomes a form of spiritual family to stabilize the commitment of its members even as it liberates them from the responsibilities of typical family life.

To many Catholics, religious brothers are invisible in the hierarchy of church leadership. Clergy play public liturgical roles, and religious sisters were traditionally set apart by their habits and occupations as schoolteachers and nurses. But brothers? It's possible you never met one, or didn't know it if you did.

Religious brothers are members of the laity, as religious sisters are. They consecrate themselves to the three traditional evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, obedience. Three distinguishing marks of a brother are his public profession to consecrated life, commitment to a religious community, and dedication to some aspect of church service. Some brothers are called monks (like Benedictines and Trappists) or friars (Franciscans or Dominicans), while others are simply known as brothers within a larger community that may include ordained members as well (like Oratorians and Jesuits).

Some teaching orders, such as the Christian Brothers, are entirely composed of consecrated laymen. Yet early in church history, most monastics and religious were brothers, ordaining members only when their community needed a priest to serve them. Later on, many deep-rooted religious orders began to ordain most of their members as a matter of course. Those who presented themselves for religious life but were uneducated or ill-suited for ordained ministry remained brothers, serving the community in supportive roles as porters, cooks, and gardeners. This contributed to a class system in religious life, as brothers had less voice, vote, or authority within their communities. Since Vatican II, in modern community life more brothers are attaining leadership roles and equivalent status as full peers to priestly members.

You may wonder why someone chooses to formally profess as a religious brother (or sister), since the work they do can be done by unprofessed people. The communal life is key, as it becomes a form of spiritual family to stabilize the commitment of its members even as it liberates them from the responsibilities of typical family life.

Each religious community may orient the ministry of their brothers to a particular kind of service, as religious sisters do: education, healthcare, social services or social justice action. Precisely because they aren't ordained, brothers can be more flexible and versatile in their work, responding to the needs of their generation. Brothers today may serve in the areas of ecology, racial justice, migrant ministry, media, or wherever their talents and the world's need come together. When you think about it, who couldn't use a helpful brother?

Scripture: Mark 10:17-31; Matthew 5:3; 19:16-30; Luke 6:20; 18:18-30; John 4:31-34; 6:37-; Philippians 2:8-10; Hebrews 10:5-7

Books: Brother Andre: Friend of the Suffering, Apostle of Saint Joseph, by Jean-Guy Dubuc (Ave Maria Press, 2010)

Francis and His Brothers: A Popular History of the Franciscan Friars, by Dominic Monti, OFM (Franciscan Media, 2009)

What's a tertiary?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 18, December 2022 Categories: Consecrated Life,Vocation and Discernment,Prayer and Spirituality
Tertiaries get the nod of approval precisely because of their deep connection to long-established communities with full canonical oversight.

My older sister is a Third Order Carmelite. She's also married, a mother of four children, and a pharmacist. Obviously she's not a nun or religious sister, but if not, then what is she?

Many of us learn from friends that they've joined third orders or otherwise describe themselves as tertiaries. Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, Carmelites, and other religious communities extend their identity to lay people in a "third way" that doesn't include clerical status nor communal living in a religious house. The tertiary designation is a secular association that even has official recognition in canon law: "Third Orders - Associations whose members lead an apostolic life and strive for Christian perfection while living in the world and who share the spirit of some religious institute under the higher direction of that same institute are called third orders or some other appropriate name." (CCC #303)

Third orders aren't the only kind of lay associations mentioned in church law. The earlier Code of Canon Law from 1917 recognized lay confraternities (like the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) and pious unions (think St. Vincent de Paul Society, Knights of Columbus) (see old CIC #700). The distinction between confraternities and pious unions isn't about purpose so much as ecclesial establishment and oversight. Current canon law only formally recognizes tertiary groups while noting the right of other private and public lay associations to form. Needless to say, not every group formed by a Catholic can utilize the name Catholic without competent ecclesial authority. (Heaven knows how the "brand" might be extended otherwise.)

Tertiaries get the nod of approval precisely because of their deep connection to long-established communities with full canonical oversight. The traditional "first orders" were male religious, not necessarily ordained. "Second orders" were composed of women religious. Any layperson who chose to share in the spirit of these communities without taking vows were called oblates by the Benedictines, and third orders by Francis of Assisi.

Today, tertiaries are divided into two categories: secular third orders and regular members. Seculars are like my sister, who lives a relatively normal life while participating in the prayer life and values of her chosen affiliation. She wears a scapular to remind her of her promises, and when she dies, she may choose to be buried in the habit worn by her group. Regular third order members take simple vows as well as following the rule of their community. If a religious community feels resonant for you, inquire about the possibility of associate status.

