|Dominican Sister Marie Bernadette Thompson, council coordinator for the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, discusses initiatives focused on bringing together men and women religious and families, particularly young adults, during an Oct. 1 press conference in Washington. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn
As the worldwide Catholic Church celebrates the Year of Consecrated Life in 2015, the lay faithful are encouraged to learn more about what it means to live a consecrated life, while those already committed to a consecrated life are called to reflect more deeply on their role in the Church and the world today.
“Pope Francis has called for this Year of Consecrated Life to ‘wake up the world’ and share the power of the Gospel through the witness of the lives of our consecrated brothers and sisters,” said Sister Marie Bernadette Thompson, O.P., a member of Nashville-based Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia congregation, and council coordinator of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR).
“This year dedicated to consecrated life draws our attention to men and women religious, whose very call it is to be a sign of unity, joy and hope in the midst of a world, torn by darkness and division, to be a sign of the kingdom of God which begins here and now,” she said.
Member of the three major religious leadership conferences in the United States, the CMSWR, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) are all observing the Year of Consecrated Life in various ways, through open houses, service days, and more. “This year has already seen an incredible outpouring of love, time, and talent by religious sisters and brothers all over the country, providing creative avenues for dialogue among religious, study of the religious life, and ways to teach and show families this vocation,” said Sister Marie Bernadette.
|Father Tomy Joseph, M.S.F.S., pastor of St. Joseph Church in Madison, and advisor to the Provincial Superior of the American Vice-Province of the Missioners of St. Francis de Sales, said that way of life for his order is one devoted to serving foreign parish missions and educating youth. Tennessee Register file photo by Andy Telli
The Year of Consecrated Life, said Father Tomy Joseph, MSFS, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Madison, is a time to “keep a constant reminder that we are people called, commissioned and committed to a particular way of life.” Father Tomy, advisor to the Provincial Superior of the American Vice-Province of the Missioners of St. Francis de Sales, said that way of life for his order is one devoted to serving foreign parish missions and educating youth.
Vows and commitment
“Our mission today is to extend Christ’s compassion to those in need” wherever they are, just as it was when Mother Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831, said Sister Suzanne Stalm, RSM, who will celebrate her Golden Jubilee as a Sister of Mercy later this year.
A former teacher at St. Bernard Academy high school and pastoral associate at St. Henry Church, Sister Suzanne is now coordinator of the Spirituality Ministry at the Mercy Convent in Nashville, assisting with spiritual direction and coordinating logistics for those making retreats at the Sisters’ retirement home.
|Sister Suzanne Stalm, RSM, center, consults with Sister Beth Higgins, community life coordinator of Mercy Convent, and Greg McGill, retirement convent administrator. After nearly 50 years as a Sister of Mercy, Sister Suzanne has seen the roles of women in her order expand to meet the needs of people in the community, but the vows to live in a state of poverty, chastity and obedience remain the same. Photo by Nevin Batiwalla
The Sisters of Mercy, members of the LCWR, are called to follow in the footsteps of Mother McAuley, to offer hospitality and “be among the people” as teachers, nurses, lawyers, prison ministers and more, said Sister Suzanne. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Sisters’ opportunities to serve have greatly expanded, but, she said, “the vows are the same.”
The act of making a public profession of vows to uphold the “evangelical counsels” of poverty, chastity and obedience is what characterizes a life consecrated to God, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“A woman religious freely gives her life to Jesus Christ, and vows chastity for the sake of loving God first and foremost,” said Sister Marie Bernadette. “In this way we understand a sister as the bride of Christ. As His bride, I am vowed to a life of prayer and service to His people,” she continued. “I am given to the Church, and the Church to me. Our sisters live the expression of poverty through the community life, holding all things in common and serving in a common apostolate of education.”
Some consecrated religious orders provide direct ministry to people, like the Dominicans and Sisters of Mercy do; others remove themselves from the world and live a purely contemplative life, like the Trappist Monks at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.
