ST. LOUIS — “I loved the Lord. I tried to be as faithful as I could,” Sister Ann Shields, SGL, explained. But during “a period of great turmoil,” she had lost her faith in God.
The “rocky times” after Vatican Council II were not without its causalities. She struggled with obedience to things she hadn’t signed up for as religious sister. We’re talking heresy, as she explained it, not habits. She struggled with her very faith.
But Sister Shields encountered a charismatic prayer meeting that didn’t quite seem to have anything to offer her at first. Until, that is, that open door lead her to experience a close encounter with Pentecost -- a “baptism in the holy Spirit” -- where she explains that she felt joy pour over her.
She was reminded who she was, who she became in Baptism, Confirmation, and when she consecrated her life to God. She was renewed in the Spirit that gives us what we need.
And for 47 years, she told 500 women religious gathered to celebrate the Year of Consecrated Life, that joy has not left her. It’s the joy, she said, of “the presence of God.”
“To Wake up the World: Religious Life as Prophetic Witness” was a symposium organized by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious for the second weekend in October. It brought Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, O.P., from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, Sister Mary Prudence Allen, R.S.M., Sister Sarah Butler, M.S.B.T. It was a prayerful opportunity for a reawakening in “the first love,” as Pope Francis often puts it. Young members of 88 religious communities were able to come due to the generosity of the Knights of Columbus and the Hilton Foundation.
“Religious life is not for anything but God — all other aspects are benefits of the charism” of a particular religious congregation, Archbishop DiNoia said during his opening keynote address. He focused on the prophetic witness of consecrated life as rooted in Scripture -- in all that God is and has revealed to us. The Holy Spirit gives charisms — and other gifts -- to people in the Church to help us see clearly, as individual members of the Body of Christ and for the Church itself, DiNoia explained.
“Consecrated life is a total gift… a witness to the supernatural life of Heaven,” Archbishop Andrew Cozzens, auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis said. He emphasized aspects of the countercultural way of self-sacrificial love that consecrated women and men commit themselves to can bring every Christian deeper into the life to which they are called. Each one of us, he said, is “called to life on high in Christ Jesus,” and the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, can help us get here. “The evangelical counsels come from God and bring us to God,” Archbishop Cozzens said. “The evangelical counsels,” he emphasized, “heal humanity.” They “transform us completely toward God.” They “are the way to give all” — “total self-gift on the cross is the icon of the evangelical counsels,” he said.
And, in obvious gratitude, he proclaimed that the evangelical counsels renew the priesthood in witness and practice.
Just about a year ago, Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., superior general of the Sisters of Life and chairperson of the CMSWR spoke at a Vatican press conference announcing the final report of an Apostolic Visitation of women religious that had accrued negative media attention and hostility, disappointment and fear. What was an opportunity for review and renewal, had become a narrative that was in danger of further distancing people from the Church.
When the final report did come out, Mother Agnes said it acknowledged “the fact of the ‘widely diversified expressions of apostolic religious life’ in the United States while focusing on the overall trends evident in the majority of communities.”
“Underneath that broad brush stroke,” she said “there is another trend. It is a quiet one and small, but nonetheless significant, and one which has consistently grown over these first 15 years of the new millennium.” She emphasized that while “the overall trend may be towards aging and diminishment, apostolic Religious Life is not dying in the United States.” She pointed to “reason for hope. The same voice of love which called women to courageously and selflessly tend the poor, weak and young in the past is still calling young women today. It is the voice of Jesus, and the experience of His personal love continues to lead young women to our doors.”
The St. Louis symposium was a snapshot in just that reality — that “reason for hope for the future of women in consecrated life in the United States -- rooted in renewal and healing and a witness to the constant conversion in faith that is the Christian life for each one of us who professes to be a follower of Christ.
Last year, Mother Agnes went on to say:
These women enter religious life out of a world they know well in order to follow and give themselves totally to that which the world cannot give. They are responding to an invitation from the Lord that holds a Divine promise confirming the goodness of their identity as women and their purpose in life, their essential mission of spiritual, maternal love. These women are looking to live — concretely and definitively — in a manner which confirms what they have first experienced in their hearts. The CMSWR has assisted the formation of these young religious that they may, for a lifetime, live religious life “from the inside-out”, i.e., not so much from rule as from the principles which the rule manifests.
And so this weekend aimed to remind the women religious gathered who they are in the Trinity.
We are frail, weak, and sinful, Sister Ann Shields said as the symposium closed. “I need a Savior everyday,” she said, echoing the frequent “I am a sinner” posture of Pope Francis.
Sister Shields, who works with Renewal Ministries and is an author, radio host, and frequent speaker, led the sisters in a silent self-examination: “Is my heart completely given to God? My body? My mind?”
“God is faithful, “ she said, and “when it gets very dark, don’t doubt him.”
As if echoing Pope Francis is some of his morning homilies, calling people out of lukewarm Christianity, Sister Shields emphasized the urgency that the consecrated women gathered allow Jesus to “refashion us,” assuring them that “he knows us intimately through and through,” including knowing “what holds us back from ever deeper union with Him.”
It was hard to be with the sisters and not feel the presence of a spark reigniting a flame that is at the heart of not just consecrated life, but the Christian life. May the refreshment in love and fellowship in faith these women experienced be an aid to the whole Church and all of society. Their prophetic witness can help us all with courage. And, as Sister Shields made clear, there is a great darkness that descends that needs this very light to help show the way to God.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice (available from Our Sunday Visitor and Amazon.com. Sign up for her weekly newsletter here.