Last Word: Living Witness

Can Religious Life Be What It Once Was?

In the fall of 2009, less than six months after graduating from college, I found myself meeting with a vocation director about the possibility of a call to religious life. As I would soon learn, our conversation followed a fairly standard pattern. After small talk about my job and daily life, the director asked a series of questions: What was my relationship with God like? Why did I think I was called? What were my fears or hesitations about religious life?

That last question in particular stayed with me. How do you tell a vocation director you’re scared that the life you feel called to may be dying? Or that you don’t want to spend your life preoccupied by, or in direct care of, an aging population? But that’s basically what I said. I feared being alone in religious life; I feared witnessing the failure of a group I’d given my life to; I was scared my life would be consumed by their death.

The vocation director acknowledged my concerns and assured me precautions had been taken to prevent such things from happening. Before I knew it, we were off to meet a few sisters and see important sites. First we visited sisters at the congregational retirement home. That was disconcerting. Still, I pressed on. Our next stop, though, unsettled me even more: the cemetery. As I gazed on the rows of headstones—all those buried sisters—it occurred to me that this wasn’t the best place to take a potential candidate. It seemed to provide a good reason not to answer the call to religious life. Yet I did.

Now, four years later, I’m a novice with that congregation. Every morning I pray with my community. Our general intercessions include the names of our sisters who have died on that day over the years. With over 165 years in Philadelphia, there is no day of the year when we don’t remember death. In many cases, the names are just words on a page, signifying that as long as this way of life goes on, so will we. Some days the sisters reminisce after prayer. This tradition serves as a beautiful reminder of our own mortality—and of our faith’s promise of eternal life. The discomfort I felt during that first graveyard visit has dissipated. I find myself among women who invested their lives and followed the call of Christ. That sense of belonging helps me carry on. I know that I am in the company of sisters who are close to Christ, whether they are above or below ground.

Over the past year, however, the recitation of our necrology has taken on new meaning. The list is growing all the time. In 2012, we lost forty-two sisters. In the first four months of my novitiate, nineteen sisters died. Death hangs overhead, reminding me not only of our mortality, but also that we’re running out of nuns. What religious life once was, it can no longer be. As our membership shrinks, our dedication must grow—dedication to being witnesses to the Gospel in the everyday, embracing what it means to be poor, chaste, and obedient every day of our lives.

Our witness must be visible in something more than our numbers. It has to be evident in our lives in and as the church. That is the future of religious life: the witness of an authentic choice to live lives intentionally and communally rooted in Christ. That means refusing to allow ourselves to be comfortable with the way things are—both in the wider world and in our own religious lives. It means listening—to one another, to those outside our community, and to the Holy Spirit.

The ideas of the past can’t take us into the future. That way of living—of big institutions and pervasive Catholic culture—is dying, if not dead. We mourn the loss; we remember and we celebrate. Without forgetting, we move on. We become the witnesses Christ needs today. We seek new life and trust that this form of life will go on. We look to the future and hold firm to what has brought us this far: love of God and love of neighbor. For if those two things have taught us anything, it is that death is not the end. It is simply our chance to surrender to all God has planned for us. 

About the Author

Colleen Gibson is a novice with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia and blogs at Wandering in Wonder.

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