Over the past few months, I’ve received a number of questions or areas of interest that mid-lifers or those with more life experience have asked with regard to discerning religious life. One of the most frequently raised is the question of the requirements that most religious communities have, especially age limit and good health. Nowadays, many communities have shifted their age requirements. Vision Vocation Network has done a good job of gathering a helpful list of communities that accept candidates who are are older. (In general, contemplative communities are often more flexible about age requirements.) The same webpage also offers a few suggestions for people who have disabilities who feel called to religious life.
Actually, all vocations have requirements, especially when it comes to specifics. Potential spouses have certain requirements for marriage to each other. Diocesan seminaries are governed by Church law. What’s important to remember is that our vocation is a gift that comes from God. No one has a “right” to a particular vocation—because it is God who grants us our vocation as pure and gratuitous gift.
Every religious community or institute has a number of requirements contained in its rule of life—a rule approved by the Church. For example, most communities require good health because they have a demanding lifestyle and mission that require it. But other qualities are just as important in discerning whether someone might be happy in a particular community; however, these are less obvious and take more time to discern. These qualities might include: the desire and ability to grow spiritually; a character that is open, generous, sincere, willing to learn, and flexible; the ability to collaborate with others; a desire to serve; sociability; the desire and ability to live as a member of a community; sufficient maturity and self-awareness. There are many good reasons for setting specific requirements for a particular community—the unique way that the institute carries out its mission and life together requires certain qualities for the individual to be happy and for the community to thrive. A religious community usually knows best what a new member needs in order to be able to fully live and happily embrace their new life and mission. Most religious communities keep their requirements to the minimum—the absolutely necessary—because they are eager to share their life and charism with new members.
Requirements don’t always seem fair, and in rare instances where a candidate lacks one requirement and both the individual feels deeply called and the community sees extraordinary potential for a good “fit” with their community, vocation directors and superiors will consider, consult, and pray if an individual’s situation or case could justify making an exception. (In some cases, such an exception can be granted only by the Holy See.)
But ordinarily if a person lacks something that is seen as necessary by the community for new members, this is usually a genuine indication of God’s will—that God is calling the person elsewhere. Discovering that God isn’t calling us in a particular way may be disappointing at first, but in truth it’s a step forward in our discernment. As various paths are eliminated, God’s path for us becomes clear. God uses human limitations—even something that seems arbitrary—to direct us towards his will for us: what is best for us, where we will thrive.
Discerning God’s will in the concrete circumstances and limitations of our lives is not easy. It requires a deep spirit of faith and prayer. Opening ourselves to seeking God’s will makes us vulnerable to hurt and disappointment. But no matter where our discernment leads us, no matter how hurt, disappointed, or confused we become, we want to cling to God through the ups and downs of our discernment journey; to allow the “bumps in the road” that we experience to purify and free our hearts so that our desire to do God’s will grows ever greater in us.