August 5, 2004
This past Saturday, seven young women stood up in front of everyone in the motherhouse of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth in Parsippany and made a most daring statement. It was a moment of great joy for these young women. They had been waiting and preparing for this day as eagerly as a bride for her wedding. They took Jesus at his word and left all to follow him. As they deepened their baptism through the embrace of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, the sun bathed the chapel of the motherhouse in light and the Church herself became even brighter because of the witness of their consecrated lives.
As I celebrated the Eucharist with them, I could not help but think how rich our diocese is. There are thirty-five communities of women religious serve in the diocese; 8 of them have their motherhouses here. While some sisters live a contemplative life and others an active life, every one of them gives glory to God. Behind cloistered walls and in the midst of society -- in nurseries and nursing homes, in classrooms and hospitals, in offices and in homes, religious sisters are clear signs that point us back in the direction of our baptism and our own dying to self and living for the Lord. Where religious women are visible and active in our society, they not only transform our age with their love of Jesus, but they remind us of our need to remain faithful to the Lord.
There is a great need in our day to understand and to value in all its richness the role God has given women in the plan of salvation. This past week the Congregation for the Doctrine on the Faith has issued a most welcomed document entitled, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World.” The letter reflects on a topic diversely understood in our time. For the past three years, your bishop has been a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on Women in Society and in the Church. We have piloted a number of studies in an effort to understand better the concerns and contributions of women and to facilitate co-operation at all levels of church life. Women hold almost 49% of the leadership roles on a diocesan level throughout the country. In fact, women have exercised that leadership role in helping the Holy See prepare this new document.
The letter takes a biblical, theological approach. It offers solid insights for the proper understanding of the roles of men and women. We certainly need this today. A false understanding of human sexuality in our society has called into question the very reality of the family. Society is moving in attitude and legislation away from seeing the family in its natural structure of father and mother. And our culture seems to be making homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent.
Even in religion, a desire to affirm the God-given dignity of women needs to be based on a proper understanding of human sexuality as part of divine revelation. The very criticism of Sacred Scripture as passing on a patriarchal concept of God clouds an appreciation of the mystery of the Incarnation. The equality between women and men is not enhanced when some are led to the disastrous choice of using only gender-indifferent names for God and no longer praying in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. When that happens, we lose the very relational nature of our faith-language that springs from the mystery of the Trinity. And we are robbed of the richness of our Tradition.
In the midst of many heated discussions, this new document from the Holy See comes as cool breeze on a summer’s day. It affirms the differences between man and woman as well as their complementarity. It places human sexuality in its proper context as a revelation of God. The letter cites our Holy Father’s words from
Mulieris dignitatem, “In the ‘unity of the two,’ man and woman are called from the beginning not only to exist ‘side by side’ or ‘together’, but they are also called to exist mutually ‘one for the other’(6).
The mystery of the Church finds expression in this mutuality of man and woman. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is his spouse. In a unique way, women religious mirror that mystery. They become for us living signs of that self-giving that unites us to Christ the bridegroom. What a blessing! Even married couples can find in the celibate lives of religious a prophetic witness of the fulfillment which their own love will find in the face-to-face encounter with God.
On August16, I will witness the profession of two more young women as Sisters of Christian Charity in Mendham. They will offer the generous gift of self in one of the most zealous, dedicated, communities serving in our diocese. On the Feast of St. Clare, five women who have been living the evangelical counsels in a private association of the laity will receive the habit. As Franciscan Daughters of Mary, their common life of prayer and their apostolate to make real our respect for life from conception to natural death will become even more visible.
Almost 800 women religious live and work among us. What a gift they are to the Church of Paterson. Their consecrated lives challenge us to live in mutual care and concern for each other, in openness to God’s Word and in fidelity to His will. They show us the true face of the Church, the spouse of Christ and the mother of all believers.
Through the intercession of Mary, the Mother of the Church, may God bless these generous women and grant us more vocations to the religious life.