Since the birth of the Church at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has stirred in the hearts of the faithful and called upon some to commit to the Gospel through the evangelical counsels: the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Today the Spirit continues to stir within the hearts of those who love Jesus. Some are called to commit themselves to live a life of prayer, service and community as consecrated people — people set aside for special purposes for God.
Ultimately, religious life is a movement of the Holy Spirit. We know that God can’t be put in a box. And the Holy Spirit is especially a living, breathing, animating force that can’t be controlled or contained.
Because we are guided by the Spirit, those of us who are part of religious life know that part of our commitment includes surrendering to the Spirit — the Spirit who prevents stagnation and keeps things flowing, developing. No matter if one is living within a monastery or among the poor, men and women religious must be comfortable with constant change.
A study of Church History reveals how the Spirit — and the Catholic Church herself — has continually called upon men and women religious to listen to the promptings of the Spirit and adapt their lifestyles accordingly. This especially happened after the Vatican II; many of you probably can remember how religious life changed so quickly in the decades following. In recent decades lay associates have become increasingly involved in our congregations. Collectives of peers from other communities have established networks and support systems. Giving Voice is one particular organization for women religious under age 50. When I gather with other members of Giving Voice, we often discuss what new changes are emerging in religious life, what new changes we sense the Spirit is calling forth and inviting us to tend.
When one takes a broad view at religious life globally, trends become apparent. Nowadays we are called to share our charisms while we collaborate with others. We partner in mission and ministry with laypeople and with men and women religious from other communities. We reach across religious and secular divides. We are building relationships and connections while we work to heal divides and share the goodness and privileges of vowed religious life with others, often without concern of creed or commitment. This means we must work at deinstitutionalization, divestment and right-sizing. We are letting go of what was familiar and comfortable and adapting so we can put our energy and resources into our mission and membership instead of the maintenance of buildings and structures. We sell buildings and lands. We close former ministries and let go of sponsorship. We bury the dead and welcome the new.
As we evolve and adapt, we gain a freedom too. We are able to live more communally and be more responsive to the Spirit. We see how the Spirit continues to create anew (Revelation 21:5). An example is a project I am involved with in Chicago: The Fireplace Community. The Fireplace is an intentional community consisting of women religious from two different generations and congregations (a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and a Sister of St. Joseph-Third Order of St. Francis) and three women who aren’t vowed Catholic Sisters, along with many others who don’t live onsite. Together the five of us share a home and the rhythms of a household: meals, meetings, prayer and work. We also share our space with neighbors and the public who join us for events, gatherings and retreats we host within our home. Plus the property where The Fireplace is housed is owned by the Society of the Divine Word. (Talk about collaboration!) The mission of The Fireplace is to fuel and sustain change-makers as we create inclusive communities that contribute to the flourishing of people and planet. We are rooted in shared rhythms of meals, labor and worship. A refuge for spiritual seekers, artists and activists, The Fireplace is a community of compassion, creativity and contemplation.
The Fireplace, and other projects like it, are outgrowths from the deep roots of religious life, a way that the movement of the Spirit continues to stir the hearts of the faithful.
Editor’s note: This essay, written by Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Julia Wash, was originally published by Dubuque Area Vocations Association.