Tag Archives: religious life

Nun in London

nuninworldI am coming to the end of my two week spring time sojourn in the United Kingdom. I came at the end of April to spend some time with our Sisters at our regional center in the midlands in advance of our Spring assembly which was last weekend. It has been a joy to be with our UK Sisters. I have had an inordinate amount of tea along with some wonderful conversations and a few treks in the countryside. Earlier this week I made the trek (by car!) to London. I’m staying in the same house where I lived for 3 months as a novice. It is so nice to be in another country, but yet to be at home. Another benefit of religious life!

I’m attending the Nun in the World Symposium: Catholic Sisters & Vatican II – a 3 day international symposium with academics from various disciplines (mostly it seems to be historians and sociologists who seem to get along but have divergent methodologies) and women religious. It has been fascinating to attend an academic conference about a subject near and dear to your heart. In fact, I suppose you could say I am one of the subjects of study! I was thinking today … many groups of people are studied by academics, but how common is it to have the people who are being studied attending the conference about them?  Adding to the semi-surreal quality of it all, I just checked the Global Sisters Report website and found a blog post there which covers one of the streams of conversation I participated in at lunch today at the symposium!

Aside from those interesting aspects, the subject matter and research presented have certainly been thought provoking. Today we covered important areas such as race and class in religious life, prophetic witness and relationship to the hierarchical church by leaders of religious communities, the tension between being mainstream and marginal, and the newest generations of Catholic Sisters.  There are over 100 participants from more than 10 countries. I even was able to meet another Global Sisters Report columnist, Caroline Mbonu, a Handmaid of the Holy Child Jesus Sister from Nigeria. We recognized each other from the pictures which accompany our columns on the Global Sisters website! She gave an excellent presentation on the experience of African Sisters ministering in the US as reverse missionaries.

All in all, it has been a very worthwhile experience and an opportunity to tap into the wider themes and key issues of Catholic women’s religious life globally. And there is one more day tomorrow, which will feature a series of presentations I am looking forward to with great anticipation on the Religious Life Vitality Project which was just completed here in the UK. Our UK Sisters participated in this project.

I head back to the States (Chicago for my graduation) on Monday. It has been a very good visit, with the prospect of many more over the next six years.

This day in the history of the US, my family, and me!

meGrandadOn this day 2016 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was born.

On this day, 113 years ago, my grandfather Ludwig Lincoln Schmelzer was born. Yes, his middle name was given to him by his German immigrant parents to honor the illustrious day of his birth in their new country.

On this day 10 years ago, I made the first official step toward becoming a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace and became a pre-candidate. From the way back machine that is my old blog:

Long story short, my discernment has reached the point where it’s time to start discerning whether I’m called to religious life in the context of a particular community. And there’s something about this group of fun dedicated women, working for justice and to spread the gospel of peace. Whereas every Star Wars book and movie has the line, “I have a bad feeling about this,” I can honestly say I have a very GOOD feeling about this. There’s just something about the groovy csjp sisters. Helps me make much more sense of what God might be calling me to.

Ten years later, of course the story continues, in new and interesting ways as I embark on month two of my adventure in elected leadership. Every day confirms what I knew then, that there is something about this group of fun dediated women, working for justice and to spread the gospel of peace. I feel privileged to be part of the mix, and indeed the past ten years has shown me that it is as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace that I can become the me God dreams I can be.

The picture is of me with my grandfather on my 4th birthday. My grandparents were a special part of my early years, and lived with us for many years. He had a scratchy beard and a big heart. Happy birthday granddad!

Neverending Story

rummageMy immediate future involves another move, this time back to east coast groovy sister hq as I embark upon my new adventure as a member of our congregation leadership team starting in January. Truth be told, I’m a wee bit nervous but very excited about what lies ahead.  Except for one small detail, that is, and that would be the actual process of moving.

Because, you see, as the title of this post implies, embarking on this new adventure means yet another chapter in the neverending story of my journey on the path to simplicity. Put quite simply … I STILL HAVE TOO MUCH STUFF.

Granted, I do have less than when I entered. For example, the picture is of a small sample of my many belongings which I sold at my parish rummage sale when I entered community after living alone in a two bedroom apartment for ten years. Since then I’ve moved across the country twice and to the middle of the country once (plus a short sojourn across the pond). I’ve also moved locally more than a few times. Each time, I embark upon what I like to call project “sort, purge, pack.”

