What is Religious Life, Part 1

There's a few questions people have had with regards to religious life. Many are familiar with the parish priest, but are less familiar with the life of a friar. Most people would assume I look like this guy here, in my habit with a huge cross and a serious/solemn look on my face - just waiting to break into some Gregorian chant. In reality, there are only a few orders that still live their charism in this fashion.

In my travels and discussions with people, I've been asked a number of questions about what exactly I am, what I do, and why I chose to live this way. While the last is more in-depth, the first two questions are a lot easier to explain. Unfortunately I get asked the same thing over and over:

"So are you going to be praying and singing all day?"
"Can you leave the house, or whatever you call where you'll be living at?"
"Do you have to wear a robe/dress/thingy?"
"So if you're a brother, that means you're not a priest? Can you be a priest?"
"What do you do for vacation?"
"Do you get internet?"
"Can you be around women?"

These, along with a host of other questions, are things that people ask about. I don't think they're trying to be offensive, but there's a lot about religious life that seems confusing or hidden. And unless you've been exposed to a religious order (Jesuit college, Salvadorian parish, grade school run by Notre Dame School Sisters, etc), you might not even know what a "religious order" is. So in an effort to educate the masses, I thought I'd start by writing more about religious life, and how it differs from diocesan (parish priest) life.

First is understanding the root word: religious. Today it's more of an adjective: "He's very religious." However the term originally identified those who took vows to an Order. Religious priests were not seen much; they were bound to their abbey and vary rarely left the walls. A diocesan priest does not take vows per se, rather he makes a promise to the bishop of the diocese. This type of priest was known as a secular priest, but is now commonly called diocesan.

Besides the designation of religious/diocesan, there are two states in which all people are categorized by The Church: laity and clergy. The laity (or lay people) are those who help in the ministry of the Gospel but have not been ordained by The Church . Included in the laity are religious who've taken vows but are not priests.

So to recap:

Secular laity: Cantors, lectors, musicians, those that volunteer, and all others who worship that are not part of an Order nor are they priests or deacons.

Secular clergy: Now called "Diocesan," refers to deacons, priests, bishops, etc that are not part of an order.

Religious laity: Sisters, nuns, monks, friars; people who are part of an Order but are not ordained a priest/deacon.

Religious clergy: Those priests who belong to an order. A "clerical order" refers to a religious order that contains only priests.

Using this model, I am a lay person who is living as a religious with plans to take vows. I'm not bound by any vow currently, however I choose to live as if I was.

There are huge differences between the Order and the diocese, and this was a huge question I had to discern in my process of finding my vocation. Here's a list of some of the more obvious differences:

1. A diocese is a fixed location, today it's usually several counties combined together. The diocese is run by the bishop who installs and moves priests to different parishes. You can remain in the community you grew up in, however you may not travel much.

In an Order, where you are depends on the charism. There are cloistered orders where you rarely go outside the abbey or convent. There are missionary orders where you will rarely ever see home. Within the Capuchin Franciscans, the territories are broken down into provinces. While most of my ministry could be here in Milwaukee, I could choose to move to Detroit, Chicago, or maybe even return to Grand Rapids, MI to start up a ministry. I'd also have the choice of studying in Rome, doing mission work in Panama, or transferring to any other country for a time. I only get home a few times a year, however I am relatively close.

2. A diocesan priest lives alone for the most part. Years ago, a parish rectory could house 3-4 priests at one church. However since the decline of diocesan priests and the plight of poorer parishes, some churches don't even have a priest on site. While it's true that any priest is never without company, his personal life is his alone.

In most religious orders, you live as part of a community. You eat together, you pray together, you may even work together. To live in community requires a special person and plenty of patience. For me, community has been a blessing; I'm able to share experiences, I work better with people, and I know someone is looking out for me.

3. When a diocesan priest is ordained, he makes a promise to the bishop. That promise is based on obedience. Disciplines of being obedient require being present to all the faithful, remaining celibate, being prudent with money, visit the sick and dying, and to perform the sacraments. The priest draws a salary from the diocese, and can be seen as a paid employee.

A member of a religious order takes solemn vows; a binding covenant to God not unlike matrimonial vows. Those vows are Obedience, Celibacy, and Poverty. In cloistered orders, they make take another vow of Stability to the abbey/convent. By being a part of a religious order, I own nothing of my own. While I have my own clothes, toiletries, laptop, books, etc. just like everyone else, I live in a communal environment. This is because we live off of a stipend (a set amount of money) each month, while the order provides all other necessities. That means if a religious priest is helping out the diocese as a parish priest, and the diocese pays him like a diocesan (this happens more often because of the need of priests), he does not keep that money. It goes to the Order. (The joke is that when you see a priest get out of a Cadillac, he's diocesan. When he gets out of an old Ford Escort, he's religious.)

There's so much more to write about, however we're having a party at the friary for Epiphany; I wouldn't be living in community if I didn't get away from the computer and help set up. But stay tuned for more. I plan on writing more about religious life, my future plans, and what it is that I do here as a Capuchin Franciscan.

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2 Response to What is Religious Life, Part 1

January 28, 2009 at 10:54 PM

Brother Vito, you have clarified the difference between diocesan priests and religious clergy...and you write beautifully. I have several questions I would ask of you in an email, if you will permit me?

Thank you,

January 31, 2009 at 4:09 AM

vmartinez1337@gmail.com is the best email to get a hold of me. Currently I'm on the road in Brooklyn, and when on the road I tend to check email more than my blog updates. If you have any further questions, I'll be more than happy to answer your emails.

My apologies for answering this so late, I have been running around quite a bit.