Vocations: The Religious Life
And the Priesthood

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"Under the impulse of love, which the Holy Spirit pours into their hearts, they live more and more for Christ and for his Body, the Church.  The more fervently, therefore, they join themselves to Christ by this gift of their whole life, the fuller does the Church's life become and the more vigorous and fruitful its apostolate" (Perfectae caritatis, 1).

We all share as Christians the need to follow Christ and ultimately to be with God in Heaven.  Yet, each must pursue this goal differently, according to his own temperament and particular call from God.  The vocation of most Christians is the life of a layman or laywoman in the world.  For others, though, it will be the priestly or religious life.

From the beginning of Christianity, some in the Church have directly consecrated their lives to God by a vow.  Although not everyone is called to this life, Our Lord invites many to follow him in this way.  In the Gospels he tells us of the reward that will be given to those who answer this call:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life (Mt 19:29).

The call to the priesthood or the religious life is a vocation to follow Christ most perfectly on earth.  Once Our Lord was approached by a rich, young man who asked what he must do to have eternal life.  Our Lord told him:

"If you would enter life, keep the Commandments. . ."  The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?"  Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; and come, follow me" (Mt 19:17, 20-21).

Here Jesus was speaking of the call to the religious life - following the counsels of perfection. 

Although this vocation is the highest call, God does not intend everyone to live the religious life.  Each of us must seek holiness in the state that God wants us to live.  The consecrated life calls for great generosity.  Objectively, religious life is the most perfect.  This does not mean that a lay person cannot attain perfection.  Every vocation leads to holiness.  Everyone must try to find out what God calls him to.

Religious Life

The religious life consists in following the three evangelical counsels, also known as the counsels of perfection.  These are recommendations for perfect love taught and practiced by Christ - poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Those who follow these counsels take vows (free, deliberate promises made to God) to keep each one.  They willingly give up certain good things of this life - money and possessions, marriage, and liberty - in order to devote themselves more completely to loving and serving God and neighbor.  These vows set a person free from temporal goods, so that he may freely give himself to love of God and neighbor.

The first counsel is poverty.  The person who takes this vow gives up his earthly possessions in order to follow Christ.  In our modern world, where so much emphasis is placed upon jobs, money, and possessions, this is indeed a sacrifice, even for one who is not rich.

Through religious life Christ calls for a life of total consecration in individual service to God and to one's neighbor.  This means that you give to God the highest natural goods.  One of these is the loving union with another person in marriage and family life.  Human love in marriage is a holy thing, which Our Lord has blessed.  Thus the sacrifice involved in giving this up is truly great.  By the vow of chastity a person consecrates himself more completely to God, surrendering the good of marriage.

Since one might fulfill the counsels of poverty and chastity but still be filled with love of self, God asks one final sacrifice of the person who dedicates his life to him.  He asks that one surrender his own personal preferences and wishes.  This is the vow of obedience.  The person who follows this path then gives up his liberty, submitting himself completely through his legitimate religious superiors, to the will of God as it is manifest in the Church.

One who enters the religious life, practicing the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, does so in imitation of Christ himself.  At his death Our Lord had nothing; the soldiers even cast lots for the clothes he had been wearing (Mt 27:35).  At one time he said of himself, ". . . the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head" (Mt 8:20).  We know Our Lord never married; he spent his public life preaching and teaching the Good News.  Most important, he submitted his will to his Father in Heaven.  This was particularly demonstrated on the eve of his death, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Knowing what lay ahead of him, he said: Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done (Lk 22:42). 

Those in the religious life are an example to all people.  They remind us of the importance of placing God first in our lives.  Although we are not all called to sacrifice these goods, even those living in the world are called to place their love of God above the love of possessions, family, and self.

As we have seen, various religious communities have been officially instituted throughout history for those who are called to the religious life.  There are communities for men and others for women.  In both, members live a community life according to a particular rule.  Prayer and contemplation ordered to a more perfect love of God and neighbor are the basic work of all religious communities.  For some communities this is their principal work.  These members of contemplative orders spend their days in prayer, by which they serve God and the entire Church.  this is a great work that helps the world tremendously, since there are so many who forget God.  The contemplatives usually live a cloistered life, separated completely from the world and working within their monasteries or convents to support themselves.  The Benedictine and Cistercian communities, as well as some Carmelite communities, are examples of the contemplative religious life.

Other religious communities dedicate themselves to a more active service of God and neighbor by engaging in various works of mercy - both corporal and spiritual.  These active orders may operate schools, hospitals, or orphanages.  There is one community of sisters who both visit and pray for those in prison, helping them to reform their lives.  This order has, in fact, many sisters who were once prisoners themselves.  Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity are an active community who care for those who are dying and perform other active works.  This active work, however, must always flow from and be an expression of the prayer life of these religious communities.  Prayer, then, even in the active religious life is the basis for all their work.


There is a very special calling of Christ which is of great importance in the Church.  It is not something one can simply choose, but something one is called to.  It is the priesthood, the sacrament of Holy Orders.  This call to exercise the priestly power of Christ and to be "another Christ" is a great honor but also a great and beautiful sacrifice.  Those who have received Holy Orders share most perfectly in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.  They are the ministers of grace to the Church, as they administer the sacraments.

Some priests or clergy are members of a religious community.  The clergy is made up of deacons, priests, and bishops.  Most ordained ministers in the Church have been called to serve Christ as diocesan clergy.  They are members of a particular diocese, often serving in parish work.

At their ordination the diocesan clergy promise obedience to their bishop, and bishops owe their obedience to the Pope.  In the Latin rite the priests do not marry, taking a vow of celibacy.  However, in the Latin rite permanent deacons may be married, and in some Eastern rites priests may be married.  Those who are married do promise, however, not to marry again if their spouse dies.  Diocesan clergy are not bound to take a vow of poverty.  They may own things and usually receive a small salary for their personal expenses.  They try to live a simple life in order to imitate Our Lord more closely and to be a witness for Christ to the world.

The Church needs many men and women to follow Christ, answering God's call to the religious life and the priesthood.  We should pray to know if this is God's will for us.  Even if this is not our vocation, we should pray that those who are called will joyfully respond, for: The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest (Mt 9:37-38). 

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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