Exploring the Religious Life
28 Jun 2012

After attending Catholics on Call in 2010, I responded to a desire in my heart and began to explore religious life. After two years of thought, prayer, and investigation, I will begin formation in August with the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (www.ascjus.org). Since this is an unusual decision that most people aren’t familiar with, I wrote the following explanation and FAQ’s to help family and friends, both Catholic and non-Catholic, understand how I came to this choice and what my life will be like with the Apostles. I hope it helps you too!

General information

Like members of other Catholic religious orders, the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and center their lives on prayer, community, and service. The Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (often called the Apostles for short) are an active, or apostolic, order, which means they work full time in ministries that are dedicated to serving people in different ways (e.g. education, health care, counseling, social services). Most importantly, they are joyful, warm, down-to-earth women who are just a lot of fun to be around! I really feel at home with them and am excited about this next step that I believe God is calling me to take.

I will move into the Apostles’ motherhouse (their US headquarters) in Hamden, Connecticut (near Yale) on August 15. I’ll start a training process, called formation, which consists of study, service, prayer, and just generally learning the sisters’ way of life to see if I feel called to make a lifelong commitment to the community. The whole formation process is quite long, eight years, and includes several stages. For the first two years, I will be in Connecticut. After that, I could be living anywhere in the US that the Apostles are located (besides Connecticut, that currently includes New York City, Pennsylvania, St. Louis, and Florida). In each stage of formation, I’ll be asked to consider whether I still feel called to be an Apostle and want to continue. As I begin, I think it will work out, but I’m grateful for this coming time of discernment and know that God will be with me no matter what happens.

How did you decide to join a religious order?

My life in Chicago these last few years has been great. But despite all this, I had a nagging sense that something was missing, that I was living my “second best life.” At the same time, the idea of religious life began to come up over and over again in my prayer. I’ve always thought I would eventually get married and have children, so I resisted this idea for a long time, but it kept returning. Finally I realized that I wouldn’t be at peace until I at least explored it. I started reading about religious orders, talking to several sisters that I knew, and finally visiting a few orders. Making big decisions is very hard for me, and I struggled a lot with this one. But with every step, I felt that I should take one more step. I felt a desire to give myself completely to God, and was attracted to the deep prayer life and strong bonds of community that I saw among sisters. Finally, on a visit to the Apostles of the Sacred Heart, I felt a deep sense of peace and belonging – I can see myself as one of them. So I am entering formation in order to continue to learn and test whether I’m called to take vows in their community.

If you’re a music lover like me, I would recommend checking out “The Song” by Ginny Owens – lyrics at http://ginnyowensmusic.com/2011/10/the-song-behind-the-music/, song on iTunes. This is one of the best expressions I’ve found of the feeling that is drawing me to the Apostles – and one that I think you might find helpful, whatever your own religious beliefs are.

What makes the Apostles of the Sacred Heart different from other religious orders? Why are you joining them in particular?

There are lots of religious orders – hundreds, probably thousands. Each order has a “charism” – you might call it a spiritual mission – which is unique to that order. The charism of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart is to share the love of the heart of Jesus, and they do it very well! I feel called to the Apostles because I really have a sense of being at home with them and fitting in with them. I feel free to be myself with them. They are deeply prayerful, down to earth, friendly, compassionate, and joyful. They laugh a lot. I think they’ll like my family and friends, and I think you’ll like them too!

So are you going to be a nun?

Sort of. Technically, nuns are members of cloistered or contemplative religious orders, who spend more time in formal prayer and do not often go outside of their communities. Members of active religious orders, who have ministries outside their communities and interact a lot with the rest of the world, are called sisters. So I am really becoming a sister. But people often use the word “nun” for both nuns and sisters, and I don’t mind that.

Did you have to apply?

Yes, there is a lengthy application process – everything from submitting your birth certificate to having a psychological evaluation. The application covers every major aspect of your life. Since this is such a big decision, the order wants to know that people are doing it for good reasons, and the application helps the order start to discern whether the applicant is a good fit.

How does the formation process work?

