Questions About Religious Life
Q. Why are there so many different kinds of Sisters?
Communities of religious women have existed in the Catholic Church since at least 200 AD – and maybe even earlier! (See St. Paul’s first letters to the Corinthians 7:32-35 and to Timothy 5:9-15.) Each religious order was founded to meet the needs of the Church of a particular time and place. Some of these groups dissolved when the needs of the Church changed. Others are still around today, bearing the mark of the time and place they were founded.
In addition, many orders attracted certain kinds of women rather than others. Some 19th century American communities had mostly German or German-American sisters; some had Irish or Irish-Americans; some Polish, some Slovenian, etc. Some orders taught mostly upper-middle class students in academies; others taught poor or working-class students – many of these students entered the order whose sisters taught them. Some orders did mostly teaching; some did mostly nursing; others did all sorts of ministries. All of this has resulted in some subtle differences between orders.
Finally, communities interpreted the Second Vatican Council’s call to modernize themselves in different ways. So some sisters still wear habits and perform the traditional teaching/nursing/social service ministries they used to perform, while others have moved into new ministries.
Q. So how many different kinds of sisters are there?
Here are the basic kinds of religious orders or congregations (the official term is “Consecrated Life”) today:
- Hermits – The oldest kind, dating all the way back to the 200s and 300s. Hermits may live alone or in small groups called laura. They spend their days in prayer and solitude and support themselves by doing some sort of individual work.
- Monks and Nuns – The next oldest kind, dating in Western Christianity back to St. Benedict in the 500s. Most monks and nuns live together in monasteries and follow a regular schedule of meditation and community prayer (the “Divine Office”), alternating with some sort of work. Some monks and nuns (e.g. the Trappist monks or the Carmelite nuns) are cloistered, which means that they rarely leave their monasteries. Others, such as most modern Benedictines, usually live together in monasteries but minister to the larger Church as teachers, pastoral associates or parish priests, etc.
- The Mendicant Orders were first begun by St. Francis and St. Dominic in the 1200s. Franciscan and Dominican friars did not live in monasteries but in small local houses called “convents.” They traveled from city to city preaching to the people. Today, there are many communities of Franciscans and Dominicans – both men and women. They still concentrate on spreading the word of God, but they also engage in other ministries.
- The Active (“Apostolic”) communities were originally founded especially to do some specific work (their “apostolate”) for the Church. Some date all the way back to the 1500s and 1600s – the Jesuits, Ursulines, and the Daughters of Charity, for example. More were begun in the 1800s, including most groups of sisters today. The Sisters of Charity are an Apostolic Congregation, founded by St. Elizabeth Seton in Baltimore in 1809. Apostolic Congregations have done almost any work the Church has needed: teaching, nursing, social work, parish work, missionary work – even serving as doctors and lawyers!
- Secular Institutes are a new form of religious life begun in the early 20th century. Members of secular institutes do not live or minister together, but instead work in a wide variety of secular occupations, where they try to live the Gospel in their daily life. Most take vows of chastity/celibacy, but they are responsible for their own daily expenses, retirement, etc.
- Consecrated Virgins – After Vatican II, the Church revived the ancient (c.100 AD) Order of Consecrated Virgins. These are women who take a vow of chastity/celibacy before their local bishop. They are not part of any community, but usually serve the local Church in some way as individuals.
Q. How do you get to be a Sister?
Becoming a Sister is a gradual discernment process. It begins with being open to God's call and willing to explore where God might be leading. Listening in prayer, talking with trusted friends, family members, religious sisters and brothers, or priests, and gathering information about congregations that seem to be appealing to you are all part of your discernment. (live link for our discernment page) Finding that possible "match" between you and a religious community can take quite a while and can seem overwhelming at first. The vocation directors of religious congregations are experienced in this process and can help in your search. Vocation directors want to help you find where God is calling you as much as you do - no one will pressure you to enter a religious community if you don't feel called there!
