CAN YOU BE HELPED?
What to know about priests, brothers, sisters, religious and deacons.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike can be curious about priests, brothers, sisters and deacons. The following tries to answer questions people often ask us.
Why did you become a priest, brother or sister?
It might sound corny if you’re not a believer, but we became priests, brothers, or sisters because we felt a personal call from God. That doesn’t mean we had flashy conversions with thunderbolts and voices. Instead, we grew to know ourselves, recognising our talents and abilities and what helped us be the best we could be.
Over time and with prayer, we each came to believe that this was the right path for us. We decided to at least give it a try by beginning the initial formation process to enter priesthood or religious life.
How did family and friends react to your decision?
That depends. Many of us found that our family and friends were supportive and encouraging. But not everyone experiences that same support.
Sometimes, because of misunderstanding or fear, families and friends are less enthusiastic about our decisions. That’s when we have to trust ourselves, the voice of God that we hear in our hearts, and the good judgment of the communities and dioceses that think we’re right for this and support us.
What do priests, sisters and brothers do all day?
Just like most adults, we spend a portion of each day working. We call our work ministry because the model and motivation for what we do is Jesus, who asked that we follow his example of service to God’s people.
But we don’t just work! In order to live in a healthy, balanced way we try to keep a mix of prayer, ministry and play in our lives.
These three things – prayer, ministry and play – help us stay healthy so we can be more effective ministers and happy people.
In the area of work or ministry, many priests, brothers, and sisters have one main job, such as teaching, parish ministry, social work, or hospital work – all of which have somewhat regular hours and predictable demands. Our daily schedule can look different than the typical adult’s. Often we have evening meetings, and those of us who are priests or parish ministers usually “work” on Saturdays and Sundays and take some time off during the week.
We try to share our lives with others and to reveal Christ in all we do.
The unpredictable demands also lend richness to our lives. These often centre around meeting the needs of people, whether that be children in schools, families preparing to celebrate the sacraments, or the sick, elderly, angry, hurt, hungry, or imprisoned. We try to share our lives with others and to reveal Christ in all we do.
Those of us who are members of contemplative communities (communities dedicated to prayer) also fill our days with a combination or work, prayer and recreation. The difference is that we might dedicate more of our time to prayer than other brothers, sisters, or priests. Sometimes we will grow our own food and do income-producing work, like baking and selling the hosts used for Mass, or making cheese or other produce. Our prayer usually consists of Mass, silent prayer (called contemplation), reading, and praying the psalm-based Liturgy of the Hours (an ancient practice of praying psalms together at regular hours throughout the day).
How important is prayer in your life?
Because we’ve chosen a way of life which says that God is most important, prayer is central to our lives. Think of it as a deep level of communication with God similar to the kind of communication which happens between any two people who love each other. Our relationship with God grows and deepens with prayer.
Since prayer is important, many priests, sisters, and brothers spend about two hours a day praying. Part of that time we pray with others at Mass. We also pray other formal prayers like the Liturgy of the Hours or the Rosary, or spend time with others less formally reading and reflecting on readings from the Bible. Part of the time, we also pray alone, perhaps reading or just being quiet with God. One of the positive effects of prayer, whatever shape it takes, is to keep us aware of God’s activity in the people, events, and circumstances of daily life.
Is prayer always easy for you?
Not always! Even those of us in contemplative life – whose ministry is prayer – go through “dry spells” when our prayer time seems dull or uneventful. As we grow in our experience of prayer we learn how to adjust to these changes. We often depend on the support our communities of the help of a spiritual director (someone like a coach) to help us keep praying during difficult times.
Those of us who are parish priests have our parish communities and our fellow priests to lead us toward prayer even when we’d rather not be bothered. We try to be faithful even when we don’t feel like it.
Our efforts aren’t always perfect, but we are convinced of our deep need for God. We believe God sees and responds to our attempts to communicate.
What is the difference between a diocesan priest and a religious priest?
A diocesan priest ordinarily serves the church within a geographic area called a diocese. He ordinarily serves the people as a parish priest, but he may also be involved in many other forms of ministry like teaching, hospital ministry, campus ministry, or prison ministry.
We enjoy sports, music, reading, being with friends, - the same activities that many people enjoy.
