Steps and stages of the formation process for women religious

The word "formation" refers to the stages of discernment as women advance toward making a lifetime commitment to a particular religious community. While the length of the steps vary and are shaped by the distinct tradition, the process of discerning a call both to religious life and a particular community is similar.

The entire process can take as long as a decade or more, involving both the woman and the community. There are canonical requirements regarding certain stages, but communities have some discretion about the length of the discernment process.

Words used to describe the first stages of formation may vary.

Candidacy or postulancy

Prior to officially entering, the woman and community members get to know each other. Some communities call this stage "candidacy" while others use that term for the first stage after formal entrance.

When a woman formally enters the community, she is usually called a postulant or candidate. This stage may take six months to several years. During at last part of this time, the candidate/postulant lives in community.


When a woman enters the novitiate, she is known as a novice and is called "Sister."

The canonical novitiate is a year especially dedicated to prayer, exploring the meaning of the vows and delving more deeply into religious life and the charism (unique spirit or character) of the community.

Some communities add an additional year to the novitiate during which the sister engages in ministry.

Temporary vows

At the conclusion of this time of prayer, study and community life, the novice professes temporary vows, commonly called first vows, which are canonically binding for a particular length of time, often ranging from one to three years. During this time, the sisters engage in ministry and live in community. At the end of this period, the vows can be renewed.

Perpetual vows

Perpetual vows, commonly called final vows, are professed anytime three to nine years after temporary vows. The time may vary according to the tradition of the community. Perpetual vows are professed for life. (In the case of the Daughters of Charity, a society of apostolic life featured in this series, the sisters do not profess perpetual vows, but renew them every year.)

Learn more: For National Catholic Sisters Week 2016, GSR presents three profiles of four women in formation in the U.S.,
on four different paths to becoming sisters:

Ana Gonzalez: An embrace of the unknown leads to discernment as a Dominican
Srs. Julia Elena Abdala and Shirley Arce: After years of searching, a warm welcome with Benedictines
Sr. Elizabeth Sjoberg: Joy and purpose lead to the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul