Teaching Our Faith – Women religious: Ministers of the Gospel

RecordLogo-FThis series of teaching editorials focuses on the call to ministry through five major roles in the Church: priesthood (diocesan and religious), women religious, diaconate, and lay ecclesial ministry.

As I reflect on “the call to ministry through five major roles,” I wonder about the words “ministry” and “roles.” We tend to define ministry or roles as tasks.

This call, however, is deeper. It begins at baptism and grows as it is nurtured by God’s grace, the support of others and the discovery of our unique gifts of being in relationship with God, self, others and the world.

Expressions of religious life have existed for centuries, with many forms and structure to support this response to the quest for God. In early centuries, most women’s communities were cloistered. They engaged in the world through the gift of spirituality and deep prayer.

In the past, apostolic communities of women religious became the workforce for the Church as teachers, nurses or caretakers of children through the establishment of schools, hospitals and orphanages. Women religious seemed an enigma at times: placed between lay and clergy as they lived out their call.

I prefer to reflect more deeply on these realities. What if we see women religious side by side with all the baptized as co-disciples with Jesus, bringing about the radical presence of the reign of God, with each order having a unique call and lived expression?

What if we saw women religious not as the founders of schools or hospitals, but rather as women who respond to the teaching and healing mission of Jesus by proclaiming the Gospel message?

Women religious continue to live on the cutting edge of society and the church, striving to proclaim the Gospel. As our foremothers responded to the immigrants through schools, we now work for legal immigration.

As prior generations of religious developed hospitals to care for the sick, today’s sisters work to uphold the dignity and respect for persons at all stages of life and for affordable healthcare for all, especially the vulnerable, poor and elderly. And who are today’s orphans served by women religious? They are single mothers, abused women, women who have been involved with trafficking.

Some get caught up in the mystique of the good sister of yesteryear, yet behind the yards of serge, women religious were and are engaged in the world. They are not “doing ministry” as much as they are ministers of the Gospel. Though expressions and forms of religious life have changed over the centuries, the reality of being spiritually engaged with God’s people has not.

Service and justice, suffering and compassion, transparency and love, spirituality and integration, discernment and action remain hallmarks of women religious from the past to the present.

The lives of women religious embody a faithful God who constantly calls them into deeper relationships of contemplative love. Each order of women religious has been given a special gift or charism through the founders and foundresses to be nurtured and shared with the church.

There are many expressions of the charisms of consecrated life: monastic, cloistered and apostolic religious, to name a few. As an Ursuline Sister living out an apostolic religious life, I would like to reflect on this life and St. Angela, our 16th century foundress.

The Louisville Ursuline order is described in this way: “The charism of Saint Angela Merici and the Ursulines of Louisville is a contemplative love of God resulting in eagerness and openness to serve the needs of others.” As St. Angela responded to the needs of her time and engaged with the world, we Ursulines have likewise attended to the needs of God’s people and the church and society by being in relationship with God and by being energized by the love of Christ to be at the service of God’s people.

St. Angela did not prescribe a particular ministry; instead she said “live the Christian life nel mondo” (in the world). Thus, Ursuline Sisters are called to be always attentive, aware and reflective of God in the everyday stuff of life and to be engaged with God’s people in the world.

Most women religious profess some expression of the vows of poverty, consecrated celibacy and obedience. The Ursulines take a fourth vow of teaching Christian living. We strive to live a simple lifestyle of sharing in common, owning everything communally, remaining free to love God’s people and listening to the Spirit working within and among us as we live and share the good news of Jesus.

All the baptized are called to lives of holiness and service. While religious life is in transition and transformation, it is a compelling answer to this baptismal call, guided by the Spirit for the sake of the Gospel.

Sister Jean Ann Zappa, OSU, is a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville.

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