The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is the largest diocese in the United States with almost five million Catholics. As a result, it has one of the greatest numbers of women religious in the country as well.

I have the privilege of being Vicar for Women Religious to this highly diverse group of consecrated persons for the last four years. It has been quite an experience to come to know the 120 different communities of women and the more than 20 different ethnic groups to which they belong. So let me share my “world” with you!

The women who serve in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have come here from all over the world as missionaries to minister to their people and to the Catholics of the archdiocese.

We have sisters from different parts of Africa, from Armenia, India, China, the Philippines, Haiti, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Middle East countries, Poland, Slovakia, Vietnam and almost every nation in Latin America. I work closely with the immigrant sisters, trying to orient them to life and ministry in this country.

Besides the rich diversity of ethnicity we enjoy among us as religious, I also came to discover a world of diversity in forms of “consecrated life.” I put this term in quotation marks because it may be unfamiliar for you.

nWhat is consecrated life?

This is the language canon law uses to refer to all persons who seek to deepen their baptismal consecration and follow Christ’s own lifestyle more closely through the vowed life. The most familiar category to the average Catholic would be members of religious institutes — sisters.

Sisters are often referred to as “nuns,” although that term technically refers to members of cloistered communities, of which the archdiocese has three: Carmelites, Dominicans and Poor Clares. I love to visit them.

These nuns live out their consecrated life within their “cloister” or convent and are not the sisters you would encounter around the archdiocese in active ministries — those are members of apostolic communities of which we have approximately 110 different ones!

Some of these apostolic communities have been around for hundreds of years, founded in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to educate or care for the sick and the poor. For the Year of Consecrated Life, I asked religious to fill out a survey for me including when they were founded and when they came to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Some of the earliest groups in foundation who minister here were the Sisters of the Company of Mary (1607), Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul (1633), and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (1641). The first of the sisters to come to Southern California were the Daughters of Charity in 1856 (to open hospitals) and the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, both in 1889 (to open schools).

Since then, apostolic communities have ministered in a myriad of ways, going out to the margins — or “the peripheries” as Pope Francis would say — to care for the underserved. We have sisters running food programs, doing early childhood education, parish ministry, elder care, evangelization through radio, printing and other forms, running youth camps and bible camps, prison ministry, homes for victims of domestic violence and everything else you can imagine.

One of our newest groups from the Philippines, the Mary Queen of Heaven Missionaries, who work with prostitutes and their children in their native land, are translating that into working with victims of human trafficking in the Los Angeles area. We call them the “pink sisters” because when they are not in ministry that is the color of their habit.

There are also communities that have come into existence since Vatican II as a response to the call for renewal in religious life and St. Pope John Paul II’s call to the new evangelization. Many of these communities do not define themselves as religious and I refer to them as “Diverse Forms of Consecrated Life.”

This group was a whole new reality for me when I became vicar, even though I had been a religious for over 40 years. I had known about “secular institutes” whose members live “in the world” and work for the sanctification of others “from within,” such as the Institute of Our Lady of the Annunciation.

They typically live alone, although we also have the Focolare and Father Kolbe Missionaries of the Immaculata who live in community, and their service to the world is not necessarily in church ministry, although it can be.

This is confusing, I know! There seem to be more groups who are what I call “hybrids,” combining elements that properly reflect membership in religious communities. Another case in point are contemplatives that aren’t cloistered. The Trinitarians of Mary and the Pusong Carmelo are two examples of this category.

We have other groups that don’t fit the traditional definitions of consecrated life — such as the Marian Community of Reconciliation, who are a Society of Apostolic Life, and the Koinonia John the Baptist, a mixed community of men and women that is a Lay Association of the Faithful that has consecrated members.

Other movements have consecrated members as well, like the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity. Then there is the order of Consecrated Virginity, women who are consecrated to the Church of a diocese who live individually. This is the most ancient form of consecrated life and includes the early virgin martyrs like St. Agnes, St. Cecilia and St. Lucy.

I am also working with some “founders” of new communities. This is very exciting but also a slow process for them to gain recognition. There are various steps they go through and they need to withstand the test of time and numbers, stability and resources.

All of this experience has given me some insight into what it may have been life for the founders of past eras. My own founder, Mother Maria Pia Backes, would speak of the resistance or slowness of bishops in those days to support her enterprises.

I hope I am not standing in the way of the Holy Spirit today working through these founders! I pray for discernment with them, trying to encourage them but also keeping them aware of the requirements.

nDiscerning the call

I find it fascinating that there is such a variety of forms of consecrated life, however, it makes it quite complicated for women discerning a call.

Where to start! There are so many choices. My office receives all inquiries related to consecrated life that come to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It may be different in other dioceses, but contacting your local vicar or vocation office may be a good way to begin.

Most communities have websites, and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles website is developing one for religious (consecrated) vocations, so that is another resource. When I am contacted, I try to meet with the person and find out what attracts her, what her deepest desire is in relation to her discipleship and then direct her to a few possible contacts if appropriate.  

The Holy Spirit is alive and well in relation to consecrated life, renewing established groups, creating something new in other cases, and in some instances bringing communities to a peaceful end. I have the privilege to journey with all of them, attempting to be attentive to their needs and to read the signs of the times with them.

The diversity we enjoy in our local church is an incredible gift and reflective of the many forms of consecrated life that exist in the universal Church. I doubt anyone outside my office has a sense of just how great a variety we have, not because it is a secret, but because these women are about service and not about advertising themselves.

That is why it is such a pleasure to share this information with you. Delight with me in the work of the Holy Spirit and the remarkable women living consecrated life in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles!

This story originally ran in Vocations and Prayers, Vol. 24, #3, 2015.