Once you and the congregation have mutually agreed that you are called to explore with them, you enter a time of initial discernment. This is a time of gettting to know the community at various levels. It might include live-in experiences or retreat weekends. The focus of this time is to explore your call in the context of a particular religious charism. Congregations differ in what they call this time and how long it is. The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati call this time "Pre-Entrance" and it generally lasts for 12 months.
After the period of initial discernment, if there is still mutual agreement between you and the congregation that you might have a call to become a vowed member, you begin the next step. This involves moving into a local community setting with the Sisters. You live with them and experience the vowed life on a day to day basis, continuing in your ministry and still financially independent of the congregation. This is usually a one or two year period that we call Affiliation. (Other congregations call it Postulancy, Candidacy, etc.) It is a time of deepening discernment to help discover your vocation.
The next step towards becoming a Sister is Novitiate. During one year of Novitiate you are immersed in prayer, and in the study of the vowed life and the charism, mission, and history of the congregation. During this first, "canonical" year, novices do not work in a ministry or apostolate, in order to have the time for this prayer and study. A second Novitiate year helps you to integrate your learnings while resuming ministry or preparing for a new ministry. Novitiate culminates in the profession of temporary vows of poverty, obedience, and consecrated celibacy.
As a Sister with temporary vows you are still in the discernment process! You continue to listen for God's direction as you live the vows you have professed, eventually making a life commitment if you discern that it is God's will. The entire process usually takes about ten years so it's really a careful decision. One thing you will discover as you talk with Sisters young and old: We are always becoming Sisters as we respond to the grace of God's continued call.
Q: Why don’t you wear habits?
Because it wasn’t in our founding charism to wear habits. St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, who began the Daughters of Charity back in the 1630s, told them that they were to dress like the ordinary peasant women of the day. St. Vincent wrote that the Daughters of Charity were to have “no cloister but a rented room; no veil but holy modesty.”
When St. Elizabeth Seton adapted St. Vincent’s Rule for the American Sisters of Charity in the early 1800s, she and her sisters wore the black dress and bonnet that widows wore in those days. (Mother Seton herself was a widow with 5 small children.)
It is true that, at some times and in some places, the Sisters of Charity have worn a habit and veil, and some still do so. But the habit and veil were not part of our charism in the beginning.
Q. Why did you choose to become a sister? How old were you?
There are as many answers to this question as there are sisters! Here are some answers from Sisters of Charity.
I was 23 yrs. old when I entered. Quite simply, I didn't choose to be a sister I was asked if I have ever given any thought to being a sister. The answer was "heavens no, why would I want to do something like that". I had a great job, was dating a wonderful young man, had just bought a new sports car, had lots of friends and a great social life. Life was good...so I thought. However, that question of have you ever thought about being a sister kept coming back to me and I began praying and asking God what it was that he wanted from me. As weeks went by and I continued to ask for direction, a calmness and peacefulness began to permeate within me. And this was the beginning of what has been my life for the past 42 years. A great life I might add!
I was in 7th grade when a priest gave a vocation talk to our class. Sort of out of the blue, I knew "that's for me". The thought never left me although after High School I went to work at an insurance company and thoroughly enjoyed this. Within the year, however, I decided that the strong "call" needed an answer so I entered the Sisters of Charity the following September. It was the best and the "right" decision for me.
I became aware of wanting to follow "my heart's desire" very, very early. As early as I can remember, I had that sense that becoming a sister was exactly what I was to do with my life, and I wanted to do it from about five, six, seven years old on. As I grew and had other choices, that one choice remained constant and matured as I grew into a more realistic awareness of it through high school and into nursing school, where I met Sisters of Charity who were genuine human beings who happened to be religious women and I knew I wanted to join them. I saw how patients, student nurses, professional colleagues responded to sisters and I wanted to join them.
