I’m over 40. Can I still join religious life?
Image: Differences in age and ethnicity can lead to both culture-clashes and valuable learning experiences.
People say that it can be a mistake to enter a religious community soon after a loss. Why?
Sister Adrienne: Loss equals emptiness, a void crying out to be filled. A major decision should wait until the grieving period has significantly diminished and emotional rawness has subsided. Discernment requires clarity. The adjustments and strained emotions that follow loss inhibit the freedom of spirit needed to discern clearly and peacefully. Furthermore, the call to religious life is a huge transition: change of job, home, friends, church community, lifestyle, and culture. One needs to be socially, emotionally, and psychologically strong to negotiate them well.
Brother Ronnie: Any type of commitment in the church—marriage, religious vows, ordination, sacraments of initiation—must be a free and deliberate choice. The emotional and psychological strain of loss in one’s life can be so significant that the person experiencing it is actually less free to make a vocational choice soon afterwards. Time is needed to be truly able to discern.
If I have children, am I still able to enter religious life?
Brother Ronnie: According to canon law, children of candidates need to be at least 18 years old and financially independent before their parent can enter religious life. However, most communities would consider more than the chronological age of the children. Are the children mentally, physically, psychologically, and emotionally capable of caring for themselves? Even if an annulment has been granted and the children are living with the other parent, what, if any, type of support is needed from the parent desiring to enter religious life? Basically, is the person entering truly free and available to fully enter this type of lifestyle without major distractions?
Sister Adrienne: When a parent or grandparent enters community, the personal cost is high. Less frequent contact with families is inevitable. Juggling two life commitments: religious life and parenting/grandparenting is demanding. The discernment process for parents needs to include a subset of questions you ask a community: How often will I be able to visit my family? Will they be able to visit me? How are visits handled? Am I able to interact via electronic media and telephone often enough to maintain a good relationship? Does the formation program allow for extra time with my family? Does the religious community honor my dual role?
Does a divorce make me ineligible for religious life?
Sister Adrienne: A divorced man or woman who enters religious life needs the diocesan marriage tribunal’s involvement. Canon law requires an annulment or “indult of nullity” before entry into community. This is true for both men and women.
If I have lived alone for many years, how will I know if I can live community life?
Sister Adrienne: The call to religious life is accompanied by a desire for deeper intimacy with God, plus the desire to live out that call with others. Knowing oneself is a must. Are you flexible, or is your daily routine pretty rigid? Can you forgive and ask forgiveness? Are you comfortable in groups? Are you a team player who can both lead and follow? If so, spend time with the community. Eat, pray, and play with them. Get to know the members. The application process helps identify indications of compatibility, but really, only time spent within the community can determine whether it’s for you. The church wisely requires several years as a member of a community before making perpetual profession, also called final vows. This gives a new member and the community time to try on life together and see if it fits.
Brother Ronnie: Having an affinity for a community’s ministry, spirituality, or charism is not enough to make you a good match for being a vowed member of the group. The adjustment from living on one’s own to living in a religious community is one of the greatest challenges to an over-40 vocation. Several areas have proven to be sticking points and need to be carefully explored:
1. ACCOUNTABILITY: How willing are you to be accountable to a community for everything from spending money to managing your personal schedule, including your job choice? Sometimes, something as simple as letting people know where you are going and when you’ll return can seem stifling.
2. SHARING: How willing are you to share space, time, and material resources with the community? Transitioning from “my place,” “my car,” and “my TV” to “our community,” “our community vehicle,” and “our community TV” can be difficult.
3. OBEDIENCE: How willing are you to seek permissions from the necessary authority? While most religious institutes do not treat their members as children, the requirement to check ahead of time with a person in authority about major purchases, weekend and vacation plans, and even ministerial responsibilities can seem somewhat adolescent, and receiving a “no” is even more jarring. But this is an integral part of religious life.
4. MINISTRY: How willing are you to be available for the community’s mission? This can involve not only moving from one location to another to live or perform ministry, but also being personally stretched, possibly by being asked to pursue additional education or learn new skills.
5. COMMUNAL GOOD: How generous are you? How willing are you to put aside your personal agenda and expectations to sacrifice for the greater communal good or for the sake of the mission?
If I have physical concerns common to people my age, will that prevent me from entering a community?
Sister Adrienne: Each community has criteria regarding health issues. In our community we are firm: An applicant must be off government-funded disability and working full-time for a minimum of two years before applying to community. Obesity is the most common health problem of mature-age discerners. In my community we request a commitment to weight loss because obesity leads to other serious health issues and a shortened life span; plus it can sometimes mask emotional issues that can interfere with initial formation.
Brother Ronnie: Most communities would not refuse an applicant if his or her health issues are typical and the community believes he or she can meaningfully contribute to its mission, community, and prayer life. However, the health of a potential candidate of any age is certainly a major consideration of a religious institute. The older the person, the more concern there will be about overall physical and mental health. Realistically religious institutes have aging community members with diminishing earning potential. Therefore they have fewer financial resources. So it’s important to seriously evaluate a potential candidate’s ability to contribute to the mission and life of the community. While every religious community would want to discern a potential candidate’s vocation mainly on spiritual terms, they must also consider a cost/benefit analysis of the number of years a person can actively contribute, as well as the community’s ability to cover a candidate’s medical expenses.
What else should I know as an over-40 person considering religious life?
Sister Adrienne: Most women and men have limited exposure to religious community. Not knowing the inner workings of common life, discerners often have a romantic view of life together as a conflict-free escape from human weaknesses. A religious community is not the “communion of saints.” That’s heaven! Community life is challenging: We are one another’s joy, but also we are one another’s sandpaper, rubbing each other smooth.
Those living in community for 50 or 60 years have scant understanding of the struggles of life immersed in the world. Patient learning from one another is essential to bridge the cultural gap between new members and those seasoned in religious life. Flexibility and openness, along with intentional community-building work, are essential ingredients of blending mature-age adults into community.
Also, do not give away your savings. To deeply discern your call during the years of initial formation, you need the freedom to leave or stay. This is serious. Communities are unlikely to accept a new member who would not be able to be self-supporting if that member discerns before final vows—or the community discerns—that she is not called.
Brother Ronnie: One of the most important realities for the 40-plus vocation is that he or she will need to go through formation. Formation implies taking a hard look at ourselves and being willing to undergo conversion to the life of the gospel and of the community. Conversion is a lifelong process, and change will be required.
Older candidates must also realize that while the initial fervor for religious life may inspire an idealized view of the life, those who are in the community are human and do not always live the ideal. Joining a religious community is not about escaping the trials and tribulations of the world. Everything we find “out there” can be found “inside here,” hopefully to a lesser degree. Though the professed men and women in community have vowed to be different, we still fall short of the glory of God.
While many have an idealized view of ministry, accomplishing the mission on a day-to-day basis is simply hard work. There is often very little that is romantic about it. People are not always eager to receive the Good News, nor are the recipients of our ministries always grateful for our service. But we work hard anyway, very hard, and we pray that the Lord will make up for our inadequacies and shortcomings, helping us succeed according to his plans for that work.
Personal and communal prayer is difficult at times. Consolations are not always granted, and fidelity to daily spiritual exercises, on both the personal and communal levels, can be challenging. The beauty of community is that when I am not strong, the brothers or sisters with whom I live can be. Together, we challenge each other to be faithful.
Religious life is about working, playing, praying, and living together! While such a life can be quite challenging, it is also extremely rewarding. It is a wonderful way to build the Kingdom!
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