Being a Cistercian – FAQs (2)

See the previous FAQs post here.

In this article we want to spend a little time looking at one particular frequently asked question:

What’s the difference between being a monk, a priest, or a friar?

To start with, it’s important to call to mind that key text in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:

“There is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit; there are all sorts of service to be done, but always the same Lord; working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them.  The particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose….  All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, who distributes different gifts to different people just as he chooses”. (I Corinthians 12:4-11)

This single text deserves to be revisited again and again, both as encouragement to discern our gifts and our vocation, and as a reminder of the richness with which God invests his Church.  And when we read this text closely, as a lectio divina – in other words, listening from the heart to what Christ says to us – it’s clear that the great variety of gifts given have their origin in God, and in the work of the Holy Spirit, not in us.  The gifts (charismaton) are given specifically for service (diakonion), which is to be exercised for the Church and ultimately for the one Lord and God (Kurios and Theos): the exercise of the gifts given is to be of profit to the Church.  There is, therefore, a radical unity in the Spirit and an unbelievable diversity for the sake of the building up of the Church.

So, it should come as no surprise that the Church continues to identify and approve a growth in religious orders and institutes and congregations.  They exist, in the first instance, for the good of the Church and her members, and thereafter for the good and service of all humankind.  But, of course, each of these roles and ways of life is set within the context of personal vocational discernment – in what way is God calling me to live out my fundamental baptismal vocation as his son or daughter.

Religious congregations and institutes usually arise from the discernment of a need to be met or answered among the People of God.  That need, evident over time, is answered by what is sometimes called a founding charism – the particular gift which defines a service and the birth of a new congregation.  It is always predicated, in the first place, on the demand to live the Gospel and give witness to Jesus Christ in the world: this is why the Holy Spirit was given to the early Church at Pentecost.  But life is complex, multiform and always finding new ways to express itself.  And likewise, the Church discerns that her response of service must be complex, multiform and diversely expressive.

So, to the question.  Friars, monks and priests, essentially, occupy different spaces within the broad field of the Church’s life, in the service which she knows must be offered.  This isn’t to say, of course, that there are not commonalities – remember that fundamental unity which expresses the Church’s communion.

A brief word needs to be said about terminology. While each of these terms has a long and equally complex working out we can say something generally about each. The term “monk” seems to come from the Greek monachos, which came into Latin as monachus. It seems, originally, to have indicated one who was alone, or single, and strictly in the celibate sense – one who lived a life without a spouse. Only later did the term take on a meaning which indicated a particular way of life associated either with monastery living or indeed, with the anchoritic or eremitical life – literally, living alone in that sense.

The term “friar” is probably most easily explained, coming from the latin term frater, meaning “brother” (probably through the French, frère) The term “brother” was already the acceptable way of indicating those who belonged to The Way, disciples of Christ in the post-Pentecost community, and it is well attested in Acts of the Apostles, both indicating them and as a means of address.

The term “priest” is altogether more tricky, since it is the most modern of the terms, and doesn’t correspond to the ancient terms in Scripture. However, from the Old Testament, with the institution of the Aaronic and Levitical priesthood in the Torah, through to the New Testament and the new priesthood made perfect in Christ the Priest, and central to the Letter to the Hebrews and to the closing chapters of Revelation (although identified with the Lamb who is both sacrifice and altar), the priest is the one whose role is above all cultic, leading the formal worship which God’s people must give to him. The priest is the one, then, who stands between the people and God, making the sacrifices which are the heart of the cult and the worship. In the New Testament sense and in the sacramental development of the ordained priesthood, personal conformity to Christ is central for the one who is priest.


Monks answer the call to witness, first and foremost, to a radical and complete separation from the world so that their entire focus can be on prayer and the encounter with God.  Sometimes we can speak of the privilege which the Church gives to monks and nuns who follow the monastic contemplative path: she asks nothing more of us than that we give ourselves complete to a life of prayer and witness to God’s abiding and uninterrupted presence among us.  Frequently the image of the three apostles being witness to the Transfiguration event is used to communicate that reality: the Transfiguration is at once encounter with the glorified Christ, momentary fulfillment of the deep desire to see God as he is and know him, and the reminder that this happens in the world and in time, and so is coterminous with this earthly life ( you might wish to refer to Vita Consecrata (March 25, 1996) | John Paul II for a very thorough examination of the reality of consecrated life in the Church).  It is a life of radical renunciation, and also radical freedom: that freedom which Christ exercised perfectly in obeying the will of the Father, as the Word made flesh, to accept death on the Cross.  

Obviously, to answer this call, the necessary structure and way of life which we try to follow in monasteries has to be a given.  Thus, rules like The Rule of St Benedict become pivotal: they embody a vision of monastic life which is discerned and evangelical, and they provide the structures – definite but flexible – to allow this vision to become concrete in the lives of those who answer this call.