If I am being generous and nice to myself, I can recognize and celebrate that I have decreased my belongings over time.  But I am still a long way from embodying the simplicity I aspire to in my life.  This always becomes clear to me, of course, when it’s time to pack!

And so, now that I’ve finished with my thesis and my comprehensive exams, and in between celebrating Christmas with my Dad, it’s time to sort through my belongings in my dorm room here at CTU and begin (again) the project of purging my pereptually expanding belongings and packing those which are essential (plus, I’m sure, some which are not). It’s a process and a journey after all!

Margaret Anna Fridays – Desire to live the life of a sister

Mother Francis Clare (Margaret Anna Cusack)
Mother Francis Clare (Margaret Anna Cusack)

Periodically on Fridays I will share some words of wisdom from the founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. Known in religion as Mother Francis Clare, Margaret Anna Cusack was a prolific writer in her day.  She wrote lives of the saints, spiritual works, histories, and social reform. I find great inspiration in her life’s word and work. For example, this simple desire which she articulated at some point in her life resonates with the simplest desire in my own heart as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace.

My desire to live the life of a sister, to give my life to God, and to work for his poor – this seemed to me the only object worth existing for.

Habits of Love – Global Sisters Report

GlobalSistersReportMy latest column is published over at the Global Sisters Report. It’s my attempt to engage the pesky and sometimes polarizing question of distinctive religious dress (aka habits) in a helpful way.

I am blessed to have younger religious friends, women and men, on both sides and in the middle of the distinctive dress question. Some of my sister friends are in communities that wear a habit. Most of my sister friends are in communities like my own that transitioned to simple dress almost 50 years ago, before we were even born. And some belong to communities that wear a habit for prayer, liturgy and ministry, but dress simply the rest of the time. This seems to be an option mostly for male religious, although I know a few sisters in this category.

As younger post-Vatican II religious, we made a decision to enter communities that have already made communal decisions about this question. We go where we feel at home. But in my experience, we do not judge those who make a different choice. We do not deride our peers either for wearing an “anachronistic costume” or for being a “plain-clothes nun.” Those labels belong to other generations, or perhaps should belong to none. Our attitudes of respect and inclusion affirm the both/and nature of the question today. Left to our own devices, over time, I believe we can heal this polarized division and in turn help heal a rift in religious life and the church. We find our common ground in the habits of love we develop, which form us as religious and shape the witness of our very lives as ones who follow Jesus in a particular way.

Head over to Global Sisters Report to read the whole column.

The real meaning of Sisterhood – Love

4churchwmnI will never forget the day when I first learned about the four American church women who were killed in El Salvador 24 years ago today. It was 1988 and I was a junior at a Catholic girls high school. One of the Sisters from the community who sponsored my high school came to our religion class to speak about her work with the people of El Salvador, which was still embroiled in a brutal and bloody civil war. She brought pictures of the children and families she accompanied and shared the story of her ministry.  She also told us the story of Sister Dorothy Kazel, OSU, lay missioner Jean Donovan, Sister Maura Clarke, MM, and Sister Ita Ford, MM who had been beaten, raped, and murdered by five members of the National Guard of El Salvador just a few years before, because of their presence and ministry to the people of that country. Their bodies were left in a shallow grave along an isolated roadside. I remember being shocked by the story. I also remember being overpowered by the realization that this Sister who was talking to us and sharing her own story also put herself at risk of a similar fate. And it became clear to me that her reason was love. Love of God and love of the people of El Salvador.

Love … that’s the real meaning of Sisterhood. Love is worth living for. Love is worth taking risks for. Love is even worth dying for. What else does the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus teach us?

In the words of Sister Ita Ford in a letter to her goddaughter, written just a few months before her murder:

I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you…something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for…something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be — that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking, and support you in the search. Maybe this sounds weird and off-the-wall, and maybe, no one else will talk to you like this, but then, too, I’m seeing and living things that others around you aren’t… I want to say to you: don’t waste the gifts and opportunities you have to make yourself and other people happy.

Chances are, most of the people who will tune in to the second episode of the ‘reality’ show The Sisterhood tonight do not know this real life story of the power of Sisterhood.  Hopefully, however, the message still comes across that vowed religious life isn’t about giving up make up, or hiding away from the world, or fleeing the drama that comes with being human. In my experience, it’s about finding something worth living for, something that energizes you and causes you to share your God given gifts in a particular way to help address the unmet needs of the world. It’s about responding to the transformative love of God in a way that challenges, supports and transforms you as you seek to transform the world in the company of your Sisters. It’s about love.