Books: The Tertiaries Companion - A Prayer Book For the Members of the Third Order Secular of St. Francis of Assisi, by Vincent Schrempp OFM (Franciscan Herald, 2022) 

Rule of the Third Order of the Servants of Mary, Servites Third Order (Ulan Press, 2012)

Where did the idea of a Pre-Cana program come from?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 17, February 2021 Categories: Church History,Vocation and Discernment,Sacraments
The Cana approach was to discuss real marital situations in the context of a life of faith.

It’s a real boon to the lay church that we have the whole Cana movement. Before the Second Vatican Council, the notion of having a vocation to marriage was not well developed. Although great preparation surrounded the choice for vowed religious life or priesthood, virtually no formation was undergone for the Sacrament of Marriage. When a Jesuit priest John P. Delaney gave a retreat for married couples in New York in 1943, the concept was novel enough for a write-up in America magazine. 

This gave some Catholics in St. Louis the desire to try something similar, asking Jesuit Edward Dowling to create a program for them. Dowling’s retreat in 1944 was first called a Cana Conference—a reference to the wedding feast in John’s gospel at which Jesus performs his first miracle. These retreats quickly took on the aspect of a movement, became formalized into a program in Chicago under diocesan priest and justice activist John Egan. Egan also promoted Pre-Cana Conferences for engaged couples preparing for marriage.

What made these conferences unusual is that they didn’t stick to the narrow lane of an average retreat: all spiritual talk with little practical application. The Cana approach was to discuss real marital situations in the context of a life of faith. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, unlike the severe lecture style of most retreats of the period. Laypeople appreciated attention being paid to the all-important vocations of marriage, child-rearing, and community-building by their church. Before long, the Cana movement went nationwide, and diocesan offices to promote the ministry were assembled.

The success of Cana and Pre-Cana led to experiments with the format for other formerly unrecognized groups in the church. Those who’d lost a spouse could attend Naim Conferences: so-called after the story of the widowed woman of Naim who elicits the compassion of Jesus in Luke’s gospel.  Bethany Conferences, named for the presumably unmarried biblical siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, were developed for single Catholics. These programs were all popular in the 1950s and 60s, but the Pre-Cana movement alone left an endurable mark on marriage formation preparation in the United States. Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter, and Second Marriage Preparation programs today owe some debt to Cana for focusing pastoral attention on the needs of families to be prepared for their great and singular work in the church and society.

Scripture: Cana John 2:1-11; Naim Luke 7: 11-17; Bethany Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-44; 12:1-8

Books: The Cana Movement in the United States, by A. H. Clemens (Catholic University, 1953)

The Mission of Love: A Sacramental Journey to Marital Success, by John Curtis, Michael Day, (Dominican New Priory Press, 2018)

Isn’t it a sin to vow something for life to God and then break it? Don’t fully professed sisters sin if they leave their order?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 10, September 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Vocation and Discernment
Religious persons released to the lay state remain baptized Catholics in good standing.

“A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion.” So says The Code of Canon Law (CCC 1191). Another section outlines rules for taking public religious vows (CCC 654-658). Yet just as God is merciful, the church must also be merciful. Which is why Canon Law includes a process known as dispensation to relieve a person from such vows (see CCC 85-93). Dispensation is “the relaxation of a merely ecclesiastical law in a particular case” (CCC 85).

Church law is flexible when applied to individuals and specific cases. The law recognizes that human circumstances aren’t static; therefore, some changes receive the favor of the law’s flexibility. For a just cause, a religious sister or brother may request and receive dispensation from solemn or perpetual vows. “Just cause” may be a grave or debilitating difficulty fulfilling the requirements of religious life. No penalty is exacted for being released from perpetual vows. In no way does it remove the person's right of access to the sacraments. Religious persons released to the lay state remain baptized Catholics in good standing.

No shadow of sin is attached to the request for dispensation from solemn vows. Dispensation is offered under the grace and peace of Jesus—who gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom as a symbol of the church’s authority “to bind and to loose.” If a religious person is released from vows on earth, s/he is also assured such release in the sight of God.

To remain in good standing with the Church, a person seeking dispensation must follow the procedure of release from religious life. The dispensation must be sought from the “competent authority”: the major religious superior or bishop in some cases, the pope in others. Once a sister or brother has prayerfully discerned to leave religious life, the order or congregation is obliged to do everything possible to assist in requesting the dispensation. The order or congregation is also required to help the person financially in the transition to lay life.

Scripture has lots to say about taking vows—and breaking them. People are weak and prone to err. Therefore Jesus considers that vows and oaths should be made only sparingly. Thank God that mercy is given to those who show mercy!

