Have you ever met someone that made a distinct impression? I think most of us could answer “yes.” Maybe that person didn’t do or say very much, but in their very presence or being, they made an impact, small or large.
I first encountered a religious sister when I was in kindergarten. It was during Lent. Sister (the sands of time have eroded her name) was kind and gentle, listened intently to our five-year-old selves, and really seemed to know about Jesus.
Until that day, I had not yet understood that Jesus had eventually grown from the baby I knew in picture books to the man who would eventually die on the cross for all of us. I remember feeling surprised and a little afraid of this new revelation, but Sister’s gentle demeanour and peace about the whole thing made me think that this grown-up Jesus must be quite wonderful, and then I was very curious.
A quick online search tells me that Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul were nearing the end of their ministry in my hometown. Though I can’t recognize that sister from the photographs, I carry the memory of the day she illuminated Christ for me. I eventually forgot about her – in fact, this memory didn’t resurface until I sat down to write this story – but the imprint on my heart, the one about grown-up Jesus never left me.
It is thousands of small moments like that one that mark the lives of many of us who live in the Diocese of Calgary – churchgoing or not – and exactly why a day of prayer for Consecrated Life is something to celebrate. World Day for Consecrated Life was founded by Pope John Paul II in 1997. Men and women renew their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in parishes worldwide.
“The vocation of consecrated men and women have been for our Church from her earliest days a living witness to the truth of the fact God alone is enough and it is ultimately He to whom we must cling now in preparation for an eternity of adoring Him forever,” said Fr. Cristino Bouvette prior to the renewal of vows at the St. Francis Xavier chaplaincy’s Mass.
Spanning the front of St. Bernard’s church on the Feast of the Presentation, Calgary’s consecrated women, along with a few priests, echoed Anna and Simeon, whose words were shared in the gospel, in proclaiming God’s gifts and committing themselves to service of Him.
“I didn’t realize there were so many sisters in our diocese,” a friend said to me after we’d welcomed representatives from some of the 28 communities of consecrated men and women within the diocese. Neither had I, I admitted, scanning the mostly unfamiliar faces.
The answer to that may lie in the fact that many of them are continually at work with the poor, sick and marginalized, not on the doorsteps of suburban housewives. But if we made a little effort to venture downtown to the FCJ Centre, or west to Mount St. Francis in Cochrane we would find religious houses of peaceful retreat.
Walk into St. Mary’s High School and you might find Sr. Dianne Turner, Franciscan Sister of St. Elizabeth teaching a class. Throughout our city and surrounding communities there are men and women of varying charisms working and witnessing to the love of Christ.
Relatively new to Calgary, but friends with various parishes in our city are the Seeds of the Word Sisters, hailing from Brazil. Inspired by their community is Brittany Andreas, 19-year-old student at Mount Royal University.
After connecting with campus ministries, reigniting her faith and looking to the future, she thought “I need to be open to everything. I can’t force my own vocation.” She began visiting the Seeds of the Word sisters’ home with a few other students. Soon, half-hour visits turned to two-hour heart-to-hearts.
“Hearing the stories of how they came to consecrated life was really beautiful,” Andreas said,
“It was also inspiring to know that they didn’t have perfect backgrounds either, because we all have mistakes that we’ve made.”
I could relate, but was inspired by the courage that Andreas showed in considering the consecrated life. When I was the same age, I wanted to run away if a sister talked to me. Having few encounters with consecrated women in the flesh, my distorted view landed somewhere between my Dad’s stories of nuns reprimanding him in elementary school, the Sound of Music’s cloistered Carmelites and the singing nuns of Sister Act. Like Andreas, it was when I had real-life encounters with consecrated men and women that I came to realize my fear was baseless.
In a conversation with Sr. Dianne Turner after Mass, I admitted to her that my impression of the consecrated vocation when I was younger and unmarried was that it meant being alone. I had many examples of Catholic wives and mothers to draw from, but not very many sisters.
“Really in the end we are not alone because the Lord is with us,” she replied,
“[We have] the angels, the saints, we are never alone. Even if we’re the only one left in our order, which will soon happen to me, but I don’t feel alone because the Lord is always with me.”
In my collective encounters with people like Sr. Dianne or the Seeds of the Words Community, I soon realized that consecrated life also means being a part of and serving a community, and that like in a marriage, that community becomes a family of love.
Sr. Dianne went on to say later in our conversation that what the young need is to pray and ask God what it is He wants. That is the very definition of discerning a vocation – listening for God’s voice.
CCO missionary Chris Kokot, 24, like Andreas has been inspired by the sisters in Seeds of the Word community.
“I’m thinking about their sabbatical year after my commitment to CCO is finished,” he said.
Sharing about how he wants to pursue God’s call for him, he said, “I think the Church needs people who know Jesus in a personal way. Many people have barriers pop up for them when it comes to Church teaching, but people who truly know God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and live it out are what we need more of.”
Chris spends his days with CCO reaching out to students on our city’s post-secondary campuses, and getting to know them with the hope that they’ll come to know God.
“You can know about God, or you can really know Him. There’s a difference,” he said.
It is because of the similarities between charisms or gifts of CCO and the Seeds of the Word community that draws Kokot towards a possible time of discernment with them.
Young, real and welcoming were key words in the rest of my talk with Kokot and Andreas, who felt like they could relate to the young sisters who throw snowballs and watch the same sort of movies.
It is true that many of the religious we see in Canada are, as Sr. Dianne put it bluntly, “old.”
“But I can’t help that I’m old,” she said honestly, wishing that the young might see past the age of many of our consecrated and see the beauty in the life.
Her hope was to inspire women and men who might like to work in Canada, “there are so few sisters to start off with, and many young women, if they are called go online and find an order in the States.
“What we really need is the witness of religious life here.”
“There are so many wonderful orders,” she said of a few we discussed that are primarily in the United States, but we agreed that in our own nation, there is still good work to be done.
In that spirit, Sr. Dianne and the Assembly of Women Religious have a retreat planned on March 7 to encourage women age 16-35 to come and get their questions about religious life answered from sisters representing several communities.
It is with hope that we must look forward to a new generation of consecrated people, while we treasure the work and wisdom of the last.
Written by Jessica Cyr
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers