31 Frequently Asked Questions by those Considering the Priesthood or Religious Life
(One for each day of the month!)
1. What does a call from God sound like?
There are many different ways God calls people. You don’t have to wait for a lightning bolt or a supernatural vision. Most often the call from God is found deep within your own heart (planted there by God left to be discovered by you!). It might manifest itself in different ways such as a desire to want to help others or a desire to know God more deeply. If you like being with people especially during some of the bigger moments in their lives… their weddings, the birth of their children, the death of a loved one… the priesthood could be for you. No two callings are the same, just like no two priests are the same. The important thing is, if you think you’ve been called, check it out. What have you got to lose?
2. What do you priests do all day (especially during the week)?
Weekends tend to be taken up with many things such as Sunday Mass, weddings, baptisms, youth ministry, etc. As for the rest of the week, it’s may be spent working with church groups (e.g. religious education, future planning, outreach to the poor, financial matters of the parish, etc.) or with individuals (preparing for marriage, dealing with loss, the sick, those in need of spiritual counseling, etc.). Of course it is always important balance one’s responsibilities with prayer, leisure, and maintaining good health. Sometimes priests or religious have one main occupation, such as teaching, parish ministry, social work, or hospital work, all of which have somewhat regular hours and predictable demands. Each has its own rhythm. Obviously a parish setting is different from a high school setting. In some ways, it is hard to answer this question exactly because the focus of a religious vocation is serving the needs of those God brings into your life. This requires certain openness to the unpredictable or the unexpected. One thing for sure, it’s never boring!
3. Do priests and religious get time off? If so, what do they do?
Priests, brothers, and sisters have approximately the same amount of leisure time as most adults. All priests in our diocese, for instance, are given a weekly day off and vacation times throughout the year. Each individual is then free to pursue one’s favorite leisure activities whether that be reading, sports, travel or computers (personally, I love hockey and foreign travel!). Whether it’s going to a concert or watching one’s favorite teams on TV (Go Noles!), priests and religious are free to pursue leisure activities they enjoy. There is no such thing as “priest hobbies.” Priests, brothers and sisters are unique with different likes and dislikes. Common choices are sports, movies, TV, reading, friends, and enjoying the outdoors.
4. How important is prayer?
Because priests and religious have chosen a way of life which says by its very nature that God is most important, prayer has a central role in their lives. Prayer is communication with the Lord! Just as a marriage cannot survive without communication, it is impossible for a priest or religious to survive without prayer. Communication is essential for any two persons who expect their relationship to continue. Can you imagine having a best friend to whom you never spoke?
Since prayer is so important, most priests and religious spend approximately two hours a day in prayer-part of that time with others, at Mass and in common oral prayer; part alone, in reading and quiet attentiveness. Probably the main benefit of prayer is that it makes us more sensitive to God’s activity in the people, events, and circumstances of daily life.
5. Is prayer always easy?
Definitely not! There are lots of times we don’t feel like doing things that are basically important to us. For example, an athlete doesn’t always feel like practicing, a student doesn’t always feel like studying, a wage earner doesn’t always feel like working. However, in all these cases, because the activity in which we participate is important, we act on motives deeper than feelings and do what we know needs to be done.
6. What’s the difference between a diocesan priest and a religious priest?
A diocesan priest ordinarily serves the church within a well-defined geographical area (a diocese). He serves the people within that particular diocese as a parish priest, but may also be involved in other forms of ministry: teaching, chaplainry in hospitals or prisons, campus ministry, etc. Most diocesan priests live and work in the same diocese for most of their life. Diocesan priests make two promises: obedience to the bishop and celibacy. This means that they promise to work with the Bishop and do what he asks them to do for the needs of the people of the diocese. Celibacy (chastity) is the promise they take that means that they will not get married, so that they can spend most of their time serving the people of God. Being part of a diocese or an order is like being part of a family. The men are like brothers to each other and usually turn out to be some of your best friends.
A religious priest, on the other hand, is a member of a community which goes beyond the geographical limits of any diocese. A religious priest seeks to live a vowed life within a community of men for mutual support and the accomplishment of some work. There is an emphasis in the community on shared ideals, prayer, and commitment to Christ. Religious priests work in a wide variety of ministries. Religious communities were founded at different times in history and often focus on a special ministry (e.g. the Jesuits are involved in education and missionary work, the Salesians work with the young. See our Religious Link for more specific information on specific Religious Communities in our diocese). As members of a worldwide order or group of men, following the ideals of their founder (e.g. the Franciscans follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi), they make vows to live their lives in the same manner. The vows that religious priests make are poverty, celibacy (chastity), and obedience. The vow of poverty means that the priest will not own anything of his own. A religious, for instance, would not personally own a car, but more than likely would have the use of one provided by his community. All of his property will be shared by the brothers in his order.
