Catholic Classroom: The Difference Between Nuns & Sisters
Question: What is the difference between a nun and a sister?
As we celebrate National Catholic Sisters Week, a common question about women religious comes to mind: What is the difference between a nun and a sister? Are they the same thing? In practice, many people use the terms “nun” and “sister” interchangeably. However, they do not actually mean the same thing. The main thing distinguishing a nun and a religious sister is whether she lives a contemplative life or an active or apostolic life.
In general, nuns are professed women religious who have taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and live contemplative lives of prayer and work. They usually live in a monastery that is cloistered, meaning that (except in special circumstances) no one is allowed in or out. Nuns center their lives around prayer, including the Mass, the Divine Office, meditation, and spiritual reading. They often perform manual labor to support their monasteries.
Religious sisters, on the other hand, live lives that are considered active or apostolic. While still devoted to prayer and bound by the same vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, sisters also have ministries that take them out into the world to serve God’s people. Their apostolates can include teaching, healthcare, social work, retreat work, and much more. Sisters can have varying levels of apostolic work, and some communities even consider themselves apostolic-contemplative.
An important thing to keep in mind when thinking about women religious is that there are many more differences than just nuns vs. sisters. There are countless communities of women religious all over the world, and each has a specific charism that guides their ministry. The options are endlessly diverse. Yet all women religious share something beautiful and important: they have consecrated their lives totally to God and become brides of Christ. You can learn more about the real lives of nuns and sisters by visiting our National Catholic Sisters Week playlist.