In 2018, there were approximately 44,117 sisters and 3,897 brothers in the United States, according to CARA, a nonprofit research center affiliated with Georgetown University that conducts social scientific studies of the Catholic Church.
While the specific orders vary, all sisters and brothers ultimately serve the church. Active religious work in hospitals, colleges and universities, grammar schools, or high schools. Some work in parishes or church-run agencies. Other sisters and brothers work in foreign missions, urban slums, or rural areas. Essentially, members of active religious orders can be found virtually everywhere the church has a presence. As part of their vow of obedience, they may be required to serve wherever their community has made a commitment to minister. Contemplative religious are bound by their order's rule of life and the way their particular community applies that rule. The variations between communities are another good reason to take your time in finding the mode of religious life that best suits you.
Although the process of entering an order or congregation varies from community to community, in most cases there are four steps. First, an interested candidate contacts the religious community and begins a process of becoming acquainted with the life and mission of the members. Meetings with a brother or sister and periodic invitations to take part in prayer and community work may be arranged.
Second, the candidate is allowed to live within the community as a postulant but continues outside commitments, such as work or school. This allows the prospective member to more closely view the life of a religious and also gives the community a chance to evaluate the candidate. This step often takes one or two years.
Third, the person officially enters the community as a novice. During this period, lasting at least one year, final decisions are made on whether the candidate is suited to the religious life.
Fourth, the new member takes the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows are at first temporary and may last for one, two, or three years. The length of the vow is decided by the brother or sister in consultation with his or her superior. Temporary vows are renewable up to nine years, after which the member must take final vows to remain in the community. Permanent vows can be made as early as three years after the first temporary vow.
The goal of a sister or brother is not the achievement of personal advancement but carrying out the mission of the community and serving the church and God. Even so, a religious may over time assume greater responsibility, such as filling a supervisory role. For example, an active sister may oversee the work of all nurses at a particular hospital, or an active brother may serve as his community's accountant. The highest authority of each community is the superior, a position of grave responsibility. Religious do not actively seek to become superiors; they are appointed by the community.
Both active and contemplative religious sisters and brothers can advance in the form of continuing education. They can also expect to grow spiritually through retreats and by working with their spiritual director, who may be their chaplain or confessor.
There is also the possibility of moving from the active religious life to contemplative religious life. However, moving between religious orders is a complicated process and must be approved by the Vatican.
Visit https://vocationnetwork.org/en/articles/show/131?m=6&sm=4 to read answers to 17 common questions about church vocations. This is also a good place to learn more about the various Roman Catholic religious orders.
Talk with a religious sister or brother about their choice to serve God and live in a religious community.
Visit https://vocationnetwork.org/en/match to access Vocation Match, a tool for discerning different options for living out your Christian calling.
Participate in a vocation discernment retreat.