Q What is consecrated life?
A Catholics often use the term ‘religious’ to describe those who have taken vows
of poverty, chastity (or more precisely: lifelong celibacy) and obedience. The
most helpful phrase to use is the term ‘consecrated life’. This is the way of
life embraced by all those who dedicate themselves to the Lord by making
lifelong vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, when they are recognised and
accepted by the Church. These vows are sometimes called the ‘evangelical
counsels’. Every Christian, of course, is dedicated to the Lord, and has
promised through baptism to give his or her life to him. Every Christian longs
to live a life of holiness. But those who consecrate themselves in this way are
responding to a call to live as Christ lived, and to model their lives more
directly on his own way of life – poor, chaste, and obedient – making their
hearts more free for prayer and service. They show us more clearly something
about the concrete reality of Christ’s love. They also give us a glimpse of the
purity of the love we all hope to share in heaven, when our lives will be
uncluttered by possessions or family responsibilities, and our hearts will be
solely centred on God. The consecrated life includes monks and nuns in enclosed
communities, religious brothers and sisters in active communities, and also many
others who live alone or who live and work ‘in the world’ who have taken the
Fr Stephen Wang, How to Discover your Vocation, CTS
Q What is contemplative or monastic life?
A The contemplative dedicates much time to prayer each day, lives mostly in silence and also is dedicated to manual labour. There is a great tradition in the Church of both female and male monastic and contemplative life. Their hidden prayer and sacrifice is of major importance for the overall good of the Church.
Q What are the signs that God might be calling me to the consecrated life?
A Consecrated life is the way of life embraced by those who dedicate themselves to
the Lord by making lifelong vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience that are
recognised and accepted by the Church. So this includes monks and nuns in
enclosed monasteries and convents; religious brothers and sisters living in
community who serve others through their apostolic work; and many other forms of
consecrated life. The life of a missionary sister, a Carthusian hermit, an
enclosed nun, a parish priest, or a teaching friar are vastly different, and the
particular pull towards each way of life will be very different. But the way God
stirs up these vocations in our hearts can be quite similar. Here are some
common signs and common ways of discerning a vocation to the priesthood or
consecrated life. You don’t need to tick every box here, but just pay attention
to some of these areas and see if there are some recurring themes.
A desire to be consecrated person. Maybe you can’t explain why you have this
desire, it’s a part of you, like falling in love. You just know that this is
what seems right. You imagine yourself as a priest or consecrated person and it
seems to fit, even if it makes you afraid or you think it would be impossible.
There is a joy and excitement when you think about it, a sense that this is the
right path. The idea keeps coming back – in your prayer, your daydreaming, your
imagination. Some scripture passage or sermon seems to be directed at you –
about the priesthood, or the call of the disciples, or service. These passages
seem to stand out for you and have a kind of clarity; as if a light comes on; or
it warms your heart; or it feels as if someone is pointing at you.
The desire may be long-term or gradual or recent. There are different kinds of desire.
(i) Some people have always wanted to be a consecrated person: they cannot remember a time when they did not have this desire; they pretended to be consecrated persons when they were kids; it seems to be a part of them.
(ii) Some people have gradually wanted to be priests or consecrated persons: it has grown over time; or it has come and gone; but now seems to be a bit stronger and a bit more enduring.
(iii) Some people have always wanted NOT to be a consecrated person. This might sound strange, but there are people who have always been fighting it, resisting, walking away, giving excuses why not; and this is because deep down they have always known it is a part of them; and at some point they realise that, in fact, people without vocations do not normally go around thinking about why they don’t have a vocation!
(iv) And some people suddenly want to be consecrated persons: they have gone through a life changing spiritual experience; it has never occurred to them before but now it does; the priesthood or consecrated life is something new and sudden and unexpected, but very real and almost overpowering. This can happen, but these people need to be very cautious, because after a big adult conversion experience it is easy to confuse a desire to live a radical new Christian life (which is important for all people) with a desire to be a consecrated person (which is only one way of responding to this new life, and perhaps not the right one). This is why the Church asks new converts to have time to settle into their new Catholic life for a few years before seeking consecrated life.
An admiration for consecrated people you know. You sense a goodness and holiness in their lives. You have an attraction to something they have or something they represent; even if you can’t imagine being one. They seem to be living a life worth living, in a way that speaks to you. You are drawn to them. Or perhaps you do not have any explicit desires to be a consecrated person, but you are attracted to many of the things that are involved in their lives. You have a desire to serve people in different ways, or to pass on the faith, or to pray with and for others. Maybe you find less satisfaction in your work, not because it is wrong, but you feel it is not enough.
Sense of being pulled or pushed toward priesthood or consecrated life. This can be true even if you do not seem to have any real personal desire. In fact it might seem like something you don’t want to do, something you are fighting against. The will of God and not your own will. It is a nagging feeling that you should or could become a consecrated person, that seems to come from nowhere, uninvited; an idea you can’t get out of your mind. It might leave you cold, or even repel you – in the sense that your instincts and gut fight against it. You may find yourself making excuses to yourself (and even to others) about why you shouldn’t follow it, raising a list of objections, making clear all the signs that show you couldn’t possibly do this. Perhaps you couldn’t! But it is strange that you keep fighting and resisting it (when other people just don’t bother thinking about it). It’s as if part of you knows you should; there is an inner sense of duty, or call – even if it is reluctant.
