Consecrated Life, or religious life, is a vocation in which members live in a community with a shared apostolate (or mission), charism (the particular expression of the community’s life, the community’s “culture”), and spirituality.
All religious profess the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience (called the evangelical counsels) according to the example and recommendation of Jesus. These vows help the religious to dedicate themselves in love to God alone, and to free themselves for service to the Church. The apostolic exhortation of Pope Saint John Paul explains the purpose of each of the evangelical counsels:
“The chastity of celibates and virgins, as a manifestation of dedication to God with an undivided heart (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-34), is a reflection of the infinite love which links the three Divine Persons in the mysterious depths of the life of the Trinity, the love to which the Incarnate Word bears witness even to the point of giving his life, the love ‘poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 5:5), which evokes a response of total love for God and the brethren.
Poverty proclaims that God is man’s only real treasure. When poverty is lived according to the example of Christ who, ‘though he was rich … became poor’ (2 Cor 8:9), it becomes an expression of that total gift of self which the three Divine Persons make to one another. This gift overflows into creation and is fully revealed in the Incarnation of the Word and in his redemptive death.
Obedience, practiced in imitation of Christ, whose food was to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4:34), shows the liberating beauty of a dependence which is not servile but filial, marked by a deep sense of responsibility and animated by mutual trust, which is a reflection in history of the loving harmony between the three Divine Persons” (par 21).
Religious Life comes in many different forms. Some communities are active, meaning they have an apostolate among people to aid or assist them with physical or spiritual necessities (teaching, missionary work, care for the poor, etc.) Some are contemplative, meaning their primary apostolate is prayer for the Church and the world. Many communities mix aspects of both active and contemplative life.
The lives of religious are full and richly rewarding, though this may seem contradictory to a worldy understanding of what makes people happy. While religious do not have their own spouses and children, they take the whole Church as their families, and are free to be present in all lives in a unique way. While they do not collect many possessions, they possess true joy and purity of heart, and have more than material possessions can give with the love of God. And while they have bound themselves in obedience, the freedom of trusting entirely in Divine Providence brings allows profound peace and happiness.
“In every age there have been men and women who, obedient to the Father’s call and to the prompting of the Spirit, have chosen this special way of following Christ, in order to devote themselves to him with an “undivided” heart (cf. 1 Cor 7:34)… through the many charisms of spiritual and apostolic life bestowed on them by the Holy Spirit, they have helped to make the mystery and mission of the Church shine forth, and in doing so have contributed to the renewal of society.” ~ Vita Consecrata, 1
5 Signs of a Religious Vocation
Five Signs Religious Life Might Be Right For You
By Sister Colleen Therese Smith, A.S.C.J.
Not long ago a young woman posed this question to me: “Does God send signs?” She had been praying to God for a very specific sign that would alleviate any doubt in her mind once and for all that God indeed was calling her to consecrated religious life. Don’t we all long for that kind of clarity?
But can you really expect that God will reveal God’s will for you by sending you tangible signs? Whether or not that may be, often young men and women are hoping that God will show them an obvious sign that will confirm where God is leading them. The simple truth is that you cannot really calculate the exact “sign” God should send nor expect God to answer “on cue.”
Nonetheless, our faith assures us that God is always communicating God’s will to us. God’s message is consistent, sure, and irrefutable. The Letter to the Ephesians summarizes God’s intentions for us: “God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan to be decreed in Christ in the fullness of time: to bring all things into one in him, in the heavens and on the earth” (1:9-10).
That’s the plan! And every “sign” that comes from God simply reminds us that ultimately our vocation will be a means to a lasting union with God. So that we are not alone on this journey, Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us on the way. In fact, the Holy Spirit teaches us how to read the “signs” that point us in the right direction. Here are five of the “signposts” I have noticed on the discernment journey.
1. A PEACE LIKE NO OTHER
Saint Ignatius of Loyola teaches in his Spiritual Exercises that when your own will is aligned with God’s will, you shall know great consolation. God’s will is completely directed toward allowing you to know God and being able to love God in return. Thus, Ignatius writes, “Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me” (no. 23).
God would not call you to consecrated religious life and then not somehow reveal that vocation. Rather than some sort of external sign, the Ignatian tradition says that a deep inner peace is the truest one. Over and over I have seen young women feeling a great sense of unrest in their discernment process, but when they finally surrender and say “yes” to what their heart tells them is God’s plan, they experience a profound peace. The pivotal moment comes when discerners recognize that God is not calling them to be anyone other than their best selves. One woman described this sense to me when she said, “I feel like I just came home to myself.” A peace like no other or, as Jesus says, “a peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27), is the first “sign” that you have found God’s will.
