Each person has a unique path and mission from God that He wishes them to accomplish. Their state of life determines many things such as how they would serve God, but primarily, who they are in relation to Him and to others. It is very important to discern one’s own vocation that God is calling them to, and what follows is just a general summary of various vocations available in the Church:
Marriage is the vocation that most people are called to. God had placed a natural desire in the human heart for a family. Marriage in the Church has a beautiful meaning. It is a Sacrament, which means that through it, the spouses receive grace. With the help of this grace, the husband and wife help each other to become holy. God instituted marriage as a visible sign of His love: the love between Christ and the Church, His Bride. This is the reason why the Church teaches that marriage should be “faithful, monogamous, indissoluble, and fruitful” (Scott Hahn, Swear to God: the Promise and Power of the Sacraments). The purpose of marriage is tied up with the (amazing) idea that a man and a woman can cooperate with God in creating a new life: a totally unique person, never to be repeated, whom God wants to share in His own life for all eternity!
However, God does not call all to marriage. He calls some to be consecrated to Him in a special way, which means to be set apart for Him alone. We are all consecrated to God through our Baptism, and “consecrated life” deepens this consecration and points to the reality of Heaven, where, as Scripture says we would be like the angels who do not marry. Earthly marriage involves the spouse leading the person closer to God. In consecrating and perpetually vowing one’s chastity to God, a soul loves Him in a more exclusive way, a way that some Saints have understood to be like a spiritual spousal bond with Christ. This is what happens at a nun’s final profession when she makes her perpetual vows: she can relate to Jesus as her Spouse in a spiritual way. This bond reflects the reality of Heaven where each soul will be like a bride, as part of the Church. In a way, consecrated life enables the soul to begin this reality here on earth (in a limited way of course). The evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience are counsels to perfection that are an imitation of Christ’s own life on earth.
There are several different forms of consecrated life: religious life, consecrated virginity, secular institutes, societies of apostolic life, and eremitic life. The type that most people are familiar with is religious life. Religious life make public vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and usually live in community. There are the older religious orders that are more contemplative such as the Carmelites, Benedictines, and Poor Clares. There are other newer congregations that have an active apostolate, such as the Sisters of Life or teaching Dominican Sisters. Religious orders and congregations differ in the vows they make (solemn or simple) and by name: the first are called nuns, and the second are called Sisters.
Consecrated virgins are women who have received a special consecration by their Bishop. In the early Church, they lived individually and later began forming communities. It is believed this eventually lead to religious life. Early on, there were orders that also did the consecration of virgins but later this practice became rare. Recently, the vocation was revived as a state of life for women in the world. As the name implies, the consecration requires physical virginity to be valid. A consecrated virgin bears an official, canonical title of a bride of Christ and in a way symbolizes the Church, though often religious share in this spirituality.
Members of secular institutes are consecrated persons who live in the world. They work to help sanctify the world and each secular institute has a distinct spirituality. Societies of Apostolic Life do not have vows, but share a way of life in common and may still follow the evangelical counsels. Eremitic life is lived by hermits to devote themselves to silence, solitude, and prayer.
The Church document Vita Consecrata also mentions those who make a private vow to God as a “special consecration”, though this is not listed as a form of consecrated life. These people live in the world and often take a vow of chastity (though some have taken another vow too), preferably under the guidance of a spiritual director. They follow their own rule of life or belong to a Third Order (the members of which are lay people associated with a religious order such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, or Carmelites). Though the Church does not yet offer extensive information on private vows, there are some great Saints who lived with them – St Catherine of Siena, St Rose of Lima, and St Gemma Galgani (who is also counted among the Passionist Saints because she intended to be a Passionist nun).
The next part will talk about how we can start discerning our own vocation!