7. What are the differences between Brothers, Priests and Monks?
A brother commits himself to Christ by vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, lives in religious community, and works in nearly any job: teacher, cook, lawyer, and so on. Brothers are not sacramental ministers; they are not ordained and so do not preside at mass, reconciliation, or the anointing of the sick. The role and ministry of a brother is as diverse as being a nurse to a teacher to working in the missions to being a CEO of a hospital.
Monks on the other hand can be either priests or brothers. A monk is the term that is used in abbeys as the members of the abbey refer to one another. A monk is a member of a certain monastery or community. Most often the focus of a monk is on the interior life through personal and communal prayer. They may be involved in retreats, spiritual direction, educational endeavors, or simple work
8. How long does it take to become a diocesan priest?
Generally it takes six to seven years after college or nine years after high school to become a diocesan priest, the same as for many professions. The actual amount depends on how much and the type of education you have received prior to entering the seminary. Your Vocation Director let you know exactly how long it should take in your specific case.
9. How old must one be to enter the seminary?
There is no certain age to start preparing for the priesthood. Some people enter the seminary after high school; others transfer into the seminary from college. Some come after completing college, or after working for a number of years. The age is not the most important question. The most important question is, “Am I doing what God wants of me at this point in my life?”
10. What is seminary like?
A seminary is a place to prepare and train men for the priesthood while they continue to discern God’s call and will in their lives. There are two types of seminaries – College Seminaries and Major Seminaries (Theologates). Both are academic institutions and so like any other place of higher learning, one takes classes, and works toward receiving fully accredited college degrees. A college seminary focuses on undergraduate studies and so is very much like any other college in terms of curriculum. Usually seminarians are asked to seek an undergraduate degree in Philosophy. A Major seminary is a Graduate school and so offers Masters degrees in Theology. The seminaries that the Diocese of St. Petersburg utilizes are both located in Florida (St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami and St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach). In addition to classes, there would be times of daily prayer (such as Mass). At times things are very busy at the seminary (exam week!). Like any other college, seminarians have free time, which they may use to study, pray, exercise, play sports, read, watch TV, go to the movies, or simply hang out with their friends. There are also opportunities for pastoral and community service. Another part of seminary is formation which is the guidance and direction one receives from those running the seminary. This may be internal (e.g. Spiritual direction) or external (recognizing one’s gifts or areas of growth) In formation, we meet with others to help us understand our calling and to see if priesthood is for us. To be a good priest, it takes prayer, trust, and love of God and our fellow brothers and sisters. The best way to answer this question is to go on a Vocation Awareness Weekend (either November or March) where you get the chance to visit the seminary and get a taste of seminary life.
11. If I’m thinking about giving seminary a try, what should I tell my girlfriend?
Girls and dating are a part of life, and it’s ok to enjoy their company. When someone becomes a priest, he takes a promise of celibacy so that he can give himself totally to God and the people of the parish. Dating before you become a priest is important. Not only does it help you to grow in trusting another person and knowing what it means to build intimacy, it also helps you to understand what it feels like to fall in love, to experience a broken heart, to say goodbye to someone you care deeply for. So, back to the question…what do you tell your girlfriend? Tell her that you’ll always be friends and that what you learned dating her will make you a better priest and person. Remember answering God’s call (whatever it is for you) is the only way to true happiness and lasting fulfillment.
12. What do sisters do?
The ministry choices for a woman religious arise from the founding purpose of her community, a prayerful discernment of her gifts, and an assessment within her community of the signs of the times. A woman religious and her community look together at the needs of the church and society in order to determine where to direct their energies.
The way a particular sister spends her day depends on the kind of community to which she belongs. Contemplative nuns often work to sustain their community in food and shelter doing tasks such as gardening, baking, computer data entry or handiwork. Active (apostolic) communities are involved in a great variety of ministries – usually with an emphasis on some type of special service such as education, social work, or parish pastoral work.
