Have you ever gone to a restaurant and ordered a Coke only to be asked if Pepsi was ok instead? How about ordering a Dr Pepper and being told they have Mr. Pibb? It is like a built-in disclaimer to make sure the consumer knows what he or she is getting. When growing up I said coke for every soft drink…when visiting my sisters, I would ask my nieces or nephews to bring me a coke…which was a Dr Pepper. Many times, the words are interchangeable and one usually understands what someone is talking about when offering a “coke” for the name of a variety of soft drinks.
So, you are probably asking yourself, what does any of this have to do with religious life? When I visit classrooms to give vocation talks I talk about each vocational call within the Catholic Church. However, I devote more time to the explanation of the options of religious life available for women, specifically sisters and nuns. Much like the Coke and Pepsi name swap, sister and nun are used interchangeably but there is a distinction between the two. Both sisters and nuns are consecrated women in religious life.
Sisters are described using the term apostolic. Apostolic is related to the word apostle, those that Jesus sent out to minister and spread the good news. I explain that sisters go out and work among the people…just like many of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, they can be found ministering in schools, universities, parishes, hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc. The ministry of a sister usually takes her outside of her convent. A life of prayer is also central to the vocation of a sister.
Nuns, on the other hand, can be described using the term contemplative. To contemplate is to reflect or ponder. In my talks I explain that much of a nun’s day is spent in silence and ask the audience why that might be. They always get it right by saying that silence is needed for prayer. There is also other work going on but prayer is the main focus. How blessed are we here in the Diocese of Owensboro who have the Passionist Nuns praying daily for our intentions! A nun usually lives and ministers within the cloister, or in other words, remains within her monastery.
I try to reiterate what I have said by having the students to repeat after me, “Sisters are apostolic, they go out into the world to minister. Nuns are contemplative, they stay inside and pray for the entire world.” This is in an explanation in a nutshell, there are exceptions to each case.
What a gift sisters and nuns are to the Church! Let us pray that more women will hear and answer God’s call to religious life.
This infographic from Catholic Extension (www.catholicextension.org) gives some more information on the difference between sisters and nuns.