Religious orders focusing on continued formation

Final vows as a sister or brother, or ordination as a priest, are not the end of formation for women and men in religious life.

“Formation is a lifelong process and this journey unfolds in ways that we may never have dreamed or imagined,” said Holy Cross of Notre Dame Sister Joan Marie Steadman, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in Washington, D.C. “We are called to always be attentive to the movement of the Spirit around us, in us and through us.”

The LCWR has 1,350 members who are leaders of religious orders in the United States and who represent 80 percent of the 48,500 women religious. They offer programs, assemblies and publications to help deepen the ongoing development of a woman’s spiritual life and faith commitment. There are opportunities for leaders to develop distinct programs to fit changing needs of their own communities, for instance, developing skills for intercultural living in a more global Church and society.

“There are various avenues to share concerns and issues they may be experiencing as leaders,” Sister Joan Marie said. “Their input helps shape our programs and resources. There’s certainly more attention to human formation than there was in the 1950s and ’60s.

“We have taken ongoing formation very seriously and have seen this as one of the calls for renewal from Vatican II. Perhaps there’s more awareness now than in past decades that this is an unfolding journey with no end point this side of the Resurrection.”

‘Forming the whole person’

Dominican Sister Marie Bernadette Thompson is council coordinator of Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which represents more than 180 leaders in 120 communities of approximately 6,000 sisters. She noted that each community has a charism that the Holy Spirit gave to its founder, and that is passed on through the work of the sisters.

Pope Francis on Formation for Religious
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CNS photo/Paul Haring
“Consecrated life is beautiful. It is one of the most precious treasures of the Church, rooted in the vocation of baptism. And therefore it is beautiful to be formators, because it is a privilege to participate in the work of the Father who forms the heart of the Son in those whom the Spirit has called. At times this service can be felt as a burden, as if it takes us away from something more important. But this is a lie, a temptation. The mission is important, but it is also important to form those for the mission, form the passion of proclamation, the passion for going wherever, in every periphery, to tell everyone about the love of Jesus Christ, especially to those far from the Church, to the little ones, and to the poor, and let ourselves be evangelized by them. All this requires a solid base, a Christian structure of one’s personality that today families rarely know how to give. And this increases your responsibility.”

“Ongoing formation helps the sister draw from this great patrimony as she makes the charism of her institute present in the life of the Church here and now,” Sister Marie Bernadette said.

The Church calls for ongoing formation from postulancy to perpetual vows and beyond so that through her whole life a sister deepens her relationship with Jesus Christ, grows in virtue and integrates this growth into her apostolic service to God’s people, Sister Marie Bernadette added.

“That and a sister’s own response to the Holy Spirit in her life enables her to become more like Christ,” she said.

Sister Cecilia Ann Rezac is superior general of 38 Marian Sisters of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.

“There’s been a big focus on human formation the last 10 years, and we’re doing a much better job of helping to form the whole person,” she said. “Now there are more classes on temperament, emotional life, theology of the body and all kinds of things that make us who we are.”

The community has retreats, speakers, opportunities for higher education and workshops that help the sisters to grow and to learn. These days, Sister Cecilia Ann said, there’s also a focus on forming the stability of community that many young women previously hadn’t experienced.

“When I grew up, we knew our neighbors, but people now move around so much that it leaves them without the groundedness like before,” she said.

‘Attentive to renewal’

Reverend Mother Mary Ann Kessler of the Franciscan Sisters Third Order Regular of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother in Toronto, Ohio, noted that many young women entering religious life have to work on human formation.

The challenges, she said, are that family life has changed so much that they lack experience in ordinary things like sharing meals and being responsible for chores. For them, community life may come as a cultural shock. Some enter without knowing much about their faith and have a lot to learn.

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Sister Monica Spates is a member of the Franciscan Sisters Third Order Regular of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother in Toronto, Ohio. Courtesy photo

“So why are they drawn to the community?” Sister Mary Ann said. “They see the joy of the Lord in our sisters, and if God plants that seed in their hearts, they are drawn like a magnet, and it seems right. I really believe it’s the grace of God.”

The constitution of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity in Silver Spring, Maryland, calls for at least one annual day of retreat, and there’s more.

“We are also attentive to renewal from a human development perspective that the men are required to participate in, topics like the aging process, sexuality and developing critical skills for ministry,” said Father Francisco Gomez, director of the vocations development committee.

“All these things are in the forefront of what we consider very important, and they have become much more structured than in the past.”

Everyone is expected to have a spiritual director, and the major superior is directly available to the men.

“In a crisis, we provide for one another the experience of being brothers,” Father Gomez said. “If a person is drinking too much or deviating into boundary issues, we call out each other as brothers. That’s the kind of support we provide each other.”

They support each other, too, through illness and aging, and during external crises like the illness or deaths of family members.

“The attention to human development issues were not so clear in the past, and attention to our charism — to be apostles and to work among the poor and abandoned — is more clear today,” he said.

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Missionary Servant Father Michael Barth is major superior of nearly 200 Missionary Servants in several states and Puerto Rico. It’s a “very human hunger for community,” he noted, that draws many men to religious life.

“Man is not made to live alone, and many men find it fulfilling to live in community,” he said. “But every single structure, every single nuance of community life has to be grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that becomes discipleship.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.