Why Did the Religious Cross the Road?

The Apostle of the Interior Life crossed the road to give spiritual direction.

The Benedictine crossed the road to pray and work.

The Camaldolese crossed the road to build a hermitage.

The Carmelite crossed the road (barefoot) to find a secluded place to pray.

The Daughter of St. Paul crossed the road to open a Catholic bookstore.

The Dominican crossed the road to preach the Gospel.

The Father of Mercy crossed the road to give a parish mission.

The Franciscan crossed the road to be an instrument of peace (and to make sure the chicken was okay).

The Jesuit crossed the road for the greater glory of God.

The Mercedarian crossed the road to set captives free.

The Missionary of Charity crossed the road to reach out to the poorest of the poor.

The Norbertine crossed the road to rebuild Western civilization.

The Oblate of the Virgin Mary crossed the road to give a retreat.

The Passionist crossed the road to proclaim Christ crucified.

The Salesian crossed the road to educate young men.

The Servant of Mary crossed the road to care for a sick person in his or her own home.

The Sister of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration crossed the road to spend time with Jesus.

The Sister of Life crossed the road to bear witness to the value of every human life.

The Ursuline crossed the road to educate young women.

We all eventually cross the road. Why we cross the road makes all the difference.

Fully Alive in Christ!

Sr. Mary Kate with her father

One of my favorite lines from Fr. John Hardon, the late, great Jesuit theologian whose cause for sainthood is working its way through the Church, is: “even a corpse can float downstream.”

Yet, as Saint Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is man fully alive!” If we are fully alive in Christ, then we have the vitality to swim against the current, to work against the pull of the flesh that wants to drag us downstream. And there is no neutrality here: if we do nothing but “go with the flow,” then we will be dragged along with those who have made a conscious decision in favor of the “flesh” as opposed to the lifegiving “spirit.”

Those who are faithfully answering the radical call to the consecrated life are the most “alive” people I’ve ever encountered. A few months ago my wife Maureen and I had the privilege of visiting with our daughter at the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What struck me even more than the calls to chastity and obedience was the way they live the call to poverty.

Like the woman in the Gospel who was healed of her infirmity and was able to stand upright for the first time in many years, these beautiful young ladies are not “bent over” and worried about things here below. Rather, with Our Lord as their strength and constant companion, they see things from a more God-centered perspective. They are free. They appreciate and enjoy everything. They are not bored or thinking about what they’ve “given up” or don’t have. What an amazing paradox: By becoming poor, they have truly become rich!

I’m particularly drawn to Eucharistic Prayer III. One phrase from that prayer that has had rich meaning for me through the years is, “Father, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here . . .” as I’ve written frequently on the image of the Church as the “family of God” as well as on the “parish family.”

But at Mass the week Sr. Mary Kate entered the Dominicans, it was the next line that really struck me: “In mercy and love unite all your children wherever they may be.”

Even though Sr. Mary Kate is now a thousand miles away, we are still united in God’s mercy and love, particularly through our participation in the Eucharist and in the life of the Church in general (a “communion of saints” thing). This is another one of those teachings to which we give notional assent, but every now and then we have moments in which a truth of the faith penetrates us in a more real, experiential way.

It’s all right here in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2232-33):

“Family ties are important but not absolute. Just as the child grows to maturity and human and spiritual autonomy, so his unique vocation which comes from God asserts itself more clearly and forcefully. Parents should respect this call and encourage their children to follow it. They must be convinced that the first vocation of the Christian is to follow Jesus: ‘He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me’ (Mt 10:37). . . .

“Parents should welcome and respect with joy and thanksgiving the Lord’s call to one of their children to follow Him in virginity for the sake of the Kingdom in the consecrated life or in priestly ministry.”

This brings me back to the call to poverty. Young religious need to incorporate a healthy spirit of detachment from worldly things, including even one’s family, if they are to be “worthy” disciples of Christ. This assuredly means swimming upstream, and I was so impressed with how well the young sisters seemed to be making this transition, despite the inherent difficulty.

