Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Celebrating the Year For Priests: New Vocation Video From the Archdiocese of New York

Here is the latest priesthood vocation video from my archdiocese. As consecrated virgins are called to serve and pray for the needs of their local Church, encouraging vocations—and spiritually supporting those who are called—is a cause very near to my heart.

Now if after viewing this video, any of my young, single, practicing Catholic, male readers are interested in becoming a New York priest, you can find our Vocation Director’s contact information here, on NYPriest.com. ;-)

(Sorry, I just had to sneak that in!)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Pope Reflects on the Feast of the Assumption

I thought this article would be especially helpful for consecrated virgins, since they also anticipate life in Heaven in a particularly radical way through their commitment to life-long virginity.

(From Zenit.org. Emphases, in bold, are mine)

Pope: Heaven's Joys Can Start on Earth
...Says Faithful Are Called to Imitate Mary

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, AUG. 17, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Heavenly joy can begin on earth by answering God’s call to share in a relationship similar to the mysterious interchange that occurred between Christ and Mary, says Benedict XVI.

The Pope spoke of the parallel between Jesus and his mother—“Mary has been ‘elevated’ to the place from which the Son had ‘come down’”—in his Angelus address Sunday at Castel Gandolfo. The Holy Father noted how Saturday was the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, while the Gospel reading for Sunday spoke of Jesus, the living bread that came down from heaven.

“We cannot remain indifferent to this parallel, which revolves around the symbol of ‘heaven,’” he said. “Naturally this biblical language expresses with figurative terminology something that does not entirely enter into the world of our concepts and images. But, let us pause for a moment to reflect.”
The Pontiff went on to note how Jesus is the living bread, “the true nourishment that gives life,” but that his earthly body was received from the Virgin Mary.

“God took from her a human body to enter into our mortal human condition,” the Bishop of Rome explained. “In turn, at the end of an earthly existence, the body of the Virgin was taken to heaven by God and brought to enter into the celestial condition.”

“Dear brothers and sisters,” he continued, “what happened to Mary is also valid, though in a different but real way, for every man and woman, because God asks each of us to welcome him, to place at his disposal our hearts and our bodies, the whole of our existence, our flesh—as the Bible says—so that he can dwell in the world.”

“He calls us to unite ourselves with him in the sacrament of the Eucharist, Bread broken for the life of the world, to together form the Church, his Body in history,” the Pope added. “And if we say ‘yes,’ like Mary, in the same measure of this our ‘yes,’ this mysterious interchange will also happen for us and in us: We will be assumed into the dignity of the One who has assumed our humanity.”

Benedict XVI affirmed that the Eucharist is the “instrument of this reciprocal transformation.”

“He is the Head and we are the members. He is the Vine and we the branches,” he said. “Whoever eats of this Bread and lives in communion with Jesus, allowing himself to be transformed by him and in him, is saved from eternal death: Certainly this person will die as everyone does, participating as well in the mystery of the passion and the cross of Christ, but he is no longer a slave of death and he will be raised up on the last day to enjoy the eternal feast with Mary and all the saints.”
Finally, the Holy Father assured, this “feast of God” begins on earth.

“It is a mystery of faith, hope and love, which is celebrated in the liturgy, especially the Eucharistic [liturgy], and is expressed in fraternal communion and service to our neighbor. Let us,” he concluded, “ask the holy Virgin to help us to always with faith nourish ourselves on the Bread of eternal life to experience already on earth the joy of heaven.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Is Consecrated Life Compatible With Studying Theology?

In response to my call for questions in June, here is a thoughtful one I received:

Interesting to read your story. I noticed you are studying theology. So it seems like you are thinking of teaching and contemplating the faith. Is it possible that what is needed here is an order of nuns that will study theology and then do ministry using their higher education? Did you find such an order and it just still was not a good fit? Or did you look and not find anything like that? Would one of you hopes or dreams be to start such an order?

I do wonder because I have a daughter who seems to have a disposition for religious life. It is hard to tell at 13 but it would not surprise anyone who knows her. But she has a great academic mind. I say “but” because most orders don't seem to focus on having their members possibly earn a post-graduate degree. So it seems like you can't have both religious life and high education. But you are doing it, sort of. –Randy

Dear Randy,
I think that you raise some great points, and ones which may not receive as much attention as they merit.

First of all, I would like to point out that the vast majority of women’s religious communities in the United State do take their Sisters’ general education very seriously. For instance, if a young woman hasn’t completed her college education upon entering the convent, the vast majority of the apostolic (a.k.a. “active”) congregations will send her to earn at least a bachelor’s degree.

But based on my own experience discerning religious life—which included researching various communities, visiting convents, and meeting a number of Sisters—it doesn’t seem to me that advanced graduate study is usually much of a possibility in most American women’s religious congregations. And in some communities, time constraints and certain applications of the vow of poverty (such as the inability to own one’s own books or lack of easy access to computers) would seem to make even personal, individually-motivated scholarship prohibitively difficult.

I think the reason for this is has to do primarily with the nature and structure of religious life. One of the most important things to understand when discussing these sorts of issues is that every religious community strives to be a faithful manifestation of their own particular “charism,” a word which refers to their foundational, identifying spiritual gifts and mission. Often (at least in the United States) the charism of an active congregation is closely tied to a particular apostolic work. And broadly speaking, the charisms and associated apostolates of most women’s religious communities are not such as would require that the Sisters achieve a distinguished level of academic accomplishment.

One example of this could be the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were founded in the seventeenth century France to serve Christ in the impoverished elderly. For hundreds of years, the Little Sisters have concretely lived out this charism by running free nursing homes for the poor. But while this is certainly a beautiful life and mission, it is clearly not one in which it is strictly necessary to study the Summa Theologica in-depth, or to learn Biblical Greek!

