Priests/Monks, Nuns/Sisters – What’s the Difference?

The Catholic church has two-thousand years of history behind it. In that time we’ve developed a highly specialized language. Like all jargon it can be confusing — for those on the inside and the outside alike.  (Spend ten minutes with your local IT or medical professional and you’ll know what I mean.)

Even simple things, like the designation of certain roles in the church, can be perplexing. Do you know the difference between a nun and a sister? What is a monk? Are all monks priests? Are all priests monks? What about Deacons?

In the spirit of simplification, let me share a way to think about the different roles of religious life in the church.

Broadly speaking, religious vocations in the Catholic church can be categorized as “contemplative” or “active”.  Those who are called to a contemplative life live apart from society in a monastery or cloister.  A recent Aleteia article explains it this way:

This usually involves living and working within a designated “enclosed” space, off-limits to all but priests, medical personnel and workmen, and leaving the enclosure only for medical issues or business involving the monastery. As with monks, a nun’s “work,” aside from what helps to materially support the house, is prayer, which is ongoing throughout the day and offered for the sake of the Church and the world.

Like many things in the church, there are shadings and variations of how the general norms are applied. A post over at CatholicEducation.org clarifies the rules with regards to cloistered nuns:

In some cases, the cloister restrictions are not as strictly enforced. Some orders of nuns, while technically cloistered, conduct works of charity or education, interacting with the public. For example, the Visitation Sisters are technically cloistered nuns but teach school.

On the other hand, those with an active vocation are called to live in the world and provide direct service.  Perhaps the most famous of these would be Mother Teres’a Missionaries of Charity.

As a general rule, if you see a woman wearing a habit or some other distinctive mark of religious life, you’re probably seeing a “sister”.  The term “nun” is more often reserved for those living the contemplative life.

Similar rules hold true for monks, priests and friars with a couple of additional complications. Priests can be attached to the local diocese — these are called “secular” or “diocesan” priests.  Or, they can be attached to a particular community or order — think “Franciscan”, “Jesuit”, or “Paulist”.  Or they can be monastic — think “Benedictine”.

Aleteia summed it up this way:

Diocesan priests do not take vows of poverty and may possess and inherit property.

Priests vowed to a religious order (like the Franciscans, Dominicans, etc) or a monastic community (like the Benedictines or Cistercians) do make vows of poverty, surrendering any income they generate through their works to their superiors. So a Dominican writer earning profits from his books will turn those royalty checks over to the Order of Preachers. A Trappist writer will turn his earnings over to his abbot or prior, for the benefit of the whole community.

In an order or a monastery, some of the men may be ordained as priests which allows them to perform the sacraments, while others are brothers who have taken vows.  The Aleteia article goes more into depth of the various shadings of meaning.

If you meet someone in religious life and are curious about the details of their particular calling, the best and simplest way to learn more is to ask them.  The overwhelming majority of religious I’ve met are more than happy to tell you all about their vocation.

— Dad of Evan

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Question: What is a Vocations Director

riceOne of the things that’s impressed me the most about Evan’s journey is the level of support that he’s had.

See that smiling fellow on the left of the page?  His name is Fr. Larry Rice and he’s the current Vocations Director for the Paulists.  His job is to guide men in the process of discernment.  He talks to them, prays for them and with them, and assists them on their journey.

The Vocation Network website puts it this way:

A vocation director is designated by a religious institute to promote vowed membership, to help others discern their vocation, and to oversee the application process of new members entering the community as a postulant. They assist those who are considering the possibility of religious life by providing support, discernment counseling, and information.The Vocation director for a religious congregation answers to the elected superiors of their congregation. The National Religious Vocation Conference is the professional organization for vocation directors of religious communities.

Vocation Directors who work on behalf of a diocese answer to the bishop.They have  their own professional organization, the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors.)

It might sound (a little) like Vocations Directors are recruiters, looking to grow the ranks.  This isn’t the case.  In fact, anyone who has been pressured is not (by canon law) permitted to take vows.  The ordained life — like marriage — is only legitimately available to those who choose it freely.

It might interest you to know that there are Vocations Directors for nuns as well.  Sister M. Consolata is the Vocations Director for the Sisters of St. Francis of Alton, Illinois.  She describes her role in working with young women in the process of discernment.

My role is to help you.  Do you feel a tug on your heart to give everything to Jesus?  Do you desire to live only for Him?  Or maybe you are just wondering what religious life is all about.

I am here to help answer your questions and walk with you during your time of discernment.  Remember, the Lord takes the first initiative.  He loves you.  Yes, YOU!  Then He invites you to make a response to His love.  Be not afraid! I would love to hear from you and about your journey with of faith.

Whether you’re a woman considering a vocation as a nun or a man considering the priesthood, your first contact should be with a Vocations Director.  There will likely be one in your diocese and there are plenty of links on the web that you can use to contact them.  Communicating with a Vocations Director will be an important step in the vocation journey — not just for the discerner, but also for that person’s family.

We haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet Evan’s current Vocations Director, Fr. Rice.  We did get to meet Fr. Rice’s predecessor, Fr. Dave Farnum when he came through Utah to meet with Evan a year ago last spring.  Fr. Dave is a wonderful man who told us about his own call to the priesthood.  He reassured us about the process of discernment and gave us insight into what the ordained life would be like.  We thoroughly enjoyed spending time with him and are grateful for everything that he — and Fr. Rice — have done for Evan.

–Dad