It’s also a challenge for parents to have their son or daughter enter religious life, especially when they enter right out of high school. We had about as much advance warning as possible (Sr. Mary Kate told me when she was 5 that she wanted to be a nun), and it was still a shock to the system.

I think that letting go of a child who is entering religious life is an act of poverty on our part. We not only are creating “space” for our children to seek evangelical perfection, but also growing in our own feeble spirit of sacrifice and detachment. Not surprisingly, Maureen and I have become fast friends with a whole fraternity of families who are also going through the same process.

Please remember in your prayers for religious vocations those who have already responded and, like Sr. Mary Kate, are going through the initial stages of their formation. And while you’re at it, please pray for their families, too!

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Religious Life, the bimonthly magazine of the Institute on Religious Life.

USA Today on Religious Vocations

In this article, the USA Today comments on the CARA report earlier this month on women religious who took their final vows in 2010. The article focuses on the disappointing statistic that more than half of the sisters were discouraged by a family member in pursuing their vocation.

In most families that I’ve encountered, the problem is that religious vocations are not adequately valued. Contraception, the natural but at times inordinate desire for grandchildren, lukewarm faith, poor formation, and secular values are but a few of the factors that come into play, along with the normal emotions that go with having a loved one more away, potentially forever.

Maybe in the cases in which the family isn’t on board with the decision, the young woman’s vocation may be a catalyst for the conversion of the family . . .

Message for World Day of Prayer for Vocations

Last week, the Vatican released Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the 48th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, which will be celebrated later this spring. The entire message, entitled “Proposing Vocations in the Local Church,” may be accessed here.

Here is an inspiring excerpt from the Holy Father’s message:

“Particularly in these times, when the voice of the Lord seems to be drowned out by ‘other voices’ and His invitation to follow Him by the gift of one’s own life may seem too difficult, every Christian community, every member of the Church, needs consciously to feel responsibility for promoting vocations. It is important to encourage and support those who show clear signs of a call to priestly life and religious consecration, and to enable hem to feel the warmth of the whole community as they respond ‘yes’ to God and the Church. . . .

“It is essential that every local Church become more sensitive and attentive to the pastoral care of vocations, helping children and young people in particular at every level of family, parish and associations–as Jesus did with His disciples–to grow into a genuine and affectionate friendship with the Lord, cultivated through personal and liturgical prayer; to grow in familiarity with the sacred Scriptures and thus to listen attentively and fruitfully to the Word of God; to understand that entering into God’s will does not crush or destroy a person, but instead leads to the discovery of the deepest truth about ourselves; and finally to be generous and fraternal in relationships with others, since it is only in being open to the love of God that we discover true joy and the fulfilment of our aspirations.”

Upstaging St. Valentine

Very few of us will walk up to someone today and greet him or her with the words, “Happy St. Cyril’s Day,” or even “Happy Cyril’s Day.” And surely no one will tell their sweetheart to “Be my Methodius.”

And yet, today the universal Church honors Sts. Cyril and Methodius, not St. Valentine, notwithstanding the latter’s larger-than-life appeal.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, brothers from what in biblical times was known as Thessalonica, were ninth-century missionaries to the Slavic people in Eastern Europe. Not only did they learn the oral language of the people, but they developed an alphabet and written language so that the Bible and liturgical texts could be translated into the living language of the people. They were truly remarkable men of God.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius

Interestingly, Pope John Paul II authored only one encyclical on the lives of saints, and that short encyclical was entitled Slavorum Apostoli, the Apostles of the Slavs. Yes, it’s about Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Read it here.

Father, you brought the light of the gospel to the Slavic nations through Saint Cyril and his brother Saint Methodius. Open our hearts to understand your teaching and help us to become one in faith and praise.

Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sts. Cyril and Methodius, pray for us. 

This article originally appeared in the Catholic Hour blog.

Discipleship Awareness

discipleshipThe current issue of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review has an outstanding article by Fr. Damien Ference entitled, “Why vocation programs don’t work.”

His thesis is that we don’t have a vocation problem so much as a discipleship problem. We can’t assume that everybody that has some connection to the Church is already a disciple–and thus a ready recipient of sundry “vocation programs.”

