Sister Samia Jriej lives in Homs, a Syrian city that has been devastated by eight years of war. Sister Mari Graciana works in a hill region of Peru, where her congregation received special permission from the pope to celebrate the sacraments of baptism and marriage. Sister Cecilia is from Rwanda, a country that 20 years ago witnessed a genocidal war which led to the deaths of over a million people.
These and many others are, according to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), “extraordinary women.”
The latest numbers from the Church’s statistical yearbook says there are over 650,000 religious sisters who dedicate their lives to prayer and service to those most in need.
“At the beginning of my vocation, I wanted to be a sister and have a spiritual life,” Jriej says in a video promoting a campaign of prayer and fundraising for religious sisters launched by ACN. “War has put me through a tough test. Prayer is the most important part of our day because we take care of our people and this represents God’s love on earth.”
The campaign - running during Lent and Easter - aims to illustrate how, from Kazakhstan to Peru, from Syria to Rwanda, religious life is the “beating heart of the Church,” having an impact on countless lives around the world. These are “extraordinary women who embrace the Gospel and the call to go and proclaim the Good News to all creation.”
The website of ACN calls religious sisters the “the living witnesses of God’s love,” who need the prayers and financial support of Catholics from around the world to support their mission.
In her video, Jriej speaks of the devastation that surrounds Homs, and the hope they harbor to rebuild it. She’s the director of Le Sevene, a school for mentally handicapped children; and she also teaches catechesis to the children, something that was never interrupted, even during the worse part of the war.
Catechesis, prayer and moments of play “help the children adapt, and also forget,” because many of them have seen terrible things, a member of the Sacred Heart congregation said. The fact that they keep coming, “gives me hope,” because it shows that despite it all, the Catholic Church is still present in Syria, “it’s alive despite the war.”
ACN is a pontifical foundation that helps Christian communities suffering from persecution, oppression or that are in need. This year’s Lent campaign is raising money for all religious sisters who work in countries “hit by war, poverty or where Christians are a minority.”
“Religious sisters are the heroines of the Church. They show us a way to holiness and set an example for a happy and meaningful life,” said Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of ACN. “This can also be the way to healing for a society marked by ongoing discussion about the role of women.”
According to a statement released with the campaign earlier this month, ACN gives direct support to more than 11,000 sisters. In addition, there are other religious women who benefit from assistance for construction, transport and pastoral projects.
“What would the Church and society be without religious sisters?” Heine-Geldern asked. “This is true in many countries: When the government breaks down and all organizations leave because of the tense security situation - the religious sisters are the ones who stay.”
Religious sisters run kindergartens, orphanages, schools, medical facilities and parishes in war zones, in remote mountain areas in Latin America and continue being what Pope Francis called “the praying heart of the Church” by living in cloisters throughout Eastern Europe.
“Anyone who has put their faith in the prayers of the religious sisters in a time of personal need knows how uplifting it is to be spiritually sustained and supported,” Heine-Geldern said.
Among those religious who dedicate their lives to prayer is Sister Julia from Ukraine, “a land that has suffered a lot: The Soviet Revolution, Great Famine, wars… Many of us think that suffering has no end,” she says in a video available at ACN’s website.
Yet despite the suffering, she says, she’s experienced love, “which triumphs over evil and brings hope.”
“I always prayed for a good husband, children and a great family,” the sister says. “God heard my prayers and I was given Jesus as my spouse. Now I live as Sister Clara with the other nuns in the contemplative order. Our vocation is the perpetual adoration of God through prayer and work, which we do conscientiously, because we believe that small things lead to big ones.”
“Though we may seem to be invisible to the world, we pray for all people every day and ask God for His blessings,” she says. “This is our vocation. Thanks to your help we are able to pray for God’s grace for the world.”
Mother Graciana, from Peru, lives in a small village up in the mountains, where there are no priests. Hence, they received special permission to celebrate some sacraments and distribute Communion. She’s a member of the congregation of Missionaries of Jesus Word and Victim, and together with other sisters “brings happiness and hope,” to the people in the region.
They travel many hours each day to “be with those most neglected,” to “teach them that in the light of the faith they can overcome their difficulties and accept their sufferings because they know something better awaits them,” as she says in a video introducing the work these sisters do.
“We accompany people in their most difficult situations, in their ailments, and we help them to die in peace,” she says. “In those moments they are not alone.”
“We serve these people out of love for God, and this help is possible thanks to our benefactors from ACN,” she says.