In the words of Pope Francis in his message for the Year of Consecrated Life: “You will find life by giving life, hope by giving hope, love by giving love.”

Pope Francis on Year of Consecrated Life: Younger religious as both present and future

YearofConsecratedLifeLargeLogoTomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent. It is also the first day of the “Year of Consecrated Life,” which Pope Francis has convened and which  finishes in February 2016.  Today, the Vatican released a message from Pope Francis to consecrated men and women on the occasion of the start of the year. It is a beautiful and challenging letter, made even more so perhaps because, as a Jesuit, he is intimately aware of the joys, challenges, and promise of vowed religious life.

In my first read of the letter, I was especially drawn to to one particular passage. Pope Francis outlines three main aims of the year: to look to the past with gratitude, to live the present with passion, and to embrace the future with hope. The passage that caught my attention is in his discussion of this third aim:

“This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:2), the One for whom ‘nothing is impossible’ (Lk 1:37).  This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future.  It is to that future that we must always look, conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us.

So do not yield to the temptation to see things in terms of numbers and efficiency, and even less to trust in your own strength.  In scanning the horizons of your lives and the present moment, be watchful and alert.  Together with Benedict XVI, I urge you not to ‘join the ranks of the prophets of doom who proclaim the end or meaninglessness of the consecrated life in the Church in our day; rather, clothe yourselves in Jesus Christ and put on the armour of light – as Saint Paul urged (cf. Rom 13:11-14) – keeping awake and watchful.’  Let us constantly set out anew, with trust in the Lord.

I would especially like to say a word to those of you who are young.  You are the present, since you are already taking active part in the lives of your Institutes, offering all the freshness and generosity of your ‘yes’.  At the same time you are the future, for soon you will be called to take on roles of leadership in the life, formation, service and mission of your communities.  This Year should see you actively engaged in dialogue with the previous generation.  In fraternal communion you will be enriched by their experiences and wisdom, while at the same time inspiring them, by your own energy and enthusiasm, to recapture their original idealism.  In this way the entire community can join in finding new ways of living the Gospel and responding more effectively to the need for witness and proclamation.

Ok, if I’m honest, it was this line that really drew my attention: “soon you will be called to take on roles of leadership in the life, formation, service, and mission of your communities.” Indeed. That “future” would be in a little over one month for me, as I begin my six year term as a member of our congregation leadership team in January. As you might imagine, I step onto this path with more than a little trepidation. But that is also balanced with a lot of love for my community and belief in the future of religious life. How wonderful to have this letter to reflect on and pray with during Advent, my own time of “waiting” for this new adventure to begin.

This is an unusual time in the history of consecrated life. Granted, the history of religious life is filled with “unusual times,” from the Ammas and Abbas who sought solitude in the desert and instead formed communities, to the call of Francis to rebuild God’s church which lead to a whole new form of religious life, to the suppression of religious during the French revolution which spread religious further into the new world, to the church’s own revolution in the form of the renewal of religious life after the Second Vatican Council which we are still experiencing in echoes and reverberations.

Today’s unusual time, from my perspective as a newer and younger religious, is a precious one. As Pope Francis so beautifully puts it, this is a time for younger religious, who are both part of the present and part of the future, to be “actively engaged in dialogue with the previous generation,” to be “enriched by their experiences and wisdom, while at the same time inspiring them, by [our] own energy and enthusiasm, to recapture their original idealism.”

While there have always been multiple generations in religious life, our current demographic reality means that there are 30 to 40 decades between me and most of my mentors in religious life. That makes this time all the more precious, and makes me grateful to be actively sharing my own energy and enthusiasm at a time when I can mix and mingle that energy and enthusiasm with those who have been living religious life, in some cases, longer than I’ve been alive.  I am so very grateful for the presence, love, support, and friendship of my Sisters of all ages.

Today’s unusual time is also a critical one, for the needs of the world and for the sustainability of our way of life to be a witness to God’s love in that world.  Looking at the reality of demographics and resources and our own ability to cross the divides can make it all seem a little bit crazy. But as Pope Francis reminds us, our hope in the future is not based on statistics or accomplishments or our own abilities. It’s based on “the One for whom ‘nothing is impossible.'”

