I received a phone call from Sister Maxine in December and she told me: “I’ve decided what I would like you to give me as a Christmas gift this year.” I said: “Oh!” She said: “Yes, I would like you to speak at my 70th Jubilee.”
What could I say? Here I am.
Today we celebrate 215 years of consecrated life in the persons of Sister Maxine, Sister Monique, Sister Edna and Sister Catherine.
For those of you who have heard me speak on behalf of the Religious Retirement Fund, you know that American women religious have the longest life expectancy of any given demographic on the planet. (So if you are looking for longevity, have I got a vocation for you!) What is misleading in that collection is that women religious don’t exactly retire. For statistical purposes, any woman religious who sails through their 70th birthday is technically retired, but our vocation is not and never has been a job.
We are women on mission; ours is a life form, a way of being in the world which is constitutive to being apostolic women religious. When we vowed to follow Christ in poverty, chastity, and obedience, it was not until 5 p.m., nor Monday through Friday, nor until our 70th birthday or even our 70th Jubilee. It was forever!
Each of the women we celebrate today did not enter a generic religious order. Rather, each responded to a personal call to follow Jesus Christ in a particular congregation with a particular charism in the Church.
The names of the congregations tell us a little bit about the spirit or charism of the congregations: Sisters of Divine Providence, Sister Servants of Immaculate Heart of Mary, Daughters of Wisdom, and Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
For Sister Maxine, her call compels her in such a way that every breath is committed to the co-creation of a world of compassion, justice and peace. Maxine and her sisters nurture in themselves and in all they meet a trust and confidence in God’s faithful presence.
Sister Monique and her sisters commit themselves to follow Jesus as a community of disciples fully aware that they are sent to be a clear and understandable prophetic witness to the presence of God in the world. Central to their charism is “to rejoice and to share in Jesus’ redemptive mission to proclaim God’s universal love and to recreate the face of the earth.” Sister Monique lives her vows through the power of Jesus and with devotion to Mary as a prophetic sign of hope in our world.
Edna responded to a call to a life in a community that seeks and contemplates Divine Wisdom, present in a world that hungers for meaning, justice, and compassion. The Daughters of Wisdom seek to bring the message of Jesus, Incarnate Word, to people experiencing injustice, violence, poverty, and oppression, especially women and children. All of their choices are guided by these priorities.
And Sister Catherine, 25 years of faithfully following Jesus Christ have led you through two congregations and three continents to a moment when you founded a new community: the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament of Nigeria. Yours is a community with great devotion to Eucharistic Adoration and for whom “GOD FIRST” animates all of your apostolic works.
I have been reflecting on the mission and purpose of these religious congregations and the quiet fidelity of these women. I have also been watching the series “Call the Midwife” on Netflix with one of my Swiss sisters who’s living with me this semester. I think all of this contributed to a dream I had a few weeks ago.
The dream placed me in the cave in Bethlehem the night that Jesus was born. Now, while the gospel accounts tell us that Jesus was conceived through the Holy Spirit, it was Mary who gave birth to him. Have you ever considered: Who helped Mary in her labor? In the dream, it wasn’t Joseph or the shepherds, but it was the women in the village who came to Mary’s assistance. This would have been a very common practice in small villages in first-century Palestine. These unknown women assisted in the messy business of Jesus being born. And while they are never mentioned in the nativity narratives nor depicted in nativity art except for the lower right corner of the Nativity Icon and in one or two obscure renaissance paintings, I am confident that they were there.
I mention this because, in our tradition, we speak about our call to discipleship in the shadow of the cross -- and the women were there too! But what I am suggesting is that for many there is a call to discipleship in the shadow of the manger. Theologian Sister Margret Guider asks: “How might our theological vision be enriched if we were to give as much consideration to reflection on the fragility of the Newborn Infant as the vulnerability of the Crucified One?”
For many religious women, the shadow of the Manger falls across their lives with a power similar to the shadow of the Cross and compels them to discipleship committed to the poor, the fragile, the stranger, the oppressed, the outcast in prophetic witness, fully knowing that the prophets are often not received well or taken seriously.
It is not what we wear but where we are that matters. We stand in solidarity with those who struggle and who are marginalized. We commit ourselves to making God’s presence more visible in the world.
I am reminded of the words of Father Pedro Arrupe, S.J.:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, that seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
What you do with your evenings,
How you spend your weekends,
What you read, whom you know,
What breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
The leap of faith required to live out a religious vocation for 25 years, 60 years, or 70 years finds its source in God, in falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. These sisters fell in love, they stay in love, and it has decided everything. Muchas gracias, Madres! Thank you sisters for your service and your witness!