Recently I attended a gathering of nearly two hundred of our Sisters who live and work in the NSW province. On the second day we were invited to work towards an agenda for the next hundred years of our congregation.
A casual observer would have wondered at such a task, given that almost the entire group could surely claim the wisdom of age rather than the idealism of youth! I found myself sitting between a seventy three year old and one of our few younger members who is a mere twenty seven. At our gathering we celebrated Alice’s birthday. At 93 Alice was one of the more senior contributors to the discussion but it was clearly apparent that she, along with everyone else was enthusiastic and hopeful. The atmosphere of the room was charged with energy and life. It seems that the followers of Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods are determined to leave a strong and vibrant legacy for the future.
At a time when the story of our heritage is very much to the fore as we anticipate the canonisation of Mary MacKillop, we believe it imperative that our collective voice is a clarion call for justice and integrity; and our service continues to address the greatest need in our society and world. To achieve this goal requires constant prayer and discernment, active liturgical involvement and the continual ongoing formation of each of our Sisters.
Religious have put a high value on education and continue to pursue this ideal to fully equip them to serve God’s holy people. This has not come about without considerable cost – both financially and personally. Women and men have often undertaken formal study while exercising fulltime ministry. It was not unusual for religious to teach all day and then attend university lectures at night. Communities have shared the burden. In order for some to be released for long term study, others have foregone that possibility and worked in ministry to support their companions. In a number of cases where a particular area of expertise was needed, religious are sent overseas for specialist courses of study, often at great financial cost to the community.
Contemplative religious also place a high value on education and study if the writings that are produced and the calibre of lecturers and preachers is any indication. In their balanced lives of reflection, work and prayer, these men and women live in a more serene atmosphere (at least to the outsider), where time takes on a different rhythm. This would seem highly conducive to disciplined study and research, and the resulting evidence is compelling. One only has to think of the great mystics and wise contemplative religious of our own time to verify this.
I owe my ongoing formal study opportunities over many years to competent Josephite teachers in my formative years, and latterly to the generosity and encouragement of those same Sisters. This month I am engaged by the northern deanery of the Maitland-Newcastle diocese to teach a series of workshops on the Mass in preparation for the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal. Hundreds of Catholics are availing themselves of this opportunity each week. For many the message is challenging and yet they are so eager for their faith to be nourished.
Will there still be professionally competent religious to teach and form the people of the next millennium? Only God knows – but the legacy of religious founders to value a sound and thorough education continues to give integrity to religious life. And religious continue to make a valuable contribution to the Church’s mission to bring about the reign of God at this time in our history. Indeed the religious of today are arguably the most educated single grouping in our church and yet so often their wisdom, particularly that of women religious is dismissed or ignored.
Carmel Pilcher is a Sister of St Joseph based in Sydney who works as a liturgical consultant.
Image: Sister Joan Healy RSJ receives an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University.
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