By Sister Paula Terese Pilon
In November 2020, at a virtual gathering for the National Religious Vocation Conference, Father David Kelly, Executive Director of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation based in Chicago, gave a presentation entitled A Ministry of Hope. Part of his presentation focused on the importance of “changing the narrative” and its correlation to moving beyond past injuries. However, his three-pronged approach also aptly applies to the current reality of religious life today:
1) Come together to tell your stories.
2) Commit to doing what’s hard.
3) Remain hopeful.
This is the blueprint of our existence.
When I entered religious life with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Nazareth in Kalamazoo, MI in 2003, we were in conversation with six other communities of Sister of St Joseph about uniting to form one congregation. This pivotal decision to come together was born out of our desire to share our resources so that we could continue to live out and further our mission of unifying love, and was forward looking and deeply rooted in our belief that religious life is alive and vital in today’s world. We officially became the Congregation of Saint Joseph in 2007.
Bringing together seven, formerly independent, communities was no small task. We were from seven different states and had seven different and unique cultures. However, we were committed to our mission and remained hopeful that our union would bring about good. Indeed, it has opened and broadened us in ways we could not have predicted.
While some believe that religious life is dying due to the declining number of vowed sisters, we know that numbers do not tell the whole story. Even though it might look different, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t experiencing God’s call to vowed religious life. And others are being called to service in other ways, such as associates. Together, we all work to unite, heal and to be light to one another.
Amanda Gorman, in her poem read at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, encouraged us to be light to the world. She stated,
‘We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.’
Her words speak so eloquently of the call of many men and women religious. As sisters of the Congregation of Saint Joseph, our call is to animate these words. By joining together, we knew we could be a brighter light to the world around us. We did this through discovering new ways to serve our dear neighbors, without distinction, ways that were not possible when we were seven individual congregations. We found others; lay colleagues and partners, equally committed to this mission of reconciling, unifying love, with whom we now collaborate. We are a visible witness of the Gospel values and we devote ourselves to creating opportunities that help to heal the wounds inflicted on both humanity and the world.
One of the most important parts of our journey to join together was relationship building. We invested a lot of time and resources into meeting with and getting to know one another. Relationships are, after all, at the heart of who we are and one of our greatest assets. We are still a work in progress, but coming together all those years ago gave us renewed energy and hope. We have challenges, but we work through them together. We are a family.
Other congregations have since asked us to tell our story because they felt that the way we came together was very successful and life-giving. This was and is one way that we are a light to others, as Amanda Gorman invited us to be.
I am inspired daily by so many of our sisters who teach me that whatever our age we can contribute to furthering and living out our mission. Our light shines no matter the age, no matter how big or little our actions seem. I see the women in my congregation daily living from an inner light that shines through the actions they do – whether it be prayer, kindness to others, writing letters to or calling public officials, to protesting or working towards systemic change and unity of a divided nation and many other ways. They have taught me that trust in God’s divine Providence is so important. That although religious life is changing God is still working in us and still calling others to this life. When I hear people saying that religious life is dying, I remember my congregation’s foundation. In 1650, LePuy France, six women felt called to go out into the city and meet the needs of their dear neighbors. Just as those women were a light for the people of their time so also we strive to be a light for the people of our time. I believe God is still calling women and men to holiness — and I am filled with abundant hope.
About the Author
Sister Paula Terese Pilon lives in Cleveland, Ohio and works as a chaplain at Cleveland Clinic Hospice. Originally from Michigan, Paula Terese is very found of her home town of Ann Arbor. She enjoys spending time with her friends and family and listening to audiobooks. She loves her life as a sister!