One summer day last year, a young woman vacationing in northern Michigan stood atop the famous Sleeping Bear Sand Dune and looked back down the great slope she had just climbed.
To her amazement, she spotted at the foot of the dune, ready to begin the ascent, three young religious sisters in sneakers and full habit—a Missionary of Charity, a Sister of Life, and a Nashville Dominican. Scrambling down the dune to greet them, the girl marveled at her life flashing before her eyes. These three sisters represented the three orders she had investigated as she discerned a vocation. She ran to meet them, and the four young women laughed with delight at the incongruity of such an assemblage at the foot of Sleeping Bear.
The three sisters, friends from college, members of two new orders and one very old one, are part of a small but profound renaissance of vocations to the consecrated life among young people. They are the flowering of what Pope John Paul II encouraged in his 1996 apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata, on the consecrated life and its mission in the Church and in the world.
Although some religious orders, especially since Vatican II, have suffered tragic losses in members and attract almost no new vocations, others are experiencing a springtime. Some of the orders that are flourishing are newly founded, such as the Missionaries of Charity, Sisters of Life, Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, Sisters of St. Joseph the Worker, Legionaries of Christ, Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and Society of St. John. Although newly founded, they place themselves squarely in the various strains of consecrated life in the Church’s tradition. Other orders, equally rooted in the long history of consecrated life, are ancient but are having a rebirth.
The Nashville Dominicans
The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, better known as the Nashville Dominicans, are one example of an ancient order that is enjoying a burst of vocations. A teaching congregation of 163 sisters, the Nashville Dominicans accepted a record number of 17 postulants last year and another 15 this year. Attracting young women between the ages of 17 and 30, the congregation has 43 young women in initial formation, probably more than in any female congregation in the United States. These young women, bright-eyed and beaming, are eager to wear the long, white Dominican habit, considering it an honor rather than a penance to wear, as they say, their “wedding dresses everyday.”
Like girls everywhere, they want to look their best, and in their habits they say they are dressed for any occasion, from chapel to classroom to formal reception. When they play soccer, take a hike, cook, garden, or do laundry, they don a blue work apron or fasten the skirt of their tunic into a sort of bustle to allow them freedom of movement. They take pride that they have sewn their own habits; in their former lives, most of them, being modern girls, never learned to sew. Before their entry into the St. Cecilia congregation, they were students, nurses, teachers, artists, businesswomen. One was a lawyer; another was a ballet dancer; yet another was a captain in the army.
Coming from busy, often overextended lives, the young sisters soon appreciate the prayerful balance and careful pacing that marks Dominican contemplative-active life. The domestic arts, for example, are part of the life of a consecrated woman, a gift that the young women enjoy as hugely satisfying to the feminine soul. So much do the sisters bake treats for feast days and invent simple but festive touches for the table that one novice, an artist with a Martha Stewart flair for interior design, quipped, “We could do a TV show and call it ‘Martha, Martha.’”
Domestic tasks, however, are neither frivolities nor drudgeries. If done for the love of Christ and the community, they rather are occasions for charity, hospitality, and growth in holiness.
So, too, does the intellectual life of the sisters incorporate a striving for holiness. As inheritors of the scholarly tradition of their Dominican ancestors, St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, the Nashville sisters might be expected to treasure the intellectual life. “To pray, to study, to teach” is their congregation’s application of the Dominican aspiration, “to pray, to bless, to preach.” As part of the fulfillment of their charism as teachers, most of the sisters attain a master’s degree in either philosophy or theology in addition to other degrees. Their aim in their studies, however, is not simply to accumulate knowledge for its own sake but to understand knowledge as a revelation of the knowable, lovable God who is their divine spouse.
“Consecrated women are at the heart of the Church,” stresses Mother Christine Born, superior general of the congregation. A wise, authoritative, motherly woman of much southern charm and gentleness, ready laughter, and remarkable humility, Mother Christine understands that women must be formed so that love of Christ captures their hearts and, therefore, infuses their minds. Women must be formed in their rational intellects, to be sure; yet to be the heart of the family of the Church, just as they are the heart of the human family, they must internalize their knowledge of Christ and his Church, so that their hearts catch fire with love. Without a heart full of love, the intellect can turn cold. As one Nashville sister, a junior high history teacher, put it, “St. Dominic was so wise when he formed our life. He insisted that we never give up our balanced life of community prayer, study, and apostolate. The heritage left to us by St. Dominic asks us to have charity, to guard humility, and to make our treasure out of voluntary poverty, all of which are antidotes to intellectual pride.”
