Religious life: The call continues

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Friar George Munjanattu, O.F.M.Conv., a campus minister at Bellarmine University, blesses a university studentÔÇÖs rabbit on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.

Friar George Munjanattu, O.F.M.Conv., a campus minister at Bellarmine University, blesses a university student’s rabbit on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. (Courtesy of the Conventual Franciscan Friars, Our Lady of Consolation Province)

God’s love continues

By Sister Susan Rose Francois, C.S.J.P.

GOD'S LOVE will always be. It is everlasting and beyond understanding. At our very core, we who have been loved into existence by our Creator are programmed to respond in turn. Each person’s response is unique of course, and the church recognizes vocations to marriage, single life, and religious life as ways we are called to live in and share God’s love.

From the earliest days of the church, some people have been drawn to prayer, community, and common mission as a particular way to live into the vastness of God’s love. For more than two centuries, individuals and groups have felt the inexplicable urge to imitate and follow Christ through the religious life, from the Desert Fathers and Mothers to the monastics, mendicants, apostolic communities, and newer ecclesial movements. If you are reading this article, then most likely you too have felt this indescribable tug. More than that, you are taking the next step in your discernment, seeking to learn if people even do this anymore.

Is religious life alive? Does it have a future? The answer, my friends, is yes! That’s because God’s dream, God’s being, and the needs of the world are so big. How could this unique gift of the church as a way of responding to God’s love ever come to an end, even as it changes?

What is coming to an end, in many cases, is the large-scale religious life that the Holy Spirit called forth and nurtured to meet the needs of an earlier time. My own religious community was founded in the United Kingdom and quickly expanded to the United States to meet the needs of the immigrant church in both countries.

Sisters who belong to Giving Voice, an organization for younger sisters, gather during a retreat.
Sisters who belong to Giving Voice, an organization for younger sisters, gather during a retreat. (Courtesy of Giving Voice)

Many of my sisters entered in large groups, and as soon as they made first vows, they were sent to serve as teachers and nurses in our sponsored works, often without much training or education. This was before the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and the growing understanding of the call of lay people to also share in the mission of the church. After the council, my sisters responded faithfully to the emerging needs of the times. They sought theological and professional education so that they could empower and encourage their lay partners in mission and engage more directly in ministry and presence with people living on the margins. Our mission continues today, in a more collaborative way.

So, too, does religious life, now and into the future. Each generation is called to discern how to bring the light of God’s love to the needs of the age, and the Holy Spirit sends the people needed for that time. As we move into the next decades, could it be that you are part of the equation? Are you called to help make the path by walking?

I do not have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I do see glimmers of the emerging future of religious life present today, here and now. The future I glimpse is smaller and more interconnected. We are invited to live into the bigness of smallness to meet the needs of our age.

I know younger men and women religious who are alive with their charism and passionate about responding to God’s call through prayer, community, and common mission. We have wise elders in our communities who are there to welcome us, mentor us, and dream with us. There is such creativity and energy in religious life today, across and within charism families. It is truly exciting, even if it defies logic.

Friar Andrew Mukosa, O.F.M.Conv. of Zambia, who offers mission appeals in the summer, lends a listening ear to a pilgrim visiting the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio.
Friar Andrew Mukosa, O.F.M.Conv. of Zambia, who offers mission appeals in the summer, lends a listening ear to a pilgrim visiting the Basilica and National Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio. (Courtesy of the Conventual Franciscan Friars, Our Lady of Consolation Province)

I was born a decade after Vatican II, so I have never known the “glory days” of old, nor what it must have been to participate in the Spirit-led renewal of religious life after the council. I have heard stories, but it is not the same. Yet I am here now, in this moment, when the Holy Spirit has called the entire church to walk together on the synodal path.

This is a precious and sacred time to be living religious life. Newer members have the honor of touching the past, soaking in the charism through the witness and love of our elder members, as we dream and live the next chapters of the story of religious life together.

This is a time for both particular charisms and the global charism of religious life. One gift of the demographic reality of men and women entering in relatively small numbers is that we often engage in religious formation collaboratively across congregations. We are building relationships and connections today that will be the seed of future collaboration as we build on the legacies of our sisters and brothers in mission. Through it all, the Holy Spirit is at work.

God’s love continues, and so does religious life.

Religious life today and tomorrow

By Friar Mario L. Serrano, O.F.M.Conv.

WHAT A PRIVILEGE it is to reflect on religious life with people who are considering it. If you are wondering whether a consecrated, communal life dedicated to the gospel is worth living, my short answer to you is a resounding yes!

As you discern religious life, you might be wondering how you are called to live. I know that this can be a very confusing place to be. However, be sure to step into the friaries, the monasteries, the cloisters, and the religious homes where you can encounter religious men and women who have dedicated their life to a religious community and a charism. You (and thousands of others) are proof that young adults are still considering religious life as a viable option in today’s world.

Although we might hear the narrative that religious life is dwindling, or we may see a tireless priest serving as pastor of two or more parishes, or we might notice changes in the ministries performed by religious—even with all that, we should not conclude that there is a lack of vocations. This decrease in the overall number of members in the United States is at times depicted as the demise of religious life. It is not. Every year, men and women continue to join religious communities. The people of God still desire to live their baptismal call to love and serve God as religious. Each year hundreds of U.S. men and women begin life in a religious institute where they live in an intentional community that prays together and serves others in ministry.

Some 400 meals per day are served with a smile at the Franciscan Kitchen in Louisville, Kentucky. Pictured here are Chuck Mattingly, executive director (left) and Brother Jaime Zaragoza, O.F.M.Conv.
Some 400 meals per day are served with a smile at the Franciscan Kitchen in Louisville, Kentucky. Pictured here are Chuck Mattingly, executive director (left) and Brother Jaime Zaragoza, O.F.M.Conv. (Courtesy of the Conventual Franciscan Friars, Our Lady of Consolation Province)

Valarie Kaur speaks of a powerful image of the time we are living now. She states, “My faith dares me to ask: What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” She is referring to society in general; however, religious life is also going through seismic changes. In the United States, as a younger Franciscan friar, I don’t see the tomb ahead of us. Religious life has been part of our church and society for a very long time and I believe that religious life will be part of the future we have yet to see.

Consecrated life—with its dynamic history stretching from the desert hermits to the religious communities of today—excites me as I look toward the future. The reality is that each community is being asked to reinterpret the gospel challenge as our reality changes within society and within the church. As a Franciscan friar, my brothers and I are again being challenged to live an alternative lifestyle, one that requires us to become prophets and mystics.

New, exciting ways of living this life are becoming visible. Along with my brothers and sisters, I am living through what the church calls the Paschal Mystery: the dying, rising, and sending of the Holy Spirit. Although consecrated life is changing, I see it vibrantly alive in many ways. To name just a few examples:

  • Brother Jaime Zaragoza, O.F.M.Conv. feeds God’s people in the Franciscan Kitchen in Louisville, Kentucky.
  • Sister Norma Pimentel, M.J. advocates for migrants and offers them safe spaces to rest and regain strength.
  • Franciscan friars are remaining in Ukraine and also creating places for war refugees in Poland.
  • Father James Martin, S.J. reminds us to uphold the dignity of our LGBTQ+ siblings.

If you are curious about religious life, I would like to tell you that it is a challenging and beautiful life worth living, especially now in our highly digitized and globalized world. This reality has thrust religious life into a new way of being, a new way of living. It is because of technological leaps that I can form relationships with my brothers beyond the borders of the United States. I’m able to foster relationships with friars from Poland, Zambia, Mexico, El Salvador, and any of the 70 countries where our friars are currently ministering. Recently I spent a week with 60 friars in formation who were from 25 different countries. We have new ways to experience community, spiritual growth, and ministry.

DID YOU KNOW?

VISION Vocation Guide receives approximately 5,000 inquiries per year from people who want to learn more about the possibility of religious life.

I entered religious life at age 18 in 2001, as the new millennium was beginning. I cannot believe I have been with the friars for more than 20 years already! I continually fall deeper in love with religious life, with Franciscan life. Francis of Assisi began with a few brothers with a mission to rebuild the church. He did not seem preoccupied with there being only a few brothers. Francis wanted each friar to be vigilant regarding his prayer life. He himself was nourished by his profound encounter with Jesus before the San Damiano Crucifix, an experience that transformed his life. Francis heard the crucified Christ speak: “Francis, don’t you see that my church is falling into ruin? Go and rebuild it.”

After this encounter with Christ, Francis sought to live an authentic response as he discovered what needed to be rebuilt. He learned that his mission was not only to rebuild the physical chapel of San Damiano but to rebuild his relationship with God, God’s people, and God’s creation.

What does Francis’ story mean for you today? It means you should continue to practice holy curiosity. Allow yourself to see what I see—that religious life is a large, complex, and living reality filled with possibilities.

Keep seeking and remember that the church needs you! We all need one another’s gifts and prayer. May God bless you as you seek your most authentic form of life. 

Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “Our newest religious possess an age-old Christian virtue: hope.”

Sister Susan Rose Francois, C.S.J.P.
Sister Susan Rose Francois, C.S.J.P. is assistant congregation leader of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.
 
 
Friar Mario L. Serrano, O.F.M.Conv
Friar Mario L. Serrano, O.F.M.Conv. is both secretary of the province and vocation director for the Franciscan Friars Conventual, Province of Our Lady of Consolation.

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