The Language of Consecrated Life
The consecrated life is a remarkably diverse phenomenon within the Catholic Church. Because of the various kinds of communities, vocations, and charisms that we find in consecrated life it can sometimes be a challenge to understand terminology that describes this way of life. Below is a short glossary that you may find helpful.
Abbot: The male superior of a monastic community of men religious such as the Benedictines, Cistercians, and others.
Bishop: The chief priest of a diocese. Bishops are responsible for the pastoral care of their dioceses. In addition, bishops have a responsibility to act in council with other bishops to guide the Church.
Brother: A man who is a member of a religious order or institute but who is neither ordained nor studying for the priesthood. Professes vows of poverty, celibate chastity and obedience. Previously "lay Brother." The abbreviated form is either "Br." or "Bro."
Brothers-Only/Lay Institutions: Religious orders or communities of men whose members are exclusively non-ordained brothers.
Canon Law: The codified body of general laws governing the Church.
Cardinal: Bishops appointed by the pope to serve as his chief counselors . They form a kind of senate for the Church.
Celibacy/Celibate Chastity: A vow by which a religious man or woman chooses to remain unmarried and sexually inactive as a means of sharing love and service with many others beyond an immediate family. In the Catholic Church, men who are called to consecrated life follow Christ's example and forgo marriage for the sake of community and ministry. Similarly, diocesan priests must also be willing to commit to the celibate state of life.
Charism: The "spirit" or vision underlying the existence of a religious group, usually traceable to the founder of the institute and directly related to the mission and ministry of its members. Gifts for graces given by God to persons or communities for the good of others and the Church. Examples are special gifts for apostolic service, healing, and particular models of spiritual practices. For consecrated religious, each community will have a unique charism that shapes how the community relates to the world and how its members work, live, pray, and minister.
Chastity: The practice of sexual behavior appropriate to one's state of life. Consecrated religious live a commitment to celibacy so they are expected to refrain from all sexual activity. Persons who are married practice chastity through a monogamous commitment to their spouse.
Clergy: Collective term which refers to those who minister within any religious tradition. In the Catholic Church It is most often used in reference to ordained ministers although it sometimes also refers to all members of a religious institute or even lay ministers.
Clerical/Mixed Institutes: Religious orders or communities of men whose members include both priests and brothers.
Cloister: Part of a convent or monastery reserved for use by members of the institute.
Community: In the larger sense, the order or institute to which a religious belongs -- the Jesuits, the Benedictines, Christian Brothers, etc. In a local sense, the people with whom religious live, work and pray on a day-to-day basis.
Congregation: (1) The collective name for a group of people who form a parish. (2) A group of men or women who form a religious institute.
Conference of Major Superiors of Men: Organization of major superiors representing communities of consecrated men in the U.S.
Contemplative: A person (or institute) whose life is devoted to prayer and reflection.
Deacon: An ordained minister within the Catholic Church. Deacons proclaim the Gospel, assist with the celebration of the mass, baptize, and preside over the sacrament of marriage.
Diocesan Priest: A priest who is ordained for a specific diocese and who ministers under the authority of a bishop, usually in parish/pastoral services.
Diocese: A collection of parishes/churches under the leadership of a bishop.
Discalced: Originally meaning "without shoes," this term now applies to certain communities of consecrated men and women who wear sandals or who may even go barefoot.
Evangelical Counsels: Models of living based on Christ's example in the Gospel. The three counsels are poverty, chastity, and obedience. The purpose of the counsels is to help those who want to dedicate their lives to exclusively and completely to the service of God. Consecrated men and women adopt the evangelical counsels as vows or formal promises.
Father: A title that refers to priests in the Catholic Church, whether diocesan or religious. Often used instead of the more formal "Reverend."
Friar: In the mendicant tradition all consecrated men are known as "friars," a term which is derived from the latin term for "brother." Friars differ from monks in that friars generally are more involved with ministry whereas monks are more focused on prayer and contemplation. The most common use of the term "friar" is found in the Franciscan tradition.
Laity: Members of the Catholic Church who are neither ordained ministers nor consecrated religious.
Lay Brother: An unpopular term today, lay Brothers are consecrated men who belong to a religious institute. They are "lay" because they are neither ordained nor studying for ordination. They profess the vows of their institute and as such belong to the consecrated or religious state of life.
