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May 20, 2009
New book reaffirms vision for countercultural religious life of women
By Roxanne King
While the last 40 years have seen an overall drop in the numbers of women entering religious life, the more visibly countercultural orders seem to be flourishing.
A new book by religious sisters, “The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision” (Ave Maria, 2009), explores why, as it looks at what Vatican II said about consecrated life, and how that vision is being lived out today by American religious sisters.
Sister Prudence Allen, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Mich., professor of philosophy at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver and author of the multi-volume work “The Concept of Woman” penned one of the chapters in the new work, which is a project of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
“We wanted to write something that says, ‘This is who we are and why we live this way,’” Sister Allen said.
The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious is a canonically approved organization founded in 1992 to promote religious life in the United States. The council represents superiors of more than 100 religious communities of sisters in the active (not contemplative) apostolate, and whose members wear an identifiable religious habit and have common apostolates. The organization notes that the average age of sisters in CMSWR orders is under 35.
The book consists of essays written by six religious sisters representing five different orders. The topics they address are: religious consecration, the spousal bond, the threefold response to the vows, communion in community, and mission.
In addition to Sister Allen, who wrote the chapter on community life, the authors include Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, a founding member of the Sisters of Life; Sister Mary Elizabeth Wusinich, also a Sister of Life; Sister Paula Jean Miller, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist; Sister Mary Dominic Pitts, a Dominican Sister of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn.; and Sister M. Maximilia Um, a Sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George.
The introduction and conclusion were written by canon lawyers Sister Mary Judith O’Brien, formerly of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, and Sister Mary Nika Schaumber, both Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich.
“The book seeks to answer the question of why religious institutes are needed in today’s society,” explained Sister Allen. “We wanted to reflect on the essential components of religious life, the meaning of our life, the reality of the spousal bond, the necessity of the vows to live out this life, the call to be witness of the communion in the church, and the mission that springs from this communion.
“We’re hoping everyone will read it and love it,” she added with a gentle laugh.
Other religious sisters of the Denver Archdiocese who belong to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, joined Sister Allen’s interview with the Denver Catholic Register to express their enthusiasm for the book.
“We want to put religious life in front of young women today,” said Mother Paul Magyar, superior of the Little Sisters of the Poor operating Mullen Home for the Aged in Denver. The Little Sisters offer ongoing opportunities for women to spend time at the home and interact with the sisters and the residents.
“We have three visiting us now,” noted Mother Paul.
Missionaries of Charity Sister Sharon, of Denver’s Gift of Mary Homeless Shelter for women, said her experience visiting one of Blessed Mother Teresa’s homes in New York confirmed her call to religious life.
“I wanted community, prayer life and an apostolate to help people,” she recalled.
Young women want to be challenged to live the religious life, asserted Nashville Dominican Sister Mary Gertrude, principal of St. Vincent de Paul School in Denver. The Nashville Dominicans are among the orders experiencing the greatest success attracting new vocations, according to news reports.
“It’s very much a radical call to live and give yourself completely to Christ,” Sister Mary Gertrude said. “There is a real identify to who we are and what we are about.”
Sister Carla, of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles who teach at Sts. Peter and Paul School in Wheat Ridge, said the orders collaborate together in fostering vocations.
“We are promoting vocations not necessarily to our own order, but we pass them along to others,” she said. “We are in God’s work of promoting vocations.”
Mother Paul said the book will affirm existing vocations as well.
“This is going to be such an encouragement for the religious who live and work in this council,” she said. “I think it will help to strengthen the religious vocation that is already there. We are faithful and happy in our vocation. It’s a renewal for a sister who picks it up.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is among those recommending the book, which was released just last week.
“At exactly the right moment, this marvelous new book on religious life, written by women from five different and thriving religious communities, offers a vision of the religious vocation for today—and into the future—that is fresh, authentic, compelling and true,” he said.
Syndicated columnist George Weigel, author of “Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II” and a host of other works, concurred.
“Mind-opening,” he declared, “challenging and essential reading for all those, whatever their vocation, who take seriously the universal call to holiness.”
Philosopher-author Alice von Hildebrand, widow of theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand, also recognized the universal appeal of the work.
“Though living a different calling, married people would greatly benefit by reading this book,” she said. “It is a clarion call for them to re-discover the beauty of their own vocation.”
Who: Who: Sister Prudence Allen, R.S.M., contributing author to “The Foundations of Religious Life” (Ave Maria, 2009)
What: Books will be available for purchase from Gerkens ($18.95).
When: Wed., May 27, from 5 to 7 p.m. Cardinal Stafford Library, 1300 S. Steele St., Denver
For information: Call 303-715-3146
Includes: A short talk by Sister Allen. Sisters of the CMSWR will be available. Refreshments provided