CLINTON - On Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, faithful of the Diocese of Raleigh honored Sister Theresine Gildea, C.D.P., and Sister Connie Gilder, S.S.J.
Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama celebrated Mass at Immaculate Conception Church to honor the sisters. The town’s mayor, Lew Starling, was present as well.
Just as Catholic married couples would celebrate their 25th, 50th, and even 60th wedding anniversaries, sisters in religious life celebrate jubilees. A jubilee is the anniversary of when a sister entered or professed vows in her religious community. Interestingly, this celebration took place only few days before the World Day for Consecrated Life, which is celebrated Feb. 2.
This year Sister Theresine celebrated 65 years, while Sister Connie celebrated 60.
“When we said ‘Yes’ to the Lord, we had our own expectations, and what a beautiful surprise when we see what God has to offer us … his love”, Bishop Luis said.
Speaking directly to the sisters, he added, “The Lord wants us to see the best in other people and the good things that another person has to offer and not to criticize them, and you had experienced that in your own life. How wonderful it is to see how merciful the Lord has been with each one of you … molding your soul so he can shine through you.
“I personally owe a great deal to religious women in terms of my own growth in prayer and heightened awareness, especially during my early school years because the sisters put the seeds to grow my faith that later on grew into my vocation.”
As part of the Eucharistic celebration, both sisters renewed their vows and, just as they did on the day of their profession as religious, responded with an affirmation to all the questions and promises to continue strive for that life of perfect chastity, obedience and poverty.
At the end of the Mass, Sister Constance Gilder shared a reflection about the vocation to religion life. She highlighted the importance of the contributions made by women in the construction and solidification of Christian life as well as the current situation of religious women. She said that she feels confident about the future those who decide to consecrate their lives to the service of God will have.
The celebration continued with a lunch and live music in the community center near the church.
Lew Starling, mayor of Clinton, recognized the sisters with an honorary title of mayors of the city of Clinton in recognition for their community service. He also presented the bishop with a key to the city.
Sister Constance Gilder’s reflection
Sister Sandra Schneider, noted theologian and scripture scholar, describes the vocation to Religious Life as, I quote: "A vocation to the single-hearted, life-long, exclusive-of-all-alternative quest for God above and beyond and through and for all that one human life has to offer.”
I doubt very much that Sister Theresine was thinking along these lines 65 years ago when she walked through the doors of Providence Heights to begin her life as a sister of Divine Providence. In fact, she thought her life would take a different direction -- after all, she was engaged to be married. Certainly, I did not know when I walked through the doors of St. Joseph Convent 60 years ago. I, too, thought my life was headed in a different direction.
What we did know was that something inside us would not let go of us. We were compelled to take that step, not really knowing what it meant; still we did it. We did not know that embarking on this journey would cost us not less than everything. Nor did we know that this life would enrich us beyond all measure -- that giving our lives in service to the Gospel would bring fulfillment, tears, grief, compassion, joy and so much more. Today, on this World Day of Consecrated Life, we celebrate all women and men who have responded to that call -- that heart nudging that would compel them to give themselves totally to the quest for God. We celebrate those who may be experiencing that heart nudging now and in the future....
Always in response to the needs of the times, women religious built school systems throughout this country. They founded universities, hospitals, institutions to care for orphans, the elderly, the poor and the homeless, even the first health insurance plans. Women religious were the backbone of social services to serve all people. Whatever was needed, they were there to respond in whatever way they could. There were many of us in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. We built bigger motherhouses and novitiates to accommodate the vast number of women dedicated to serve God. But that was not sustainable.
We began to see a shift in the 1970s. Fewer women were entering convents, yet they were engaged in ministries once held by women religious. Many struggled to understand this phenomenon. Yet we trusted that God was leading us, and our role was to be faithful.
Today, women religious are fewer and older. The median age in many religious institutes is 80 or more. While there are still some young women whose hearts reverberate with that call, they are few. We no longer run the institutions we once founded. Those institutions have been handed over to competent and dedicated lay people. Many of us no longer have the physical stamina to do what we did with such abandon in the past.
This could sound like the "swan song" of Religious Life. But that is not the case; something wonderful is happening. Our prayer life is deepening; our experience of God is richer than ever before. We are freer than we have ever been. A new expression of Religious Life is emerging in our midst. What it will look like, we don't know, but we trust. The young women who are joining us now are deeply committed to the mission of Jesus and very clear about their call and what they will do. They are few, but very fine. This is an exciting time.
We have always been in a discernment, pondering, "What does God ask of us for God's people and the life of the world?" The signs of the times and our ability to respond to those signs were the driving force that created all those institutions mentioned earlier. Today, things are different. The needs of our world are many. So, we women religious ask now, "What does God ask of us now for God's people and the life of the world?"
We pray deeply, and we contemplate. We listen for God's voice to guide us. What we are learning is that Religious Life is in a major transition -- something new is emerging that will bring a new expression of Religious Life to the world. Our role is to be faithful to our call, to let God be God, and trust that what is happening is of the Spirit.
Perhaps what God is asking of women religious today is to be living examples who can witness to this needy, divided and wounded world:
- That aging is not a bad thing -- it can bring wisdom, peace and gratefulness for the gift of life
- That loss is a necessary component of the Paschal Mystery -- letting go of what was can bring newness and even new life
- That what really matters is how we treat every person -- with respect and the dignity he/she deserves as a child of God, no exceptions
- That, ultimately, we are all one; everyone is brother and sister to each of us
- That loving self and others is a very good thing
If our lives can witness these essentials to others, then our mission is clear: we are called to be a loving, trusting, grateful and peaceful presence in our world. It is not about doing but about being a God-presence to others. As Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine Sister, international lecturer and social analyst states, "Our work is seeking God, seeing God and speaking God." Perhaps our greatest work is now. Perhaps this time is the time when Religious Life makes its greatest impact in our world.
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