Friars, on the other hand, have a different locus of activity. Each group of friars – traditionally, they are identified with Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and Carmelites – is identified by a particular charism and characteristic which undoubtedly gives a readily recognisable flavour to their life and ministry.  All of the friars are marked by the character given by the evangelical counsels – poverty, chastity, and obedience – although each may spread the emphasis a little differently.  And above all they are not bound to the cloistered life of the monastery, but exercise a mission “in the world”.  

The Franciscans, for example, are marked in all they do and are by the radical poverty and simplicity which characterised the Little Poor Man of Assisi, St Francis, in his conversion and life afterwards.  That poverty, for a Franciscan, is defining – it signals total dependency on Christ and on God’s Providence.  But the friars in general are marked by this – they were all distinguished in some way by the practice of the Quest, in which certain brothers were sent out to beg their food for the community’s sustenance.  

The Dominicans, on the other hand, take only the vow of obedience at their profession, and this is seen as encompassing the other evangelical vows.  In particular they are marked by St Dominic’s desire to preach the truth of the Gospel, challenging all those false gospels which misrepresent and lead Christ’s flock astray.

The Carmelites tend toward a more mystical spirituality, grounded in three aspects: community, service and contemplation.  Theirs is a charism which brings the mystical life of encounter with God into the public domain and sees it translated into a living apostolate in the world.

But we must be careful to note that the religious orders and institutes embrace ways of life for both women and men.  In this sense, there exists a deep and rich breadth to religious life: prayer, community, service and apostolate are not the preserve of one gender men and women share, in different ways, in the spread of the one Gospel and in witnessing to the one Christ.

Each of the fraternal orders above values life in community.  It is a place which cannot be done without: a place of encouragement; of challenge; of comfort; of common prayer; of learning how to pray alone; of discussion, dialogue and discernment; a place where we reach out to God’s presence, and yet hope to grow in the presence of brothers and sisters as a flesh and blood person.  Community in this Gospel sense is at one and the same time encounter with the divine and encounter with the world. It is a space which lives cheek and jowl with the secular society and yet is able to maintain its distance, for the sake of the Gospel and God’s unique call to witness and testimony. 

In valuing community, to a greater or lesser degree, each religious congregation of friars and sisters has an element of withdrawal and contemplation.  St Dominic, for example, desired and intended that Doiminican friars return to their convent for the common Office, and lead a common life which had a flavour of monastic existence.  And many of the expressions of these friar charisms which we see in each family have evolved so that the sisters in particular have the possibility of enclosed contemplative life, often centred on adoration of the Blessed Sacrament: the Franciscan charism is equally lived in the Poor Clares, who look to both Francis and Clare of Assisi for their inspiration and guide in their strict contemplative life; Carmelite nuns have a very special life of asceticism, mysticism and contemplation rooted in the extraordinary teaching of Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross; and cloistered Dominican nuns, while striving for that witness to Truth shared with their friar brothers, do so in the silence of their enclosure, with adoration, community and common prayer central also.

So, where does priesthood with fit in all of this?

In the first place, priesthood is one of the sacred orders – along with the episcopate and diaconate – conferred by ordination, and is sacramental.  This makes it immediately different to the consecrated life, which is a vocation confirmed by the taking of vows or the making of promises, which may be either solemn and perpetual, or simple and temporary, with the latter requiring periodic renewal. 

The priestly ministry is not, of course, merely functional, and must always be seen in the context of a real and essential conforming of the one who receives to Christ, Priest, Prophet and King.  The document which deals with the Priesthood issued by the Second Vatican Council begins with a summary of the nature of the priestly office:

“In the measure in which they participate in the office of the apostles, God gives priests a special grace to be ministers of Christ among the people. They perform the sacred duty of preaching the Gospel, so that the offering of the people can be made acceptable and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Through the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel, the People of God are called together and assembled. All belonging to this people, since they have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, can offer themselves as “a sacrifice, living, holy, pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1). Through the ministry of the priests, the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful is made perfect in union with the sacrifice of Christ. He is the only mediator who in the name of the whole Church is offered sacramentally in the Eucharist and in an unbloody manner until the Lord himself comes. The ministry of priests is directed to this goal and is perfected in it. Their ministry, which begins with the evangelical proclamation, derives its power and force from the sacrifice of Christ. Its aim is that “the entire commonwealth of the redeemed and the society of the saints be offered to God through the High Priest who offered himself also for us in his passion that we might be the body of so great a Head.”