Of course, you could rightly argue that knowledge of academic theology is enriching in and of itself. Yet at the same time, the reality of the situation is that most religious congregations simply do not have the resources to send their Sisters for several years of advanced study which would not directly serve the needs of their community (though in most novitiates they do take some basic classes in theology, especially as it pertains to the spiritual life and the evangelical councils). More significantly, my impression is that most Sisters in active orders would much prefer to spend their time in the apostolic works reflective of their community’s proper charism, as opposed to in a lecture hall or at the library.

This lack of an academic focus doesn’t apply quite so much to men’s religious communities, since many male Orders—most notably the Jesuits and Dominicans, but others as well—do have scholarship as a part of their charism. Also, very often in men’s communities a large portion of their members are eventually ordained priests, and the universally required program of studies for priesthood encompasses a considerable amount of graduate work.

But this is not to say that American women’s religious life is totally incompatible with an interest in scholarship. One community, the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, considers professional excellence as a major facet of their charism. Their community includes medical doctors, canon lawyers, and seminary professors. So in this community the Sisters are regularly sent for post-graduate degrees.

And although I don’t think they have the same focus on theological scholarship, the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Meriden, Connecticut also encourage a high degree of professional achievement for their members. Among other things, I think that Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the Vatican’s website.

Although the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (Nashville, Tennessee) and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist (Ann Arbor, Michigan) have elementary and high school education, and not theological research or university professorships, as their primary apostolic work, I believe that these communities encourage serious reading and on-going intellectual formation among their Sisters. Similarly, the semi-cloistered, contemplative nuns of the Georgetown Visitation Monastery run a top-notch girls’ high school, which demands a deep interest in education in general.

Cloistered Dominican nuns (such as the “blogging nuns” of Summit, New Jersey) observe strict enclosure and therefore have no other apostolate besides prayer; but as members of the Dominican Order they hold study and the persist of truth as an integral part of their life and charism. In Dominican monasteries time is set aside especially for study, and there are several scholarly works which have been written or edited by a Dominican nuns.

Likewise, the Brothers, Contemplative Sisters, and Apostolic Sisters of the Congregation of St. John consider study an important part of their spirituality (they’re the ONLY people I know who regularly use St. Thomas Aquinas' technical works as spiritual reading!). Although they generally don’t earn advanced academic degrees, all of the Brothers and Sisters of St. John take years of in-house philosophy and theology classes as part of their initial formation—so I think someone which a scholarly inclination would likely fit in well with them.

I do think it might be a good thing for the Church if there was a women’s religious community whose charism and primary apostolate focused on academic scholarship. However, I personally don’t have any ambition of founding such a congregation. Pioneering a “new” form of consecrated life is more than enough for one lifetime!

Also, I didn’t become a consecrated virgin because I couldn’t find a suitable community; I knew of several where I thought I could have been quite happy (and that I assume would have been willing to accept me). And although one community that I very seriously considered joining did not really encourage intellectual pursuits, I would have gladly sacrificed my interest in academic theology if I had felt that God wanted me in that congregation.

Instead, I became a consecrated virgin because I felt that God was calling to this vocation in particular. Specifcally, I was drawn to the spirituality inherent in the Rite of Consecration itself; to the solemnity and the spousal emphasis of this form of consecrated life; and to its connection with the early Church. I also sensed a particular call to dedicate my life to prayer for, and service to, my archdiocese. (Where women religious must in a sense “leave” their home diocese in order to join their community, consecrated virgins take on a deep spiritual bond with their local Church, and live their consecrated lives under the direct authority of their bishop.)

Likewise, even though right now I’m planning on and actively preparing for an intellectually-oriented apostolate, my first priority will always be serving the Church. So while I’m certainly glad to be studying academic theology, and while it’s very reasonable to suppose that I’ll eventually have a job that reflects my educational experience, I don’t think I would really be living my vocation fully if I based my career decisions primarily on my own personal fulfillment (no matter how pious a form my sense of fulfillment may take!). Speaking hypothetically, I would be much happier to spend my life teaching CCD to second-graders because my bishop asked me to, than I would be in accepting a prestigious university position across the country solely on my own initiative.

Yet with all this being said, I do think that studying theology is highly appropriate and should be encouraged for consecrated virgins. First of all, who better to take on the important work of theological scholarship and education than those who have married the Incarnate Word? :)

But even for consecrated virgins who aren’t called to academic work, I still believe at theological study on at least some level should have a place in their consecrated lives. Since consecrated virgins are called to a fairly intense life of prayer, theology can be a great help in understanding, and thus in prayerfully contemplating, the Church’s doctrines. And because consecrated virgins are public representatives of the Church who live “in the world,” it’s very important that they be able to explain, correctly and articulately, what it is that the Church teaches.

Also, I think a sufficient grasp of theology can help keep one’s spirituality healthy and “balanced.” I think this is a particularly vital concern for consecrated virgins, since they don’t automatically have in their lives the moderating influences that a religious community provides its members. (As anyone who attends daily Mass can readily observe, eccentricity can sometimes be an occupational hazard of a devote lifestyle, especially for unmarried women)

And if you were going to make an argument from history, it seems that study was a part of lives of the early consecrated virgins. Many Church Fathers, such as Sts. Ambrose and Jerome, directly recommend that consecrated virgins spend their time reading and pondering the sacred Scriptures—which I think is quite remarkable, since women’s literacy wasn’t exactly a high priority in the ancient world. Further, St. Jerome writes several letters to a consecrated virgin where he discusses, as though with an equal, some of his scholarly projects.

So although theological study for its own sake can never be the defining aspect of my vocation, I definitely feel that it’s compatible with, and beneficial to, my consecrated life.

(P.S.: Prayers for you and your daughter!)