2. YOUR DEEPEST DESIRE
The second sign is also integral to the Ignatian spiritual tradition: your own deepest desires do in fact reflect God’s deepest desires for you. A young woman tearfully once said to me: “I so hope God is calling me to religious life! I want nothing more than to give my life completely to Him!” “So why are you still so conflicted?” I asked. “Because,” she sighed, “what if that’s not where God is calling me?” Ignatius assures us that God has placed God’s deepest desires for us within our own hearts. Ask yourself: “Would I be disappointed if God were not calling me to religious life?”
In order to know what you really desire, moreover, you have to get beyond all the cultural messages that tell you what “should” make you happy. You might need to get beyond your family’s expectations of who you “could” be. Through silence and prayer, you will gradually come to hear that quiet voice within and, with God’s grace, have the courage to trust that these deep inner longings are really from God.
Often in the beginning men and women called to religious life resist God’s promptings. Even Saint Peter cried, “Leave me, Lord! I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Yet, if we’re really honest with ourselves, there is a subtle attraction to this life. We are drawn to consecrating ourselves to Christ, to praying in common, living in a loving community, and witnessing to the gospel in a radical way. Through good spiritual direction, prayer, and silence, you can come to name your deepest desire that just might be to leave all behind and answer Jesus’ invitation to “follow me” (Luke 5:27).
3. WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE
Another “sign” that God might be calling someone to religious life is that gradually the impossible becomes possible. If God is calling you, then would God not give you whatever graces and gifts are needed for that to happen? Nonetheless, that does not mean the road is always perfectly smooth. Sometimes there are obstacles—some of our own making and some from outside of us.
When Mary gave her “yes” to God at the Annunciation, there were clearly some obstacles to overcome: what to tell Joseph; how the community would respond; the need to register for the census. Yet to show Mary that “nothing is impossible for God” (Luke 1:37), the angel told her that even her cousin Elizabeth had conceived a child in her old age.
Repeatedly I have marveled as God has seemingly “moved mountains” in the lives of those whom God calls. One young woman did not have the financial means to pay for her own health insurance during the postulancy period of her entering my community, but on her last day of work she was amazed when her former employer announced that her parting gift would be a year of health-insurance coverage!
Another young woman struggled interiorly with accepting that she would never bear her own children. Acknowledging this painful inner conflict before God while at Eucharistic adoration, she suddenly realized that though she would not bear children of her own she would be called to “mother” many of God’s children. The amazing gift was that this insight brought great joy and suddenly she was ready to embrace her vocation. Once again the impossible became possible.
4. OTHERS CAN SEE IT
Another signpost along the way is when other people see God’s grace in your life and affirm that indeed you would make a wonderful religious sister, brother, or priest. Often candidates distrust their own worthiness. Though we know in our hearts that God calls us in our human weakness, sometimes we rationalize the many reasons why we should not be called. We need to leave this choice to Christ and recall that Jesus said that “it was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16).
One young woman who had just begun the application process to enter my community, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, ran into a friend from high school. When her friend asked her what she would be doing once she graduated from college, she replied, “I am applying to enter as an Apostle [of the Sacred Heart of Jesus]!” Her friend immediately responded, “Of course! You have the Apostle charism!”—my community’s spirit. While not seeking a direct sign, this young candidate reflected that she truly felt God was speaking to her in this moment. Oftentimes when God is calling someone to religious life, God confirms this call through other people.
5. JOY: THE IRREFUTABLE SIGN
The Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds us: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” The surest signpost of all is a tangible joy that bubbles up and overflows in all aspects of life. As young men and women open themselves to God’s will and say their own “fiat”—Mary’s “let it be done” to the angel Gabriel—a palpable joy seems to emanate.
Jesus’ own prayer for his disciples was that his “joy might be in them and that joy might be full!” (John 15:11). God wants nothing less than fullness of joy for you; therefore the clearest sign of all is a deep sense of joy that cannot be contained. One young woman recently wrote to me: “Even my coworkers notice that I smile every time I talk about the Apostles!” Joy is clearly the most vivid of God’s signs!
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
As I was working on this article while on a plane heading to my next discernment retreat, I gazed out the window and asked myself again, “Does God really send signs?” I nearly laughed aloud as I beheld a rainbow stretched across the clouds. “Just as in the days of Noah,” I pondered, “God continues to send us signs.” I now realize that all of God’s signs continue to point to the same reality: “I am with you! I will never leave you!”