I think I thought about it from about the 5th grade on whenever we had Vocation talks. But, I got really serious when I was a Senior in high school and started going to places to look and ask questions. Then I went on to college and did the same and chose a place. I felt a call to the Sisters of Charity even though I had never heard of them or seen them before.
I had taught school one year and was engaged to be married when Home Missioners came to our parish and made Jesus come alive for me. I knew I wanted to follow Jesus as closely as I could. I was 19 years old, and my parents were happy for me to be so sure.
Q. What did you do before you became a sister? What was your life like before you became a sister?
There are as many answers to this question as there are sisters! Here are some answers from Sisters of Charity.
My dad worked for an airline so I moved a lot and got to travel a lot. I did all the regular "stuff" and lived in many different homes around New York and Chicago. I went to a year of college in TX, as it didn't cost me anything to fly. I had a great family and we did a lot of things together on weekends and summer vacations. Guess I was just a normal girl.
After high school I went to work in a chemical research company working for 30 chemists as a secretary and making a huge weekly salary of $52.00 a week! I had an exciting lifestyle as I described above. Obviously it's what I thought I wanted but how wrong I was.
I lived on a farm, had parents who believed in education and though we were a large family (9 children) my Dad borrowed the money to send me to college. I wanted to repay the money, but when I told Dad I wanted to be a Sister, he didn't want me to wait. We had wonderful parents, and a very happy home.
I had finished college and taught in a one-room school before I felt my family was able to manage financially so I could leave to become a sister.
Before I became a sister I lived the life of a teen-ager in Detroit. Week-ends were spent dancing, skating, swimming, playing badminton, traveling with friends and family and studying. However during the 4 summers of high school I worked as a lifeguard and eventually as a swimming teacher at a public high school about 2 miles away. My father was a daily communicant and I learned a love of the Blessed Sacrament from him. I went to 6 a.m. Mass every morning before school.
Q. How did you know you wanted to become a sister?
God speaks to each of us in different ways. Here are the ways God let some Sisters of Charity know they should become sisters.
First of all I didn't want to be a sister. Having a priest as a brother, I felt that my responsibility to my parents was to get married so that they could have grandchildren. It was the last thing in the world that I wanted to do! I believed I was called because my brother but the question to me one afternoon 42 yrs. ago when he said "Have you every thought about becoming a sister". I can honestly say that once I entered I have never thought of leaving or doing anything else.
This is difficult to answer. I just knew in my heart and soul that God's Will for me was to be a religious sister. I prayed about it and knew that I had the intelligence, the health and the faith that was required. The desire comes from God and one has to listen to that desire and not try to negate it. There were times when I wanted to be a sister and times when I did not want to be a sister but I kept asking what God wanted and it turned out to be a sister.
Halfway through my junior year in high school was when I first felt that I was supposed to be a sister. It was the last thing I wanted to do! I told myself all the standard things – that I was too young to make such a decision, etc. What was worse, several of my close friends thought I was crazy to even think of such a thing and tried to discourage me. So I went on to college. But the thought just kept coming back. While I wasn’t sure I would be happy as a sister, I became more and more sure that I wouldn’t be happy as anything else either. So I entered the Sisters of Charity and can honestly say I have never regretted it for a single instant!
The way to test your own call is to ask yourself a question: do I love Jesus deeply, passionately, above all else? If so, you truly can pursue your vocation, for it is authentic.
There is nothing written in iron – I can only say that one needs to listen to her heart; listen to the inner voice that keeps coming again and again.
I did feel called to be a Sister since the 5th grade but since I had had many orders of Sisters I wrote to some and talked with and visited others. A spiritual director in college told me I was looking for an American order and that got me looking in another direction. I came to Cincinnati to visit and entered shortly after.
It was a reality within me that matured and developed as I grew and had other choices. However, the choice of religious life remained constant and became clearer and clearer. There is a "knowing" that is just as sure a "knowing" as "knowing" that you want to marry this or that person, or "knowing" that you want to remain single and follow that life style. It is an inner "knowing", a conviction that it is exactly as it should be.