Vita Consecrata itself affirms the inseparable link between study and prayer, seeing a vibrant intellectual life as a “stimulus to contemplation and prayer.” It calls for “renewed and loving commitment to the intellectual life” among the individual institutes, describing study as “an expression of the unquenchable desire for an ever deeper knowledge of God, the source of light and all human truth.”
Upsurge in Vocations
Mother Christine, one of two working experts from the United States who were present at the synod from which flowed Vita Consecrata, thinks the impact of the document has only begun to touch consecrated life. Any major Church document, she says, takes about a decade to make its presence deeply felt in the life of the Church. Since Vita Consecrata is only four years old, its significance, she believes, will not be fully revealed for several years.
At the same time, Vita Consecrata is obviously in tune with the new esteem with which young people are beginning to regard religious vocations. Disillusioned by their lack of spiritual inheritance from two generations of adults, young people realize they are often formless and yearn to nourish their spiritual hunger. They understand that consecrated life is the most radical, or rooted, fulfillment of our spiritual nature.
“It’s radical, Sister!” said a wide-eyed 15-year-old to Sr. Catherine Marie Hopkins, vocation director of the Nashville Dominicans. Sr. Catherine Marie relates a recent experience in an airport, when she passed several young men swathed in black leather and alarmingly punctuated with body piercings. Awe-struck by a sister as distinctively dressed in a non-secular way as they in their secular mode, they remarked, “Hey! Nice outfit!” Young people today want a witness to the spiritual dimension, Sr. Catherine Marie says. They are looking for orthodoxy.
Nevertheless, no matter how attracted to religious life young people may be, the consecrated life poses problems to our secular, technocratic culture. When young people choose this life, they often must justify their decision not only to their friends but also to their parents, who are likely to see the consecrated life as a waste of the talent and energy of their bright, gifted son or daughter. Vita Consecrata notes the question, more often asked in our day than in earlier periods: What is the point of the consecrated life?
We live in a utilitarian, technocratic culture, in which people and things receive importance because of their usefulness, not because of what they are in themselves. The nature of a person, one’s dignity as God’s creature, is largely secondary to what one can produce. In utilitarian terms, a consecrated person is a waste. Could not the urgent needs of the world and even of the Church be met much more efficiently without the peculiar commitments of the consecrated life? To which the consecrated life responds with a gift of unbounded generosity—a zeal, a fervor to give more than one can give living in the secular realm, to give not only more but to give all in unbounded love of Christ. Union with Christ in love is what the consecrated person hopes to attain in return for this generosity.
As Vita Consecrata says, the consecrated life offers an opportunity to love Christ with an “undivided heart” and to “devote to him one’s whole life and not merely certain actions or occasional moments or activities.” The precious ointment poured out as a pure act of love, as when Mary of Bethany poured out costly nard to anoint the feet of Jesus, transcends “all utilitarian considerations” and is:
…a sign of unbounded generosity, as expressed in a life spent in loving and serving the Lord, in order to devote oneself to his person and his Mystical Body. From such a life “poured out” without reserve there spreads a fragrance which fills the whole house. The house of God, the Church, today no less than in the past, is adorned and enriched by the presence of the consecrated life…. What in people’s eyes can seem a waste is, for the individuals captivated in the depths of their heart by the beauty and goodness of the Lord, an obvious response of love, a joyful expression of gratitude for having been admitted in a unique way to the knowledge of the Son and to a sharing in his divine mission in the world.
The consecrated life, immersed as it is in the core of being, in a love affair with the Lord Jesus Himself, is a corrective for an ever-secularizing world that “risks being suffocated in the whirlpool of the ephemeral.” The presence of consecrated people is a reminder that Christians cannot be lightweights; all believers must seek to fathom the sacredness of God and His creation.
