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There is a growing curiosity in this country, particularly among young people, to meet and learn about Catholic nuns and sisters. Many young people have never met or even seen a sister, let alone been taught by one or worked alongside one in a parish. And so we’d like to give you some basic information about Catholic sisters in general and the Sisters of Mercy in particular.
For further information email newmembership@Sistersofmercy.org
Sisters and nuns are women who belong to the Catholic Church and who give their lives entirely to God in imitation of Jesus Christ. They have experienced a call from God to live in this way and have responded by giving their whole lives to God. They take vows to God, live in community, live as simply as possible, pray, study and do good works.
Most people use the term nuns to refer to both nuns and sisters, but there are some significant differences. Nuns’ lives are spent in prayer and work within their convent or monastery. Sisters are more active in the world, engaging in many different kinds of work, most often for people who are in great need. Sisters call these works “ministries.”
Both nuns and sisters are called women religious. What they have in common is that all women religious take vows to God, live in community, give themselves entirely to God for life and live in the spirit of the person/persons who founded their particular religious order.
When the Sisters of Mercy were founded by Catherine McAuley in 1831, most religious orders lived as nuns. They stayed in their convents and were seldom seen outside them. So when the Sisters of Mercy came on the scene in Dublin, Ireland, walking around looking for those in need, visiting the sick and poor people in their homes and visiting hospitals, people didn’t know what to think of them. So they called them “walking nuns.” Technically speaking, the Sisters of Mercy are sisters; that is, an apostolic community of women who combine a life of prayer with a life of active ministry. And we are still walking.
Most sisters belong to Roman Catholic orders – an order is a group of women who live in the spirit (or charism) of a particular founder, and have their own rules for living. The rules (or Constitutions) of most orders are approved by the Church. So, yes, you have to be Catholic to be a Catholic sister. (There are other kinds of nuns, e.g., Anglican nuns and Buddhist nuns.)
Being Catholic means that you have received all the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, and first communion. It means a regular practice of your faith, including attending Mass and being active in your parish community. It also is good to make retreats and/or to meet with a spiritual director. These help to strengthen your understanding and practice of your faith.
You can become a sister if you are a new Catholic, but you will be asked to wait for three years after your initiation so that you have time to adjust to your new faith experience before taking another serious step in your life.
Some sisters have had the experience of a serious relationship in their lives before entering the convent. In fact, it is important that you have had enough experience in relationships to know who you are and what you have to give to others. So before joining a religious community it is good to have a healthy and well-rounded life, with enough experience to have a good sense of who you are before God and how you want to be in relation to others.
If you have been married, your marriage must be annulled before entering a religious order. If you have children they must be grown and not dependent on you. There are sisters who were previously married (including widows), even sisters who before they entered had children and/or have grandchildren. Some religious orders do have age limits.
If a woman has held sexual relations, within or outside of marriage, it is still possible for her to become a sister. But once she enters religious life then all exclusive relationships (physical and otherwise) are not in keeping with the vow of celibate chastity that sisters take.
The process of becoming a sister takes about eight years. This may sound like a long time, but living as a sister means changing your life entirely. Every part of your life takes on a new and different meaning as you learn to live a religious life. It also means serious prayer and study and preparation for full-time active ministry in the world.
The process begins with serious conversation (or discernment) with a vocation minister, a sister who is specially trained to help someone discern whether God is calling her to be a sister. This usually takes one to two years, sometimes longer. This discernment is mutual – a woman discerns and the vocation minister and the community discern with her to see if this is where she belongs. While a vocation is a call from God, we are all human and we need each other to help us interpret God’s grace moving among us.
Following this initial discernment a woman may become a candidate. This means she is welcomed into the community to live like a sister for about two years. This gives her the opportunity to try out the life and see how it feels to her. It also gives the community a chance to see how well she can live with others. As a candidate she begins a study of theology, meets other candidates across the country, and learns about religious life and how to pray.
If the candidate and the community decide that she is ready, a woman is “received” into the novitiate, a two-year intense time of developing her relationship with God, living in community, studying, praying and discerning if God is calling her to be a sister. After her novitiate a novice takes first vows for three years. This time of temporary profession allows a woman the opportunity to live the vowed life while integrating all that she has learned in the four years of her preparation. At the end of three years a woman may take final or perpetual vows, or she may need to renew her first vows for a year or two while she completes her studies or continues her discernment.
The Sisters of Mercy make an effort to educate their new members in theology and related topics. In addition to attending classes, candidates and temporary professed women travel to various sites for weekend workshops. In these workshops they meet other new members in Mercy who are their peers and hear from seasoned sisters about their experience in community, church and ministry.
See the Becoming a Sister process.
Each sister works out her living situation with other sisters in her community, particularly those who are elected to the leadership team of her community, and whose job it is to help all the sisters to have what they need to live simply and be of service, while making sure that the common resources of the community are taken care of wisely.
Some sisters live in parish convents, but often these are not available since many parishes have closed schools in which the sisters taught, or because the parish may want to use the convent building for other parish needs. Some sisters live in very large convents, sometimes referred to as motherhouses, or main houses. These often include a retirement and/or nursing facility. Other sisters, because of the location of their ministry, live in small groups in regular houses (usually rented) and sometimes they live alone. If sisters do live alone, they are still bound to keep in touch and be in relationship with the rest of the community, pray in union with the other sisters, attend meetings, and be accountable in everything they do.
Visit our Where We Are section to find out where we live and serve geographically.
