Vowed life is a mystery, but only in the Catholic sense. There’s no mystery in the vows themselves. Poverty, chastity and obedience are pretty straightforward — no money, no sex, no turning your back on the demands of the community.
But why? Why those three? Why do they matter to the church? Why do they matter ultimately? Why are they connected with Christian life? Why for some and not for all? Why declare these promises publicly?
Sister April Mireau of the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary publicly declared herself eternally poor, chaste and obedient for the sake of the kingdom of God on Aug. 9 last year. Having lived just nine months of it, Mireau’s certain she will be asking herself the why questions until her sisters walk her out the front door in a pine box.
“We are all called to follow Jesus, but each in our own way,” Mireau told The Catholic Register. “Religious profession of the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience has given a definite orientation to my life.”
Her new orientation isn’t ideological or theological or philosophical. There’s nothing abstract about poverty, chastity or obedience. The vows are concrete, practical and sometimes impractical facts which govern Mireau’s day-to-day existence. Her new orientation is to Jesus — not a theory but a person.
“Our vows only make sense or have meaning when they find their beginning and their end in Jesus,” Mireau wrote in an email. “And this is what makes them a prophetic sign in the church.”
Pope Francis has lived his own life of poverty, chastity and obedience as a Jesuit since entering the novitiate March 11, 1958. More than half a century waking up and going to bed with the mystery of the vows made it almost inevitable that as pope he would call the church to a year of gratitude and appreciation for consecrated life. From November of last year to February next year, Pope Francis has called the entire church to 14 months of celebration — global thanksgiving for the Christian life as lived by a tiny minority of Christians.
Pope Francis has asked us all to thank God for the dedication, the faithfulness of religious orders.
“Let them know the affection and the warmth which the entire Christian people feels for them,” the pope wrote in a letter at the opening of the special year.
In fact, it goes beyond just the religious orders. Consecrated life is a bigger category that includes people living the vows on their own, outside the support of an organized community. The Archdiocese of Toronto has four consecrated virgins, living intensely private lives entirely dedicated to the kingdom of God through their daily practice of poverty, chastity and obedience. These people living under private vows matter as much to the church in Toronto as the Jesuits operating a world-class faculty of theology at Regis College or the Sisters of St. Joseph who gave the city three hospitals.
Religious life as embraced by April Mireau and more than 18,000 members of 235 religious congregations in Canada matters in ways that go beyond the role religious congregations have played in building up and maintaining Catholic institutions through the generations. Religious life is precious to the church for far more than habited sisters staring down classrooms full of Catholic kids or organizing the nursing care for the frail and suffering in Catholic hospitals. Long gone are the days when a Franciscan or Dominican parish might have four or five priests at the beck and call of parishioners, but lives lived according to the vows still matter to the church.
“It’s a call from God to fulfil the Gospel values, to be aware of unmet needs that religious congregations zero in on and try their best to fulfil,” Sister Alice Greer of the Sisters of St. Joseph said from her chaplaincy office at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. “It’s a matter of searching out and undertaking whatever work might best fulfil the kingdom of God.”
There’s no point pretending things haven’t changed. Half of Canada’s religious are now over 80 years old. Only one per cent are under 40. The vocation to the brotherhood has withered. Where in 1975 there were more than 400 men in formation, preparing to live lives as religious brothers, by 2004 there were only three. The story for sisters is better, a little better. In 1975 there were 426 women in formation, intending to take vows. In 2004 there were 68.
Greer’s community counts itself lucky. In the past six years five women have professed final vows in the Congregation of St. Joseph of Sault Ste. Marie.
“I think that’s worth celebrating and worth looking at and saying there’s movement forward,” she said. “We celebrate each vocation, each sister who joins.”
Greer bats away every question about why sisters left in such great numbers in the 1970s and ’80s and refuses to talk about the relative drought in new vocations.
“If you look at that then you’re not looking in the direction of moving forward,” she said.
Canadian Religious Conference executive director Rev. Tim Scott is not afraid of looking back. At 57 he knows that friendships with vowed religious and the presence of sisters, brothers and religious priests in schools, parishes and hospitals “was simply a huge part of our identity as a Catholic community.”
Scott took pride in the accomplishments of Jesuits, Dominicans and Benedictines long before he joined the Basilian priests. The idea of a monastery, the idea of a monk, was something embedded in his religious instincts before he ever thought about his own vocation.
“It’s something that I really do regret for the future — the thought that the next generation won’t have the experience that I had. It was something very, very precious,” said Scott.
In the sweep of church history over the last two millennia, Scott knows his experience of religious sisters teaching Grade 3 arithmetic in the 1960s along with religious priests bouncing around in big, rambling parish rectories has not been the norm. The end of the post-war glut in religious vocations merely returns us back to the old normal.
“Now numbers are going to be much more like they were in the ’30s and in the ’20s,” he said. “That’s a tough reality when people have this memory of religious life as a vital piece and religious superiors didn’t know what to do with all the people they had.”
But even without the numbers and the bricks and mortar those numbers supported, religious life remains essential to the church, said Scott. The church would not be the church without it.
“You’ve got this eschatological vision built into consecrated life. It’s one of the constant reminders that there is life beyond what we are experiencing here and now,” he said. “For a Catholic to have never set foot in a monastery, to never have seen that reality, it just seems to me to impoverish their sense of Catholicism.”
It’s the craziest of the vows that makes the most sense to Scott. Observed from afar, chastity would seem irrelevant. What is it about not ever acting on love in the normal, human, sexual way that is going to make anybody kinder, more generous, wiser or more honest?
“It stands in constant opposition to all sorts of values that are being kicked around in our society today,” said Scott. “There is this very public witness of women and men who have chosen celibacy for the kingdom. That’s the marker. It is an immensely attractive thing for people to know that there are people making this choice.”
Of course it seems crazy.
“It’s the thing that sets us apart. It only makes sense in the context of that very deep relationship that we’re all trying to cultivate with the Lord. Otherwise, it makes no sense at all,” he said.
A vow of poverty can seem like a reasonable, logical thing when contrasted with a culture of material excess. It certainly looks reasonable when contrasted with maxing out the family credit cards at the mall. Obedience too looks like a better option than the sort of radical independence that makes a person unemployable and unendurable. Everybody has to limit themselves and find a way to fit in at work, at home, in school.
Religious vows make these merely reasonable choices into a statement about what life is for.
“When you do it in the context of religious vows, then that kind of poverty and simplicity is deeply attractive,” said Scott.
It’s attractive in the same way and for the same reasons that Jesus is attractive.
“Jesus was poor. Jesus was chaste. Jesus was obedient to the Father’s will,” said Scott. “Religious (men and women) promise by vow to do what Jesus did — to be poor, to be chaste and to be obedient. The imitation of Christ is still at the heart of religious life.”