13. How do congregations or orders differ?
Most groups of religious were founded at a time in history when travel and communication were very limited. Many congregations were founded at the same time for the same purpose, but at different places by people who didn’t know each other. Founders had a specific spirit or charism they wanted to develop in their community (such as hospitality, simplicity, or unity). The charism, the community’s specific ministries, and varying emphases on prayer and community life are the basic differences among religious communities. All are alike in their primary concern: to spread the gospel message.
14. Why do some priests and religious wear habits or clerical garb?
Those who maintain habits or clerical garb do so for various reasons. One is that religious dress is a sign – an instantly recognized symbol of faith in God and commitment to Christianity. Another frequent rationale is that religious garb is simple dress and therefore a way to live out the vow of poverty. A sister, brother, or priest who wears religious garb can own two or three changes of clothing and be free of the expense of a more extensive contemporary wardrobe. Other communities say the habit is an important sign of penitence. Some communities have opted to wear street clothes, saying the most valid sign of Christian faith is lifestyle rather than garb. Those who have discontinued wearing habits often say the original reason for religious garb was to wear the dress of the common people, and street clothes are the common people’s dress nowadays. There is certainly room in the Church for both expressions of religious life.
15. Do I have to agree with all church teachings to be a priest or a member of a religious order?
Church teachings vary in gravity and centrality to the faith. To be a priest, brother, or sister is to be a public person in the Church. So if you have serious differences with matters essential to the faith, then vowed or ordained life for you might be conflictual. However, some of the church’s greatest saints dissented on certain matters. Many founders of religious communities met with this very challenge as they sought to bring something new for God’s people. Consult with a few people – vocation directors, priests, religious, theology teachers – to ascertain what the Church actually teaches today. Many times the conflicts we think we might have can be answered and overcome with greater study, reflection, and dialogue.
16. How does one join a religious community?
To become a religious sister, a religious brother, or a religious order priest, there are several stages. While these vary from community to community in name, length of time, and format, the following outline gives a general view of formation programs.
Contact: A person of high-school age or older who is interested in religious life but is still searching for the answer to the question, What does God want of me? Can I join a program of contact with a religious community? The formation program is usually very flexible. The person meets monthly with a priest, brother, or sister and shares in experiences of prayer and community life with the congregation in which he or she is interested.
Candidate: A more formal relationship with the community occurs when a person becomes a candidate. The candidate lives within the community while continuing his or her education or work experience. This period enables the candidate to observe and participate in religious life from the inside. It also gives the community an opportunity to see whether the candidate shows promise of living the life of the community. A person may be a candidate for one or two years.
Novice: The novitiate is the next stage of formation. This is a special one-to-two-year period that marks official entrance into the community. Novices spend time in study and prayer, learning more about themselves, the community, and their relationship with the Lord. At the end of the novitiate, novices prepare for temporary promises, or vows.
Vows: Promises of poverty, celibacy, and obedience may be taken for one, two, or three years, depending upon the decision of the individual. These promises are renewable for up to nine years. Final vows can be made after three years of temporary promises.
Additionally men studying for religious priesthood must also undergo seminary training, where he studies theology, the Bible, the teachings of the church, and the skills he will need to be a priest.
17. What is a religious vow? What vows do diocesan priests make?
A vow is a solemn promise made freely as an individual gives his or her life to God. Many religious communities make vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Some communities have other vows. Diocesan priests do not make vows. For ordination, they freely make promises of celibacy and obedience to their bishop.
18. Do priests get paid?
No one becomes a priest because of the money, that’s for sure. You obviously can’t put a price tag on the spiritual rewards of being a priest and dedicating one’s life to God, but diocesan priests are not expected to live in destitution either. Diocesan priests are paid a salary as they are responsible for their own expenses (e.g. buying a car, putting gas in it, purchasing clothes, paying taxes, etc.). Obviously, priests are not concerned with earning enough for a spouse and children. This combined with the fact that many of the basic necessities are provided (such as housing, food, insurance, etc.), I have found that my salary is more than adequate to pay for my expenses, yet also giving me the freedom to be able to explore the leisure activities I enjoy.
19. Are priests allowed to drink (other than at Mass)?
The simple answer is yes. Priests are over 21 after all. It’s important to remember that priests are human and do what other people do. So yes, priests can drink alcohol and some do. But because we’re called upon to live a holy life, we do it in moderation. There is a big difference between having a beer or two and getting sauced every Friday night. Any Christian who chooses to drink alcohol should always do so in moderation. The same moral code applies to priests and lay people alike. So as long as we have fun and don’t get too carried away we can celebrate like everyone else.
