“I wanted to say a word to you and the word is ‘joy’. Wherever there are consecrated people, seminarians, men and women religious, young people, there is joy, there is always joy!” – Pope Francis
The First Sunday of Advent – which fell on November 30th this past year – marked the beginning of the Year of Consecrated Life. It will end a year from now – with the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple on February 2, 2016.1 It is a special time set aside by the Church to recognize and celebrate the gift and mystery of consecrated life. It is an opportunity for all of us to deepen our understanding of religious vocations and to express our gratitude to all religious men and women for the great blessing they are in our lives and in the life of the world.
According to the Canadian Religious Conference (CRC), there are just over 200 religious congregations in Canada today. Of that number, 70% of them are female and 30% are male. In total, there are fewer than 16,000 men and women religious, and the majority of their communities are located in Quebec (68%) and Ontario (16%). Of the remaining number, only 8% are based in western Canada.2 Sadly, this means that many of us have not had the opportunity to develop deep and meaningful personal relationships with consecrated men and women. However, whenever our paths do cross, they touch our lives in deep and profound ways.
I still remember my first ‘close encounter’ with a ‘real nun’. Now you might think that a somewhat random comment. But for someone like me – raised in a strong, Protestant family – meeting someone garbed from head to toe in a religious habit was a more alien experience than you might first imagine. Although I had converted to Catholicism a number of years earlier, the media had largely formed my image of religious life up to that point. I wasn’t sure whether to expect the ‘Bells of St. Mary’s’ or ‘Sister Act’.
In actual fact, I don’t suppose that Sr. Prudence was the very first nun I had met. I remember Sr. Judy, a religious sister at my parish who wore regular street clothes and lived in her own apartment. There was also an elderly Carmelite nun who had taught my husband English in high school. Sr. Louise lived in a big old house in Medicine Hat with two other Carmelite sisters; but though I knew who she was, I never really got to know her. My meeting with Sr. Prudence was the first time I had the chance to talk with someone who not only wore the traditional habit, but who also lived in a convent. It was to mark the beginning of a relationship of friendship, gratitude, and respect for consecrated men and women that continues to this day.
Sr. Mary Prudence Allen R.S.M. was nothing like I expected. She is a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy as well as a renowned and respected Catholic author and philosopher.3 But from the moment we began to speak, she immediately put me at ease. Sr. Prudence was just so kind! It was immediately obvious that she is an academic who has a brilliant mind. But it was equally evident that she is also loving, wise, compassionate, and thoughtful. She’s also a practical woman, with strong convictions and a will of iron. Within moments, Sr. Prudence had gently (but firmly) challenged me to consider what it really means to be faithful to one’s mission and to do God’s will. I will never forget her words of wisdom and advice. I’m not the only one who recognizes the tremendous gift she is to the Church. Sr. Prudence was one of five women appointed to the International Theological Commission by Pope Francis in September, 2014.
Before meeting Sr. Prudence, I had always assumed that living behind protected walls meant you were isolated from the world – that you lived a sheltered life of prayer and solitude. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth! I soon discovered that the Religious Sisters of Mercy were very much engaged in the world around them. Their convent is home to other professional religious women as well: psychologists, medical doctors, and teachers. The Religious Sisters of Mercy live their life in community, but each day they leave the safety and comfort of their convent to go out into the world to teach and serve. I was struck by their inquiring minds, their knowledge of the world, and their keen insight into people’s lives. They have an avid interest in everything going on around them, and when they talk to you, they are truly ‘present’. I was drawn to their warm smiles and welcoming hospitality, and especially by their evident joy and peace. I envied them. To me, they exemplify all that is good – and all that is beautiful – in the vocation to consecrated life.
My family has also been blessed to count a Brother from the Missionaries of Charity among our number. Brother Samuel van der Sloot M.C., my husband’s uncle, lives among the poorest of the poor in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He cares for men who suffer from mental disabilities, and he also offers medical assistance at the nearby hospital. We don’t get to see him very often – he only comes home for a visit once every 7 years – but he writes to us. And every time we receive a letter from him, it is an occasion for joy.
On Br. Samuel’s infrequent visits, there is nothing I love better than to sit at the table as he speaks quietly and humbly of his experiences among the people he serves. Before becoming a Missionary of Charity, he was a White Father in Bangladesh and spent more than ten years in a leper colony in Tanzania. He has served in Missionary of Charity Houses in Paris, London, Mexico, and Guatemala. But Haiti has won his heart; it’s where he wants to die.
Br. Samuel is 84 years old now, and his health is failing. Living among the poor means that he shares their sufferings each day, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite the many hardships he has endured over the years, he feels incredibly fortunate and blessed. When Br. Samuel visited some of his old friends in Holland a few years ago, he saw how many of them feel lonely, isolated, and depressed now that they have gotten on in years. They have comfortable homes and good food, but they lack meaning and purpose in their lives. He, on the other hand, gets up each day knowing exactly what he is going to do. He knows that he matters and that he is needed. He knows that he is God’s hands and feet here on earth – a beacon of love in a world filled with darkness.
