When a young woman feels a call to give her life to God, she starts to explore different religious congregations. Sometimes this begins with a congregation that she already has some connection with through their education, health care or pastoral ministry. Sometimes she searches Sisters’ websites and once she discovers congregations that she feels a connection to, she will follow up with a visit, talking to the vocation director and seeing if this community is one she feels drawn to. She knows that she has found the congregation that she can connect with when she says: "Aha! This is where I feel called by God."
Together with the congregation, the young woman enters into a discernment process. During this time, with the help of a spiritual guide who journeys with her, the call to a specific congregation may be affirmed. Eventually, the young woman and the congregation arrive at greater clarity regarding the call to that specific congregation. Following the initial stage of "getting to know us," the young woman will then proceed with the initial stage of formation in that congregation.
There are as many answers to this question as there are Sisters. In most cases, we come to a gradual awareness that this might be a path that would bring happiness and a sense of fulfillment. Often we experience resistance to this call both in ourselves and in our families and friends. It is through exploring the possibility with the community and often by living with us that a woman is able to discern if life as a Sister is really the deepest desire given by God.
Very basic requirements are that a woman be a single Roman Catholic with good health who desires to love God through a life of service to others and through a vowed commitment in community life.
Ordinarily, we ask that a woman have at least two years' work experience after high school or two years of post-secondary education. We are always happy to meet with young women of any age who are thinking of becoming a Sister. It is possible and a good thing to be linked with the Sisters before entering a serious discernment process about becoming a Sister.
From a first inquiry about being a Sister to the time of final vows as a Sister is a journey of discovery. It generally takes about four years from the first questioning within oneself, through discernment with the community which includes living with the community, to first vows which are made for a certain period of continuing discernment.
A vow is a promise made to God. Catholic women and men who join a religious order or congregation such as the Sisters of St. Joseph make a profession of the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. By these public vows we promise to follow Jesus who was poor, chaste, and obedient.
Our vows are our response to God's call to live a life of loving service of others. We promise to follow Jesus who was poor, chaste, and obedient. We support each other in living an alternative way of life — one in which we share our resources, live a life of loving celibacy, and help one another to discover God's will for each of us personally and as a community of Sisters.
For someone with a health problem who wants to enter a congregation, usually the order would look at the ways that the potential member can be part of the mission (that is the life and works) of the community. The expectation is that a new member will be able to contribute to the life and ministry of the congregation. While some congregations might have specific expectations, others decide with each individual situation.
Generally, vocation directors encourage potential members to complete university or college and/or to have some work experience before joining a religious community. Having some life experience helps a woman make a more informed choice in the matter of a vocation.
God does not hold on to our past deeds but supports us as we make a choice to change our life and to choose a new way of living. So, a person’s past does not affect the invitation to explore religious life as a Sister.
In 1648, our first Sisters of St. Joseph, in Le Puy, France, wore clothing similar to what respectable widows of 17th century France wore. That became the mode of dress, or habit, of our Sisters. As a result of Vatican II which opened in 1962, all women religious were asked to recapture and rekindle their original spirit, and for us (and for most apostolic religious orders) that meant to wear modest contemporary dress. We do wear a symbol – either on a pin or on a chain – but the essence of our commitment is much deeper than what we wear.
Our prayer is a response in faith to the loving initiative of God, who is always drawing us to closer union. We participate as often as we can in the celebration of the Eucharist, and daily set aside an extended period of time for individual prayer. One of the ways we pray is to open ourselves to the word of God in scripture, and reflect on our lives in the light of the gospel. As well, we pray the Office, morning and evening, and make a yearly retreat of at least a week.
The office is also called the Liturgy of the Hours. It is the public prayer of the church as a whole. The office is composed of hymns, psalms, readings and prayers, something like the first part of the Mass. It celebrates the seasons and feasts of the year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost). The office comes from the early church's practice of gathering for prayer together at morning and evening and at three-hour intervals during the day. Priests, religious and many lay people pray the office. Sisters of St. Joseph pray the morning and evening office. Generally we recite the evening office together. We sing a hymn and include prayers for the community.
Apostolic religious orders are orders of women or men who are actively engaged in the service of others. This service flows from their life of prayer, which is at the core of who they are. Unlike contemplative religious orders that are cloistered, that is, who remain in their convents or monasteries, the active or apostolic religious go where the needs are. Both active and contemplative religious orders give their lives in service of others, but in different ways.
As women who have dedicated their lives to reaching out to those in need, Sisters cannot stop being God's instrument at a certain age. While they often retire at 65 from their professional ministry/work, they continue to be people for others but in new and different ways.
Keeping in mind their health and past experience, they now find novel ways of responding to their 'dear neighbour.' Some Sisters who have limited physical abilities engage in phone ministry. This provides contact as well as support for people experiencing difficulties in their life. Older Sisters can become spiritual mentors for young people. Some Sisters spend time visiting their own Sisters who are receiving nursing care.
Retirement is not only 'doing' but also 'being'. Sisters now can discover new ways of being with the Lord in prayer and solitude. During their wisdom years, Sisters often uncover hidden talents that are now given time to surface. These can include art, poetry, or music.
A Sister stays in contact with her family. When a woman marries and begins to raise a family, her contact with her first family moves to a different level — she concentrates more on the needs of her husband and this new family. It is the same with a Sister; most of her time will go to her ministry and community responsibilities. But she keeps in touch with her family and attends family gatherings.
As women religious, we choose to make the significant group in our life the Sisters of St. Joseph. This means that the context in which we make decisions and live our life is our community. Here is one account of community life:
I live, for example, in a community with four other Sisters and a candidate. Over supper, we share about our day and what may be happening in our families or in the larger community. Then we pray the Prayer of the Church together. Because this time is important to me, I make every effort to be home for supper unless I have a meeting or other commitment. We also set aside one evening a week to spend a longer time together, usually for prayer and sharing about God's action in our life. We share in the cooking and cleaning and household duties. For me, to live in community is a source of strength and support for my vocation because all of us are committed to the same way of life as Sisters of St. Joseph.
There are challenges in living with other women who have grown up in different families with different circumstances. These can be enriching because they help me to broaden my perspective and learn that there are many ways to approach one thing. To live in community is not always easy, but it is gift.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there is a technical difference. The main difference between a Sister and a Nun is that a Sister is usually ministering or working among the people, while a nun lives out her call within a convent or monastery. The nun's life is mainly one of prayer; her work is to pray for the needs of the world. You may meet a Sister on the street, in a school or hospital, or around your parish. She may be wearing a habit or she may be wearing ordinary clothes. She is probably wearing a religious symbol.
Contemplative life is a life characterized by solitude and prayer. Such a life opens a person to contemplative prayer that is prayer which focuses on the presence of God. As Sisters of St. Joseph, we are called to a life of contemplation in action, that is, a life which includes a mystical dimension as well as involvement in apostolic ministry.