A vocation to the Consecrated Life is a gift from God the Father to the Church, rooted in the example and teaching of Christ, and given through the power of the Holy Spirit.
~ Vita Consecrata, §1
“The life consecrated through the profession of the evangelical counsels is a stable form of living by which the faithful, following Christ more closely under the action of the Holy Spirit, are totally dedicated to God who is loved most of all, so that, having been dedicated by a new and special title to His honor, to the building up of the Church, and to the salvation of the world, they strive for the perfection of charity in the service of the kingdom of God and, having been made an outstanding sign in the Church, foretell the heavenly glory.”
~ Canon 573 §1
A consecrated person, dedicated to serving God, builds up the Church by assisting all to attain their eternal salvation. As they are perfected by their love of God and neighbor they become a sign of the heavenly kingdom.
In the Church there are the following forms of Institutes of Consecrated Life: Religious brothers, sisters, and priests; hermits/anchorites/virgins; members of Societies of Apostolic Life and Secular Institutes.
Congregations, Religious Institutes and Societies
Men’s and Women’s Congregations, Religious Institutes and Societies for Apostolic Life are what we ordinarily mean when we speak of religious life. Although the two differ somewhat, both are built on the common life and a bond related to the evangelical counsels, or vows.
Men’s congregations may have a membership made up of brothers, priests, or both.
- Religious Brothers live a fraternal common life. They are lay religious consecrated to Christ and the Church by vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Although ministry is essential to the life of brothers, it does not define their lives. What characterizes the brothers’ life as unique is their lifestyle. To be brother to another requires fraternal friendship and love. As vowed religious, brothers live in community committed to prayer and to one another. Centered in community and a life rooted in prayer, brothers minister, some following a more monastic orientation and others more apostolic, to meet a variety of needs within the Church. The Brother is a seeker after the Absolute: he opts for the radicality of his baptismal consecration by following Jesus Christ chaste, poor and obedient; he nourishes his spiritual life with prayer, the Eucharist, the Word of God, a critical reading of the signs of the times, and his involvement in the world.
- Religious priests are full members of their religious community. They take public vows and live in community. They have been ordained as priests, however, which adds another dimension of service to their congregation and to the wider church. If a member of a religious order is a priest, his belonging to the congregation is of greater personal importance to him than his priesthood, for living with these spiritual brothers is part of his call.
Women’s congregations have one level of membership, i.e. all are sisters to one another. Like all in consecrated life, they live at the heart of the Church (Vita Consecrata) and within its prophetic dimension.
A woman religious commits herself to Christ and His Church through vows and a common life. She lives in a religious community patterned on the life and teaching of the founder/foundress of the community. Religious life is characterized by community life, simple and celibate lifestyle, public vows, and consecration in the service of God and His people. Prayer and work are part of the tradition of all communities. Depending on the vision of their founders, the charism of the Congregation, and the gifts and talents of their members, each community accents them differently. Thus, some communities are primarily contemplative while others are more active.
Apostolic work also varies among communities. Frequently addressed areas are education, social work, administration, communication, healthcare, etc.
There are many religious communities to choose from. Each woman needs to find the one to which she feels called. Personal contact is one of the best ways to come to know a community – to learn about its spirituality, apostolate, and lifestyle. Some communities offer weekend retreats or live-in experiences.
If your desire is to enter religious life, you should give serious thought to your decision. Seek information, ask for advice, seek the guidance of competent people, evaluate yourself and, above all, pray for wisdom and courage to discern and do God’s will. A good spiritual director may be very helpful in the process of discernment.
Societies for Apostolic Life
Societies for Apostolic Life were founded at first in response to the Church’s tendency to impose a cloistered life on institutes of religious life. Members of Societies for Apostolic Life made an explicit commitment to the evangelical counsels through sacred bonds officially recognized by the church. Because of the way they were structured, they remained active and out of cloister from their foundations. Each in its own particular way pursued a specific apostolic or missionary goal, most often showing a preference for those who are poor or minority persons. Their apostolates include, among other areas, education, social work, administration, communication and health care.
These ministries may be carried out anywhere in the world as determined by the society’s constitution and charism. Examples of Societies of Apostolic Life who have members serving in the Archdiocese include the Daughters of Charity, the Pallotines, and the Paulist Fathers.
In everyday life and work, Societies of Apostolic Life and Institutes of Religious Life appear very similar.
Institutes of Religious Life
Members of Religious Institutes publicly profess the evangelical counsels of obedience, poverty, and consecrated virginity and live the common life according to the rule and constitution of their order which may take the form of cloistered, monastic, or apostolic life.
Cloistered life is focused on contemplative prayer. There is a strong sense of physical separation through silence, solitude, and strict enclosure. Their ministry is prayer for the Church and for the world, and an in-house work by which the community supports itself. The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration and the Carmelites of Port Tobacco are examples of cloistered communities within the Archdiocese.
Monastic communities focus on a common life and common prayer. Each monastery has an autonomous government, a cloistered area of the house, and hold silence and solitude as important values. Monastic communities take a 4th vow of stability, i.e., they remain at the same house for their lifetime. The Georgetown Visitation Sisters and the Benedictines at St. Anselm’s Abbey are examples of monastic communities serving in the Archdiocese.
Apostolic or “active” communities focus on ministry to the Church and to the world. Living a common life, they are “in” the world but not “of” it through their active ministerial witness to Gospel values. Apostolic communities maintain a balance between the contemplative and active life. All are committed to the spread of the Gospel each in a manner shaped by the charism of the congregation. Most religious congregations serving in the Archdiocese are apostolic, e.g. Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of St. Joseph, Religious of the Good Shepherd, Sisters of Notre Dame, Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans.
Secular Institutes help to form lay people whose vowed consecration to God gives them the inner strength and vitality to witness to Christ in secular surroundings.
Secular Institutes were officially approved as an original form of consecrated life within the church in 1947. Their members have the special mission “to work for the sanctification of the world from fully within the world.”
Members of Secular Institutes exercise a powerful timely lay apostolate in the midst of the world – the world of politics, economics, medicine, art, education, technology, family life and labor. Members of each Secular Institute get together periodically for spiritual renewal and mutual support but ordinarily do not live together in community.
The Archdiocese of Washington has a number of Secular Institutes whose single lay members and priests profess the evangelical counsels and spread Gospel values according to a specific charism and spirituality. Like religious institutes each has a period of formation for new members. Most members live alone while striving for holiness in the “marketplace” and provide for their own living expenses, health insurance, and retirement.
“In the Church there are a great many institutes of consecrated life which have different gifts according to the grace which has been given them: they more closely follow Christ who prays, or announces the kingdom of God, or does good to people, or lives with people in the world, yet who always does the will of the Father.”
~ Canon 577