Hey, Father! Explain all these priest and religious terms

What is the difference between nuns and sisters; what is a convent, monastery, motherhouse, and friary; and what is the difference between brothers, friars, monks, and monsignors?

– Rachel in Springfield

Dear Rachel,

Your questions about the various expressions and living arrangements of men and women religious is a good one. We Catholics love our lingo and sometimes that lingo can be confusing until we learn what the various words in our Catholic lexicon mean. 

To begin our discussion, it is important to know that people who are called to enter religious life as nuns, sisters, brothers, friars, priests, etc. live a life that seeks to draw them closer to Jesus Christ and His people in and through their radical witness and service to the Church and to the world. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers us:

“The religious state is thus one way of experiencing a ‘more intimate’ consecration, rooted in Baptism and dedicated totally to God. In the consecrated life, Christ’s faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all and, pursuing the perfection of charity in the service of the Kingdom, to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come” (CCC 916). 

This “religious state,” more commonly referred to as “religious life,” is lived out in different and unique ways. These unique differences are an asset to religious life, and they exist to bring about the Kingdom here on earth through witness and service. 

For women, living life as either a nun or sister offers an opportunity for women to live out this “intimate consecration” as they seek to serve Christ and His Church. While certainly related, these are two very different expressions of religious life. In common parlance, we often use the term “Nun” as a sort of umbrella term for all women who are called to religious life, however, this is not accurate. Nuns are women who choose to retreat from the world, join a religious order, live together in a cloistered setting, and devote their lives to praying for the Church and the world. A good example of nuns for us in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois would be the Dominican Nuns of the Monastery of Mary the Queen in Girard. 

Sisters on the other hand are women who choose to join a religious order, live and pray in community, and devote their lives to serving the Church through various charisms and apostolates in the world. Historically, sisters have worked as nurses, doctors, teachers, university administrators, in parish leadership roles, and in various ministries to the poor, to name just a few. Some good examples of sisters for us in our diocese are the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George in Alton, and the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis in Springfield. Depending on the religious order, nuns and sisters live in community in convents, monasteries, or motherhouses. A motherhouse is the homebase or “headquarters” for a religious order of women. A convent is a home for religious sisters to live in community and is like a branch campus or satellite of the motherhouse. A monastery is a place where women who have entered a monastic order live, pray, and work.

For men, living life as a brother, friar, or monk offers an opportunity for men to live out the same “intimate consecration” as they seek to serve Christ and His Church. Brothers live lives which are very similar to sisters. Brothers are men who choose to join a religious order, live, and pray in a community and devote their lives to serving the Church through various charisms and apostolates in the world. Historically, brothers have worked as teachers, in various forms of health care, in homes for people with intellectual disabilities, and other diverse ministries. In our diocese, the Franciscan Brothers of the Holy Cross offer us a beautiful example of this way of life. 

Monks and friars then are men who join particular types of religious orders.

Monks are men who live in monasteries, follow the monastic way of life, according to a particular rule or set of guidelines, by which they live in common. Typically, monks, like nuns, live a cloistered life in a monastery, though some do undertake work in the world. Historically, monastic communities have primarily served the Church through the example of their contemplative prayer, though they also operate schools, seminaries, and universities.  While we do not have any monasteries in our diocese, monks can be found to the north of us at St. Bede’s Abbey in Peru, IL; to the south of us at St. Louis Abbey in St. Louis; and to the east of us at St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, IN.  

Friars are men who join what’s called a “mendicant order.” Unlike a monastic order, a mendicant order serves in active ministries in the world, moving from place to place, embracing a life of poverty and spreading the Gospel through evangelization. Here in our diocese, we are blessed with the presence of Franciscan and Dominican Friars in a number of our parishes, hospitals, and schools. In terms of where these various male religious live, monks live in monasteries and friars live in friaries. 

Finally, a Monsignor is simply an honorific title that the Pope bestows upon a diocesan priest in recognition of his years of faithful service to a particular Church, service to the Church in some extra-ordinary way, or because of a position of leadership. We are blessed with the presence of eight Monsignori among our diocesan presbyterate.

In their own unique way, nuns, sisters, brothers, monks, friars, and monsignori (oh my!), contribute to the building up of the Kingdom through their witness and service. Their way of life furnishes for us an example of Christ’s merciful love for all of us as they “signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come.”

Father Zachary D. Samples is parochial vicar of St. Peter Parish in Quincy and is associate chaplain at Quincy Notre Dame High School