By Bishop James Conley
On April 7, I had the privilege and honor of offering Holy Mass and attending the dinner for our religious sisters throughout the Diocese of Lincoln who are celebrating significant anniversaries (jubilees). It was a beautiful event hosted by St. Mary Parish in Denton to honor their service to Christ and his Church.
Religious sisters have been an integral part of Catholic life in the Diocese of Lincoln and in the United States since the early years of the foundation of our country.
Unfortunately, the number of active religious sisters in the U.S. has declined significantly since the 1960s. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, the number of religious sisters serving in the United States fell from roughly 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014—a 72% drop over those 50 years. As of 2017, there were approximately 45,500 religious sisters in the United States.
This disturbing decline means that many Catholics in our country will likely live their whole lives without being influenced by the Christ-like, loving heart of a consecrated religious sister.
Despite this national trend, the Diocese of Lincoln has been blessed with an abundance of good, holy, and dedicated religious sisters, both active and contemplative. I continue to marvel at the work of these sisters and their great number.
These sisters do a lot of wonderful things for the sake of God’s Kingdom. They serve in administration, teaching, health care, youth ministry, and many other apostolates in our diocese. All of these sisters are women of deep prayer and contemplation. Some sisters—like the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters and the Carmelite nuns—have as their very charism to pray constantly for the needs of the world.
Even more important than the good work that these sisters do, is who they are. They are brides of Christ. Their witness points to our final goal, our final destination—the Kingdom of Heaven.
In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul alludes to the Church as the Bride of Christ. Christ is the Bridegroom, who loves his bride, the Church, by handing himself over to her, sanctifying her, and cleansing her.
The goal of every vocation is to be united with God; to live in communion with the Holy Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Many are called to the sacrament of marriage, where through God’s grace, the love of husband and wife reflects Christ’s love for his Church. We need good, strong, sacramental marriages to be that image of Christ’s love.
And yet, our Lord tells us in the Gospel of Matthew, “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mt. 22:30). Jesus does not speak these words out of disrespect for marriage, for he created the institution of marriage. He is simply directing us to its final purpose.
St. Francis de Sales said, “Religious orders are not formed for the purpose of gathering together perfect people, but they are for those who have the courage to aim at perfection.” Religious sisters desire this perfection through their spiritual marriage to Jesus.
During his public ministry, we recall Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man. This young man is a good Israelite: he says his prayers; he follows the law of Moses; he obeys all of the commandments. And the young man asks an important question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mt 19:16). Jesus tells him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mt 19:21).
Religious sisters take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In doing so, they live out these instructions to the rich young man. Their very lives give us the courage to aim at perfection. There is no hedging in their lives; they are “all in” for Our Lord.
A consecrated religious sister is a “bride of Christ.” In her spiritual marriage with Jesus, she is a symbol of what we all to be for all eternity: united with Christ. They have accepted the call of Jesus to renounce all that they have and to follow him.
We need the witness of these good, religious sisters today more than ever. We live in the most materially rich country that has ever existed. We are easily enticed by riches. We need their witness to know that joy is found in radical poverty.
We are blessed to live in a country where our constitution protects us as citizens from external constraints, which allows us to pursue our own interests, and, as Christians, to live in the freedom of the children of God. And yet, there is the temptation to confuse this freedom with license to do whatever I wish, the deification of my will, with little or no orientation towards what is good.
Through the vow of obedience that religious sisters take, they remind us of the joy of obedience. It is through obedience that they humbly turn over their will to that of another. In doing so, they allow God’s will to dictate their daily lives, and in following that will they find great joy.
The world in which we live is both saturated with sex and at the same time confused about the true meaning of human sexuality. Through their vow of chastity, religious sisters point us to the ultimate desire of every human heart—eternal intimacy with God.
Religious know very well that in taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they are running counter to the values of our contemporary world, which is precisely why we need the witness of their beautiful, Christ-centered lives.
As we prepare to enter into the mysteries of salvation with Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum, let us thank the Lord for the gift of his brides of Christ, witnesses of the Kingdom of Heaven.