Some diocesan websites list vocations committees and they have separate committees for those discerning the priesthood, and religious life (in my diocese they have separate ones for men and women). What exactly do they do?
First of all the Sacrament of Holy Orders is a very different calling from the religious life. The Sacrament of Holy Orders include deacons, priests and bishops. But they are no consecrated men. They can be, if they choose to be religious as well.
The religious vocation is a call to the consecrated life. Religious can be either men or women. In most religious communities of men there are religious who are allowed to be ordained permanent deacons or priests, but not every religious community of men allows this. Some religious communities of men limit the number of men that they allow to be ordained, because the community does not need priests for the work that they do. They only need a few to take care of the needs of the community. Some religious communities of men do not allow any of their members to be ordained.
A vocations committee in a diocese is made up of secular priests, male religious and women religious. Their job is to help people discern where they belong. Then they point them in the right direction. If they feel that you would be a good deacon, they would point you toward the diaconate formation program. If they feel that you would be a good priest, but not a good religious, they point you toward the priesthood in a secular seminary. If they feel that you would be a good religious, then point you toward a religious community. If they fell that you would be a good religious and a good priest, they would point you toward a religious community that has priests.
In the end, it is either the diocesna bishop or the major religious superior who decide whether you have a vocation. It’s not your decisioin to make alone. You make it with their guidance.
No one can be ordained without the permission of the bishop, if you’re a secular seminarian. If you’re a religious, you must first make perpetual vows. Only the superior can give you permission to make vows. After you have made perpetual vows and you are now a member of the religious community for life, then you may ask for Holy Orders. It is the major superior, not the bishop, who discerns with you whether you have a calling to Holy Orders. His voice is final. It cannot be appealed. If he decides that you do not have a call to Holy Orders, you remain a religious until death, but never a priest. If he decides that you do have a call to the priesthood, he presents you to a bishop for ordiantion, since most major superiors are not bishops. The bishop cannot turn you down, unless he knows of some canonical impediment that your superior does not know. Otherwise, the bishop must ordain you, because it is the will of the major superior through whom Christ is speaking.
There are also different forms of religious life: hermits, monks, friars, apostolic religious, secular orders, secular institutes.
There are secular priests who belong to a diocese and secular priests who belong to a priestly society.
The role of the vocations committee is to help you find where you belong, in this grand scheme.
Br. JR, OSF
So for a woman discerning religious life, would she need to go to the vocations committee first or could she approach an order directly, since the decision lies with the superior?
There is no need to contact the diocese in such a case.
I did not do so.
As a man I would caution all men from contacting the diocese and giving much weight to what the vocations committee says if you feel a draw to religious life.
I spoke with the vocations director for my diocese the day before I was leaving for the pre-novitiate and he got upset stating that I should stay in the diocese as they need priests.
I don't think it's necessary to contact a vocations committee in the diocese.. just contact the order directly :) however the vocations director of my diocese is also my spiritual director, and that can really help, if you have a good vocations director.
No one has to contact the Vocations Committee of a diocese. If truth be told, they have no jurisdiction. They cannot admit people to the seminary of the diocese. Only the Diocesan Vocation Director can present you to the Admissions Team. That’s one person on the committee. You can contact him directly.
Vocations committees can point you in the direction of an institute, religious or secular, but you can go directly to the institute without them. In the end, the Vocation Director of the institute is the person who presents your request for admission to their Admissions Team or to their Formation Team. In some communities the decision to admit is made by an Admissions Team and in others it’s made by the Formation Team. Sometimes it’s made by one person delegated by the superior to do this.
Br. JR, OSF
Ok, thank you.
A vocations committee has just as much power as the bishop wants it to have. Some vocation committees have great power. In those cases the vocation director is just a member of the committee and the committee is the one who recommends to the bishop how to handle each and every candidate applying to the diocese.