Lay /Brothers-Only Institutions: Religious orders or communities of men whose members are exclusively non-ordained brothers.
* Some definitions adapted from"Brother" is a Verb: Religious Brothers in the United States published by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in 1990.
Mendicant: A term that means "beggar" in the latin and which describes a tradition of consecrated life in which simplicity of lifestyle and the practice of austerity were defining characteristics of the community. In these institutes the members traditionally either worked or begged for their livelihood. There are communities of consecrated men in the U.S. who originated from the mendicant tradition.
Mixed/Clerical Institutes: Religious orders or communities of men whose members include both priests and brothers.
Monastery: The dwelling place--both a building and a community--of consecrated men or women (specifically monks and nuns) in the Benedictine order and those who originated within the Benedictine tradition. Monasteries are distinctive in that a sense of separation from the world is a key characteristic of their atmosphere. Another quality of the monastery is the idea of stability, or that a monk or nun will reside in his/her monastery for life.
Monk: Any consecrated man who belongs to a cloistered, contemplative, or monastic community.
Non-ordained Ministers: All men and women who are not priests, whether members of religious communities or not.
Novice: A man or woman in a formal period of training and formation called the "novitiate." Novices live in their communities and are preparing for their first profession of vows which marks the beginning of membership in an institute of consecrated life. Novitiate lasts from 12 to 24 months depending on the community.
Nun: A consecrated woman. Generally speaking, nuns are women who are members of cloistered or contemplative communities although in common use the term is frequently interchanged with "Sister" or its abbreviated form, "Sr."
Obedience: A vow by which a religious man or woman chooses to seek the will of God in his/her life by relinquishing his/her sole right to self-determination in favor of discernment and cooperation with community authority.
Ordained Ministers: Priests and deacons, whether diocesan clergy or members of religious institutes.
Ordination: a term referring to the conferral of Holy Order upon deacons, bishops, and priests. The most well-known men who are ordained in the Catholic Church are diocesan priests and deacons. In some religious communities some consecrated men are also ordained.
Order/Society/Congregation: A group of consecrated men or women. These terms are often loosely interchanged in common usage.
Perpetual/Final Vows: Promises to live poverty, celibacy and obedience "for life." These vows are made by religious only after a thorough period of preparation, study and formation.
Postulant: One of several terms used to designate a man or woman who is a candidate for membership in an institute of consecrated life. Postulancy, the period preceding novitiate, can last from 6 months to two years depending on the institute.
Poverty: A vow by which a religious man or woman -- a priest, Sister or Brother -- relinquishes the individual ownership of goods, property and income.
Priest: A man who has received the sacrament of Holy Orders to serve the sacramental needs of the church. Empowered to say Mass, hear confessions, baptize, anoint the dying, and witness marriages. In some institutes of consecrated life some members are also ordained to the priesthood.
Prior: The superior or similar leader within an abbey or monastery.
Profession: The ceremony by which a religious publicly promises to live the three religious vows for a specific period or for life.
Religious: A term (both a noun and an adjective) commonly used to described consecrated women and men. For instance, a Brother is an example of "a religious" while a priest may be either a diocesan or "religious" priest.
Religious Priest: A priest who is a member of a religious order, living the three vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience and serving the needs of the church according to the charism of his community.
Sister: A consecrated women who is a member of a religious institute. Often abbreviated as "Sr."
Superior: The leader of an institute of consecrated life. In some institutes this person may be called by another name such as president, director, abbot, prior, administrator, community servant, or another term.
Temporary Vows/Promises: Vows or promises to live the three religious vows for a specified period of time, e.g. 1-3 years as part of a formation period preceding final vows.
Vocation: A call to a way of life. In general, the term applies to all people: some are called to married life, some to consecrated life, others to priesthood or deaconate, and still others to single life. In the most common usage the term "vocation" is most often discussed in relation to consecrated life or priesthood.
Vow: A promise made freely to God. In consecrated life the most traditional vows are poverty, chastity, and obedience. Some communities have additional vows of stability or apostolic service. Vows can be temporary, lasting usually for a period of one year, or perpetual, lasting for a lifetime.