Fr. Ference points to the fact that most people do not discover their vocation from vocation literature, but from real-life disciples who are living witnesses of what it means to be a married person, consecrated person, or priest. Such disciples beget other disciples.

Also, it is true that the programs that we provide for young people (and older people, for that matter) are sometimes light in the discipleship department. Fr. Ference writes:

“Let us take the example of a parish youth group to serve as a microcosm for our current situation. A youth group has a similar structure to most parish groups, in that most parish groups identify themselves in four ways: spiritual, service-oriented, social and catechetical. For a parish youth group to be what it is supposed to be, the first priority of the group must be to make disciples of young people who do not know Jesus, and to make stronger disciples of the ones who already know him. Such a suggestion seems quite basic and even simplistic at first glance, but this is precisely the point. Far too often we as a Church have failed with the most basic principle of discipleship while loading up on service projects and social activities, and the parish youth group becomes just one more line on a young person’s college résumé, without ever calling that young person to real conversion.”

A lot of food for thought. To view the article in its entirety, click here.

Mercedarians Show Healthy Signs of Growth

Go to Fr. Joseph's Facebook page.
Pope John Paul II with Mercedarian seminarians

When Fr. Joseph Eddy was looking for a religious community to join ten years ago, there were several characteristics that just had to be there. He found these and more in the Order of Mercy.

“I was looking for a community that was Marian, Eucharistic, and faithful to the Magisterium,” explained the 33-year-old priest, who was ordained in 2008.

“It was amazing to find this ancient order which possessed all the characteristics that I was looking for,” said Fr. Joseph, who serves as the vocation director for the order, which has as its formal title, The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy.

The U.S. branch of the order boasts of ten men in formation against a backdrop of 22 solemnly professed friars. “That’s a healthy sign,” Fr. Joseph said. “The older orders such as ours tend to struggle to get vocations. God is blessing us with these new men, and we look toward a grace-filled future.”

The order’s friars, which consist of brothers and priests, wear crisp white habits, pray the Divine Office together, and live a community life based on the Rule of St Augustine. The men teach in schools, administer parishes, and engage in other apostolic work.

No wonder the order is doing well. Traditional groups are those that are attracting vocations today, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

The Order of Mercy, also known as the Mercedarians, has its U.S. motherhouse in Philadelphia. Their website is www.OrderofMercy.org. Hear the men chant the Salve on their YouTube video, or visit Fr. Joseph’s Facebook page.

2010 Profession Class, By the Numbers

What do we know about the women religious in the United States who made their final vows this past year?

Plenty!

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) released a report last week on the women who professed perpetual vows in 2010. This report, commissioned by the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), contains an overwhelming amount of statistics and demographic data.

Here, I will provide a “top ten” list of findings that I found most significant:

(1) 77% of the sisters have three or more siblings (the average was five), while only one sister reported being an only child.

Need I say any more about the critically important role of large Catholic families as fertile ground for religious vocations? The generosity of Catholic parents who are open to life speaks volumes to their children.

(2) Prayer matters.

74% had attended a retreat prior to entering the community, and two-thirds of them prayed the Rosary and participated in Eucharistic adoration on a regular basis before entering religious life. While this is a positive stat, I hope that the other one-third picked up these religious practices after they joined! 

(3) 52% reported that they were encouraged by other religious to consider religious life.

And nine out of ten reported that they were encouraged by someone in their life. This stat shows the importance of inviting others to “come and see,” and of supporting them in their discernment process. This is especially important in light of the next item.

(4) 66% reported that they were discouraged from considering a vocation by one or more persons.

Even more, 51% reported that they faced opposition within their own families! It makes one wonder how we can make families a more hospitable seedbed for vocations. Certainly a renewal of faith and sense of vocation among Catholic parents is crucial if we are to reverse this trend. 

(5) 78% had already completed some college, and 59% had already graduated from college at the time they entered the religious institute.

The new sisters are well-educated, not only for work in education or health care, but other fields as well. The one balancing factor is that this goes hand in hand with older vocations, as the median age of the sisters is 44.