A religious priest is a member of a religious congregation whose ministry goes beyond the geographic limits of any diocese. A religious priest seeks to live a life of poverty, celibacy, an obedience within a community of men. The community shares a common vision and spirituality and often emphasizes a particular type of ministry.
Do you get time off? What do you do with it?
We have about the same amount of leisure time as most adults, usually two days a week. Many diocesan priests, however, have only one full day a week off. We can usually spend our time off as we like, and our activities are as varied as we are. We enjoy sports, movies, music, surfing the internet, reading, being with friends, spending time outdoors – the same activities that many people enjoy.
Do people act differently when they know you’re a sister, brother or priest?
Sometimes they do. It can be a blessing or a curse. There are three typical reactions that can occur when people who do not know us well meet one of us. Sometimes people open up to us and trust us more because of who we are. Then we have the opportunity to share our faith and our lives at a deep level, which can be very rewarding.
Other people have a negative reaction to us because we represent something that may upset them. Someone who has had a negative experience with the institutional church might feel the need to express that to us. Or we may trigger a negative response because they’ve had bad experiences with other priests, sisters or brothers. A third reaction is that people might put us on a pedestal, thinking we’re perfect or really different from other people, and so they don’t treat us like real human beings.
Like anyone else, we’re human and want to be accepted and respected for who we are.
What’s the difference between a brother and a priest?
A brother is a layman who commits himself to Christ by the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. He usually lives in a religious community and works in a ministry that suits his talents and gifts. A brother might be a teacher, electrician, cook, lawyer, technician, parish minister or artist. He tries to live his faith by being a “brother” to others.
A priest is ordained for a distinctive role as a minister of the sacraments (the visible signs of God’s presence in the Christian community). He celebrates Eucharist and witnesses marriages, baptizes babies and adults, and brings God’s healing presence to people through the sacraments of penance (confession) and of the sick. He is involved in a variety of other works as well – most often parish-related – but sacramental life is his special ministry.
What is a deacon?
One kind of deacon is called a permanent deacon. He is a man 35 or older, married or single, who serves the church after a formal period of formation sponsored by his diocese. The training and formation takes two to three years and usually takes place on the weekends while he continues with his usual lifestyle and work.
Once ordained, a deacon may be involved in sacramental tasks (such as baptisms), liturgical duties (preaching and leading certain parts of the Mass), pastoral work or other types of ministry. Permanent deacons may be married, but if they are single at ordination, they are not normally permitted to marry. If a married deacon’s wife dies, he may be permitted to remarry.
In addition to permanent deacons, there are transitional deacons. These are men who are completing their preparation for the priesthood. Before becoming priests, they spend a period of time serving in parishes as deacons.
What is the difference between different religious orders?
Each religious order or congregation has a charism (a gift given for the service of the church) that helps them focus on the mission (purpose) that its members hope to accomplish in community (a way of living that is a sign of God’s presence). That mission could be prayer in a cloistered convent (a home that community members rarely leave or it could be an active ministry aimed at working with people).
There are many congregations that are like-minded or have similar ministries but each is distinct in one respect or another. Many groups of religious men and women were founded at a time in history when travel and communication were limited. Some congregations were founded for similar purposes and at the same time, but in different places by people who didn’t know about each other.
New communities continue to be formed today in response to God calling men and women to particular forms of spirituality, community, and mission.
How old do you have to be to enter the seminary?
There is no certain age to start preparing for the priesthood. Today most men enter the seminary after college or after working for a number of years. Each diocese and each men’s order has its own upper age limit for men who seek priestly ordination.
What does a seminarian study?
There are three main areas of study and development in preparing for the priesthood: spirituality, ability to minister (to serve and work with people) and academics. Seminarians meet weekly with a priest-advisor to discuss developments in their prayer life and study of prayer. The ability to minister is nurtured through supervised volunteer works such as working with children with disabilities, people in prison, or people who are homeless.
Those who attend the seminary take the same classes as regular students, with the addition of classes about church and God. After initial studies and formation, seminarians study theology, Scripture and church teachings. They also spend time developing skills they will need as priests.
Do you have to be an “A” student to be in the seminary?