But there is no denying that Haiti is a dangerous place. A cousin, Tony, once came to visit, and stopped at a roadside gas station to ask for directions. By the time he came out – perhaps five minutes later – his rental vehicle had been completely stripped, right down to the tires. But when a cousin from Holland visited a few years ago, it was also evident just how much Br. Samuel is loved. The local ‘gang’ offered to serve as Hettie’s tour guides, packing machine guns as they rode in the back of the pickup truck to ensure her safety.
After the devastating earthquake in 2010, some of the family thought that Br. Samuel might want to come home. Dangerous days followed that first seismic shock, and the country was in complete chaos. But he refused to leave – he was almost offended – saying that the people needed him now more than ever. He was fortunate to have survived the quake at all. He had been standing on the rooftop of the main house when the quake struck that day. He watched as the brand new building that was to have been dedicated the very next day collapsed in a heap of rubble in front of his eyes. It was only through God’s grace that no one was inside at that moment.
Not every religious man and woman lives in such dramatic circumstances. Some live quietly and simply among us, teaching in our schools and parishes and providing health care and food to the poor and needy. Although their example of charity and service may go unnoticed at times, the world would be much poorer without them. So today, I’d like to say a special ‘thank you’ to all religious men and women. Thank you for the gift of your lives – for the witness of joy and peace that you share with each one of us. Thank you for the heroic sacrifices you make each day to be the light of Christ in our midst. May God continue to bless and keep you, and may He always hold you close in the palm of His Hand.
– Sharon van der Sloot
“The Year for Consecrated Life concerns not only consecrated persons, but the entire Church. Consequently, I ask the whole Christian people to be increasingly aware of the gift which is the presence of our many consecrated men and women, heirs of the great saints who have written the history of Christianity. What would the Church be without Saint Benedict and Saint Basil, without Saint Augustine and Saint Bernard, without Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Angelica Merici and Saint Vincent de Paul. The list could go on and on, up to Saint John Bosco and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. As Blessed Paul VI pointed out: “Without this concrete sign there would be a danger that the charity which animates the entire Church would grow cold, that the salvific paradox of the Gospel would be blunted, and that the “salt” of faith would lose its savour in a world undergoing secularization” (Evangelica Testificatio, 3).”4– Pope Francis
Prayer for the Year of Consecrated Life6
O God, throughout the ages you have called women and men to pursue lives of perfect charity through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. During this Year of Consecrated Life, we give you thanks for these courageous witnesses of Faith and models of inspiration. Their pursuit of holy lives teaches us to make a more perfect offering of ourselves to you. Continue to enrich your Church by calling forth sons and daughters who, having found the pearl of great price, treasure the Kingdom of Heaven above all things. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
1 For more information on the aims and expectations of the Year of Consecrated Life, see Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter “To All Consecrated People On the Occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life,” available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco_lettera-ap_20141121_lettera-consacrati.html; Internet; accessed 12 February 2015.
2 Yvon Pomerleau, OP, “The Figures Speak for Themselves,” Canadian Religious Conference [website]; published in the CRC Bulletin Volume 11, No. 2 (Spring, 2014); available from http://www.crc-canada.org/en/about-crc/statistics; Internet; accessed 22 February 2015.
3 At that time, Sr. Prudence was the chair of the philosophy department at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. She is now a member of the chaplaincy team at Lancaster University in England.
4 Pope Francis, “To All Consecrated People On the Occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life,” available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco_lettera-ap_20141121_lettera-consacrati.html.
5 There are four main symbols on the logo for the Year of Consecrated Life. The dove represents the action of the Holy Spirit and “evokes the consecration of the humanity of Christ through baptism.” The waters (represented by mosaic fragments) “indicate the complexity and the harmony of the human and cosmic elements that are made to ‘groan’ by the Spirit according to God’s mysterious plans (cf. Rom 8:26-27) so that they may converge into the hospitable and fruitful encounter that leads to a new creation.” The three stars “stand for the identity of consecrated life as confessio Trinitatis, signum fraternitatis e servitium caritatis.” The polyhedral globe “symbolizes the planet with its myriad varieties of nations and cultures.” For more information, see “Consecrated Life in Today’s Church: Gospel, Prophecy, Hope,” Vatican Website; available from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccscrlife/anno-vita-consacrata/logo_anno-vita-consacrata_en.htm; Internet; accessed 12 February 2015.
6 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Prayer for the Year of Consecrated Life,” available from http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/consecrated-life/year-of-consecrated-life/; Internet; accessed 12 February 2015.