Scripture: Genesis 28:20 (first vow); Leviticus 22:20-25 (unfulfilled with imperfect sacrifice); 27:2, 8 (require adjustment); Numbers 6:1-21 (binding for a time); Numbers 31 (women’s vows: inferior?); Deuteronomy 23:22-24; Judges 11:29-39 (keeping an illicit vow); Ecclesiastes 5:1-6; Matthew 5:33-37

Books: Religious Life at the Crossroads, by Amy Herford, CSJ (Orbis Books, 2014)

A Different Touch: A Study of Vows in Religious Life, by Judith Merkle, SNDdeN (Liturgical Press, 1998)

Older vocations

Posted by:   🕔 Tuesday 12, January 2010 Categories: Consecrated Life,Vocation and Discernment

I am over 50 years old and feel called to religious life, but most communities do not seem to accept older candidates. What should I do?

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 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..

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.

Communities that accept older vocations.

Is it appropriate to speak of “lay ministries”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 08, December 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Clergy,Vocation and Discernment
Lay ministry
Can a layperson be said to “preach”; or should we call what they do—if they do it at all—by some other term?

Believe it or not, this was a matter of heated debate two decades ago. The concern was whether the word “ministry” could be applied to anything done by non-clergy. This same proprietary use of nomenclature affects the realm of preaching and proclamation. Can a layperson be said to “preach”; or should we call what they do—if they do it at all—by some other term?

As a laywoman and catechist of the church, I’m invited to do a lot of things that were once the official domain of priests or religious. Fundamentally I teach; but rarely in a classroom. I give religious instruction as a writer of books, magazine columns, and Scripture commentary. I also make presentations at retreat centers, give diocesan workshops, speak at Catholic conferences, and offer parish missions. It’s when I appear in person that the business gets murky. When I do in person the same things I do in print, what am I doing?

When asked to give a parish mission, for example, it’s expected that the mission leader (traditionally a priest) would preach at the weekend Masses to introduce himself and the themes of the mission to the assembly. When I give missions, some parishes invite me to do this—but are careful to call it something else: a reflection, talk, pious exhortation, or catechetical teaching. I’ve written homiletic reflections that priests use in their preaching for 20 years. But when I deliver these words myself, it isn’t preaching.

Nomenclature first showed its sticky side when I attended the Franciscan School of Theology. Enrolled in the Master of Divinity program, I spent four years surrounded by men studying for the priesthood. They spoke of their context as “being in seminary.” However, when I talked of being in seminary, I learned it was appropriate to say I was in theology school. We sat in the same classrooms, attended the same lectures, and took the same exams. We earned the same degree. But our experience was “ontologically” distinct. That’s a big word meaning the very being or essence of our pursuit was different. In the end, they would be ordained. I would look for work.

It’s in this context that I’m happy to say that, yes, these days, we do have a name for what lay people who work professionally in the church do: lay ecclesial ministry (LEM). It’s a nuanced and delicately controlled term. But it’s a start.

Scripture on ministry (as service): Luke 10:40; John 2:5, 9: Acts 6:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:5-6; 4:5-18; 11:23; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Timothy 3:8-13

Books: Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry (USCCB, 2005)

Lay Ecclesial Ministry: Pathways Toward the Futureedited by Zeni Fox (Sheed & Ward Books, 2010)

I'm having trouble finding a religious community that will consider me as a candidate because I'm older. Why?

Posted by: Jennifer Tomshack   🕔 Sunday 20, August 2017 Categories: Consecrated Life,Vocation and Discernment
Older discerners
Finding a religious community when you're older is not impossible.
Many communities don't accept older candidates; however, some will consider making exceptions. We usually advise older discerners to directly contact communities that interest them and discuss their circumstances.

There are several reasons why communities are less inclined to consider older discerners. For starters, the formation process can take as many six years, which makes candidates that much older when they finally enter.
Financial concerns are another reason. New members are expected to work and older candidates have fewer years to do so. There are also greater potential healthcare costs associated with aging.

But the biggest reason is that communities have found that it is harder to adjust to community life after living as a single or previously married Catholic for so many years. The transition to community life and the loss of independence at a later age is simply too difficult for many older discerners. It's also hard for religious who have spent their lives in community to adjust to new members who have had a lifetime of very different experiences.

However, finding a community when you're older is not impossible. Below are links to resources that might help you, including a list of communities that will consider older discerners.

Vocation: For all of life, or only "religious life"?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 02, February 2009 Categories: Vocation and Discernment

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)

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Is my vocation from God or just my imagination?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 05, January 2009 Categories: Vocation and Discernment

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)

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How do I know whether be an order priest or a diocesan priest?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 03, November 2008 Categories: Vocation and Discernment

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)

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