Witness to Pop Culture
Likewise, those who enter religious life are an antidote to the willful individualism of our culture and the problem with authority that most of us have even when we do not realize it. Modern culture resents any hierarchy of being; it rebels at the notion that one thing, one idea, one work of art, one way of life, one belief might be better than another. It even balks at human life, by virtue of being what it is—human—having any claim to exist against someone’s opinion that it ought not exist. The ruling principle of modern culture is the authority, not of truth, but of individual opinion. The result, of course, is a society of poorly formed, immature members who claim their independence and are encouraged to remain selfish adolescents until well into their 20s or even 30s.
Sr. Ann Marie Karlovic, novice mistress of the Nashville congregation, laments the prolonged adolescence of our culture. It fosters selfishness and willfulness, she says, which is so pervasive that even those who enter religious life have to struggle to overcome it.
Mother Christine points out that individualism is lonely and against our nature. “When we’re not communal, we’re against our nature,” she says. Thus, all thriving religious orders have a rich community life, especially of prayer.
Contrary to the modern cast of mind, authentic consecrated life finds no conflict between freedom and obedience. If we love God and obey Him—follow His loving plan for us—then our obedience is not servile but filial; we do not become slaves, but instead, we actually become more who we are meant to be. Becoming more—the same but more—convinces many a doubting parent to accept a child’s religious vocation. Becoming more is also the secret ingredient of joy that so captivates visitors to the Nashville community and to other healthy religious communities.
Vita Consecrata emphasizes that freedom, when rightly seen as the freedom to be and do as the Father wants us to be and do, never contradicts obedience. Christ himself, who followed His Father’s will utterly, was also utterly free. Obedience, then, is the path to true freedom. Obedience, after all, comes from the Latin word meaning “to listen.” Only when freedom is viewed in the secular way as a right to do one’s own thing, and only when freedom is seen as a right to make one’s own will and opinion supreme, is there any conflict with obedience and authority. True freedom, that is, to be the person God willed me to be, is inseparable from obedience. To be truly free, we grow in virtue so as to conform ourselves to Christ.
In the consecrated life, one finds freedom in conforming “one’s whole existence to Christ in an all-encompassing commitment” that foreshadows the perfection we will see in heaven. Those in consecrated life are offered a “special grace of intimacy” that “makes possible and even demands the total gift of self in the profession of the evangelical counsels,” the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Far from being a simple renunciation, the three counsels are “a specific acceptance of the mystery of Christ, lived within the Church.”
Espoused to Christ
Although poverty, chastity, and obedience obligate consecrated people in a specific way, the counsels apply to all Christians. We are all called to poverty of spirit; we are all called to chastity according to our state in life; we are all called to obedience to the truth of the Gospels and their manifestation in the magisterium of the Church.
Furthermore, all of us are related in a spousal way to Christ. As members of His body, the Church, we are loved by Christ in the same intimate nuptial bond with which a man loves his wife. The Eucharist itself is a wedding between Christ and His people, in which the priest stands in the place of the bridegroom, Christ, and we, the Church, are the bride.
Women religious find particular meaning in the spousal character of consecrated life. In their complete, exclusive devotion to their divine spouse, they “find therein their feminine identity and…discover the special genius of their relationship with the Lord.” It is not surprising, then, that a thorough understanding and appreciation of marriage is fundamental to its complementary state, the consecrated life. Both Mother Christine and Sr. Ann Marie, therefore, continually emphasize to the young sisters in the novitiate that religious life is like a good marriage. In the religious life, just as in marriage, Sr. Ann Marie says, “the more the spouses love each other, the more that love spills out toward everyone.”
To fall in love with Christ, their spouse, is what the sisters are formed to do in their novice training. Most of the Dominican sisters look fondly on this period of their lifelong religious formation. Though it can be difficult because it is so self-revealing, the novitiate is also a time to discover the beauty of the Lord. One novice, speaking of the blessing of the canonical novice year, when the sisters plumb deeply the meaning of the vows they soon will take, said that studying the vows showed her “what religious life is as it is truly meant to be. The being—as I’m coming ever more to understand—is key. We’re all so used to trying to prove ourselves, so the big revelation is that this life is not so much about me as it is about Christ.”
St. Catherine of Siena, a Doctor of the Church and one of the greatest of Dominican saints, taught that the first step in the spiritual life is to dwell in “the cell of self-knowledge,” to know the self as one really is and to know God as He is. “I am he who is,” the Lord said to St. Catherine, “and you are she who is not.”
