By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

What are the qualities a religious congregation looks for in potential candidates to religious life? “Somebody with a deep joy, a family spirit, someone who enjoys relationships with others, and obviously someone who is in love with Jesus,” said Sister Michele Fisher, vocations director for the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Her congregation will accept women as young as 18. Currently, she is in conversation with women as young as 19 and as old as 60.

Typically, a woman who comes to them is in her late 20s or early 30s. Post-college is preferred, but not essential. The congregation has recently welcomed three new candidates in its affiliancy program. These women have already undergone six months to a year of discernment.

Affiliancy is a non-canonical stage where the aspirant lives in community with the Sisters, deepening her understanding of the new life she wishes to enter. After the afiliancy program, which may be anywhere from six months to two years, the candidate will enter postulancy which may be between six and 18 months. Finally, she enters the novitiate for two years, followed by first vows.

Adding it all together, candidates entering the affiliate state may have continued their discernment from three to more than five years before becoming vowed Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. The Holy Family Sisters are members of a congregation founded in Rome but with roots in Poland. Locally, they conduct Holy Family University, Nazareth Academy, Nazareth Hospital, teach in several parishes and conduct social outreach programs.

Maria Gerlach, 27, who has just become an affiliate, already knows quite a bit about the Holy Family Sisters. A member of Christ the King Parish, she is a graduate of Nazareth Academy High School where she teaches Algebra II to sophomores and juniors. She also spent a few months living with Holy Family Sisters in a convent near Warsaw, Poland.

The idea of entering religious life was with her in a vague way for several years. A decision to seriously consider it began with a simple, non-threatening remark. “I don’t know if you are discerning, but we are having a retreat this week,” one of the faculty members, Sister Jeannette, said to her in December 2007. She went to the retreat, which was conducted by Sister Michele, and that set her on the path she is now following.

Why does she wish religious life? “To find a better way to give myself back to Jesus who has given me so much,” Gerlach said.

Most vowed religious are sisters and nuns. But men in religious orders and congregations are also vowed religious, and that doesn’t change if they become ordained priests. All Augustinians, for example, consider themselves to be friars, that is, brothers.

“To be an Augustinian means to be a brother in community. Some, or most of us, are called to the priesthood but it doesn’t end there,” said Father Kevin DePrinzio, Villanova-based vocations director for his order.

At this time he has two men who are in the pre-novitiate at Villanova, beginning a seven-year process. After a year they will go to Racine, Wis., for a year of novitiate. First vows are taken after novitiate, after which time the candidate is officially an Augustinian. Final vows may be taken about three years later. Meanwhile, studies continue toward the priesthood, for which most Augustinians strive.

Generally, men who come to the Augustinians already have their undergraduate degree. After that one year of novitiate, they will go on to four years of theology in Chicago, with a break for one year of active ministry between the third and fourth years. After completion of their theological studies they will be ordained priests. Most men who come to the Augustinians experienced the order while in high school, college or through a parish.

For example, Father DePrinzio, 32, was ordained in 2004. He was taught by Augustinians at Msgr. Bonner High School, and it was here he first seriously considered the priesthood. Even though he went on to St. Joseph’s University, rather than an Augustinian college, he returned to the order of his high school years when he decided upon the priesthood. The Augustinian emphasis on community appealed to him, and this is something that descends from St. Augustine himself.

“We try to emphasize that we are all on that restless journey to God,” Father DePrinzio said. “Augustine had that insight and for him it only makes sense when you bring this into community and share it.”

Rich Jasper was at Msgr. Bonner with Father DePrinzio, except Jasper, 34, was two years ahead of him. Earlier at St. Charles Borromeo School, Drexel Hill, an Immaculate Heart Sister had come right out and asked him if he was considering the priesthood. He was, but wasn’t sure. From Bonner he entered Cabrini College where he thought perhaps of a career as a television journalist. But after college he entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary where he stayed two years before deciding God wasn’t calling him to the diocesan priesthood.

He volunteered in the home missions for a year, taught middle school grades at St. Charles Borromeo School for six years and then another year at St. Mary Magdalen, Media, but he still felt drawn to deeper service for God. His path has taken him back to the Augustinians, where he is in his pre-novitiate year.

“First and foremost there is that sense of community. Also, Augustinians teach and I love teaching,” Jasper said. “I’m on a journey with my brothers to do God’s will. Looking back, I see the hand of God in everything I have done.” At this point, “I’m discerning both brotherhood and priesthood,” he said. “I’m leaning more toward being a brother.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.