11Jun A laywoman commends apostolic religious life

Following the furore and fall out of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s censuring of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, there has been much discussion in the media and online, about Religious life and what it does, or should, entail. One particular comment has come up here and there, and it has stuck with me for its lack of comprehension of what it is to be an Apostolic Religious. That is: “why would a woman enter an Apostolic Order these days, when everything that they do, she can do without making vows, or leading a Conventual lifestyle?” Variants on this comment include those who point out that more young women are now entering Contemplative Orders rather than Apostolic ones, and those who say that there is no need for Apostolic Religious Life any more.

As a laywoman, I would like to take on this discussion, as I feel there really is still a need for Apostolic Religious in the world, but I would like to make a couple of points clear first:-

  • I am in no way suggesting that Apostolic life should be raised above Contemplative, or vice versa – the calling to Contemplative Religious Life is just as valid, just as important, and just as beautiful.
  • As a laywoman, I am only able to base my discussion on the observations I have made of Apostolic Women Religious. I am blessed to work for an Apostolic Order, and I count a number of Women Religious amongst my dearest friends – but, as a laywoman, my view is limited to that experience.
  • I have also been blessed to experience one particular Apostolic charism (Mercy) throughout my life, and I would count myself fairly familiar with it, and it’s history – but that does not mean I am knowledgeable about other charisms, nor does it mean my understanding of the Mercy charism is complete, or as whole as it would be if I were a vowed Religious.

With that in mind, I would like to start by considering an old fashioned term for a Woman Religious – “Bride of Christ”. A bride is a woman who is, on that day, becoming a wife. As a wife, she will form a partnership with her husband; together they will share their lives, interests and values. Particularly in the past, a wife would work with her husband – think of a fisher’s wife, or a farmer’s wife. Even today, in the Protestant traditions, a vicar’s wife is a role that the bride knowingly takes on. Bride of Christ – wife of Christ – what does that mean, in the light of the traditional role of the bride, the wife? Christ moved from town to village, healing, teaching, preaching. He lived lightly, in community with a small group. He ate with the tax collector, he pardoned the sinner, he welcomed the stranger, he touched the leper. So, in our cultural understanding of the role of wife, a wife of Christ should surely share in her Spouse’s Ministry? She should go lightly through the world, healing the sick, teaching the uneducated, sharing the Word of God. Living with small groups of like minded women, she should break bread with those disliked in society, have compassion for the sinner, welcome the stranger and offer the gift of friendship to the modern day ‘lepers’.

Christians the world over continue to state the importance of marriage, as opposed to cohabiting – and to me, this is important in considering why women still consider Apostolic Religious Life. Just as a woman can be a partner, without being a wife, a woman can lead a Christ-like life without being a Religious – but, to make a vow, either with her human spouse, or with Christ, places a level of dedication on that life that is not developed in any other way. A laywoman can dedicate her life to the works of Christ, and, as an individual, with support from her parish, can probably spend her entire three score and ten doing good works – but she always has the option of taking a day off. A true wife never takes a day off. She may take days when she retreats, and recollects – but that vow has been made, and will be kept. And the days spent in retreat still work to the overall goodness of the relationship – whether it is Marriage, or Religious Life.

Leaving aside the metaphor of Religious Life as Marriage, I also want to consider the assertion that a laywoman can do all that an Apostolic Religious can, without the vows of Chastity, Poverty and Obedience, without the Conventual lifestyle. I have had the pleasure of spending time with Apostolic Religious in various different settings: as fellow participants on retreat/reflection days; as fellow students in seminars; witnessing presentations by other Religious on work being done by the Order, as well as in day to day life. I think anyone who says that a laywoman can singularly do the same work as a Religious, is forgetting the power in working as part of a much bigger community. From the support network, to the financial stability – Sisters have a dedicated family all working to the same end(s), in different ways. A lone laywoman does not have that. Even a laywoman working for and with a charitable organisation does not have that.

The nearest equivalent that can be found in lay society is Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement – but my understanding of that commendable movement is that it does involve living communally. The support of knowing that you are working as part of a greater group, in a given Charism, to an end goal or goals, is a lot more powerful than many laypeople would give credit to – that has been my discovery in hearing the shared experiences of Sisters. There is a depth to a shared faith, Charism and mission that cannot be overstated.

An example of this: I, along with seven Religious, attended a presentation on what Mercy is doing to combat Trafficking in People. Only the two Sisters giving the Presentation actually work in this field. Coming away from the discussion that followed, I felt immensely humbled, as well as proud, to be even tenuously connected to these dedicated women, and the Order that supports them in the work they do. I know for a fact that each Sister there felt that same feeling, but far, far more strongly than I ever could. They would go home that night, and pray, alone and in community, for their fellow Sisters doing such important work (as well as for the people being trafficked) – and the Sisters giving the Presentation knew that, and knew that the prayer and support would be ongoing. Not just the support through prayer and sharing though – a number of those Sisters shared how glad they were that, through the communal funds, they were providing financial support to their fellow Sisters’ work as well.

Financial support is a factor in its own right to be considered. Can a laywoman really do all that an Apostolic Religious can? Only if she’s inherited an income! Remember that, as  laypeople, we have to work to put food on our table, and a roof over our head, before we are in a fit state to help others. Being a part of a large Apostolic Order does mean that a Sister can worry about others first, because the Convent or Community House roof is there, and the food is in the fridge. Christ was able to travel from village to town only because the nature of community was such that, in each place, he could find someone with whom to stay. Sisters can travel the world in their work in that same knowledge.

There is also the most important factor in why a woman would join an Apostolic Order these days – because she has heard, and listened to, and had the courage to act, on a call from God, to dedicate herself to living the Gospel in the nearest, truest, sense. To feed the hungry, to clothe the poor, to heal the sick, to welcome the stranger, to love their neighbour not just as themselves, but as God loves them – to dedicate herself so entirely to the work of Christ, that she is, indeed, married to Him. If a laywoman has that Call, she will never feel truly right doing the nearest thing possible, as a laywoman. The voice of God, albeit in the tones and accents of other human beings, and in the life of the world, will call to her continuously.

In considering whether or not a laywoman can do all that a Religious can, without making the vows, or living in community, I have ignored the role of the Associate/Tertiary. A woman can be called to vowed Association with a specific Order and Charism, and yet retain the freedom of being laity. However, the option to be an Associate would not exist without the Order existing in the first place! So, without the active existence of the Apostolic Order, even a vowed Associate could not, as a laywoman do all that a Sister can.

Lastly, to very briefly address the two variants I cited in the opening paragraph:-

  • Statistics from the American Vocations site, vocationsnetwork.org, show that for 2012 so far, 1411 women have been considering Apostolic Religious Life, to 995 women considering Cloistered Life. I have heard that there are similar ratios in Ireland as well. In the American Institute of the Order I work for, alone, there are currently 131 women at various different levels of Discernment and Candidacy.
  • I could easily write a dissertation on why Apostolic Religious Life is still relevant and hugely important today. But, before I do that, read this article – http://www.mercywords.com/Mercywords/Essay%201%20Jan%202012.html – and tell me Apostolic Religious Life is no longer relevant.

I would like to finish with a quote by Angela Bolster RSM, which, for me, sums up what it is to be an Apostolic Religious Sister today, whilst not restating anything I’ve said previously:- “The overall mission of Catherine McAuley and her Sisters was to be love, to be mercy, to be tenderness and compassion, to be inspiration and to be a cause of joy to those with whom they lived and those to whom they ministered”