Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently Asked Questions by those Considering the Priesthood or Religious Life
Frequently Asked Questions by those Considering the Priesthood or Religious Life
There are many different ways God calls people. You don’t have to wait for a lightning bolt or a supernatural vision. Most often the call from God is found deep within your own heart (planted there by God left to be discovered by you!). It might manifest itself in different ways such as a desire to want to help others or a desire to know God more deeply. If you like being with people especially during some of the bigger moments in their lives… their weddings, the birth of their children, the death of a loved one… the priesthood could be for you. No two callings are the same, just like no two priests are the same. The important thing is, if you think you’ve been called, check it out. What have you got to lose?
Weekends tend to be taken up with many things such as Sunday Mass, weddings, baptisms, youth ministry, etc. As for the rest of the week, it’s may be spent working with church groups (e.g. religious education, future planning, outreach to the poor, financial matters of the parish, etc.) or with individuals (preparing for marriage, dealing with loss, the sick, those in need of spiritual counseling, etc.). Of course it is always important balance one’s responsibilities with prayer, leisure, and maintaining good health. Sometimes priests or religious have one main occupation, such as teaching, parish ministry, social work, or hospital work, all of which have somewhat regular hours and predictable demands. Each has its own rhythm. Obviously a parish setting is different from a high school setting. In some ways, it is hard to answer this question exactly because the focus of a religious vocation is serving the needs of those God brings into your life. This requires certain openness to the unpredictable or the unexpected. One thing for sure, it’s never boring!
Priests, brothers, and sisters have approximately the same amount of leisure time as most adults. All priests in our diocese, for instance, are given a weekly day off and vacation times throughout the year. Each individual is then free to pursue one’s favorite leisure activities whether that be reading, sports, travel or computers. Whether it’s going to a concert or watching one’s favorite teams on TV, priests and religious are free to pursue leisure activities they enjoy.
Because priests and religious have chosen a way of life which says by its very nature that God is most important, prayer has a central role in their lives. Prayer is communication with the Lord! Just as a marriage cannot survive without communication, it is impossible for a priest or religious to survive without prayer. Communication is essential for any two persons who expect their relationship to continue. Can you imagine having a best friend to whom you never spoke?
Since prayer is so important, most priests and religious spend approximately two hours a day in prayer-part of that time with others, at Mass and in common oral prayer; part alone, in reading and quiet attentiveness. Probably the main benefit of prayer is that it makes us more sensitive to God’s activity in the people, events, and circumstances of daily life.
Definitely not! There are lots of times we don’t feel like doing things that are basically important to us. For example, an athlete doesn’t always feel like practicing, a student doesn’t always feel like studying, a wage earner doesn’t always feel like working. However, in all these cases, because the activity in which we participate is important, we act on motives deeper than feelings and do what we know needs to be done.
A diocesan priest ordinarily serves the church within a well-defined geographical area (a diocese). He serves the people within that particular diocese as a parish priest, but may also be involved in other forms of ministry. Most diocesan priests live and work in the same diocese for most of their life. Diocesan priests make two promises: obedience to the bishop and celibacy. This means that they promise to work with the Bishop and do what he asks them to do for the needs of the people of the diocese. Celibacy (chastity) is the promise they take that means that they will not get married, so that they can spend most of their time serving the people of God. Being part of a diocese or an order is like being part of a family. The men are like brothers to each other and usually turn out to be some of your best friends.
A religious priest, on the other hand, is a member of a community which goes beyond the geographical limits of any diocese. A religious priest seeks to live a vowed life within a community of men for mutual support and the accomplishment of some work. There is an emphasis in the community on shared ideals, prayer, and commitment to Christ. Religious priests work in a wide variety of ministries. Religious communities were founded at different times in history and often focus on a special ministry (e.g. the Jesuits are involved in education and missionary work, the Salesians work with the young. See our Religious Link for more specific information on specific Religious Communities in our diocese). As members of a worldwide order or group of men, following the ideals of their founder (e.g. the Franciscans follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi), they make vows to live their lives in the same manner. The vows that religious priests make are poverty, celibacy (chastity), and obedience. The vow of poverty means that the priest will not own anything of his own. A religious, for instance, would not personally own a car, but more than likely would have the use of one provided by his community. All of his property will be shared by the brothers in his order.
A brother commits himself to Christ by vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, lives in religious community, and works in nearly any job: teacher, cook, lawyer, and so on. Brothers are not sacramental ministers; they are not ordained and so do not preside at mass, reconciliation, or the anointing of the sick. The role and ministry of a brother is as diverse as being a nurse to a teacher to working in the missions to being a CEO of a hospital.
Monks on the other hand can be either priests or brothers. A monk is the term that is used in abbeys as the members of the abbey refer to one another. A monk is a member of a certain monastery or community. Most often the focus of a monk is on the interior life through personal and communal prayer. They may be involved in retreats, spiritual direction, educational endeavors, or simple work.
