Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
I hope and pray for all of you, that this season of Lent brings you much grace and peace. This yearly journey of self-denial and penitence in preparation for the Way of the Cross and the Lord’s Resurrection is so important for our faith. It reminds us of how much the Lord suffered for us and encourages us to bear our crosses in following him. It teaches us deeper conversion of heart and purifies our love of God and of each other. It more deeply unites us with Jesus, and prepares us for our own death, judgment and resurrection. In short, the discipline of Lent is like the “narrow gate” that leads to heaven. May God strengthen you daily on this journey.
In the midst of this Lenten season, we might also recall that this year is the Year of Consecrated Life. Pope Francis has given us this year to celebrate and encourage vocations to the consecrated life and ministry. The church has always looked to men and women who consecrate their lives to the Lord in a unique way for another kind of leadership, alongside that of the clergy and the simple but profound dedication of marriage and faithful families. Consecrated men and women lead the church in radical witness to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. They also lead the church in notable ways in the mission “to the margins,” as Pope Francis puts it.
There are three main kinds of vocations to the religious life – cloistered, active and solitary. Cloistered religious are nuns, brothers and priests in enclosed orders like our Carmelites, who serve the church and the world especially by their prayers. They live in a stable community, following a common “rule of life.” By remaining in their monasteries as much as possible, they give themselves completely to Christ-like humility and love of their community members. They sacrifice all of our normal defenses and excuses against total, radical conversion of heart, so that they may become, as St. Therese of Lisieux said, “perfect love in the heart of the world.”
Our Carmel here in Sioux City is a constant source of joy and encouragement to me in my ministry as your bishop, and I, like many of you, am so grateful to have such nuns to count on for unflagging spiritual support.
Active religious are sisters, brothers and priests in serving orders like the Franciscans, Dominicans or Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity. They also live in communities and serve the world by their prayers, but they engage widely in ministries beyond their monasteries and convents, serving the poor and the sick, teaching in schools, and so much more. It would be impossible to list all the devoted ministries that active consecrated persons have done and still do in the church.
In our own diocese, we are very blessed still to have many religious sisters doing beautiful works in our Catholic hospitals and nursing homes, at Briar Cliff University, in our schools and parishes, and working in the world for the needs of the poor and marginalized. We thank God for their presence, witness, and dedication! (See related story on page 17.)
Solitary religious are consecrated men and women religious who don’t live in monastic communities, and are therefore not bound to any particular “rule of life,” apart from the Gospel itself. In the past, the church had many hermits (the word comes from the Greek word for “desert”), like Julian of Norwich or St. Simeon Stylites, who lived with great holiness this most radical embrace of the cross and the Gospel. Today, the most common form of this type of vocation is the consecrated virgin.
Consecrated virgins are single women who live and work in the world, but who individually vow to live the evangelical counsels. Like other religious, they are “brides of Christ.” They share in every kind of ministry they feel called to. It is a blessing in the church today that consecrated virgins are again growing in numbers.
Alongside these three kinds of consecrated life, there are a great many people, both laity and clergy, who feel some affinity for the models or rules of religious life. Some are simply looking for spiritual inspiration.
Others join groups of “third order” or “lay associates,” which, while technically not part of consecrated life, certainly help people live out their own vocations with greater commitment and joy. Such groups can also make the joyful surrender to our Lord’s call and express the joys of selfless ministry. I know of such groups in our diocese, associated with the Benedictines, Carmelites and Franciscans, and I pray for all of you, that your participation in such associations will bring you much spiritual fruit and deeper devotion to Jesus.
Whatever our vocation in the church, our brothers and sisters always have great want of our faithful witness. The witness of the consecrated religious is particularly important. All of us, by our baptism, are called to live out the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience in some form, according to our vocation and state in life.
All of us therefore take courage and determination in seeing those who strive to live with such pure love, cemented in life-long vows. All of us are called to be leaven in the world; all of us therefore take inspiration from those whose leaven gives so abundantly the odor of charity and perfection. All of us are called to shine with the light of Christ; all of us therefore are renewed by the example of those whose light shines so distinctively in how they live, talk, act, and dress.
I beg for your continued prayers, then, and especially in this season of Lent in this Year for Consecrated Life, for the ongoing renewal of the consecrated life in the church and for an increase in vocations to this life.
We have been very blessed in this diocese with the presence of all three kinds of religious, but I want more of such grace and light of Christ! If you feel God calling you to the consecrated life, please be generous in response!
Father Brad Pelzel, our diocesan director of vocations, can also help you with discernment resources and contacts to religious orders. Those of us called to the clergy or to married life can also help by renewing our fidelity to our own vocation, so that the grace of Jesus Christ will flow more fully through our parishes and families.
May God continue to bless you most abundantly in your Lenten journey.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City