Not necessarily. The kinds of grades you earn are only one part of who you are. A generous heart, a prayerful soul, and good people skills are as important as anything else when it comes to being a priest. A seminarian needs to be an average or above-average student. He should be able to pass the courses in the seminary and show that he can be an effective minister. Seminary training is meant to help the seminarians and the people who guide them decide whether the seminarians have the skills, gifts and desire to give their lives to this challenging and fulfilling ministry.
What is seminary life like?
It’s an exciting time for most of us. Of course, we also encounter times of struggle, emotionally or academically. But we’re finally starting to realise our dream of being priests, and that’s exciting. The academics are as challenging as at any college or university. In addition to our studies and meeting with a spiritual advisor, we’re encouraged to enjoy friendships with both men and women. Dating is not part of the life because seminarians are preparing for celibacy rather than marriage.
Are priests taught how to preach homilies?
Yes. Seminarians take courses in homilectics (the art of helping people hear and respond to the Word of God in a formal presentation called a homily).
Once a seminarian is ordained a transitional deacon, about a year before ordination to priesthood, he will preach homilies at Mass in the seminary and in parishes. During this year, he will receive feedback from the people at Mass and from the priest with whom he serves.
Throughout his life a priest will continue to improve his skills for preaching by studying and learning from other priests.
How do you join a religious community?
The process of joining a religious community actually takes some time and involves several stages. While these vary from community to community in name, length of time and format, the following outline gives you an overview.
Contact: A person of college age or older who is interested in religious life but is still searching to answer the question, “What does God want of me?” can join a program of contact with a religious community. The program is usually informal and flexible. The person may meet monthly with a priest, brother or sister and share in experiences of prayer and community life. Others may take part in a “come and see” program that allows them to visit a community and experience its way of life.
Candidate: A more formal relationship with the community occurs when a person becomes a candidate. He or she must indicate interest and have the community agree to accept him or her as a person in the process of joining. The candidate lives within the community while continuing his or her education or work experience.
What does God want of me?
This period enables the candidate to observe and participate in religious life from the inside. It also allows the community to see whether the candidate is well suited to the life of the community. A person may be a candidate for one or two years.
Novice: The novitiate is the next stage of formation. This is a special one-to-two year period that marks a more official entrance into the community.
Novices spend time in study and prayer, learning more about themselves, the community, and their relationship with Jesus. At the end of the novitiate, novices profess temporary promises or vows.
Vows: Promises of poverty, celibacy, and obedience may be taken for one, two or three years, depending upon the decision of the individual and the community. These promises are renewable for up to nine years. As soon as three years after making temporary vows, a person can make a promise to live the vows for life.
A man studying for religious priesthood must also undergo seminary training. During this time he studies theology, Scripture, church teachings, and the skills he will need to be a priest.
What is a religious vow?
A vow is a type of serious promise made before God. (There is a technical difference between promises and vows, but it’s a bit too complicated to go into here). For example, when people marry, they make wedding vows.
Sisters, brothers and religious-community priests take vows to give their lives to God by living the gospel in poverty, celibacy and obedience.
What vows do religious priests, brothers and sisters make?
Brothers, sisters and priests in religious communities make three vows, and some congregations make other vows as well. The three most common vows are:
Poverty – We share our goods in common and live a simple life, realising that we depend on God.
Celibacy – We choose to love and serve God and all God’s people, rather than to love one person exclusively. We offer our celibacy as witness and testimony to God’s love.
Obedience – We live in community and try to listen to and follow the will of God by taking part in the community’s life, goals, hopes and work.
What vows do diocesan priests make?
Diocesan priests promise celibacy and obedience to their bishop. They do not make a vow of poverty but they do try to live simply so they can be of service to God’s people.
Do deacons make vows?
If they are single they promise not to marry because it is the tradition of the church for ordained men to be celibate.
What happens to the money priests, brothers and sisters make?
Because of their vow of poverty, all money earned by men and women in religious congregations is shared in common and goes to support the community and its ministries. Food, medicine, cars, insurance and other expenses are paid from a common fund. Members of the community who are retired or ill are supported by the salaries of the wage earners. In most communities, members receive a small monthly allowance for clothing, entertainment and personal needs.