Generally it takes five to six years after college or nine years after high school to become a diocesan priest, the same as for many professions. The actual amount depends on how much and the type of education you have received prior to entering the seminary. Your Vocation Director can let you know exactly how long it should take in your specific case.
There is no certain age to start preparing for the priesthood. Some people enter the seminary after high school; others transfer into the seminary from college. Some come after completing college, or after working for a number of years. The age is not the most important question. The most important question is, “Am I doing what God wants of me at this point in my life?”
A seminary or house of formation is a place to prepare and train men for the priesthood while they continue to discern God’s call and will in their lives. In a house of formation, academic instructions takes place elsewhere, whereas in as a seminary is also an academic institutions and so like any other place of higher learning, one takes classes, and works toward receiving fully accredited college degrees. A college seminary focuses on undergraduate studies and so is very much like any other college in terms of curriculum. Usually seminarians are asked to seek an undergraduate degree in Philosophy. A major seminary is a Graduate school and so offers Masters degrees in Theology. The Diocese of San Diego utilizes the St. Francis Center for Priestly Formation to prepare candidates for entry into a major seminary. In addition to classes, there would be times of daily prayer (such as mass). At times things are very busy at the seminary (exam week!). Candidates have free time, which they may use to study, pray, exercise, play sports, read, watch TV, go to the movies, or simply hang out with their friends. There are also opportunities for pastoral and community service. Another part of seminary is formation which is the guidance and direction one receives from those running the seminary. This may be internal (e.g. Spiritual direction) or external (recognizing one’s gifts or areas of growth). In formation, we meet with others to help us understand our calling and to see if priesthood is for us.
Girls and dating are a part of life, and it’s ok to enjoy their company. When someone becomes a priest, he takes a promise of celibacy so that he can give himself totally to God and the people of the parish. Chaste dating before you become a priest can be helpful. Not only does it help you to grow in trusting another person and knowing what it means to build intimacy, it also helps you to understand what it feels like to fall in love, to experience a broken heart, to say goodbye to someone you care deeply for. So, back to the question…what do you tell your girlfriend? Tell her that what you learned dating her will make you a better priest and person. Ask for her prayer and support as you enter this new stage of your life, and promise to pray for her as well.
The ministry choices for a woman religious arise from the founding purpose of her community, a prayerful discernment of her gifts, and an assessment within her community of the signs of the times. A woman religious and her community look together at the needs of the church and society in order to determine where to direct their energies.
The way a particular sister spends her day depends on the kind of community to which she belongs. Contemplative nuns often work to sustain their community in food and shelter doing tasks such as gardening, baking, computer data entry or handiwork. Active (apostolic) communities are involved in a great variety of ministries – usually with an emphasis on some type of special service such as education, social work, or parish pastoral work.
Most groups of religious were founded at a time in history when travel and communication were very limited. Many congregations were founded at the same time for the same purpose, but at different places by people who didn’t know each other. Founders had a specific spirit or charism they wanted to develop in their community (such as hospitality, simplicity, or unity). The charism, the community’s specific ministries, and varying emphases on prayer and community life are the basic differences among religious communities. All are alike in their primary concern: to spread the gospel message.
Those who maintain habits or clerical garb do so for various reasons. One is that religious dress is a sign – an instantly recognized symbol of faith in God and commitment to Christianity. Another frequent rationale is that religious garb is simple dress and therefore a way to live out the vow of poverty. A sister, brother, or priest who wears religious garb can own two or three changes of clothing and be free of the expense of a more extensive contemporary wardrobe. Other communities say the habit is an important sign of penitence. Some communities have opted to wear street clothes, saying the most valid sign of Christian faith is lifestyle rather than garb. Those who have discontinued wearing habits often say the original reason for religious garb was to wear the dress of the common people, and street clothes are the common people’s dress nowadays. There is certainly room in the Church for both expressions of religious life.
Church teachings vary in gravity and centrality to the faith. To be a priest, brother, or sister is to be a public person in the Church. So if you have serious differences with matters essential to the faith, then vowed or ordained life for you would involve an inherent conflict. Consult the Catechism and some trusted people – vocation directors, priests, religious, theology teachers – to ascertain what the Church actually teaches. Many times the doubts we might have can be answered and overcome with greater study, reflection, and dialogue.
To become a religious sister, a religious brother, or a religious order priest, there are several stages. While these vary from community to community in name, length of time, and format, the following outline gives a general view of formation programs.
Contact: A person of high-school age or older who is interested in religious life but is still searching for the answer to the question, What does God want of me? Can I join a program of contact with a religious community? The formation program is usually very flexible. The person meets monthly with a priest, brother, or sister and shares in experiences of prayer and community life with the congregation in which he or she is interested.
Candidate: A more formal relationship with the community occurs when a person becomes a candidate. The candidate lives within the community while continuing his or her education or work experience. This period enables the candidate to observe and participate in religious life from the inside. It also gives the community an opportunity to see whether the candidate shows promise of living 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 official entrance into the community. Novices spend time in study and prayer, learning more about themselves, the community, and their relationship with the Lord. At the end of the novitiate, novices prepare for 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. These promises are renewable for up to nine years. Final vows can be made after three years of temporary promises.
