National Catholic Sisters Week celebrates vocations

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Every January, Sister Sarah Heger meets with a group of friends at a retreat center in Arizona for a fun weekend of relaxation and prayer -- and a few games of kickball.

But this is no ordinary group, explained the Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. These women are part of Giving Voice, a community of women religious primarily in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The group provides a setting in which younger women religious -- many of whom might be among the few younger vocations in their own communities back home -- can relate to one another through the shared experience of being a younger woman religious.

"Through our religious communities, we share a lot in common with our charism, mission and experiences," said 32-year-old Sister Sarah, who serves as interim principal at Marian Middle School in St. Louis. "To have someone to resonate with (on a generational level) is very important."

The first National Catholic Sisters Week, sponsored by an organization of the same name, will be observed March 8-14 in cities across the United States. A kickoff event will be held March 7-9 at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn.

According to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which provided a $3.3 million grant over three years for the initiative, the week is expected to "ignite a movement around the lives and the contributions of sisters in ways that inspire girls and women to picture themselves among the ranks of these women religious."

The kickoff event at St. Catherine University will bring together women and sisters to present oral histories of religious communities, discuss religious life and form a network of college women and sisters.

Sister Rosemarie Nassif, SSND, head of the foundation's Catholic Sisters Initiative, noted that there are more than 700,000 Catholic women religious around the world, many of whom are living among the most vulnerable people and ministering through their works and prayers. Congregations face different challenges, she said, including an aging membership and lack of new vocations; others have challenges educating and supporting a growing membership.

Sister Sarah is one of several younger religious vocations with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Louis. Being able to meet with young sisters from other religious communities through Giving Voice gives them a chance to talk about "what does the future of charism and community look like for us? It's like living in the future now -- a glimpse of what is and also what will be."

Looking at the future of religious life also was the focus at a talk given last month by Sister Amy Hereford at Aquinas Institute of Theology. The attorney, who entered the Sisters of St. Joseph after the Second Vatican Council, recently published a book, "Religious Life at the Crossroads," which looks at the movements among religious life today and the among groups of younger women religious.

Sister Amy described a changing landscape among religious communities. Many religious orders no longer live together in community, so religious sisters are finding new ways in which to form a sense of community, including networking with other religious orders and "intentional" communities, such as those who work on justice-related efforts.

"We are privileged to be in a space to live that out," said Sister Amy, and to be able to reach out through these new communities.

The core identity of religious life includes a consecration to God and a stable form of life, which allows for a special kind of service to the Church. The vows are a sign of that life, said Sister Amy. "They create the space for this life to be lived."

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