God is constantly communicating God’s will to us every day of our lives: “to bring all things into one in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). You can be sure that God’s plan is unfolding as you experience an unshakeable peace; you discover and trust your deepest desires; the impossible suddenly becomes possible; others affirm God’s grace in you; and finally an unmistakable joy gives that telltale sign: God is with you.
Men Communities in the Diocese of Spokane
- The Society of Jesus (The Jesuits): The Jesuits have been an integral part of the history of the Diocese of Spokane since Father DeSmet first journeyed into the region in the early decades of the 19th Century. They continue to serve the people of our diocese through their ministry at St. Aloysius Parish, Gonzaga Preparatory School, and Gonzaga University, as well as in a number of missions on local Native American reservations.
- The Franciscan Friars: The Franciscan priests of the Saint Barbara Province have pastored parishes in Spokane for almost 100 years and continue to do so. They presently care for St. Francis Assisi Parish on Spokane’s north side.
Women Religious Communities in the Diocese of Spokane
The following communities are all active in the Diocese of Spokane. Each has a Vocation Directress who will be able to help you understand her congregation’s charism and mission.
503 East Mission Avenue
Spokane, WA 99202
Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary
328 E Mission Avenue
Spokane, WA 99202
Vocations: Sister Laura Michels
Sisters of Providence
9 E. 9th Avenue
Spokane WA 99202
Provincial: Sister Judith Desmarais SP
Carmelite Sisters of Mary
2892 State Route 211
Newport, WA 99156
Monastery of St. Clare (Poor Clare Nuns)
4419 N. Hawthorne
Spokane WA 99205
Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church
4624 E Jamison Rd.
Spokane, WA 99223
Missionaries of Charity
5008 N. Lacey Street
Spokane WA 99217
Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet
520 N. Fourth Avenue
Pasco, WA 99302
In addition to these communities, there are many other congregations to which God may be calling you. They are gathered into one of the following two groups. Their websites provide many resources to help you discern God’s will for your life:
What is a Vocation?
A vocation is a call from God who created you to share intimately in His inner life of love. You are called to perfect love in union with God for all eternity! You live out this call by making a total self-gift of yourself in love. As you take up your cross and follow Christ, you lay down your life for Him in love.
What is the difference between a Religious Sister and a Religious Nun?
While the titles are often used interchangeably there is a difference. Nuns take solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live a contemplative lifestyle most often in a cloistered environment. They live a life of silence and prayer. They engage in some work to help support themselves.
What is a Religious Brother?
A brother is a single, Catholic layman who lives his baptismal commitment by joining a religious community of vowed members dedicated to serving God and those around them. Religious brothers profess the evangelical counsels (vows) of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They also commit themselves to a life of ministry, prayer and Gospel witness within the context of community.
What is the difference between a Religious Brother and a Religious Priest?
The difference is the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The term “Religious” refers to the fact that a man is consecrated by vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and living in a religious community. From that community of consecrated men, some are chosen to receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders in order to provide the sacraments for the others.
What are the Forms of Religious Life?
The Consecrated Life
In the Church, which is like the sacrament- the sign and instrument – of God’s own life, the consecrated life is seen as a special sign of the mystery of redemption. To follow and imitate Christ more nearly and to manifest more clearly his self- emptying is to be more deeply present to one’s contemporaries, in the heart of Christ. For those who are on this “narrower” path encourage their brethren by their example, and bear striking witness “that the world cannot be transfigured and offered to God without the spirit of the beatitudes” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church – 932).
“Religious institutes are societies in which members pronounce public vows(perpetual or temporary), live in community and share financial sustainability. Religious render a public witness to Christ and to the church which entails a separation from the world proper to the character and purpose of each institute.”