20. How tough is the schooling one has to complete to become a priest?
The academic portion of seminary is any important part of seminary training. After all no one would want to have a surgeon operate on him if he barely passed medical school. The work of priests is at least as, if not more, important than the work of doctors. After all, the most a physician can do is delay death; the work of a priest brings life eternal! After a priest has completed seminary, he has at least a Bachelors and a Master’s degree (maybe more depending on the program). The classes in the seminary help us not only to be good priests, but it is from this theological and philosophical foundation out of which we will minister to God’s people. At the seminary, one takes classes on everything from the Bible, to Church history, to Dogma, to how to prepare and give homilies, and all sorts of other interesting items that relate to the Church. Different people have different gifts. It is not expected that every priest needs to get straight “A’s” only that they do their best to reach their fullest potential. As long as you work hard and dedicate yourself to your studies, you probably could make it. If God wants it to be, it will be. After all, the patron of parish priests, Saint John Vianney had many struggles in the seminary and yet is held up today by the Church as the ideal pastor. Sometimes people haven’t done that well academically in the past (either in high school or college). Sometimes there are many reasons for this. Maybe they never learned good study skills, or maybe their free time was taken up with work, or maybe there were other priorities that took precedence (e.g. an overactive social life). Seminary not only gives you the tools to succeed, but oftentimes frees the individual from distractions which might be competing with their time. Sometimes people who didn’t do very well before, do very well in seminary. It’s not because seminary studies are easy, but because they were never given the opportunity to succeed. The only way you’ll know is if you try!
21. What if someone goes to the seminary and then decides he doesn’t want to become a priest?
Seminarians are not people who have everything figured out. In fact what they are doing is seeking God’s will, by putting themselves in a setting where they can truly discern God’s will. Spiritual direction and seminary formation are important components of this. If an individual decides priesthood is not for him, he is certainly most free to leave. Seminary is not a prison! The job of seminary is not to try to brainwash people or convince them that they should become priests, but rather to help them to truly discover God’s will and, if that is priesthood, to make them the best possible priests. Sometimes people are afraid to give it a try for fear of failure. There is no way to avoid risks in life. Everyone who goes to medical or law school doesn’t necessarily stay. I guess the old saying is true: Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
After someone is ordained to the priesthood it a little more complicated. After all the person has made commitment to God and the Church, just like in marriage. Yes, unfortunately divorce does exist in our society and yes some priests do leave the priesthood for various reasons. No one is going to force anyone to stay. This is something which needs to be given consideration and one needs to look at any underlying reasons. Can a priest leave the priesthood? Yes. Should they? That’s another question entirely.
22. Do priests in a diocese have to be parish priests?
There are a variety of ministries where priests in our diocese serve. Yes, most do serve in parishes, some as pastors, and as parochial vicars. Other priests serve as chaplains in hospitals, or work in schools. Some work in prisons or are involved in the administration of our diocese. Some work with young, others with the elderly. There are many ways to serve God as a priest (some I’m sure have yet to be discovered).
23. What if God calls someone to the priesthood, but they don’t answer it and choose another vocation?
If someone knew that God was calling him to priesthood, why would he say no? Would it be out of fear? I don’t have what it takes. Would it be out of selfishness? I don’t want to give up this or that. Would it be out of confusion? I’m not sure if this is for me or I could do it. God calls us all in one way or another. Certainly not everyone is being called to be a priest or nun. I think St. Therese said it best when she said, “God calls those he wants!” Why would we say no to God? What God has in mind for us is so much better than anything we could imagine for ourselves (I am constantly amazed at all that is part of my life as a priest!). Our happiness and well being may very well depend on our response to God’s call!
24. Do you have to do your own laundry? Cooking? Cleaning?
Most priests live in rectories with other priests. Usually there is a housekeeper or someone who takes care of the basics of cleaning the house, doing laundry, and cooking. This is to free the priest from domestic concerns so as to offer his time to the people he serves. We certainly don’t live like kings and we don’t look upon people as servants. Some priests enjoy cooking and occasionally do it for themselves.
25. If someone has lived an immoral life can they still become a priest?
God is very loving and forgiving. Redemption can take place anytime throughout our lives. Sometimes after people have turned their lives around, with the help of God, and dedicate themselves to Christ, that they may be aware of a still deeper call from God. Generally speaking, it is less important what someone has done in the past than what one is willing to embrace in the present and future. There are limits of course to how we live our lives. Honesty is always the best policy. Speak to your Vocation Director about any concerns or reservations you may have. When we enter formation and work towards ordination we assume the roles of living a celibate lifestyle and living a moral life with our God.
