We are blessed in the Diocese of Erie to have the presence of many consecrated religious. In our Diocese, we have mostly female religious, but there are many sons of our Diocese who have joined religious life in other places. Religious are a great blessing to the Church! We know that religious staffed the Catholic schools for many years. We know what a great gift that was. But beyond the practical, the very lives of these men and women are a gift to us. Here’s why:
Religious are consecrated – that is, they are set apart. Set apart for what, you might ask? They are set apart for Christ, for the Church, and for the benefit of all in the world. Married people are set apart for the exclusive love of each other. They make vows for this reason. Religious also make vows, to be set apart. This gives them the ability to give us their whole heart and their whole lives. They give themselves to Christ and to Christ’s Body in the world, the Church. Their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience free religious from concern for the world’s goods, so that they can be consecrated for God.
The very lives of religious sisters and brothers are radically dedicated to love, even though they have no family of their own. In a sense, their religious community is their family, and we are their family, too! The fact that they are not “useful” to the worldly profit is often times a criticism of religious. But to view religious life in this way is to misunderstand its real value. Religious are a sign of God’s Presence in the world. If you don’t believe this, walk with a religious brother and sister in habit through a public place. You will understand. Regardless of habit or no habit, religious remind the secularized, materialized world that there is more to life than stuff. Work, wealth, pleasure, and prestige do not feed our deepest needs as people. We are made for so much more. Religious remind us of that.
Religious show forth the diversity of the Holy Spirit’s gifts in the Church. What they do varies greatly from order to order. Some religious dedicate themselves totally to prayer – these are the contemplatives. They pray without ceasing for the Church. These contemplatives participate in a “sneak preview” – a foretaste – of heavenly worship. If we are destined to worship the Lord in Heaven, then how could a life dedicated to prayer be a waste of time? Other religious live a life of solitude as hermits. These live the contemplative life in an individual way. Still, other religious life an active lifestyle, performing their “apostolate” – works of mercy, such as education, aiding the sick and dying, visiting prisons, preaching, and so on. Every active religious order has its own work – it is impossible to name all the things that active religious do. There are many orders that combine the lifestyle of dedicated prayer and works of mercy – we call these orders “active-contemplative”. Religious life has community rules and regulations, set down by the founder of the order. For example, Benedictines follow the rule of St. Benedict. Franciscans are inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, etc.
The Holy Spirit moves the People of God to prayer and works of mercy. All people are called to this task. In these days, all the baptized are beginning to recover a sense of mission. Each of us are called to prayer and to love of God and neighbor. There is much that the 95% of us who are not priests, sisters, brothers, or deacons, can do to serve God, Church, and neighbor. Maybe this realization has dropped the numbers entering convents, monasteries, and seminaries. Regardless, the activity of the lay faithful will never take away the need for priests and religious. The Holy Spirit knows the needs of the Church – the Holy Spirit knows our needs. We need religious men and women because they show us that God is first in our lives. Their generous gift of their entire lives to God encourages us to do the same in our lives. Their love for people shows us great example. God chooses men and women to be set apart for this total love. God does this to give us hope that, indeed, there are more riches in store for us through the Resurrection than all the riches the world can offer us.