Last week I celebrated Mass and visited with women religious from throughout New York State at Stella Maris in Skaneateles. I was happy to see and visit with sisters from various communities I have known and worked with in Buffalo, Ogdensburg, Syracuse and Rochester. The occasion also provided an opportunity to think about how important women religious are in the life of the Church. I would like to note three areas where their contributions are particularly significant: the witness of their lives, education and faith formation and ministries of social services.
When I consider the contributions which women religious have made and continue to make to the Church, the witness of their lives is at the top of the list. Prior to what they do for the Church, I want to acknowledge who they are for the Church.
Through a deepening of their baptismal commitment, women religious keep us focused on Christ, on following Him and imitating His manner of life. They remind us that there is no greater or lasting value than a sincere and wholehearted relationship with Christ. In the words of St. Paul, they have come “to rate all as loss in the light of the surpassing knowledge of my Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:8).
Through the witness of their lives, sisters help us to see the present in terms of eternity. All of us are called to follow Christ and to discover in Him the ultimate meaning of our lives. But religious are given a special experience of Christ and personally called by Him to share in the pattern of His life. This grace is not solely a personal gift, however. It is a gift for the Church. By the total gift of themselves, religious are a sign and prophetic statement of what is to come. Our times need the witness of religious women who believe in the promise of future glory and the joy and beauty of eternal life. How grateful we should all be for their example.
An authentic relationship with Christ always bears fruit in service to the members of His Body. We see this realized in the numerous ways in which sisters minister to God’s people. Their work in Catholic schools and universities is well known. The program and environment of these Catholic institutions are based on principles which recognize the dignity of every human person and his or her eternal destiny. They integrate robust academic programs with Gospel values. As communities of faith, Catholic schools provide the sacred place where students encounter the living God in Jesus Christ and, through the light of the Gospel and the guidance of committed teachers, engage in the dialogue that integrates faith and life. Children and young people are prepared to be good citizens of their country, faithful members of the Church and future heirs of eternal life.
Formation in the faith is an important ministry in our parishes. When we think of passing on our faith, we naturally think about the young. But faith formation is an ongoing, lifelong process. Here, too, sisters have played a leading role. I think of the sisters who over the years have devoted themselves to parish catechetical programs for people of all ages. Their knowledge of our Catholic faith, personal relationship with Christ and concern and love for God’s people contribute to the ardor and zeal with which they pass on our faith. They are always alert and prepared to share the rich treasure of our faith.
When you consider the sisters that you have known, I imagine that, like me, you know many who work in areas of the social services. Pope Benedict reminded us that “following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for and healing the sick, visiting those in prison, etc.” (Pope Benedict, Deus Caritas Est, 31).
I can name particular sisters who have worked and continue to serve in these areas either in hospitals or home care of the sick and elderly, in soup kitchens and food banks, managing clothing drives and in regular visits to the home bound and prisoners. Often this work is organized through Catholic Charities. Many times it is part of outreach programs organized at the parish level. Whatever the case, the sisters bring professional competence and the concern that flows from their heartfelt love for their neighbor. The sisters’ faith becomes active in love and thus they lead others to encounter God in Christ.
The time I spent with the sisters at Stella Maris was pleasant and enjoyable. On the drive home, in addition to considering the many ways the sisters contribute to the life of the Church universal and particularly their contributions in our diocese, I thought about our need to pray for vocations.
In my recent pastoral letter I asked you to pray daily that the Lord of the harvest will bless our diocese and the universal Church with men who will respond to the call to priesthood and with men and women who will accept the invitation to follow Christ in the consecrated life. I invited you to pray and fast for vocations on the First Friday of each month, and, if possible, to join me for a holy hour of adoration for vocations when it is held in your area. We want future generations to benefit from the witness of sisters consecrated to the Lord and imbued with an active faith that compels them to reach out to their brothers and sisters in love. Please join me in praying for vocations.
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.