Additionally men studying for religious priesthood must also undergo seminary training, where he studies theology, the Bible, the teachings of the church, and the skills he will need to be a priest.
A vow is a solemn promise made freely as an individual gives his or her life to God. Many religious communities make vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Some communities have other vows. Diocesan priests do not make vows. For ordination, they freely make promises of celibacy and obedience to their bishop.
No one becomes a priest because of the money, that’s for sure. You obviously can’t put a price tag on the spiritual rewards of being a priest and dedicating one’s life to God, but diocesan priests are not expected to live in destitution either. Diocesan priests are paid a salary as they are responsible for their own expenses (e.g. buying a car, putting gas in it, purchasing clothes, paying taxes, etc.). Obviously, priests are not concerned with earning enough for a spouse and children. This combined with the fact that many of the basic necessities are provided (such as housing, food, insurance, etc.), I have found that my salary is more than adequate to pay for my expenses.
The simple answer is yes. Priests are over 21, after all. It’s important to remember that priests are human and do what other people do. So yes, priests can drink alcohol and some do. But because we’re called upon to live a holy life, we do it in moderation. There is a big difference between having a beer or two and getting sauced every Friday night. Any Christian who chooses to drink alcohol should always do so in moderation. The same moral code applies to priests and lay people alike. So as long as we have fun and don’t get too carried away we can celebrate like everyone else.
The academic portion of seminary is any important part of seminary training. After all no one would want to have a surgeon operate on him if he barely passed medical school. The work of priests is at least as, if not more, important than the work of doctors. After all, the most a physician can do is delay death; the work of a priest brings life eternal! After a priest has completed seminary, he has at least a Bachelors and a Masters degree (maybe more depending on the program). The classes in the seminary help us not only to be good priests, but it is from this theological and philosophical foundation out of which we will minister to God’s people. At the seminary, one takes classes on everything from the Bible, to Church history, to Dogma, to how to prepare and give homilies, and all sorts of other interesting items that relate to the Church.
Seminarians are not people who have everything figured out. In fact what they are doing is seeking God’s will, by putting themselves in a setting where they can truly discern God’s will. Spiritual direction and seminary formation are important components of this. If an individual decides priesthood is not for him, he is certainly most free to leave. Seminary is not a prison! The job of seminary is not to try to brainwash people or convince them that they should become priests, but rather to help them to truly discover God’s will and, if that is priesthood, to make them the best possible priests. Sometimes people are afraid to give it a try for fear of failure. There is no way to avoid risks in life. Everyone who goes to medical or law school doesn’t necessarily stay. I guess the old saying is true: Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
There are a variety of ministries where priests in our diocese serve. Most do serve in parishes, some as pastors, others as parochial vicars. Other priests serve as chaplains in hospitals, or work in schools. Some work in prisons or are involved in the administration of our diocese. Some work with young, others with the elderly. There are many ways to serve God as a priest.
If someone knew that God was calling them to the priesthood or religious life, why would they say no? Would it be out of fear? I don’t have what it takes. Would it be out of selfishness? I don’t want to give up this or that. Would it be out of confusion? I’m not sure if this is for me or I could do it. God calls us all in one way or another. Certainly not everyone is being called to be a priest or nun. I think St. Therese said it best when she said, “God calls those he wants!” Why would we say no to God? What God has in mind for us is so much better than anything we could imagine for ourselves (I am constantly amazed at all that is part of my life as a priest!). Our happiness and well being may very well depend on our response to God’s call!
God is very loving and forgiving. Redemption can take place anytime throughout our lives. Sometimes after people have turned their lives around, with the help of God, and dedicate themselves to Christ, that they may be aware of a still deeper call from God. Generally speaking, it is less important what someone has done in the past than what one is willing to embrace in the present and future. There are limits of course to how we live our lives. Honesty is always the best policy. Speak to your Vocation Director about any concerns or reservations you may have. When we enter formation and work towards ordination we assume the roles of living a celibate lifestyle and living a moral life with our God.
St. Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, saying “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). We use this term “Father” when addressing most priests simply as a sign of love and respect. Truly, even though every priest sacrifices a particular family, he gains a much larger family in the Church. People most often look up to their priests, ask for their help, guidance, and counsel. These and many others indeed are qualities of a father who cares for his parish family.
Priests and Religious Sisters and Brothers make the choice of celibacy for two principal reasons. It is so they can be totally available to serve God and the Church, and also to be a sign to the world that God’s kingdom is real. Many people assume that this must be a very difficult, lonely, way of life. If God were not in it, it certainly would be. Prayer is so important to living this way of life. Celibacy frees the individual from immediate responsibilities of a particular family and opens the individual up to the needs and concerns of the larger family of God. It seems to me no coincidence that we use family words (father, sister, and brother) to refer to those in a religious vocation. People don’t choose celibacy because they don’t want to get married (quite the contrary). They choose to live this way out of devotion to God.