Appreciating the contributions of Religious women
Religious Sisters have been very much in the news over the past several months. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a report expressing concerns not about Religious Sisters in general, but about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) concerning some doctrinal questions. (LCWR is the organization representing the leadership of most Sisters’ communities in the United States).
Without entering into the specifics of the Congregation’s concern, I want to comment on the presence and contribution of Religious Sisters to the Church here in our country and throughout the world.
It was my privilege to spend 24 years working closely with Religious, and in particular with Religious Sisters. My life was greatly enriched by my interaction with Sisters in the 18 years that I was a vicar for Religious in Brownsville, Texas, and especially in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, as well as the six years I spent as undersecretary for the Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes in Rome.
Sisters have contributed, and continue to contribute, in so many ways to the life of the Church. So often we focus on the work they do, their ministries. My principal focus has been to look at and understand what is called the particular “charism” of each Religious Institute.
A charism is a particular way of hearing the Gospel message and of so being formed by that aspect of the Gospel that one relates it to all of reality, God, self, human relationships and ministry.
For example, St. Francis of Assisi understood the Gospel in the sense of living a profound sense of poverty in order to build up the Church. Mother Catherine McAuley, in founding the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, understood the tenderness of God towards us broken and weak creatures. Others, such as the Sisters of St. Joseph, adapting the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, looked towards the spirituality of the “good neighbor.” These are merely a few examples of how different Religious institutes live out their call.
The women who founded Religious communities expressed their understanding of the Gospel message and invited others who heard the Gospel in the same way to join them. This reality has continued over the centuries, including the example of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who left her original teaching order community to found the Missionaries of Charity.
Religious contribute to the life of the Church by trying to live out their particular way of hearing the Gospel and responding to it. Their ministries flow out of that Gospel call. The Church continues to be enriched by the example, the dedication and the self-sacrifice of Religious women. Like all of us, including bishops, they are not perfect, they have their struggles. But they are women of prayer, of love for God and their sisters and brothers. They continue to enrich the life of the Church.
I personally owe a great deal to Religious women in terms of my own growth in prayer and heightened awareness, especially of the poor and the needy. I am grateful that I was privileged to be able to have served with and for Religious.
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