Although sister and nun are often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between the two types of Catholic women religious.
Nuns and sisters, or apostolic women religious) take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which are the three evangelical counsels or counsels of perfection in Christianity. As Jesus of Nazareth stated in the Canonical gospels, they are counsels for those who desire to become "perfect."
In fact, most members of religious Orders, not just nuns and sisters, make these three vows. However, some take solemn vows while others take simple vows.
Solemn Vows vs. Simple Vows
In Catholic canon law, a solemn vow is "a deliberate and free promise made to God about a possible and better good" that the Church has recognized as such.
Any other vow, public or private, individual or collective, concerned with an action or with abstaining from an action, is a simple vow.
Even a vow accepted by a legitimate superior in the name of the Church (the definition of a "public vow") is a simple vow if the Church has not granted it recognition as a solemn vow.
Nuns take solemn vows
Solemn vows are perpetual (not temporary) and are taken in a public setting. Nuns must give up all of their worldly possessions, including patrimony (property, estates, endowments and inheritances).
Other sisters take simple vows
Other sisters, known as apostolic women religious, take simple vows. Her vows can be taken publicly or privately and can be temporary or perpetual. Apostolic sisters are permitted to retain their patrimony but must give up its use and any revenue.
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Vows of Sisters and Nuns
Vow of Poverty
“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done.” Proverbs 19:17
The vow of poverty means that a nun or sister gives up the right to control or benefit from personal property and commits herself to live interdependently within a community. She lives a life of labor and moderation, as to imitate Jesus who for our sake became poor, although he was rich. The vow of poverty applies to all things; books, clothing, furniture, vehicles and so on. It compels a nun or sister to live simply and not become attached to material things so that she may be free to serve others.
The vow of poverty is simply explained in this post by Sr. Julie, whereby she explains that sister’s prayer books in her convent all displayed the words “for the use of sister _____”. Writing your name on a book signifies that it is YOUR possession and you would want it back if someone borrowed it. However, sisters and nuns do not own anything, even her prayer book that she’s used for years and which bears the marks of her praying hands. By the simple act of writing “for the use of” a sister is acknowledging that she truly does not own it; it is a borrowed gift.
The vow of poverty can be professed as a simple vow or a solemn vow.
Nuns profess a solemn vow of poverty. They renounce ownership of all their worldly possessions including ownership of their patrimony (an estate, endowment or anything inherited from one's parents or ancestors).
Sisters profess a simple vow of poverty. This means that sisters have a right to retain ownership of their patrimony but must give up its use and any revenue from it.
Many sisters that have graduated from ASEC's educational programs find a strong connection between their vow of poverty and the service work they do. An alumna of ASEC's Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) program in Kenya, states,
"I have come to realize the interconnectedness of my vow of poverty and stewardship on everything I have and do." -Sr. Cecilia Nakambo, LSOSF
Vow of Chastity (or Celibacy)
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24
The vow of chastity, or celibacy, means that Catholic nuns and sisters do not marry or engage in romantic behavior or sexual acts of any kind. This vow frees her from the demands of an exclusive human relationship so that she can give all her love to God and through God to all people. By taking a vow of chastity, a nun or sister also testifies that her life is not about sex and does not define her as a person.
The vow of chastity is the way that nuns and sisters give themselves wholly and fully to God. This vow is expressed through her relationship with her religious community and her ministry. Being celibate leaves a woman religious “free” to go where God and her community calls her to go. Having children and a spouse can make this more challenging.
Vow of Obedience
Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23
The vow of obedience means that a Catholic nun or sister will obey her lawful superiors according to the constitutions of her particular group, or congregation. The vow of obedience is taken so that a nun or sister can imitate the obedience of Jesus Christ
As a member of her religious community, a nun or sister searches for the will of God, not in arbitrary commands, but in prayerful reflection and dialogue with others.
By seeking God's will for her and obeying her lawful superiors according to the constitutions of her particular group. As a member of her religious community, she searches for the will of God, not in arbitrary commands, but in prayerful reflection and dialogue with others.
A nun or sister achieves obedience by seeking God's will for her and obeying her lawful superiors according to the constitutions of her particular group.
In the article Why obedience is important to God, there are many more examples of obedience from the bible.
The Fourth Vow
Some religious orders take a fourth vow after the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This fourth vow is a further step toward Jesus Christ and service toward others. The fourth vow is usually is an expression of the congregation's charism and particular insertion in the apostolic field of the Church.
Here are some examples (note that this is not an exhaustive list)
- Religious Sisters of Mercy take a fourth vow of service to the poor, sick and ignorant.
- Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate take a fourth vow of devotion to Mary, the mother of God.
- Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity take a fourth vow of wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.
- Priests and brothers of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, or the Mercedarian Friars, take a fourth vow of the order of mercy. This is a vow to die for another who is in danger of losing their faith.
- Members of the Society of Jesus, referred to as Jesuits, take a fourth vow of obedience specifically in regard to worldwide mission. In other words, Jesuits must be ready to accept whatever mission the Pope requires.
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