The purpose, therefore, which priests pursue in their ministry and by their life is to procure the glory of God the Father in Christ. That glory consists in this-that men working freely and with a grateful spirit receive the work of God made perfect in Christ and then manifest it in their whole lives. Hence, priests, while engaging in prayer and adoration, or preaching the word, or offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice and administering the other sacraments, or performing other works of the ministry for men, devote all this energy to the increase of the glory of God and to man’s progress in the divine life. All of this, since it comes from the Pasch of Christ, will be crowned by the glorious coming of the same Lord, when he hands over the Kingdom to God the Father.”  (Presbyterorum ordinis 2)

It’s perfectly clear from this passage that the natural sphere of operation and ministry for a priest will be in the secular world.  For the most part we are familiar with those priests whom we call “diocesan” who, ordained for service to a particular part of the People of God gathered in the territory of a diocese, and usually under the leadership of a bishop, we meet in everyday circumstances like parish, hospital, schools and other special ministries.  In addition to this, many religious institutes are also clerical institutes – in other words, their members will enter in order to participate in the work of the institute’s charism as this is joined to the priestly ministry.  In these cases men identify with a particular charismatic gift which identifies more particularly the character and outlook of the founder and the work of the institute’s mission – for example, Redemptorists, Salesians or Vincentians.  For many of these institutes it will be understood that priestly ordination will be part of a man’s life, in addition to his profession of the evangelical counsels.  Priestly ministry in these cases is very much linked to the work which the mission must carry out among the People of God in society, at home and overseas, and serves to advance that mission, through service, preaching and the celebration of the sacramental life.  That said, these institutes also continue to provide the possibility that men may enter to embrace the lay brother vocation, which identifies with the religious vows specifically.  But all consecrated men and women should see themselves identified and formed in the first place by the desire to live out their vows, achieved in and facilitated by the charismatic context of their religious institute.  It is this which distinguishes them, and not the exercise of a priestly ministry.  

But the situation is very different for monastic men.  For them the overriding point of entry is the desire to live the monastic life, principally – if it is under the Rule of St Benedict – through the vows of obedience, stability in community and conversion of life.  With regards to the priesthood, St Benedict is actually quite specific and prescriptive:

“If any ordained priest should ask to be received into the monastery, do not agree too quickly….  He must recognise that he will have to observe to full discipline of the rule, without any mitigation” (RB60)

“Any abbot who asks to have a priest or deacon ordained should choose from his monks one worthy to exercise the priesthood.  The monk so ordained must be on guard against conceit or pride, must not presume to do anything except what the abbot commands him, and must recognise that now he will have to subject himself all the more to the discipline of the rule.” (RB 62)

It’s not that St Benedict wishes to be harder on priests than on those who are not ordained, but he wishes to make it clear that the primary vocation for those who come to the monastery is the monastic conversion and life in community, under an abbot.  There is a sense in the Rule that priests are to be ordained as the community has need of them – that it to say, in so far as the sacramental life of the community must be guaranteed, authoritative preaching can be assured, and the specific consecration which comes with the ministry of priesthood can have space as part of the community life.  But there is no expectation in the Rule that monks should be ordained to the priesthood.  Indeed, if a man were to come seeking entry today, and his first motivation was for ordination rather than monastic life, further discernment would be required on his part and on the part of those guiding him.  One enters a monastery to become a monk, and thus to express one’s baptismal vocation.

Perhaps we have lost, since the period after the Council, the distinction between the life of the lay brother in the monastery and the life of the choir monk.  Previously, the lay brother carried the bulk of manual work around the monastery and farms, while the choir monks had the principal task of singing the Divine Office (Opus Dei, or Work of God) in choir at set times each day.  This was not to say, of course, that the choir monks didn’t work, inside and out – they did.  Nor is it to say that the lay brothers did not pray – they most certainly did, both together and privately, and often more fervently and with greater devotion than the choir.  It was simply that the one monastic life made room for both ways of living.  The vocation was broad enough to embrace all comers.  In losing the essence of the fundamental call to monastic life, rooted in the vows, perhaps we have lost ground in our call to new vocations.

We should note that Benedict emphasizes a point which applies right across the vocational board: ordination to sacramental ministry does not depend on the notion that a candidate thinks he should be ordained.  It is founded very much on the discerning opinion of others, and principally those who are concerned with a man’s formation, and those who will discern his ministry.  While a man can never be left outside that discernment – God, after all, is calling him! – that complex of persons involved, sensing the Holy Spirit calling out to the vineyard worker, is paramount.  Above all, priesthood is given as a gift to a community to answer a community’s needs, not as reward or privilegeOn the contrary, it brings with it and should bring with it a very humbling conformity to Christ which will ensure, and should ensure, a very particular participation in Christ’s Passion and Cross.

In the end, then, in the context of consecrated life in religious institutes, priesthood is given as a means to help fulfil the charism of the institute and opening the way to holiness for those whom an institute brings the Gospel in mission.  It will receive different emphasis depending on the nature of the institute – religious or monastic, apostolic or contemplative – but ultimately must witness to the Christ characters of service, teaching and sanctifying.


-Part of our series on the subject of Vocation-


Other posts…

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