“Religious life is a form of consecrated life where members profess vows of poverty, chastity and obedience within a religious institute recognized by the Catholic Church,” said Holy Cross Brother Paul Bednarczyk, executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference. “These institutes consist of various forms, such as apostolic, monastic, or contemplative life. Besides their vows, they all share in common a commitment to prayer, community and service to the Church and the world.”
Men and women religious are the most numerous form of consecrated life, said Bishop Michael Burbidge of Raleigh, North Carolina. Bishop Burbidge is the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
While members indicate they were drawn to religious life to deepen their relationship with God, the various religious communities have offered the Church and the wider society the gifts of their charisms, ranging from education and health care to contemplative prayer and hospitality.
“When you consider the institutions of Catholic education, health care and social services in our country, many of them were built by women’s and men’s religious congregations,” Brother Paul said. “These institutions and the religious sisters, brothers and priests who serve in them or in other ministries further the mission of the Church today. Without them, the mission of the Church would be severely handicapped. They not only minister to Catholics but to people of all faiths, many of whom are often poor and marginalized by the larger society.” Perhaps even more valuable, he said, is the faithful witness their members provide.
Hermits are men and women who publicly profess the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience and devote their lives to the praise of God and the salvation of the world through a strict separation from the world. They live a life of solitude, penance and prayer, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Some live in designated groups, such as the Bethlehem Hermits of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. Others live on their own, such as Judith Weaver, a hermit consecrated last year by Little Rock, Arkansas, Bishop Anthony Taylor.
Weaver, 73, shares her home with a dog and bird and goes to a local parish for Mass and Eucharistic adoration. She offers morning and evening prayer according to the Liturgy of the Hours every day and meets with the three other diocesan hermits several times a week for prayer, and one of them downloads Pope Francis’ homilies for the hermits to study. Weaver herself does not have a television or Internet access, but she does have a phone and listens to the news on National Public Radio.
“I’m free to be enveloped in prayer,” she said.
Weaver, who had lived as a hermit for about a decade before being formally consecrated, was in religious life for a time but found that community life was not her vocation. She also worked as a writer and a hospital chaplain before finding that she was able to live simply on her retirement income and withdraw to a life of prayer and penance.
All four of the diocesan hermits in Little Rock had some exposure to religious life, she said.
“I think religious life is helpful in the hermit life because of the formation experience, and it develops discipline,” Weaver said.
Consecrated virgins are the oldest form of consecrated life in the Church, dating back to the first and second centuries of Christianity.
That’s what Kerry Hubata learned when she was looking up information about liturgical dance in the library at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in the mid-1970s, and she was thrilled. “I thought, ‘This is me,’” Hubata said.
Hubata, who has taught ballet for 50 years, had always had a deep connection to her faith and considered entering the convent, but she could never give up dance.
“I tried three times, but I felt this is the gift God has given me, and it is to be used for his honor and glory,” she said.
Unfortunately, the Church had stopped consecrating virgins, and while the vocation was revived after Vatican II, it had not yet reached the Archdiocese of Chicago, where Hubata lives. The best her pastor at St. Athanasius Parish in Evanston, Illinois, could offer her was an opportunity to make private vows in the parish, which she did in 1976.
Years later, she learned that Cardinal Francis George, by then the archbishop of Chicago, had consecrated a virgin in one of his previous dioceses and was, in fact, preparing to consecrate a woman in the archdiocese. She reached out to him, wrote a letter that explained the private vows she had made, and met with him in 2003.
“After about 45 minutes of thoroughly questioning me, he sat back and said, ‘We usually require some formation, but I think 27 years is enough. You just need to set a place and time,’” Hubata recalled. Cardinal George consecrated her on Aug. 1, 2003.
“I still have to pinch myself for the joy of it,” she said.
Hubata said she lives her vocation in her life teaching dance, a discipline that rewards hard work but has no quick payoffs. She sees each of her students as one of her children, no matter how old they are, and she has heard from former students that they appreciate her friendship and example as much or more than the dance techniques they learned.
“I feel my life has more purpose to it,” she said.
She said she is one of nine consecrated virgins in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Societies of Apostolic Life
“I think of Societies of Apostolic Life as part of the Church’s response to human need,” said Sister Maureen McGuire, a Daughter of Charity and executive vice president for mission integration for Ascension, the nation’s largest Catholic health system.
As a rule, such societies have three characteristics in common: They have a specific apostolic purpose; their members live as a community; and much of their purpose and way of life is defined by their constitutions, which must be approved by the Holy See.
In the case of the Daughters of Charity, founded in France in 1633 by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, the group could not be a religious order because, at the time, all women’s religious orders were cloistered. Rather than staying behind convent walls, the Daughters of Charity went out into the streets to serve the poor.
“It was very clear that if they became religious women, they would not be allowed to do what they were inspired to do,” Sister Maureen said. “But the work they were doing was hard, and very hard to do alone, so they wanted to live in community.”
The Daughters of Charity still live in community, and they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but those vows must be renewed every year. Other societies of apostolic life make private vows, she said. Societies of Apostolic Life might seem similar to religious institutes, but such societies of men and women were generally founded to meet a specific need and are organized around doing that.
“We make vows, but our vows are made in service to the poor,” Sister Maureen said. “Our community life is in service to the poor.”
While many societies of apostolic life started about the same time, Sister Maureen said that they were able to clarify their status as a form of consecrated life after the Second Vatican Council, when communities were encouraged to examine their purpose.
While religious men and women are usually easily identified, people might not ever know if they meet a member of a secular institute.
“It’s not a secret,” said Claudette Cyr, a member of the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate for 58 years. “But it’s private.”
The Oblates are a secular institute for women, with 460 members living and working in 20 countries. Founded in Canada in 1952, the institute has a missionary focus, but its members generally work at jobs in the secular world.
Members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but they do not live in community and are not addressed by religious titles such as “sister.”
“The gift of the person to God is permanent,” said Anita Plourde, president of the institute, “but in the Church itself, we remain as laypersons.”
Cyr, who lives in Connecticut, spent about 16 years working with immigrants in a nonprofit organization, then another two decades working in the federal government’s immigration office. During that time, she considered her ministry to be as much to her coworkers as to the immigrants she assisted.
“You do what is right in front of you,” said Cyr of her efforts to promote a positive, charitable attitude in the immigration office. “I’m not a negative person. I live in the present moment, and I do it with a positive attitude.”
Plourde said the institute’s members tend to be recognized by the people around them as good listeners.
“Other people come to them when they have a problem,” Plourde said.
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.