Into the Future: Accepting a religious vocation in uncertain times

I want to go to the novitiate,” I stated boldly to my formation director. We both knew these words were coming, but stating my desire forthrightly brought with them a certain fortitude. The words floated with an air of certitude and conviction, unlike the words I had spoken when asking to become a “candidate” with the Sisters of St. Joseph, words I had wished I could put back in my mouth as soon as I spoke them. Now I knew I wanted to enter the novitiate, and I believed Jesus was calling me into a deeper relationship in this time.

The following evening I went out with a group of other young adults who volunteer with the sisters I live with. They teach English as a second language, guide new immigrants toward citizenship and offer help mastering basic computer skills. As we celebrated the year’s accomplishments, I felt my phone vibrate briefly in my pocket. Probably just an e-mail, I thought, as I listened to the college student sitting across from me discuss the possibility of working on biomedical research in South Africa in the fall. Another friend, a few years older than my 26 years, talked about his acceptance into the Jesuit novitiate in the late summer. My phone buzzed again. I ignored it. As another volunteer and I discussed a 10-mile race we planned to run, I felt the vibrations of my phone once again. Who in the world was e-mailing this late at night? I slid the phone out of my pocket and silenced it, deciding I only needed to know what was going on in the worlds of the people I was with. Whatever kept my phone buzzing could wait until we were finished celebrating.

By the time I got home, it was near midnight. I checked my e-mail before I went to bed. As I stared at the computer screen, I realized what all that buzzing was about: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had issued a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

I closed my computer and hoped it was a bad dream. By the time I awoke the following morning my inbox was filling up and the house was buzzing with the news. What followed has been a mix of emotions: hurt, shock, sorrow, compassion, denial, gratitude, doubt, resilience, resolution, peace.

What also followed was a confirmation. Only days earlier I had declared that the life of a woman religious is the life I believe I am being called to be a part of. It makes me feel more alive. It graces my existence. I am falling more deeply in love with Jesus each day. No matter what happens, that love calls me to action, to a life lived in service to the people of God.

As one of the women I live with said to me the other night at dinner, “It certainly is not an easy time to be looking at religious life.” Living a religious life never was, is or will be easy. It requires the work of self-discovery and spiritual deepening and the process of surrendering yourself to embrace God and neighbor alike.

Still, this time is unique. It may not be an easy time, but I have found it a truly blessed time. We face the reality of diminishing numbers, but zeal is flourishing within religious communities. Our society is recognizing the importance of intentional community living, where dedication to relationships comes first; and ministry is part of a balanced life, not the whole of it. Sisters young and old are talking about what an authentic living of the vows looks like, how to share our charism and mission with the world at large and what religious life is meant to be. Conversation and communal discernment are becoming essential to forward motion and are creating a space for all to be heard. This is a time like no other—a time of rebirth, a time of prayer and a time filled with energy around what the Spirit holds for religious life.

The future is uncharted. I can almost guarantee that whatever lies ahead will not look like religious life today. When I began my own exploration of religious life, after years of thinking and praying about it, my journey coincided with the beginnings of the Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious. Despite this scrutiny, the women I met bore witness to the challenges and joys of lives dedicated to Jesus. Through their passion, demeanor and care, I had no doubt that their lives were directed toward living the Gospel day in and day out. They may not have known what the future held, but with hope and love they were living toward the Kingdom.

Facing the unknown requires dreaming big and praying hard. The world is ever-evolving, and to exist in the midst of change we must hold on to the truth that grounds us. To live an intentional life in this world, one must humbly admit that the unknown exists, commit to living out love that unites and do the hard work of self-examination and awareness. It is not easy, but it is what real living requires.

As I have lived and worked with women religious, I have come to see that the future is not something to be feared but something to be embraced. Numbers will change. Ministry will evolve. Some ventures will succeed, some will fail; ultimately, we will learn. The thing that really matters is our relationship with God and what that relationship brings to life in us. The future is full of opportunity. In the midst of all of this, I for one can still say, “I want, I need, I am called to the next step in this life.”

MaryElizabeth Clark
4 years 8 months ago
Sister Colleen Gibson became a novice on September 19, the day she learned that this article would be published saying, " I want to enter the novitiate." This sign of affirmation speaks to me of how God is working in Colleen's life today. As one of the members of her new local community, I feel renewed zeal and deep humility. The courage it takes to respond to a call to religious life in these times, inspires me. Thank you, Colleen, for sharing your heart's intention and your cenetered life with us!
Mary ELizabeth Clark, SSJ
St. Joseph House/Novitiate
Philadelphia, PA
Des Farrell
4 years 8 months ago
I would like to read more from this writer, she has a very readable style. I would also like to know what Sister Mary Elizabeth  means by 'these times'? Is there a greater antagonism to Catholicism than in previous decades? Have some brash Evangelicals in the media made the work of ordinary Christians more difficult? 
I find that most people have a quiet, open minded desire to experience a spiritual dimension in their lives but that the new media which thrives on sensationalism and polarization makes that Experience difficult to find.
He says typing away in the new media... :)
Anyhoo, very interesting read. 
Ann Engelhart
4 years 8 months ago
Dear Sr.Colleen,
God will bless you and reward you along this extraordinary adventure that you have begun! 

I don't think that you should fear the Doctrinal Assessment of the CDF (not that you seem to). Many were concerned about the Apostolic Visitation, but it seems that it was actually beneficial and has born fruit. I think the same will be said about the Assessment when all is said and done. The Church has a responsibility to make sure that religious orders flourish and give light to a parched and suffering world. Thank you for sharing your great gifts! You are such a blessing!

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