An inner desire to pray more and to take the faith more seriously.
You just find
that you want to pray more and to deepen your faith. Your love for Christ is
growing, and your love for the Church. More and more you desire to give your
life to God completely. Of course this is true for many holy lay-people! But it
can often be the beginning of a vocation to consecrated life. You are not sure
why, but you have a feeling that you can’t hold anything back. For some people
the idea of celibacy comes to mean more and more – not because they dislike
marriage, but because they feel called to give their life wholeheartedly to
serve God and others, in a way that would be difficult within the commitments of
marriage and family life.
Other people affirm your vocation. When you talk to people about the possibility of consecrated life, especially committed Catholics, they don’t look as if you are mad. They affirm it, and say ‘Of course, I could have told you that years ago’. They encourage you. In other words, from the outside, this vocation also seems to make sense – it is not just a subjective sign for you, but it is beginning to be a more objective sign to others too. Perhaps people who don’t know you even come up and suggest the priesthood or consecrated life to you, out of the blue! The simple fact that someone unexpectedly suggests it to you, or jokes about it with you, may be the first sign of a call. They may see something you can’t see, or something you are not prepared to admit that you see. You shouldn’t assume that every person speaking to you is a messenger from God, and other people can sometimes get things wrong – but the suggestions others make might sometimes help you to reflect in a more open way.
Support from a wise person who knows you well. You may not have a formal ‘spiritual director’ (someone you speak to regularly about your faith), but perhaps there is someone wise and trustworthy that you have chatted to about your vocation over a period of time; you have talked things through with them and they know you quite well. If they affirm what you have said, and it seems to them that you may have a vocation, then this is another more public sign that it may be true. It could be a sign to take things further forward.
A feeling that you are not worthy to be a priest or consecrated person. This might seem like a paradox, but it can be true. Sometimes someone may have a deep feeling that the consecrated life is too much of an ideal for them, that they are not worthy, or not good enough, or not capable enough. These feelings can be a sign of humility, an indication that someone has a healthy sense of their own limitations, and a high sense of the dignity of this calling. The feeling of unworthiness may, strangely, be a sign that someone has a true appreciation for what this vocation means, and that they will be open to asking for God’s help and the help of the Church. It would be worrying if someone thought any kind of Christian commitment was easy; or if they thought they could achieve it through their own efforts.
An attraction to marriage and family life. This might seem a strange point.
Obviously, an attraction to marriage and family life is not a sign that you
should become a consecrated person. But it is true that someone with a deep and
strong pull towards marriage can be called by the Lord to become a consecrated
person. God is not playing games and asking you to do what is impossible – to be
married and not married at the same time. Rather, you may have a very natural
desire for marriage and family, it’s part of who you are as a man or woman, but
the Lord might be calling you to let go of that so that you can discover another
way of giving your life in love – as a priest or consecrated person. You need to
look at all the other signs above; but this section is just to show you that an
attraction to marriage does not necessarily mean you should rule out another
Fr Stephen Wang, How to Discover your Vocation, CTS
Q How do I explore a Calling?
A Once you start thinking that you may have a vocation to the consecrated life, you are faced with the obvious question, WHERE?
There are two levels to the answer to this question:
1. General vocation. Is God calling me to be a priest in active religious life or monastic/contemplative lifeor a woman in active religious life, monastic/contemplative life?
2. Specific Group. This is where we usually run into most of our practical difficulties. There seem to be so many possibilities. So how do we narrow it down to one?
3. Religious or lay consecration for men and women: which particular religious family or group should I enter?
Since there is such a variety of groups and missions, we may feel overwhelmed and at a loss faced with so many possibilities.
Here are some guidelines to help you.
1. Renew your belief in God’s providence. God is the one calling you, he will make sure you have the opportunity to meet the group he is calling you to.
2. Therefore you do not have to chase down every possibility, find out about every diocese, investigate every seminary, convent, monastery and ecclesial movement.
3. What depends on you is not the call but the answer.
4. Check up on the signs of a possible vocation, to see if you have them.
5. If you can, get a spiritual director.
6. In most cases, we already have some contact with or knowledge of the group God is calling us to as we begin our search. Start looking into the ones you are already familiar with.
7. Your interest is only one ingredient of the vocation. The second is their interest in you…
8. There is always an element of risk in following the vocation. Rarely will you be 100% of your vocation, but you should be 100% sure that you want to try it.
1. Visit the places that interest you.
2. Spend some time with them to get to know the lifestyle
3. See if there is a “click”, if you feel at home there.
4. Speak with their vocation director.
5. Stop thinking about yourself.
6. Start thinking about how you can help others.
8. Receive the Sacraments regularly (Eucharist and Confession).
9. Talk with your own spiritual director – speak to your parish priest who might be able to suggest someone to you if you don’t have one.
10. You may have a local discernment group. If you want to know about the one in Portsmouth Diocese, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
11. Don’t worry if you are a little afraid, it means you have your head on.
12. Don’t worry what your friends might think. This is between you and Christ.
13. Remember, you are not alone in this. Most people now living their vocation have been through it, and are more than ready to aid you in your discernment.
Many people you do not know and who don’t know you are praying for you.
* Grateful acknowledgement to Fr. Stephen Wang, author of “How to Discover your Vocation”, CTS