I’d like to end this post by repeating these words from Pope Francis:

“This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future.”

The generations that are living religious life today all believe in that future. We are inspired by the stories that God started in our founders and that continue to be written today. We know that God is still writing that story, and lucky us, spurred on by the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity and obligation to co-create that future full of hope for all God’s people in need. Amen.

“Reality” and Discernment – Thoughts on “The Sisterhood”

The_Sisterhood_Lifetime_convent_reality_showOk, I’ll admit it … on more than one occasion during the early stages of my religious formation I found myself thinking, this would make for good reality tv. I was living in the alternate reality of a formation house with two other novices, my novice director and a professed sister. We’d all left the lives we were living to form a community together. In the midst of our formation classes and opportunities for ministry, prayer, and discernment, we also had to negotiate the kitchen, sharing common space, and simply learning how to be together.  That line from MTV’s Real World would periodically go through my head: “This is the true story of five strangers picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped, to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”  Thankfully, there were NO cameras (although I did of course blog the experience myself).

Reality tv is all about “drama” (in quotations because really, how much of reality tv is actually real?) and if anything is dramatic, discerning a major life choice like joining a religious community and professing the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to God for life is certainly dramatic. Then there’s just the daily drama of transition, change, and gradual incorporation into religious life. Add in cultural dynamics, generation gaps, and the fact that you’re talking about actual human beings who have a tendency to be human and, well, there were moments that might make for entertaining television.

So, it’s not really a surprise that someone else not only thought about the idea but managed to bring some version of it to television. Despite the subtitle, as far as I understand, Lifetime’s The Sisterhood: Becoming Nunswhich premieres tonight, is not actually about women in religious formation as Sisters. Instead, it follows a group of twenty-something young women who might possibly be interested in religious life as they visit three convents to meet the Sisters and learn more about what it would be like to be a Sister. I suppose it’s more like a prospective student’s college tour where you stay on campus, eat in the dining hall, and go to class. Except that there are cameras and it is scripted into hour long episodes to be broadcast on national television.

My Catholic social media feeds are all abuzz about the show. Some are concerned that it only shows religious communities who wear a habit rather than those like mine who wear simple dress (as it happens, I do know that the producers reached out to a wide variety of communities so I don’t think it’s necessarily an intentional bias, but more a question of who agreed to take the risk of participating in a reality tv show). Others are concerned about the possibility of reinforcing stereotypes about nuns as being strict, austere, and living a life of sacrifice and “giving up” rather than a life of joy, love and service (much of the buzz I’ve seen so far keeps referencing scenes where the young women are told they cannot wear make up or use cell phones during their visit). And others seem to be hopeful, noting that if even one young woman who might have a vocation gives religious life some thought because of the show, then it would be a good thing. These all seem to be valid points to me.

My main caution is that even though the young women are not in formation, they are at least considering walking a very sacred and personal journey of transformation and a major life choice (unless they are actually just actresses but even then, the Holy Spirit can be sneaky so you never know). Having blogged my own way through formation, I know first hand that it is complicated and not so easy to share the call you feel in your heart or the movements of the Spirit. Then add in to the mix a third party producer who is most interested in ratings and advertising revenue, and I think you can understand my cautionary concern. Plus the producers are best known for Breaking Amish which brings a whole lot of different concerns that I will leave to your imagination.

I’ve not watched the show. I’m not sure I will watch the show, although I’m realizing I probably should, if only to see what images are being projected into popular culture about religious life. I do know that a number of younger Catholic Sister friends are planning to live tweet using the hashtags #thesisterhood and #nuntv. If I end up watching it, I might be live tweeting it myself.

Vow-iversary

Three years ago today I professed my final and forever YES as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace. In our chapel at St. Mary-on-the-Lake, in the presence of my congregation leader, community members, family and friends, I said:

In gratitude for the wondrous gift of God’s love, I ask to life a life of love and service as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace.  I pray that each day of my life I may “take that step which will lead [me] into the deepest depths of the heart of Jesus.” (Mother Clare)

Trusting in God with all my heart and relying on the support and example of our sisters and all others who touch my life,  I hope to live with an open heart by listening, pondering, and contemplating the word of God in my life and witnessing to it in action for justice and peace.

