A look at the different opportunities for women in religious life

By Cathi Douglas     11/2/2015

For Catholic women, determining a vocation means knowing the facts

Even the most observant Catholics may not know much about women religious. The differences between nuns and sisters, why women choose to join particular religious orders, and the reasons some orders are enclosed, or cloistered, and others are not – this can be unfamiliar territory to both Catholics and non-Catholics.

While it’s common to use the terms “nun” and “sister” interchangeably – and the title of “Sister” is used to address both of these individuals – nuns and sisters lead different lives. A nun is a religious woman who lives a contemplative and cloistered life of meditation and prayer for the salvation of others, while a religious sister lives an active vocation of both prayer and service, often to the needy, ill, poor or uneducated.

“Vocations are given by God,” says Sister Eymard Flood, the Vicar for Consecrated life for the Diocese of Orange. “Some women are called to active service, some to contemplative life.” Vows for nuns and sisters are similar, except that nuns vowing to live in enclosed communities take a vow of permanency in which they pledge to remain in a particular convent for life, she adds. “Only Rome can change that for them, while sisters in active communities can be transferred.”


Cloistered and open convents serve differently

“Enclosed” is the preferred term (rather than “cloistered”) in reference to religious orders of men and women, explains Sister Eymard. In enclosed religious communities, nuns typically observe vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in addition to permanency. Nuns may decide to dedicate their lives to serving all other living beings, or might be ascetics who voluntarily choose to leave mainstream society and live lives of prayer and contemplation in a monastery or convent.

Enclosed orders of men include the Benedictine and Trappist monks, while enclosed religious orders of women include Dominican, Carmelite and Ursuline nuns. Two of the enclosed orders of nuns closest to Orange County are the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles and the Poor Clare Nuns in Santa Barbara.

The Poor Clare nuns were founded in the 13th century by Saint Clare under the inspiration and guidance of Saint Francis of Assisi. “Our vocation is a precious gift within the mystery of the Church and a source of grace for the world,” the Poor Clares’ website explains. “Our hidden life is a silent proclamation of God’s existence and says that he is worthy of all our love.”

Women called to contemplative life do more than pray, Sister Eymard explains, but may take on work that comes from outside their convents. Still, nuns are not permitted to leave the convent to run to the store or go to the theater.

In contrast, the sisters most known within the Diocese of Orange are those who teach at many Catholic schools, minister at hospitals and serve in charitable ministries – like the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange. Their history began in 1912 when Mother Bernard Gosselin and eight sisters moved from LaGrange, Ill., to serve in the Sacramento diocese. The sisters built a motherhouse in Eureka, then many schools and their first hospital in Orange.


Determining a vocation and deciding on an order 

Women interested in religious ministry should pray, think about and fully research the kind of life they are called to lead, advises “A Guide to Religious Ministries for Catholic Men and Women,” a 2009 book that lists the nation’s religious communities. “Learn about the particular organization or denomination in which you anticipate pursuing a career.” Talking with trusted friends, family members and spiritual advisers can help.

Once she identifies her desired order, a woman called to religious life undergoes the process called discernment in which she works with the congregation’s vocations director. During the discernment process, she experiences the order’s culture, receives spiritual direction and may live in the convent for a period of time.

“The discernment process can be different for each ministry and each candidate,” Sister Eymard says. “It depends on the woman’s background, education and age or if she has been married before.” Once she and the order agree that she can join, it may be seven to 10 years before she takes her final vows.

While religious life certainly isn’t for everyone, many women continue to be called to be nuns and sisters in open and enclosed congregations, Sister Eymard says. “There will always be a place in the Church for consecrated men and women,” she says. “As long as there is an opportunity for ministry, people will be committed for life.”