Growing up and going to our parish Catholic school, I loved “the nuns” who taught us, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). While some people seem to enjoy telling “horror stories” about their experiences in Catholic school, I for one consider myself very lucky to have been taught by wonderful religious women. Clad in blue and black from head to toe, these sisters – the “Macs” as we called them – cared deeply for us and we knew it.
When they would emerge in the morning from the Convent next to the school playground, boys and girls rushed over to “carry Sister’s book bag” into the school building. Every class began and ended with a prayer, reminding us all of the presence of God. Classrooms were filled with religious statues and pictures, reminding us all of the heroes of our Church. And the Sisters themselves in their habits, though a bit mysterious – What was their “real name?” What color was their hair? Did they do anything but pray all the time? – the Sisters were always there for us, reminding us of the joy that comes with loving and serving God.
It wasn’t until I went to Catholic high school that I met “brothers,” religious men who were not priests but devoted to God just as much. They usually worked “behind the scenes,” performing all kinds of services from fixing things to cooking to teaching. While the priests were very accessible, the brothers were always there for us, whether in the chapel or on the ballfield, always ready with a kind word or a funny story. We wondered why the brothers didn’t just become priests until they explained the special nature of their unique vocation.
Although the numbers of religious sisters and brothers have diminished significantly since those days, as have the numbers of priests, their vocations as consecrated religious continue to give powerful witness to God’s presence in the Catholic Church. Most have traded in their habits for more modern attire, but they are still clothed with Christ in the lives they lead and the ministries they perform – teaching, hospital work, prison chaplaincies, social services, parish leadership and so on. Here in the Diocese of Trenton we are blessed to have 266 women religious and 55 men religious from various orders, still giving their all, whether actively laboring in all kinds of apostolic activities or supporting the Diocese with their prayers as retired members of their religious communities.
In 1997 Pope St. John Paul II established an annual “World Day of Prayer for Women and Men in Consecrated Life.” This year, that day will be celebrated on February 5. It is the occasion for us all to pray for religious, for increased vocations within their orders; to remember all the good they have done and continue to do for Church; to celebrate and thank them for offering God and the Church their entire lives, following the Lord Jesus wherever he has led and leads them still. They have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience called the “evangelical counsels” as a witness to the entirety of their consecration, begun in Baptism. They bond together in prayer and the common life to become a united leaven in the community of faith. Their conviction, their consecration, their calling is nothing short of awesome!
Pope Benedict XVI said it so well in 2005: “By their unconditional attachment to Christ and to his Church, they have the special mission to remind everyone of the universal vocation to holiness… Consecrated men and women proclaim that God alone can give fullness to human existence (Address to Canadian Bishops, 2005).” If only there were more of them!
Like many Catholics of my generation and before, I have such wonderful memories of those “Mighty Macs” who taught in our parish school, some who are still here, others who have gone home to God. One memory I hold particularly dear. Sister Mary Pacis, IHM, my eighth grade teacher, pulled me aside one day and said with a beautiful smile and twinkling eyes I shall never forget, “David, you have terrible penmanship and handwriting but I think you’d make a good priest.” Although my handwriting never improved to the present day, I was deeply moved to see her among the congregation at my First Mass. Thank you, sisters and brothers. You make our Church and our world a better place!
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Bishop of Trenton