INTRO: As I opened to the Catholic Bishops’ website this morning to find the lectionary readings for today I began to sing because the heading was “The Fifth Day in the Octave of Christmas.” I expect that you, too, are immediately singing now: “…my true love gave to me five golden rings.” That may be a little hokey but even a little more far-fetched perhaps is my follow-on thought that five golden rings might signify a 50th anniversary, the year that I have just completed as a Sister of St. Joseph. (Sorry, it’s actually how my mind works!) I was recently asked to talk about what that means so at the risk of posting the longest message you will ever have from me, see what follows here if you are interested.
Women religious have been living for hundreds of years by looking deeply into the eyes of the dear neighbor and seeing the radiance and love of Christ reflected there. To be that love in the world is the reason the Sisters of St. Joseph came to be.
It began with six women sitting in a kitchen discussing the world situation – the immediate world of 17th century France, that is. They saw the poverty and tension visible in the lives of the people of their town, Le Puy en Velay, and decided they had to act. They chose to divide the city up according to need and then went out to meet those needs, visiting prisons and teaching young women to make lace so they would have a way other than prostitution of earning money to feed their children. The Holy Spirit was surely guiding these ministries and continued to do so when the first call came from the United States for Sisters.
In 1836, another small group of six women sailed for St. Louis to teach the deaf and the Native Americans in the surrounding area. In the 180 years since then that the Sisters of St. Joseph have ministered in the United States, times have changed significantly as have the needs of the world. After nearly two centuries of ministry in this country, first building and serving in schools and hospitals, Sisters have now returned to the Spirit of our founding mothers whose vision was to do all the works of which women are capable and which will benefit the dear neighbor. “All the works of which women are capable”…That’s everything, right? We now still serve in schools on every level from daycare/pre-school to universities. We are nurses and healthcare providers of every kind but also artists and spiritual directors, house parents for the disabled or the homeless, musicians, lawyers, officers of organizations, and those whose primary ministry is prayer. We are strong women, not bowed by adversity, who make their voices heard for justice. We are also kind women, peaceful and caring of the poor, and caring as well for this beautiful world in which we live.
We are diverse lovers of God. Oh, yes! We are diverse! In becoming the Congregation of the Great Love of God, (a moniker that we often call on to define ourselves at our best), we have come to understand that diversity does not mean division but rather gives the possibility for growth at every turn so that we can grow together for the good of the world. Religious life is an awesome call, but it is just that: a call. And it is a mystery.
Most Sisters today would be able to speak about their call to some extent, but at the heart of things, definition is impossible. Why, for example, of the 45 young women in 1966 who were discerning their role in life, did five of us who entered the Sisters of St. Joseph move to the novitiate, take temporary vows, all the while continuing to discern the rightness of the call, and then take the step of professing lifelong dedication to God. Why us? If asked we might have to say: “It’s a mystery.” And it is God’s grace that has allowed it to unfold.
Today the life of a woman religious seems not so dissimilar from that of other women and in some ways that is quite true. We are indistinguishable these days from other women in our dress, our activities – and we work alongside other women and men in any number of professional roles. There are also many women I know who are not Consecrated Religious whom I consider much holier than I, although it is useless to judge that. Though the outer framework of our lives seems much like that of others, however, there is a significant difference. There are many women and men who cherish their faith and our religious rituals and whose love of God and prayer life are extraordinary, and yet the fullness of their lives does not abide in a religious community. Some of us, however, after an extended period of discernment come to the conclusion that religious life is, as one writer has expressed it, “the native country of their soul and nothing else can finally satisfy them.” I believe I can say with certainty that after fifty years of living the life, we would most assuredly agree with that statement.