Yesterday about four hundred people gathered in our provincial house chapel to witness the final, perpetual vows of Sister Mary Kelley Rush. It was a glorious (and long) celebration of Mass. Today when religious Sisters are few and far between some people, even Catholics, don’t know one. Neither do they know about Sisters. Several times I’ve heard the comment, “When the church allows women to be priests, you sisters will be able to be priests.” Wrong! A consecrated religious woman and an ordained priest are two different species. (I have no desire to be a priest.) A Sister is called by God to offer her whole life to him. She follows Jesus and imitates him usually by making the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. She belongs to a particular congregation founded for a certain purpose and marked by a charism, that is, a special gift for the benefit of the whole Church. Congregations can be devoted to social action, promoting life, giving retreats, missionary work, or publishing. Others focus on the traditional ministries of teaching and nursing. We Sisters of Notre Dame, who trace our roots back to the French revolution when the Church was being snuffed out, were founded to catechize, especially poor children.
The life of a Sister is rather unique, because she belongs to a large family of like-minded women, who support one another financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Usually a Sister lives in a community of two or more, although she may live alone for the sake of her ministry or health. In the latter case, she still is in contact with her Sisters by belonging to a group of them who pray and celebrate feasts together regularly.
A Sister prays a lot— for the world, her family and friends, and the Church. As a Sister of Notre Dame, every day I go to Mass; pray the Rosary; meditate; pray Morning, Midday, Evening, and Night Prayer from the Prayer of Christians; make an examination of conscience, and read from a spiritual book.
Mary, the Mother of God, is the patroness of our congregation, and inside the silver band of our “wedding” ring are the words “All for Jesus through Mary” engraved in French.
An advantage of working for the Church and the world as a member of a congregation is that you have much more power. Synergy is at work (when 2 + 2 is greater than 5). For one thing, we SNDs have taken corporate stands for pure, accessible water and against human trafficking.
We Sisters are sometimes referred to as nuns. Strictly speaking, we are not. Nuns are consecrated women who live in a cloister apart from “the world.” Sisters, on the other hand, are activity engaged with the outside world. In our case, we strive to proclaim to others God’s goodness and provident care.
Sisters wear something distinctive to indicate they are a member of their community. SNDs all over the world wear the same crucifix. As for the habit, there are good reasons to wear it or not. We are free to decide what we will do.
Before a Sister makes final vows, she goes through a formation process that is much longer than the typical engagement period of a married couple. After entering the convent, she may be a candidate and spend time discerning her vocation. She may become a postulant (someone who “asks” to join). Then usually two years as a novice follows, culminating in the profession of temporary vows. The period living under temporary vows lasts at least five years. Then the Sister makes perpetual vows.
The male counterpart of a Sister is a Brother. He too makes vows and belongs to a congregation but is not an ordained priest. Some communities comprise both priests and brothers.
Sisters are not saints, but saints in the making. We have our faults and fight temptations like anyone else. We try to be true to the vocation God has called us to, aware that it is not a better lifestyle than others, but different. All of us children of God are on our journey back to him and depend on grace to see us safely home. We are just in separate lanes.
What Sister has had a positive impact on your life?