In response to God’s call to seek justice, to love tenderly, and to walk in the way of peace, I Susan Rose Francois, in the presence of Margaret Byrne, Congregation Leader, and in the presence of the community gathered here, vow to God, poverty, celibacy, and obedience for life according to the Constitutions of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace.

Three years later I continue to be so very grateful for God’s love and the opportunity to respond to that love as a Sister of St. Joseph of Peace. I continue to feel the call to live with an open heart and to seek justice, love tenderly, and walk in the way of peace. New adventures are still to come as I continue to take steps which lead me deeper into the deepest depths of the heart of Jesus. And for that, my friends, I am very grateful!

Signing my final profession of vows in our community vow book
Signing my final profession of vows in our community vow book

FOMO, Religious Life, and Vocations

i love rel lifeI recently listened to an episode of This American Life which expounded on the phenomenon of FOMO, or fear of missing out. In the podcast, Alex Blumberg (formerly of the Planet Money podcast, now trying to get his own business off the ground) is speaking to a venture capitalist, seeking to get him to finance said new business. From the episode:

Alex: And Chris [venture capitalist] is like a teacher handing me the answers to a test he’s about to give, explaining exactly what he wants to see from me in order to invest in my company. I need to project conviction. Check. And I need to instill FOMO. For you non-Millennials, FOMO is an acronym– Fear Of Missing Out.

Chris: Airbnb, multi-billion-dollar business, right? I was one of the first people to see the Airbnb page. And I pulled them aside and said, guys, this is super dangerous. You’re renting out a room in somebody’s house while they’re still there? … There’s no way this’ll succeed. That’s a $10 billion business today that I’m not an investor in.

Dropbox. I saw the Dropbox guys, and I was like, this is great and everything, but Google’s going to crush you. They have a thing internally called G-Drive, and it’s going to absolutely crush Dropbox. There’s no way this thing’s going to succeed. That’s a $10 billion business today that I’m not an investor in.

Alex: “A $10 billion business that I’m not an investor in”? That is FOMO. Once you have FOMO on your side, says Chris, you no longer have to ask people like him for money. They’re lining up to give it to you.

FOMO is an interesting concept.  As I was walking on the treadmill, listening to the podcast, I couldn’t help but translate the phenomenon of FOMO to religious life.

Conviction. Even though it makes absolutely no sense, as the picture says, “I ♥ Religious Life and Believe in its Future.” Really, I do! I know that this life is where I make the most sense, where I can experience and respond to God’s love and in the process (hopefully) help make the world a better place.

Yet I also realize that we are in a crazy transition time within religious life (sometimes called diminishment, although I prefer to call it demographic change). This makes it a hard sell, especially to young adults who look at religious communities and don’t see a lot of people who look like them.  When you ponder making a lifetime commitment to a pretty radical way of living, it certainly helps to be able to imagine who you will be living that with into the future.  I get that. It’s a challenge to be sure.  So yes, the landscape is shifting rapidly within religious life and joining religious life right now can look like a huge gamble. You might wonder why you would invest your life in this particular vocation now, at this time.

I obviously took the plunge and made the investment of my life, love, and energy in both the present and the evolving future of religious life.  And because I am a part of religious life at this time, I get to participate actively in how we navigate those shifts and where the ship of religious life is headed. Because I am here at this particular time in religious life, I have been able to soak in the wisdom, love, and laughter of some amazing women religious. Not only that, I get to call them Sister! Because I am here at this particular time in religious life, I have had the opportunity to build relationships and grow friendships with religious life peers across congregations, through my formation experience and participation in Giving Voice. My experience tells me, again and again, that this truly is a graced time in religious life.

Which has me wondering …. Not that we necessarily want to think of vocations and religious life in capitalistic terms, or even in terms of marketing, but what if we were able to express this graced transition time to young adults as something they don’t want to miss out on? FOMO it if you will. It’s an interesting idea, to be sure.

Join religious life now, and you get to help shape the future and navigate the demographic change.

Join religious life now, and you benefit from the wisdom, presence, and support of incredible men and women religious who will not be here that much longer.

Join religious life now, and, in the words of Pope Francis, you can help “Wake up the world! Be witnesses of a different way of acting, of living! It is possible to live differently in this world.”

The FOMO of religious life vocations. Food for thought during this National Vocation Awareness Week as more than 350 vocation directors gather in Chicago for the National Religious Vocation Conference convocation.