|Benedictine Nuns serving Native |
Americans at Mission Station in
South Dakota in late 19th century
The Catholic Church is being invited to meet the Risen Lord in the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and Prayer and to make friendship with him the center of Catholic life. Every Catholic has received this invitation in Baptism, the invitation to accept the Great Commission, to act as evangelists and to measure the truth of Catholic life by the way in which Catholics give expression to the human decency and solidarity that flows from friendship with Christ the Lord.
From this statement let me draw the following principles
1. The Religious vocation, like all other vocations in the Church is rooted in the baptismal vocation common to all Christians.
2. Therefor all Religious, of whatever tradition they belong, are called to participate in the evangelizing mission of the Church
3. The authenticity and power of the Gospel to which they bear witness will be dependent on their integrity as human persons (human decency)
4. Their integrity, in turn, flows from their friendship with Christ
5. This friendship with the Risen Lord is nourished by an immersion in the scriptures
6. This friendship with the Risen Lord is nourished by a rich sacramental life
7. This friendship with the Risen Lord is sustained by a life of deep personal prayer
8. This friendship with the Risen Lord will bring us into a profound solidarity with the least of his sisters and brothers.
Let’s start with proposition one. The Religious vocation, like all other vocations in the Church is rooted in the baptismal vocation common to all Christians. There are those who want to see Religious as set aside from the rest of the people of God, but the Religious Vocation is essentially a lay vocation. The Church, by ancient tradition going back into the first centuries, is divided into two segments of equally sacred character, clergy and laity. Each have their different functions in Christ’s Body (the Church). All, regardless of their lay or clerical status, are equally called to holiness and all find their vocation to be an expression of our common baptism which is what makes us part of this Body of Christ in the first place. While some Religious are ordained to the diaconate, the priesthood, and even the episcopacy, the majority of Religious belong to the laity. The monastic progenitors of the 3rd and 4th century were overwhelmingly lay. Saint Benedict was not ordained. Francis of Assisi had been a layman at the inception of his Order of Friars Minor but was later induced to be ordained a deacon so that he could be canonically licensed to preach. He always refused to be ordained a priest however. Teresa of Avila, Louise de Marillac, Jane Frances de Chantal, Madeline Sophie Barat and other founders of Religious Communities of women were, of course, all members of the laity. Many Religious men, and especially among the monastic and mendicant Orders, do not seek ordination even today. In almost all monastic and mendicant Orders ordained and non-ordained have total equality and seniority has nothing to do whether or not one is in Orders. Ordained and non-ordained wear the same habit in most communities and among some monastic and mendicant communities both ordained and non-ordained go by the title “Brother” rather than the ordained be distinguished by the title “Father.” (The mendicant communities are the Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans, and Augustinians.)
Every Religious Order, Society, and Congregation in the Church has its own distinct charism and traditions so it is difficult to generalize among them. There are some, especially those founded in the 19th and 20th centuries, that are often more clerically orientated than the older Orders. Among communities of Religious women, of course, this distinction doesn’t exist although among some monastic and mendicant communities of enclosed nuns there was a tradition—mostly gone now—of lay sisters and choir sisters.
All this stuff about clericalism in Religious Life is just the whipped cream frosting. It isn’t the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is that Religious Life, of whatever sort, is simply one way to live out one’s baptismal vocation to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. If it is to have any substance, however, it must differ in some way from the general call of the baptized to live lives of discipleship. It isn’t a matter—it can’t be a matter—of giving more of our lives to Christ as all the baptized are called to live lives of total commitment. Perhaps though it can be seen as a call to be more intense, more consciously purposeful, of the universal call to discipleship. I don’t mean this in an elitist way, but more as those who set the tempo for the race. We don’t need Religious to wear different clothing (though I am not against Religious habits) or live in some institution that looks like a medieval castle; we need men and women who by their commitment to Christian discipleship make the rest of ask ourselves: why am I not doing that? Why am I not giving even more of myself? Am I living my Christian life half-fast (as the internet commercial puns it).
This brings us to the second principle we can draw from Weigel’s book. Therefor all Religious, of whatever tradition they belong, are called to participate in the evangelizing mission of the Church. An evangelical life is an evangelizing life. There is no purpose to Religious Life if it is not a spark of life to kindle the hearts of all in the Church and beyond the Church to an awareness that there is more that Life offers and that more is Life in Christ. Saint Francis told his first friars: “Preach the Gospel always; use words only when you must.” We need Religious to be living witnesses of the Kingdom of God—that Kingdom which is Justice, Peace, and the Joy that comes from the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). We don’t need preachy witnesses—we need living witnesses. Frankly we are tired of hearing people get up in the pulpit and tell us how to live a Christian Life. We aren’t stupid. We can read the scripture’s ourselves. Some of us—a lot of us—seem to know the scriptures a lot better than some of those guys—a lot of those guys—who are up in the pulpit, especially the ones with the long red capes and the self-aggrandizing Latin mumbo jumbo. I am friends with several communities of enclosed (cloistered) nuns. I sometimes get invited to give talks on Church history and the history of Religious Life in particular. Let me tell you, some of the best evangelizing is done by these ladies who rarely leave their monasteries. You wouldn’t believe how many people find solace sitting in their chapel while the nuns sing Vespers in the afternoon. You wouldn’t believe how many letters these women get asking for prayers—“for my son who is in Afghanistan” or “for my daughter whose husband left her,” or “for my grandson who has given up the faith,” or “for me, because I am lonely.” The nuns take these letters seriously. They pray long hours for their correspondents. They usually write back. You don’t have to go out and preach or teach to be an evangelizer. You just have to be the sort of compassionate soul that witnesses to the broken and disillusioned hearts around you of the infinite compassion of God. You can do this in a classroom. You can do this working with the elderly. You can do this in a hospital. You can do this driving some old lady to the hair dresser. You don’t have to be working directly for the Church you just have to keep in mind the way that Saint Thérèse of Lisieux described her vocation: My vocation is to be Love in the Heart of the Church. That is what we need Religious to be first and foremost: the Love in the Heart of Christ. Do that and inspire the rest of us to do that and the world will belong to Christ within a generation.
