Column: Religious life is countercultural and radical

Archbishop_Naumann

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

While I was in St. Louis over the Christmas holidays, I had the opportunity to visit a priest classmate.

He gave me a copy of the Jan. 9 edition of People magazine. It was the first copy of People magazine that I had ever possessed. Although I must admit, while in the checkout line at supermarkets, it is difficult to ignore some of the provocative cover headlines about the lives of the rich and the famous.

This particular magazine happened to be their annual special “weight loss edition,” highlighting what celebrities lost the most pounds during the year and how they did it! You are probably thinking now: “I know why your classmate gave you this copy of People magazine.” While I admit your assumption is quite logical, still it is wrong.

It was not for weight loss tips that my friend gave me the magazine, but because on page 110 there was an article about one of his parishioners entitled: “How Ashley Found Her Calling.” The article relates the story of a young woman who, after completing her freshman year of college, decided to enter formation with the Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St. George.

The first two pages of the article are dominated by a photograph of Ashley (now Sister Caterina) praying in the St. Francis Convent chapel in Alton, Ill., with a smaller photograph inset of Ashley’s high school prom picture. The article describes Sister Caterina to be a very normal American teenager, who loves country and western music, rock-climbing, wearing high heels, backpacking and communicating via Facebook. Nevertheless, from early childhood, Ashley had felt a calling to give her life to Jesus and serve the church as a religious Sister.

The Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St. George have Sisters in our archdiocese — serving on the faculty of St. James Academy, on staff at Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park and studying at Benedictine College in Atchison. I have known this community for many years. They operate a skilled nursing facility, Mother of Good Counsel Home, that was located in the parish in St. Louis where I served as pastor. My grandmother resided there for a few years and died at Mother of Good Counsel Home.

After reading the article, I called up Mother Regina Pacis, the provincial superior, and asked: “How did People magazine become interested in writing a story on Sister Caterina?” She told me that the editors wanted to do an article on a teenage girl entering religious life. Since Ashley was 19 when she entered, she fit the profile. Mother Regina Pacis has received requests for interviews with Sister Caterina from the “Today” show, FOX News, “Oprah,” and CNN.

One of the reasons People magazine and other secular media outlets are interested in Ashley’s story is because there are so few young women entering religious life today. However, they are also fascinated because religious life is so countercultural and radical.

In a society that promotes young adults being sexually active, religious women make a promise of celibate chastity. In a consumer culture, where success is measured by how much you possess, Sisters make a vow of evangelical poverty. In a country, where freedom is understood as being able to do whatever you want whenever you want, consecrated religious make a vow of obedience.

Recently, seven young women came here from Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Illinois and Kansas to spend a week of discernment with the Little Sisters of the Lamb in Kansas City, Kan. I celebrated Mass and spent a couple of hours in conversation with them. It was inspiring to experience their joy and enthusiasm as they strive to figure out what God is asking them to do with their lives.

A couple of them are very serious about entering into formation with the Little Sisters of the Lamb. The parents of one of the young women, who has actually taken some of the preliminary steps to enter formation, were worried and upset about their daughter’s plans. Her parents are very devout Catholics, who raised their daughter to love Jesus and his church. However, they never envisioned that God might want their daughter to follow him in this radical way.

The weekend following her discernment week, when attending Sunday Mass with her parents, the pastor — totally unaware of what was happening in the life of this family — gave a homily on vocations. He asked parents in the congregation: “If your young adult daughter came home from college and told you that she had met this virtuous and incredibly gifted young man whom she loved and desired to marry, wouldn’t you be thrilled and excited for your daughter?” Then the pastor asked: “If your daughter came home and told you she had met the man of her dreams whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life with and the man was Jesus, shouldn’t you be even more excited and overjoyed?”

Yesterday, Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, I celebrated vespers and had dinner with the consecrated religious women and men of the archdiocese. It is always a joy to spend an evening with these women and men who have given themselves so completely to Jesus and his church. It is beautiful to see the joy and enthusiasm in the eyes, especially, of the older Sisters.

Religious life is so important for the vibrancy of the entire church. Consecrated religious strive to live the Gospel with purity and passion. In so doing, they inspire the rest of us to want to follow the Lord more completely and faithfully.

Religious Sisters have played such an important role in the life of the church in northeast Kansas. All of our Catholic hospitals, most of our schools, and so many of our charitable ministries were founded and staffed for many years by these heroic women.

In many ways, for a young woman to enter religious life is even more difficult and more countercultural than a young man entering the seminary. We need to encourage every young woman to be open to the possibility that God may be calling her to serve him and the church as a religious Sister.

Sister Caterina expressed her understanding of her calling in these words: “God has called me to be his own. This is his purpose for me that I will be truly his alone — mind, heart, body and soul.” I am edified by the young women entering religious life today. The joy they exude, while bucking so many of the cultural trends and biases, is contagious. May their numbers grow!

If your daughter or granddaughter was going to be profiled in People magazine, wouldn’t you prefer that it be for something as beautiful and heroic as answering a call to religious life?

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