26. Why are priests called Father?
The term “Father” was used in the early Church for those spokesmen who were defenders of Christianity as well as for beloved leaders, confessors, and well-respected spiritual guides. Today we use this term “Father” when addressing most priests simply as a sign of love and respect. Truly, even though every priest sacrifices a particular family, he gains a much larger family in the Church. People most often look up to their priests, ask for their help, guidance, and counsel. These and many others indeed are qualities of a father who cares for his family (the Church).
27. Why do priests and religious have to remain celibate?
Priests and Religious Sisters and Brothers make the choice of celibacy for two principal reasons. It is so they can totally dedicate themselves to God and service of his people. Many people assume that this must be a very difficult, lonely, way of life. If God were not in it, it certainly would be. Prayer is so important to living this way of life. Celibacy frees the individual from immediate responsibilities of a particular family and opens the individual up to the needs and concerns of the larger family of God. It seems to me no coincidence that we use family words (father, sister, and brother) to refer to those in a religious vocation. People don’t choose celibacy because they don’t want to get married (quite the contrary). They choose to live this way out of devotion to God.
28. Are there any support groups in the Diocese of St. Petersburg for those discerning the priesthood?
Indeed there are. The Vocation Office sponsors the “Anima Via” Vocation Support Group. Anima Via (literally “Way of the Soul”) is an ongoing group of reflection, prayer and dialogue for those considering a Vocation. Currently, we meet on the First Thursday of the month at Nativity Parish in Brandon. For more information, you can email Fr. Carl at email@example.com or you can look under discernment opportunities for more detailed information.
29. Can you recommend any good books for one who is thinking about the priesthood?
There are many books I would recommend:
Called by Name: The Inspiring Stories of 12 Men Who Became Catholic Priests by Donald Wuerl (Foreword), Christine Anne Mugridge (Editor), Jerry Usher (Editor)
I Believe in Love by Jean D’Elbee (a great reflection on St. Therese and her reflections on God’s call in her life)
The Reed of God by Caryll Houselander (a classic reflection on Mary’s acceptance of God’s will and how that applies to us)
The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth by Scott Hahn (a powerful book on the awesome reality of the Eucharist)
The Discernment of Spirits: The Ignatian Guide for Everyday Life by Timothy M. Gallagher
Priests for the Third Millennium by Timothy M. Dolan
Quickening the Fire in Our Midst: The Challenge of Diocesan Priestly Spirituality by George Aschenbrenner
Extraordinary Lives by Francis P. Friedl and Rex Reynolds. (In this book 34 different priests tell their stories and reflect on their lives as priests)
What does God want? A Practical Guide to Making Decisions by Fr. Michael Scanlon.
The Guide to Religious Ministries is a good resource in terms of contact information and descriptions of different order and communities. It is available free of charge by simply emailing Heidi Varley in the Office of Vocations firstname.lastname@example.org
The best book however is the Bible. By reading and studying this you will hopefully see the calling that God is offering you!
30. What kind of academic degrees do priests get?
Those who went to a college seminary receive a Bachelors of Arts Degree in Philosophy. There are many options in terms of minors and electives. Individuals who come to seminary after already achieving an undergraduate degree receive a Pre-Theology certificate that puts special emphasis on philosophy. At a major seminary, seminarians usually have a number of options. Most common would be a Masters of Divinity. Additionally, many might also receive a Masters of Theology or a Masters of Arts. Sometimes these degrees have areas of specialization such as Scripture, Church History, Moral Theology or Systematic (Dogmatic) Theology. Sometimes after ordination, priests opt to continue their education to receive additional Masters degrees (maybe in another area such as Liturgy, Canon Law, or Education) or even Doctorate degrees.
31. Should I go to the seminary now or wait?
This is the big question isn’t it? Obviously, I cannot answer the question for you. I also don’t think that this is a question that you can answer alone. Obviously, if you’ve completed high school (or are within a year of graduating), you are eligible to begin the application process. It is important to take time to seriously reflect and pray on this decision. It is a decision that your Vocation Director will help you with. You will always have doubts and fears. There is of course a risk that you take in going to the seminary. I believe that seminary provides the best opportunity for you to discern your vocation. Take the risk. You’ve got so little to lose and so much to gain!
Still More Questions?
Send an Email to Fr. Carl Melchior at email@example.com