Religious life to ‘Wake Up the World’ in 2015

By Renae Bauer
published Advent 2014

As the worldwide Church gets ready for the 14-month celebration of Consecrated Life (Nov. 30, 2014, to Feb. 2, 2016) it's worth noting the connection to the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. From 1962 to 1965, Church leaders issued constitutions, declarations and statements that in the subsequent years "awoke" us to how the Church intersects with the modern world.  Reforms were made to -- among many things -- how we celebrate Mass, how the laity can participate in the life of the church, and how members of religious congregations were to re-examine their roots and more deeply embrace their particular charism (unique gift from the Holy Spirit).

Renewed in vows, purpose

Certainly, much has changed in 50 years in religious life, both interiorly and exteriorly. Yet, the essentials remain the same.  Sister Francis Bangert, Sister Elise Cholewinski, Sister Joanne Goessl, and Sister Laura Zelten (members of a  vocation advisory group) attended a weeklong workshop last summer titled, "Catholic Religious Life in a New Millennium." Their time together certainly was prayerful and joyful, but so much more. All four came away with a renewed sense of their vows, their purpose, and their love of Jesus. They are energized for the Year of Consecrated Life.

"The experience for the four of us was truly life-giving," says Sister Joanne.

"I came away looking at my religious life with a whole new perspective," added Sister Laura. "To have shared that with the three (other Sisters) really was a holy time. Because we went to Mass together and we had morning prayer together and, yes, we were with other women and men religious, but we were together as a community as well. And that to me was very special."

The workshop, titled "Catholic Religious Life in a New Millennium", featured Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM, Ph.D., a distinguished professor, author and theologian who earned her doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

'Bowled over'

"I went because my three Sisters have read many of her books," says Sister Fran. "I was completely bowled over by the depth and the broadness of her research of Scripture, theology, culture and sociology, and how she brought them all together in a framework. I really love that."

Over the course of several days, Sister Schneiders discussed the interdependence of the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience in relation to God, the people of the church and the ever-changing world in which we live.

Consecrated life isn't defined solely by one's ministry such as education or health care or monastic prayer. "The consecrated life is about relationship," says Sister Joanne. "It's the union with Christ, which has a definite direction for ministry because my union with Jesus says, 'What was Jesus' focus?' Well, it was relationship with God and all of creation."

"That's why we wear the ring," says Sister Elise. "It's a sign of our covenant relationship."

Unchanged yet evolving

One's relationship with God is organic, too, says Sister Fran. Like a tree, this relationship grows and changes over time; yet, the very essence is unchanged.

The four Sisters also talked in-depth about growing in their understanding of their vows. Yes, the vows were made 40 or 50 years ago but the vows are perpetual, renewed each day and a constant witness of something very different than what the broader world offers.

"(Sister Schneiders) said the vowed life - Gospel poverty, consecrated celibacy, and prophetic obedience - is an alternative to today's reality," says Sister Fran. "People have a relationship with money, with power and with sex. And if any one of those things gets out of whack then there's something not right with society. So we are a prophetic witness to an alternative form of living."

Through their alternate life-form, women and men of religious communities are a public witness to what really makes life worth living, says Sister Joanne.

Change has been consistent

Certainly, two of the most visible changes to religious life in the last 50 years is the decreasing number of members and, for most communities, the shift from the habit and veil to common clothing with a distinguishing symbol. Sister Laura points out that religious life, which has existed for more than a millennium, has a long history of letting go of the familiar in order to embrace new gifts from God.

Sister Elise says these changes in her own life have been difficult but looking back she now sees the wisdom in the change.

"I've struggled myself with where religious life is at and I have wanted very often to go back to the way it was - when you had four or five Sisters teaching in the same school -- and then being pulled in another direction. I said to Sister Schneiders, 'After I read your last book (Buying the Field) I said to myself, 'Now I've got it.' I know why religious life changed.' It used to be we were isolated from the world, ministering to Catholics helping them become better Catholics." But God's call is to help everybody. "To bring Christ's message of salvation to the world you've got to be out there where the people are. I was one of the last people to take off the veil. But now I've got it. … You are different by who you are and what you witness to more than by what you wear."

And that is what prophetic witness is all about.  "Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God all the time in Scripture. The kingdom of God is about goodness, it's about truth, it's about justice, it's about peace and love," says Sister Fran. "But the reality is there is a Kingdom of Evil, too, and those two, as we have in the Book of Genesis, have always been at odds. So rather than us being removed from the world we are, as Sister Elise said, immersed right in it. We are meant to give that prophetic presence."

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"I came away looking at my religious life with a whole new perspective."

Sister Laura Zelten

"The consecrated life is about relationship. It's the union with Christ, which has a definite direction for ministry."

Sister Joanne Goessl

"We are a prophetic witness to an alternative form of living."

Sister Francis Bangert

"To bring Christ's message of salvation to the world you've got to be out there where the people are."

Sister Elise Cholewinski