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The Role of Catholic Monks and Nuns

Monks and nuns inhabit the lowest rung of the hierarchy in the Catholic Church. Religious brothers and sisters aren’t members of the clergy, but they aren’t members of the lay faithful, either. They’re called consecrated religious, which means that they’ve taken sacred vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

In each of the hundreds of different religious orders, communities, and congregations the spirituality of the group is based on the founder of its congregation. For example, Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity whose members vow to serve “the poorest of the poor.” Some communities specialize in teaching and others in hospital work. Some engage in several active missions, and a few devote themselves to a cloistered life of contemplative prayer.

Consecrated religious live in community with other members of their order. They share all meals together and try to work together, pray together, and recreate together. Because they take a vow of poverty, they don’t own their own car, and they have no personal savings or checking accounts. The religious order they belong to provides all this, and they must ask their superiors when they need or want something. This is where that vow of obedience kicks in.

Distinctions among various types of communities can be best explained by looking at where members live:

  • Monastery: Technically speaking, monks and nuns live in monasteries with restricted access to the outside world. Monasteries are places where only women as nuns reside or where only men as monks live. Few monasteries have guest accommodations, and the monks or nuns live a monastic type of spirituality, such that they all gather in the chapel to pray together and then all eat together and then all work somewhere in the monastery, cooking, cleaning, and so on. Members of these orders spend as much time as possible in work and in prayer.

  • Convent: Religious sisters live in convents which offer more open access to the secular world. Residents typically live and pray in the convent but work outside in schools, hospitals, and so on.

    The religious sisters who teach in parochial schools technically aren’t nuns — they’re religious sisters.

  • Friary: A friary is the male version of a convent. It’s a place where religious men called brothers live, work, and pray together, although they may work outside the friary. Friars bridge the gap between the urban parish and the monastery, and they aren’t as cloistered or semi-cloistered as their monk and nun counterparts.

How cloistered the group is depends on the religious order or community and the founder who started it.

You can identify the order of the monk, nun, sister, or friar by their habit (religious garb). Franciscans typically wear brown, the Dominicans wear white, the Benedictines wear black, and the Missionaries of Charity wear white with blue stripes. Some communities of women no longer wear a veil on their head but wear a pin that identifies them with their order instead. The style, size, and color of the women’s veils also designate their community.

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