To move even a fraction toward the depth of understanding of a St. Catherine, one needs certain times of silence. Laypeople struggle to provide for silence. The Dominican novices, however, as one of the young sisters commented, enjoy leisure in the sense Josef Pieper meant it in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, when he described leisure as contemplation. Silence is absolutely necessary to the spiritual life. If there is no silence, there can be no listening. If there is no listening, the voice of God cannot penetrate one’s heart.
The aim of all religious life is, as Sr. Ann Marie defines it, “union with God in love.” Therefore, Mother Christine emphasizes that all spiritual life is contemplative, and all religious orders are contemplative before they can be apostolic. “There is no vocation without contemplation,” she says, and “Christ’s love will always intensify; it will never get boring. It can’t because it’s infinite”
Rebuilding Religious Orders
During the 60s, many religious orders that took a nosedive can trace their loss of spiritual energy to diminishment of the interior life. They succumbed to the same temptations of laypeople; in other words, they chose to make their apostolates—often quite legitimate and noble works—superior to their contemplative life. Without the nourishment of adequate prayer and interior dialogue with Christ, they found their vocations ebbing away, and countless religious men and women left their orders.
Mother Christine and other members of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious are intent on carefully fostering the new shoot of healthy vocations. They strive to exercise what Vita Consecrata calls “creative fidelity,” which means to think creatively while remaining faithful to the magisterium of the Church and to the charism, or family trait, of each particular order, whether that charism be caring for the elderly poor, as with the Little Sisters of the Poor; guarding human life in all its forms, as with the Sisters of Life; or teaching youth, as with the Dominicans. The Council of Major Superiors, made up of superiors of about 100 congregations representing approximately 10,000 American women religious (not including cloistered), is itself a primary sign of creative fidelity. In a significant effort, the council has recently opened its House of Studies in Rome, an acknowledgment that strong and proper formation is essential to the health of religious congregations.
Within her own congregation, Mother Christine and her governing council are moving slowly and prudently. They hearken to the example of the late Mother Marie William, who successfully guided the Nashville Dominicans through the treacherous waters of post-Vatican II reform. In response to the request of Vita Consecrata that all institutes of consecrated life draw up as soon as possible a ratio institutionis, or “formation program inspired by their particular charism,” the Nashville congregation has just completed its ratio. The object of the ratio, according to Vita Consecrata, is to show future generations “how to pass on the institute’s spirit so that it will be lived in its integrity by future generations.”
In this delicate springtime, each order must understand what it is about and what its founder intended. “We’re one light in the Church,” Mother Christine says. “We’re not the light; that’s Christ.” Vita Consecrata, she explains, urges all orders to go back to their founders and their constitutions. That return to the bedrock keeps a congregation alive; it recalls each order to its purpose, goal, and particular place in the Church.
“A religious order can go out of existence, just as a family can,” Mother Christine says. “You can make wrong choices innocently. So you have to bring out things both old and new; you have to stay authentic.” Just as in marriage, she says, love and life get richer. “So we have to constantly readjust; we have to reevaluate. Because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. We have to be careful that we don’t just take on more work. ‘Creative tension,’ we call it in the Dominican order. ‘Intelligent fidelity to the Gospel’ is the phrase in our constitution.”
To carry out the synod’s admonition to teaching institutes to remain assiduously active in their education apostolate, the Nashville congregation decided as part of creative fidelity to take on three additional schools in three years. Instead it has added five, recently accepting Francis Cardinal George’s invitation to teach at Our Lady of Victory School in Chicago.
Still, Mother Christine cautions against pride. Because Vita Consecrata teaches that each community has to live its charism and makes its own unique contribution to the Church, “it reminds us that we are not a doer of everything. We have to ask, ‘What’s my primary life?’ We contribute, but we don’t do it all. Vita Consecrata makes this essential point beautifully when it emphasizes that each religious institute is a vital branch of the whole vine. Together, all the institutes make present in the Church and in the world the many specific characteristics of Christ.”
As Pope John Paul II so often does, he has summed up the goal of the consecrated life and its place in the Church. Mother Christine tells the story of a dinner that took place during the synod on consecrated life, at which the Holy Father was present. When asked what result he hoped to see from the work of the synod, the pope looked up and smiled. With one word, he answered, “Holiness.”