(6) Kudos to Franciscan University!

Six percent reported that a youth conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville played a role in their religious vocation. Makes me proud to be an alumnus.

(7) World Youth Day.

A staggering 20% of the sisters reported that they participated at a World Youth Day prior to entering their religious community. Memo to pastors: Keep these pilgrimages in the budget!

(8) The median age at which the sisters began considering a possible vocation to religious life was 18.

The mean was 20, as some older vocations skewed the average. This points to the critical importance of college campus ministry and evangelization programs like the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

(9) 51% attended Catholic elementary school and 25% attended Catholic high school.

This figure isn’t that impressive to me. Where did all the others go? At some point, it would be useful to distinguish between those who were homeschooled by Catholic parents versus those who attended public or non-sectarian private schools.

Still, the figures here are above the national averages for Catholics in the United States. Since Catholic schools continue to be such a significant source of religious vocations, the ongoing religious formation of Catholic school teachers must be a priority. Also, in light of (3), I think the more religious we have in the Catholic schools, the more likely it is that the school will foster religious vocations.

(10) 84% of superiors reported no new religious professions, and another 13% reported only one.

That means 311 of the communities that participated in the survey did not have anyone take final vows. Many of those communities are aging and have not had many vocations in recent years. While it’s a fact of Church life that some religious communities die out and others spring up, I found the numbers this year a bit sobering. So let’s get busy, people! All of us have the duty to pray for vocations to the religious life, and to support those who have already entered. 

Beyond all the numbers, though, the most important consideration is that we have all these beautiful sisters who have now consecrated their lives completely to Christ. What a blessing for them, and for the Church!

Intimate Friendship with Christ

Pope Benedict XVI devoted his weekly general audience last Wednesday to St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82), one of the most revered spiritual guides in the history of the Church.  

While the Pope  gave a brief overview of her life and her reform of the Carmelite order, he spent most of his address on her immense contributions to Catholic spirituality, noting “her profound christocentric spirituality and her breadth of human experience.”

The most important lesson of St. Teresa, the Pope said, is her understanding of “prayer as an intimate friendship with Christ leading to an ever greater union of love with the Blessed Trinity.”

Here is an excerpt from the Holy Father’s address:

“It is not easy to summarize in a few words the profound and complex Teresian spirituality. I would like to mention some essential points.

“In the first place, St. Teresa proposes the evangelical virtues as the basis of all Christian and human life–in particular, detachment from goods or evangelical poverty (and this concerns all of us); love for one another as the essential element of community and social life; humility as love of the truth; determination as fruit of Christian audacity; theological hope, which she describes as thirst for living water–without forgetting the human virtues: affability, veracity, modesty, courtesy, joy, culture.

“In the second place, St. Teresa proposes a profound harmony with the great biblical personalities and intense listening to the Word of God. She felt in consonance above all with the bride of the Canticle of Canticles and with the Apostle Paul, as well as with the Christ of the passion and with the Eucharistic Jesus. 

“The saint stressed how essential prayer is; to pray, she said, ‘means to frequent with friendship, because we frequent Him whom we know loves us.’ St. Teresa’s idea coincides with the definition that St. Thomas Aquinas gives of theological charity, as ‘amicitia quaedam hominis ad Deum,’ a type of friendship of man with God, who first offered his friendship to man; the initiative comes from God (cf. Summa Theologiae II-II, 23, 1).

“Prayer is life and it develops gradually at the same pace with the growth of the Christian life: It begins with vocal prayer, passes to interiorization through meditation and recollection, until it attains union of love with Christ and with the Most Holy Trinity. Obviously, it is not a development in which going up to the higher steps means leaving behind the preceding type of prayer, but is rather a gradual deepening of the relationship with God, which envelops our whole life. More than a pedagogy of prayer, St. Teresa’s is a true ‘mystagogy’: She teaches the reader of her works to pray while praying herself with Him; frequently, in fact, she interrupts the account or exposition to burst out in a prayer.”

For the entire text of the Pope’s general audience, click here.

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