Since a diocesan priest does not take a vow of poverty and does not live in a religious community, he receives a salary. In most dioceses a priest receives a salary based on the local standard of living, enabling him to pay for his personal expenses.
For most of us, the amount of money we make is not that important. We try to live simply, without collecting too many material possessions, in order to better focus our lives on Christ and to serve God’s people.
Are you ever attracted to others in a romantic way?
Of course! We still experience normal, human needs, feelings and desires. As celibate people we choose to channel these feelings – our sexual energies – into other healthy directions. We work at remaining faithful to our vow of celibacy through prayer, closeness to Jesus, good friendships and healthy physical exercise.
What if you fall in love?
It happens! Our responsibility in such a situation is to preserve the commitment we’ve made which is to live as a sister, brother or priest. We try to develop relationships within the limits and responsibilities of our commitment to celibacy.
Obviously falling in love can be a painful situation for a sister, priest or brother. Yet we know that all Christians eventually face pain in their lives. It isn’t always easy to be a faithful spouse or to be a Christian single person either. Dealing with such a challenge of our vows can make us stronger than ever in our vocations.
Do you ever wonder about marriage and children?
Sure we do. It’s only natural that we wonder “what if…” many of us are surrounded by married people with children, and we see the rewards and struggles of married life on a daily basis. We also recognise the value and joy of our own lifestyle.
Are you ever lonely?
Of course. Like people in any way of life, priests, sisters and brothers are lonely sometimes. Other times we turn to God to fill that emptiness. We also try to nurture significant friendships so that we can fill our human need for closeness to other people.
Do you have to be a virgin to be a brother, sister or priest?
This is a common question we hear from young people! Past sexual activity does not in itself prevent someone from becoming a brother, sister or priest. A person’s past life is not the main concern. If it was, men and women who were once married could not become priests, brothers or sisters (and they do). The questions is whether a person is willing and able to now to live and love as a celibate in the service of others.
Some of the great saints – St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi for example – made other choices before turning to religious life.
Are priests, sisters or brothers better Christians than us “mere mortals”?
Nope! We don’t have holiness all figured out. And we aren’t superior to lay people. All vocations – to married life, to single life and to religious life or diocesan priesthood – are gifts from God and are equally valuable. All of us are called at baptism to follow Christ.
Can you retire?
Yes. Retirement age varies according to our health and our circumstances. Even after retirement, many of us enjoy contributing to ministry through part-time or volunteer service.
Why has there been a decline in the number of people entering priesthood and religious life?
The reasons are many and complex. To attribute the lower number of persons entering priesthood and religious life to any single cause would be too simple. The world and the church have undergone dramatic change in the last 30-40 years. Furthermore, the high numbers of people joining religious life in the 1950s and 1960s was not typical of most of the church’s history.
Today’s lower numbers have been attributed, among other things, to the many changes religious congregations have experienced; growing professional opportunities for women; the acceptance of Catholicism into mainstream culture; the reluctance of many people to make permanent commitments of any kind: and an increasing attachment to material goods and social status.
Why do some of you wear habits while others do not?
Those who wear habits or clerical collars do so for various reasons. One is that religious dress is a sign that may be instantly recognised as a symbol of faith in God and commitment to Christianity.
All vocations – to married life, to single life, and to religious life or priesthood
– are gifts from God
Another frequent rationale is that religious clothing is simple dress and therefore a way to live out the vow of poverty. A sister, brother or priest who wears religious garb may own a few changes of clothing and be free of the expense and care of a more contemporary wardrobe.
Some communities wear street clothes, preferring to make their lifestyle, rather than their clothing, their main outward sign of faith. They feel that religious dress may create a barrier between them and other people. Furthermore, those who have discontinued wearing habits often say the original reason for them was to wear the dress of the common people and street clothes are now the common people’s dress.
What’s the best thing about being a priest, brother or sister?
Every one of us could answer that differently! When you get to know priests, brothers and sisters you might hear them talk about what an adventure life is or about the deep joy they feel in prayer or about the challenges of their ministry or about the gratitude they feel to God for filling their lives with such wonderful people and fulfilling experiences.
These are just some of the “best things” about our way of life. There are many others. Maybe someday you’ll be able to find out for yourself. If you are really curious, ask a priest, sister or brother you know.
I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.