Steps and stages of the formation process for women religious

"Formation" refers to the process of discernment women follow before making a lifetime commitment to a particular religious community. While the length of the steps vary and are shaped by each community's distinct tradition, the process of discerning a call both to religious life and a particular community is similar.

The process can take a decade or more. Certain stages have canonical requirements, meaning they are subject to church law, but communities have some discretion about the length of the discernment process.

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

Candidacy or postulancy

Before a woman officially enters a community, she and its 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 could take six months or several years. The candidate/postulant lives in community for at least part of this stage.


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

The canonical novitiate is a year 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. These 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, the sisters do not profess perpetual vows, but renew them every year.)

Learn more from these 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