The formation process is a time of prayer and study, during which I’ll learn about religious life and how the Apostles live it out in their community. I will live their life so I can decide whether I want to commit to it by taking vows. I will also help out with different ministries and receive practical education and training for work that I might be doing (e.g. teaching). At the end of each stage, I will be asked if I want to move to the next stage, and must formally request approval to move on.

Formation can vary slightly among different religious communities. The stages of formation with the Apostles are:

Pre-postulancy (3 months): In this stage, I’ll be called a pre-postulant. This is a time of easing into the Apostles’ life, with less structure than there will be later on. I’ll follow the sisters’ schedule and help with their ministries, but I’ll wear my own clothes and can have my own electronics (phone, computer, etc.).  This is a time to further experience the sisters’ life in a relatively low-key way and to consider whether I feel called to continue on this path. I’ll live at the motherhouse in Connecticut with other pre-postulant(s) and a vowed sister who is called a director – our teacher and guide in this stage of learning. We live on a larger property which houses many other sisters of all ages, and interact with them often.

Postulancy (9 months): In this stage, I’ll be called a postulant. If I choose to go on after the pre-postulancy, I’ll become a postulant in December. At this point, training becomes more structured and there are more expectations. I’ll give up some things, like personal electronics, and start to wear a uniform. I’ll live in the same place and with the same people as before.

Novitiate (2 years): If I choose to keep going after the postulancy, I’ll become a novice in the summer a year from now. I will start wearing a habit with a veil and add “Sister” to my name. This is a time of deeper prayer and training, in which I prepare for and discern whether I want to take vows. One year of the novitiate is called the canonical year. In this year, all of the novices live together at the motherhouse with a novice director. We do very little ministry outside of the community in that year, in order to concentrate on prayer, study, and our relationship with God. This will be the time when my use of email and phone is most limited. The other year of the novitiate is called the constitutional year. In this year, I’ll live in one of the Apostles’ local communities somewhere in the US, with vowed sisters. I’ll serve in ministry full time, and really experience what it is like to live as an Apostle in everyday life. At the end of the novitiate, if I still feel called to the Apostles’ way of life, I’ll take first vows. These are vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and they are temporary for a period of one year.

Juniorate (5 years): In this stage, I’ll be a temporarily professed sister. I’ll live with a local community of vowed sisters, serve in ministry, and continue my education in various ways. Each year, I will decide whether I feel called to renew my vows for another year, or to leave the community. At the end of five years, I can take perpetual vows. These are the same vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but will now be for life.

Will you continue your music?

Definitely! I will take my viola with me. Quite a few of the Apostles are musically talented and the community is very supportive of their gifts.

What are you going to wear?

Today, some religious orders wear habits and some don’t, based on the tradition and philosophy of each order. The Apostles of the Sacred Heart wear habits because they believe it is an important way to witness to God’s love, their faith, and their way of life. In the postulant stage of formation, I’ll wear a uniform dress. As a novice, I will begin wearing a white veil and habit. When I take first vows, I will begin wearing a black veil and a differently designed habit. There are black and white versions of the habit for cold and warm weather. You can see what the habits looks like on the Apostles’ website, http://www.ascjus.org/.

What will your days be like?

I’ll gather with my community at about 6 am for morning prayers and Mass together. (The time will take some getting used to!) We’ll eat breakfast together and go to our classes or ministries for the day. The community gathers again in the late afternoon, after the day’s main work is done, for another hour of shared prayer. We eat dinner together, pray together again briefly, and spend some time relaxing and socializing before going to bed. There can be variations on this schedule depending on community members’ different work and circumstances, but that’s the basic structure.

Where will you live?

The Apostles live in what are called local communities, which are fairly small groups of 5-10 sisters. Even at the motherhouse, where a lot of sisters live, they are divided into small communities with whom they most closely share their daily lives. Local communities often live in regular houses, or they might live in a wing of a larger school building. Sisters have their own bedrooms. Each community has a chapel with the Eucharist (consecrated communion bread which Catholics believe is the real presence of Christ).

The Apostles in the US currently live in Connecticut, New York City, Pennsylvania, St. Louis, and Florida. Sometimes they go to new places, or leave places where they used to live, based on the needs of local communities and the order. Sisters can and usually do move around during their lives. The Apostles of the Sacred Heart are also a worldwide order. Italy is where the greatest number of their sisters live, followed by Brazil. Several of the American sisters live and minister in Taiwan. I’ll likely live most of my life in the US, but may have the opportunity to visit or live with Apostles in other countries.

What kind of work will you do?

The Apostles work in many different types of ministry. The majority of their sisters teach, at every level from preschool to college. However, they also work in fields like healthcare, parish ministry, spiritual counseling, and social services. One of the Apostles is a lawyer who currently provides legal aid to immigrants. When I first join the Apostles, I will most likely be asked to teach. However, I won’t have to do the same thing for my entire life, and could have opportunities to work in many different areas. I am really excited about that.

Are you going to take vows? What does that mean?

The Catholic faith sees vowed religious life as a vocation, or lifelong call and commitment, on the same level as marriage. It’s not better or worse than marriage – some people are called to one, and some to the other. The world needs both marriage and religious life, and both are beautiful ways of serving God. At the end of the novitiate, I will take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These are the most common vows among Catholic religious orders. The vows will be temporary for five years, and then I’ll have the opportunity to make them perpetual (i.e. lifelong) vows. Fundamentally, the vows are about freeing me to devote my life to God and other people in a particular way. Religious life is a joyful way of life, and if God is calling me to it, I’ll be happier here than I would anywhere else!

Poverty means that all property is shared by the community, rather than belonging to individuals. We have the basic necessities of life, but strive to live simply and be mindful of people in need. Chastity means that we give ourselves completely to God in a way that rules out marriage to a specific human husband – Catholic tradition considers women religious to be “brides of Christ.” This vow also helps us to love all people we encounter and see God in them, and to be available and flexible to serve people as needed. While we don’t share sexual intimacy as spouses do, we have close friendships with our family, friends, and sisters in community. Obedience means that I will listen to a superior and the wisdom of my community. Major decisions in particular, like what kind of ministry I will do and where I will live, are made in conversation with a superior and take into account my gifts and needs, the Apostles’ needs, and the needs of the communities we serve. I might be asked to take assignments that I wouldn’t have chosen, but this is an opportunity for me to put God and others at the center of my life, and to increase my ability to love.

What will your relationships with your family and friends be like?

The Apostles really care about and are close to their family and friends. I’ve seen many examples of this. When sisters need to be there for their families (for instance, to care for sick relatives) the community fully encourages and supports them. They keep in touch with their families and friends via email, phone, and in person. They normally spend holidays with their local community, but they have time each year to visit their families, and family and friends can visit them. Furthermore, the sisters get to know and care about each other’s family and friends – all of their loved ones become part of their larger community.

In the first three years of formation, during the postulancy and novitiate, there will be some times when my use of email and phone is more limited. This allows me to focus on the learning process. However, I’ll be communicating about major events, and will never be cut off completely from phone or email. There are also never any restrictions on writing or receiving snail mail (hint, hint)! After I take first vows, there will be no limits on communication, and just like any adult, I’ll be responsible for keeping up with family and friends and balancing my commitments and relationships. Of course, I will be living further away from many of you, and will miss you, but I’ll get back to Chicago from time to time and plan to stay in touch! Please stay in touch with me too! Also, definitely let me know if you are in Connecticut. The sisters love to feed people!

Do the Apostles have young members?

Yes, they have sisters of all ages, including a group in their 20’s and 30’s. They are a relatively small religious order, but they tend to have a few women begin the formation process each year.

What if this doesn’t work out?

Although I begin this process believing that I am called to join the Apostles and eventually take perpetual vows in their community, I have a long way to go. Right now, the only thing I can know for sure is that I need to take the first step. As I live with the Apostles, I will learn a lot and understand their life better. It may be that, sometime during formation, I’ll decide that I am not called to continue with the Apostles and will leave the community. This is a perfectly natural part of the process, and women who leave do so with gratitude for the journey and no hard feelings on either side. I trust that God will always be with me, and will always guide me one step at a time, no m