How Nuns Work

Becoming a Nun

The process of becoming a nun or a sister takes almost a decade. Though the precise process differs according to the particular community that a woman tries to join, we can provide a little insight about what happens.

It all begins with "the call" -- a message from God that a person is called to lead a more spiritual life. When a woman believes she is being called, she is urged to pray about what she's being asked to do. She also can begin checking out different religious communities, which can slightly resemble sorority rush. Sometimes, communities sponsor "nun runs," in which women who are in the process of discerning their call travel from convent to convent to talk to the sisters and figure out where they belong. If there are no official events, a woman might call an order's vocation director and set up some time to come see the community. This part of the process might take a while -- women are encouraged to see many communities before settling on one.

Once a woman settles on the community she'd like to join, she becomes an aspirant, or a pre-candidate. This stage involves a lot of paperwork -- aspirants must be deemed fit in mind and body by psychologists and doctors, and they must complete essays about their call and their relationship with God. Aspirants are advised to spend a lot of time with their potential sisters, but they tend to live on their own and support themselves.

After the woman and the religious order have mutually agreed that they're a good match, the aspirant becomes a postulant, or an official candidate. Though the postulant takes no vows, she might start living with other sisters and participating in the activities of the order. This stage may last for a couple of years, as will the next stage -- novitiate. At this point, the woman is a novice member who lives as a sister while studying subjects outlined by Canon law and by her order. At this point, a woman gives any salary she receives to the community and gets what she needs from it as well. After about two years of study, she takes a spiritual retreat to prepare for her vows.

There are two sets of vows: first and final. The first vows are renewed on a year-by-year basis, and the final vows are considered binding forever. At the second vow ceremony, the woman receives a ring to wear on her right hand, marking her as a bride of Christ. The nun or sister joins a long history of religious women, and she may play a part in the direction this vocation takes in the future.

To learn more about religion and spirituality, please see the links below.

Related Articles


  • BBC. "Culture crisis means no new nuns." July 30, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Boitano, Susanne. "Getting to be a habit." Women's Review of Books. April 2004.
  • Clines, Francis X. "Still Married to Christ, and Never Happier." New York Times. Feb. 23, 1995. (Feb. 7, 2011),%20women&st=cse
  • Cullen, Lisa Takeuchi and Tracy Schmidt. "Today's Nun Has a Veil -- And a Blog." Time. Nov. 13, 2006. (Feb. 7, 2011),9171,1558292,00.html
  • Dowd, Maureen. "A Nope for Pope." New York Times. March 27, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Dowd, Maureen. "The Nuns' Story." New York Times. Oct. 25, 2009. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • The Economist. "Veiled Ambitions." Feb. 17, 2007.
  • Evangelisti, Silvia. "Nuns: A History of Convent Life." Oxford University Press. 2007.
  • Fickett, Harold. "A Monastic Kind of Life." Slate. Oct. 14, 2008. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Fraser, Antonia. "The Nuns' Story." New York Times. Oct. 13, 1996. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Goodstein, Laurie. "U.S. Nuns Facing Vatican Scrutiny." New York Times. July 2, 2009. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Hofmann, Paul. "The Vatican's Women: Female Influence at the Holy See." St. Martin's Griffin. 2002.
  • Kohn, Rachel. "The Habit." The Ark, (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Laven, Mary. "Virgins of Venice." Penguins Books. 2002.
  • Lemonick, Michael D. and Alice Park. "The Nun Study." Time. May 14, 2001. (Feb. 7, 2011),8816,999867,00.html
  • Lopez, Kathryn Jean. "Nun Sense: Women in the Catholic Church." National Review Online via Catholic Education Resource Center. April 30, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Madigan, Mary. "Mary Ward: Pioneer for Women in the Church." Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Malone, Noreen. "Glory Days." Slate. March 30, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Middle Ages Web site. "Medieval Nuns." (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Millar, Heather. "New Convents: A Spirited Blend of Generations, Cultures." Palm Beach Post. July 12, 1997.
  • Millar, Heather. "The New Nuns: Women with a Past." Palm Beach Post. July 11, 1997.
  • Padgett, Tim. "Defying the Vatican, Catholic Women Claim Priesthood." Time. Oct. 3, 2010. (Feb. 7, 2011),9171,2019635,00.html
  • Schneiders, Sandra M. "Discerning Ministerial Religious Life Today." National Catholic Reporter. Sept. 11, 2009. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Schneiders, Sandra M. "Why they stay(ed)." National Catholic Reporter. Aug. 17, 2009. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Slade, Carole. "How Sisterhood Became Powerless." Women's Review of Books. April 1997.
  • University of Minnesota. "The Nun Study." (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Vermeersch, Arthur. "Nuns." The Catholic Encyclopedia. 1911. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Vieira, Julie. A Nun's Life Web site. (Feb. 7, 2011)
  • Wright, Jonathan. "Men beware women." New Statesman. March 12, 2007. (Feb. 7, 2011)