Religious institutes can be separated into apostolic and contemplative congregations. Apostolic congregations are devoted to apostolic and missionary activity and to the many different works inspired by Christian charity outside of the cloister. Contemplative congregations live a life of cloister, constant prayer, offering of self, and the daily recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours.” (See Code of Canon Law 607)
Societies of Apostolic Life
One of the distinguishing characteristics of these societies is that they are defined by their apostolic goal. They are bound by simple vows, renewed annually, rather than perpetual vows which are professed for life. Societies of apostolic life live in community with their lifestyle and spirituality in support of their apostolic goal. i.e. Paulist Fathers , Vincentians, Daughters of Charity, etc. (See Code of Canon Law 731)
The call to a life as a Consecrated Virgin is distinct from other forms of consecrated life in that it is entered by virtue of the Prayer of Consecration rather than by vows or promises. Characterized by a spousal spirituality with Christ, the consecrated virgin lives individually under the direction of the diocesan bishop, dedicates her prayer to the mission of the Church and the people of God, wears a ring of consecration, and earns her own living http://www.consecratedvirgins.org/ (See Code of Canon Law 604)
Private Vows in Lay Movements
Lay associations also known as “ecclesial associations” are relatively new groups in the church. Members profess private vows in the name of the Church to a legitimate superior, live in community and put their salaries into the community of goods. i.e. Focolare, Regnum Christi etc. See Canon 1192 *
A secular institute is an organization of consecrated persons professing the Evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience while living in the world, unlike members of a religious institute who live in community. Secular institutes represent a form of consecration in secular life, not religious life. http://www.secularinstitutes.org/ (See Code of Canon Law 710 & 712)
The Eremitic Life – Diocesan Hermits
An ancient form of consecrated life begun in the third century, a hermit lives under norms prescribed in Canon Law under the direction of the diocesan bishop. The diocesan hermit publicly profess poverty, chastity and obedience before the bishop, devote themselves to prayer, penance and solitude and earn their own living. (See Code of Canon Law 603)
“Consecrated men and women are aware that besides recounting the great stories they have written in the past, they are called to write a no-less-beautiful and great story in the future.”
~Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life
(For more information visit Code of Canon Law)
Behind the Habit
What do you picture when you think of a religious sister? America Magazine produced some brief videos looking into the diverse lives of a few religious sisters.
Find more videos on their website.
How do I know which community is best for me?
This is a matter of the heart, just like dating. You don’t try to date every guy or girl – you date the one you’re attracted to.
Pick out a few communities you feel attracted to and take one step at a time in your discernment of them.
Walk through the doors as they open. Remember it is a mutual discernment: it has to be right for you and it has to be right for them too.
When you have found the right place, you’ll know it, you’ll feel at home.
What is Religious Life?
Some men and women are called to be dedicated totally to God by embracing the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Some live in the world and are set apart by a special consecration, in secular institutes, as consecrated virgins, or as hermits. Others are called out of the world, to live the religious life by professing the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
What do I do if I have college debt?
Most communities require their candidates to be debt-free. There are organizations that were founded to help young people become debt-free so that they can enter religious life, such as Mater Ecclesiae Fund for Vocations and Labouré Society.
What if my parents do not approve?
Oftentimes parents struggle with their child’s decision to pursue a religious vocation. Your parents have their own journey to make with this discernment process.
Most parents, even those who struggle at first, are content to see that their child is happy and at peace. Ultimately though, you are not responsible for your parents’ feelings.
Will I be able to see my family?
Yes, most communities allow for family visits. The customs for this vary from community to community.
What about this feeling of unworthiness?
It is not helpful to your growth in the spiritual life to get caught up on the question of worthiness. No one is worthy, period. God chooses as He wills. He alone is worthy. He is entitled to choose the weak and the lowly according to His own mysterious design.
What about sins of my past?
It is important to have had a conversion from the past life of sin and to have lived a virtuous life for an extended period of time in the world before attempting to enter religious life. Religious life can be compared to running a marathon. You don’t start out doing 26 miles, you start slow, you train, you work up to it.
What if I enter and then later decide that it isn’t for me? Can I leave?
The choice for the religious must be a free one. Every sister or brother should be encouraged to continue to discern anew at every step. Is this what God wants? Is this what I want? Can I do this?
Often, profession of final vows doesn’t come until seven or more years in the community. That gives you plenty of time to be certain.
If I give up marriage and children can I truly be happy?
The call to religious life requires the renunciation of marriage and children and this is a true sacrifice; however, you are not sacrificing any of your femininity or masculinity.
You are called to live out and be a witness to the heavenly reality. You remind the world that our true love and spouse is God and share the joy and happiness that this brings.
What are the stages of becoming a sister or a brother?
The pre-novitiate stages vary from community to community. Most have a two-year novitiate which is the canonical beginning of religious life. After the novitiate comes First Profession of Vows which are renewed over several years before making Final Profession of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
What do sisters and brothers do every day?
Daily life consists of three “staples”: prayer, community, and apostolate (ministry). The daily schedule will vary from community to community but consists of Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, meals together, work, study, and recreation.
A Living Sacrifice: Guidance for Men Discerning Religious Life
A comprehensive guide to help men discern if God is calling them to religious life. Written by Fr. Benedict Croell, O.P. and Fr. Andrew Hofer. O.P.
Discerning Religious Life – by Mother Clare Matthiass, CFR
A comprehensive guide to help women discern Religious Life with clarity, confidence, and joy. Foreword by Cardinal Dolan.