7. Do sisters go to work every day? What happens to the money they earn? Do sisters have any money of their own?
Sisters who are able are always involved in ministry, or “work.” Even elderly retired sisters often tutor, or have a telephone ministry to shut-ins, or work in their convents as receptionists, cooks, drivers for doctor appointments, etc. Sisters who are able earn a salary for their ministry. However, sisters do not keep or use their own salary, but give it into the common community treasury. Elected leaders are charged with taking care of the finances of the order to ensure that all sisters will be taken care of and that poorer ministries can be helped through the common treasury or new ministries can be initiated. Communities may also receive donations from benefactors who want to support their work.
From their common treasury, sisters receive the money that they need to live. Whether living alone or in a group, sisters participate in creating the budget they will live on for the next year. This includes each sister receiving a small allowance for her personal needs, usually distributed monthly. Because sisters do not keep their salaries, they do not pay personal income tax. Personal needs are considered in light of the needs of the entire group. Health care is a significant issue for sisters who try to balance wellness and exercise with appropriate health care needs.
The Catholic church does not financially support sisters in any way, unless a sister receives a salary from a particular parish or diocese where she works as part of the staff. Orders of sisters are completely independent of the church financially.
Currently in the U.S., parishes sponsor an annual collection for the retirement needs of sisters. This is because prior to the 1980s, sisters received very little wages for their work in Catholic schools and parishes, and were not able to save for their retirement. Now, just like many families, some orders of sisters are faced with great hardships as they struggle to care for their elderly, continue to do ministry, educate their new members and manage the increase in cost of living. This collection helps the poorest of these orders to care for their elderly members and also to continue their work/ministry. Parishes ask people who were taught by the sisters or who know of their good works to thank them through a contribution.
All sisters dress simply, but that simplicity is expressed in different ways. The clothing of some sisters has never changed from when they were founded in the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries. Often that clothing was what women ordinarily wore at that time. But when women changed their dress, the sisters didn’t.
When the Church asked the sisters to look seriously at their lives and decide what is important to keep and what should be updated to serve well in today’s world, some orders decided that wearing a full habit was an impediment to service. A habit caused many people to think that sisters were part of the clergy. Actually, sisters are part of the laity - those in the Catholic Church who are not ordained.
Some women religious choose to continue wearing a habit for a variety of reasons. Whether they wear a habit or not, most sisters do wear some distinct sign of their commitment – usually a wedding ring, and a cross or a symbolic pin. The Sisters of Mercy wear a Mercy Cross, the sign of our membership in Mercy. Sisters with final vows wear a silver ring as a sign of their life-long commitment.
You might have to look a little harder to see that these women are sisters, but that only means you can get closer to them to find out what they’re thinking about.
Sisters take three vows: poverty, chastity (sometimes called celibate or consecrated chastity) and obedience.
In a literal sense, the vow of poverty means that sisters own nothing, but are entirely dependent on each other for what they need. Their style of living is in imitation of the Jesus of the gospels, who became poor for the sake of his ministry of healing, preaching and teaching about the reign of God. Whatever sisters earn or are given goes into the common fund and is dispersed according to the needs of each sister and of the community, with special concern to enabling the community to continue its service in the world. This vow also encourages sisters to be in union with those in the world who have nothing, with those who are struggling and dependent. As they work among those in need, sisters learn more about the devastating effects of poverty in the world, and try to live their own vow with compassion and sensitivity.
In past times the vow of obedience meant doing whatever the mother superior said to do. This sometimes resulted in sisters being in positions for which they were not suited. Today, sisters prayerfully decide together about what is the best way for a sister to serve. They consider that obedience has a deeper meaning of listening to God’s will and being open to God’s Spirit as it moves in the community, in imitation of Jesus who listened deeply to God and acted out of that listening.
Part of the vow of obedience is about cooperating with the policies that the community has decided upon, for example accountability for conducting a ministry, or for living simply or for being faithful to prayer. It also entails sharing the responsibilities of keeping the community vital and alert to what is happening in the church and the world, and offering opinions and ideas about how to be faithful to the community’s mission and spirit.
The vow of chastity means that a sister chooses to have no significant other in her life except God. No exclusive relationship, no sexual partners, no romantic bonds. While to some this may seem unnatural, to those who are called, a life of celibate chastity is rich and rewarding as a woman learns to love freely those whom God has given her in community and in her ministry.
This doesn’t mean that sisters don’t experience normal human feelings, or that a sister never falls in love. These are part of life. Like a married woman is committed to her husband and children, a sister is committed to God, and guides her needs and her feelings in keeping with the vow she has made.
Sisters of Mercy take the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Because the Sisters of Mercy were founded to do the works of mercy among those most in need they also take a fourth vow of service “to the poor, the sick and the ignorant.” In early days the word “ignorant” didn’t have the judgmental connotation that it does today. So sometimes you will hear the word “uneducated” used instead of the word “ignorant.”
The most noticeable difference is that in a family there are parents and children, sometimes grandparents and grandchildren. A family is multigenerational and connected by ties of blood, common ethnic strains, family traditions and stories and the special dynamics that occur among those who have grown up together. Usually in a family the parents make the decisions about how the family will be together, although some families talk about these matters more openly than others.
Community, on the other hand, is made up of unrelated adults, usually of different generations, ethnic and economic backgrounds. There are no parents who make the decisions. Decisions are made together, as adult women who share wisdom and sensibility about what needs to be done. Working out difficult relationships is part of community life, just as it can be in a family. In imitation of the gospel, Sisters try as best they can to work out conflicts with patience, love and compassion for their sisters.
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