Thinking about religious life?

Avow discernment program aids young women considering a vocation

By Gabrielle Nolan

A new discernment opportunity is available to young women of the diocese who are interested in learning more about a vocation to religious life.

“It’s a women’s discernment program that is put out through Vianney Vocations to help young women walk through a series of 14 small-group experiences that help them discern if the religious life is something for them,” said Beth Parsons, who is the diocesan vocations office manager and facilitator for the Avow discernment program.

The program was created by Mother Clare Matthiass of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal and Vianney Vocations.

According to its website, Vianney Vocations is a “team of communications experts, committed to Jesus and His Church, who help vocation offices to effectively reach young Catholics and inspire them to open their hearts to God’s call.”

The mission of Vianney Vocations is to “renew the Church by inspiring a new generation of priestly and religious vocations.”

Mother Clare Matthiass wrote a book titled Discerning Religious Life, which is the basis for all Avow group meetings.

“Each week there’s a list of questions that we focus on that helps them dive deeper for their discernment, and then we read a section of the book,” Mrs. Parsons explained. “There are 14 weeks in the program, and it kind of gets deeper as small-group studies do. Like when you start out, it’s how do you feel about this? And as it gets deeper, it’s what would your parents say if you told them you were discerning religious life? What scares you the most about discerning religious life?”

Beth Parsons

“I just think this is a great opportunity for young women to meet in community together and be able to support each other together and have the opportunity to sit with Sisters. They have picked their brains on everything from how often can you visit your family to do you get to eat the kind of food you want to eat? Those are questions that people want to know. It’s been a great opportunity and I hope helpful for them as well,” Mrs. Parsons said.

The group meets twice a month, with one of those visits taking place at the Knoxville convent of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich.

“The Sisters invite the young ladies to come for their holy hour, and we have dinner with them, and then we do the small group with two Sisters. But they get to be in communication with all the Sisters who are there; it’s a great opportunity for them to see what religious life is like and just fun to hang out and talk to them,” Mrs. Parsons noted.

Sister Joan Miriam Nelson, RSM, has been with the group since it began in August 2022.

“What is special about Avow, which makes it different from other discussion groups or Bible studies, is the focus is discernment and each woman’s individual discernment journey,” Sister Joan Miriam said. “It is a safe place where women can honestly look at what God is inviting them to.”

Sister Joan Miriam’s own discernment journey began in high school after confirmation.

“I wanted to be a ‘good’ Catholic and live out my faith, which I understood to include being open to religious life. Fast forward several years. It was after I graduated from Oklahoma State University when religious life popped back up. Somewhat ironically, and humorously, I was dating at the time. God used that relationship to help me realize what I truly wanted and what He had made me for. Once it became clear that God wanted me to look into religious life, I broke up with my boyfriend and looked into religious communities,” she said.

For young women who are thinking about religious life, Sister Joan Miriam’s advice is to “pray and then act.”

“Discernment needs to have an element that is concrete. If a woman thinks she has a call to religious life, the next step is reaching out to a community. It is similar if a woman believes she is called to married life—she has to date a man whom she could marry,” she said. “Part of the Avow format is prayer, reflection, and then taking concrete steps.”

Allie Leavitt, a Diocese of Knoxville parishioner at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, joined the Avow group at the invitation of a friend.

“I thought it would be a great way to become more involved with the diocese. I always loved seeing the Sisters at Mass and was excited at the opportunity to get to know them better,” she shared. “Getting to know the Religious Sisters of Mercy has been such a gift! It was amazing hearing their own vocation stories as well as how they are living out their vocations in our diocese.”

Ms. Leavitt said Avow has been an incredible experience, and she would recommend the program “to any woman who is discerning her vocation.”

“It provided me and other young women a space to simply share life and ask deeper questions about what God may be calling us to do. I also loved eating dinner together and all of the laughs and good conversations,” she said. “It is a great opportunity to learn more about all of the types of vocations and ask any questions you may have about it while also growing in friendship with the Sisters and other young women. Avow is such a special opportunity, and I am so grateful for the experience. The intentional conversations and friendships formed will stay with me for a lifetime.”

Mrs. Parsons believes Avow’s focus on religious life is special.

“I feel there’s a big need to help young people to even think about discernment of anything, discernment of their vocation,” she said. “This program specifically is about discernment of religious life. We certainly aren’t forcing anybody to take the program or to commit at the end of the program, but it is a good series of steps and looking inward at how their lives would be if they had chosen to become religious Sisters.”

“It’s been very eye-opening to me,” Mrs. Parsons continued. “I’ve led a lot of small-group studies over the years; this has been very interesting to me to hear the Sisters share their stories and share about specific things about discernment that have helped them back when they first started discerning. I thought my role was going to be more of a facilitator, but it’s honestly been a learning experience for me, too, just to be with the Sisters…. I’m just grateful for the Sisters of Mercy for being a part of it.”

A new Avow group will begin in the fall. For more information on the Avow program, contact Mrs. Parsons at

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