Weigel says that the truth of our Catholic life will be measured by the way in which we give expression to the human decency and solidarity that flows from our friendship with Christ. This is true for all Catholics in our baptismal mission to evangelize, but for Religious I rephrased Weigel to say that the authenticity and power of the Gospel to which they bear witness will be dependent on their integrity as human persons. Whether or not Religious wear a distinctive clothing or live in convents is not a primary concern. What is the primary concern is that they walk the walk of the Gospel. The various traditions of Religious communities or their distinctive customs or dress are all secondary to the primary focus of living a Gospel life.
Though not a part of the Religious Life—or to the life of most of the baptized for that matter—but something for all of us to reflect on is that when a man is ordained a deacon, the Bishop hands him the Book of the Gospels and says:
Receive the Gospel of Christ, Whose herald you are.
Believe what you read
Preach what you believe
Live what you preach.
These words have never failed to strike deep into my soul. This Rite should be transferred from Holy Orders to Baptism/Confirmation. We are all called to evangelize and we will evangelize not by our glib words (whether from the pulpit or in our blogs) but by our living out the Gospel in our daily lives. And for Religious, those who set the pace of our striving for Christ and for his Kingdom, it is particularly important. The caricature of the mean nun in seventh grade is only too well known because there were, in fact, too many of them and there are too many “former” Catholics who alienation from the Church is due to a menopausal bitch in a veil. On the other hand, there are many of us today whose love for our Catholic faith is owed to the wonderful Religious women (and men) who taught us in school, nursed us in hospital, mentored us in College and University to ask tough and real questions in the search of Truth, and prayed for us every day of their lives. But integrity is more than kindness, it is fidelity to the ideals towards which we strive. We have a rather high-end grocery store in our town. It has lovely things—and you pay somewhat dear not only for the lovely things but for the ordinary box of Cheerios or box of penne. I shop there for the olive bar or the fresh bakery but not for the things I can buy much less expensively at Wegmans. And I am a bit put off when I see our local Franciscan Sisters pushing a cart through the aisles with their overpriced orange juice and canned tuna. The superior of a local community of friars gets a brand new Ford Explorer every year. I am not sure what Francis or Dominic would think about that. I know that I would be more open to his ideas when he talks about our need to reach out to the poor if he drove a Ford Focus like Pope Francis. I am not judging—or trying not to judge—and I have to get my own house in order, but I want Religious to be more because I want them to make me think about how I can be more oriented to the Kingdom of God in my life.
Now, if the integrity is to be effective in witnessing, there must not be the sort of barriers that set the Religious off from the rest of the baptized and put them in a separate category by themselves. If they are not in the exact same race for the Kingdom that we are, they can’t set the pace for the rest of us. I think this is one of the problems that religious life set before the changes of Vatican II. The Religious were in a league by themselves and consequently while we admired their fidelity it didn’t challenge us to be more faithful. Poverty, chastity, and obedience for the sake of the Kingdom were their thing, not ours.
I have a funny story about religious habits. Some years ago I was visiting a monastery of cloistered nuns in Saranac Lake and they were telling me a story about a family acquaintance of mine, the local funeral director. He was a generous benefactor of the nuns and he and his wife and their seven kids would often visit the nuns on a Sunday afternoon. In those days, you not only were separated from the nuns by an iron grille through which your vision was somewhat blocked, but the nuns on the other side of the grille wore their grate veils. A grate veil was a common Carmelite custom before Vatican II. It was a veil that could be pulled down over the nun’s face—somewhat like a widow’s veil—so that one could not see the individual nun. The nuns had to wear these veils while meeting in the parlor with visitors who were not immediate family. They did not have to wear them, however, when talking with children. The Prioress told the parents that if they left the room, the nuns could pin back their veils and talk with the children face to face. The parents left the room. The nuns pinned back their veils. The youngest child—about six at the time—in astonishment said: “Holy shit! There’re ladies inside those things!” This was often the problem in the “old church”—the mystique of Religious Life led us to see Religious as someone different than ourselves and thus excused us from the sort of evangelical commitment to which the friar or monk or nun religious priest is called.
I think that a lot of the anger today about Sisters in ordinary garb or priests being called by their given name has to do with the fact that the Religious or priest has climbed down from the pedestal. I think this has been a very healthy development—certainly psychologically and spiritually healthy for the Religious or priest, but also healthy for the laity as it reintegrates the consecrated person into the fullness of the Church and lets them inspire the rest of us to a deeper and more intense life of prayer, community, and service that is our baptismal commitment. To be cont.