While members of consecrated life have different charisms, “what they all have in common in some way is a commitment to the evangelical counsels,” explained Father Shawn McKnight, executive director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The diverse forms of consecrated life fall into four basic categories, as outlined in the Catechism, and include: Hermits, Consecrated Virgins, members of Secular Institutes, and, most commonly, members of Religious Orders.
“We are all consecrated in our baptism to follow Jesus,” Father McKnight noted, but those in a state of consecrated life have a “special commitment that we recognize as being distinct from the rest of us,” marked by public vows, setting themselves aside exclusively for God.
In addition to the Dominican Sisters and Sisters of Mercy, consecrated women religious living in the Diocese of Nashville today include members of the School Sisters of St. Francis and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart Congregation from Mexico. Men’s religious orders present in the diocese today include the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate and the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, which in recent years have sent a number of Indian priests to serve in Middle Tennessee. There are also a handful of Franciscan, Jesuit, Glenmary and Salvatorian priests serving here.
During the Year of Consecrated Life, Father Tomy said, all members of his order in the United States will be making a retreat, including the four Fransalian priests serving the Diocese of Nashville, himself, Father Luckas Arulappa, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Loretto; Father Davis Chackaleckel, pastor of St. Catherine Church in Columbia, and Father Jacob Dio, pastor of St. Luke Church in Smyrna.
Additionally, Fransalian priests, as members of his order are commonly called, will be making a renewed effort within their own parishes to “give different talks based on our religious way of life and try to educate people about our founder, St. Francis de Sales.”
A counter-cultural way of life
Living a consecrated life today is “counter-cultural to a lot of what is deemed as a success,” said Sister Suzanne. Living simply, “focused primarily on a personal relationship with God” is not what most people in the wider culture strive for, but it’s something that still holds great value to her and her fellow sisters, even after so many decades. “The focus in my life now is on being aware of God’s constant gifts and being very conscious of a sense of gratitude.”
Many religious men and women who live a consecrated life balance their contemplative and apostolic commitments. “Dominican life shares the fruits of our contemplation of God with the world, and draws people along with us toward heaven,” said Sister Marie Bernadette. “In this way, we hope to ‘build up the Church until we are transformed into his image.’"
What is the Year of Consecrated Life?
Pope Francis proclaimed 2015 a Year of Consecrated Life to “wake up the world” to the role that those living a consecrated life play in the church.
It started on the First Sunday of Advent in 2014 and ends on Feb. 2, 2016, the World Day of Consecrated Life.
The year marks the 50th anniversary of “Perfectae Caritatis,” a decree on religious life, and “Lumen Gentium,” the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church. Its purpose, as stated by the Vatican, is to “make a grateful remembrance of the recent past” while “embracing the future with hope.”
This holy year “can be an opportunity for the faithful to focus in appreciation, study and prayer for a particular vocation in the Church,” said Sister Marie Bernadette Thompson, O.P., a member of Nashville-based Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia congregation and the council coordinator for the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. It is also “a chance for religious to deepen their commitment and faithfulness to this beautiful vocation, and for others to come to a new awareness of the gift of Consecrated Life in the Church.”
As Catholics around the world celebrate the Year of Consecrated Life, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations is promoting initiatives and resources to help families learn about the consecrated life of religious men and women. Activities will focus on sharing experiences of prayer, service and community life with those living a consecrated life.
“Our brothers and sisters in Christ living consecrated lives make great contributions to our society through a vast number of ministries,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of USCCB. “They teach in our schools, take care of the poor and the sick and bring compassion and the love of Christ to those shunned by society; others lead lives of prayer in contemplation for the world.”
Catholics are invited to join activities that will be promoted in collaboration with the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. Upcoming events include days of service with religious in the summer of 2015; events will also be coordinated to celebrate the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September, and will include tours, open houses, receptions, family activities and presentations on the history of religious communities at convents, abbeys, monasteries and religious houses.
“To have a year where everyone prays for religious and celebrates religious life is a grace for the church,” Sister Mary Esther Potts, O.P., of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, said.
More information is available at