INSIGHT INTO THE SACRED SISTERHOOD
BY: Emma Cullnan, Sonya Everett, Dulcibella Larbi, Wendy Rociles
Assistance By: Kristin Heinichen, Kelly Cline
CHICAGO - “Sisterhood” is normally used to describe a commitment to friends, rather than a commitment to the Lord. To enter the society of sisters one must take the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. And while this would be unthinkable for many young women, there are still those who couldn’t envision any other way of life.
“I was so happy to say ‘yes.’ It’s a grace to say yes,” said Sister Maria Luisa, a nun teaching at Josephinum Academy in Chicago.
Sister Maria Luisa, now 30, can hardly think back to a time when she didn’t desire to honor and serve God, the Catholic Church and the sisterhood.
“The first time I heard his voice in my heart calling me, I was in the 7th grade,” she recalled with a smile.
Born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sister Maria Luisa was well familiar with Mother Pauline, the first Brazilian to be proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church. Inspired by Mother Pauline’s service to the poor, she entered the convent the moment she turned 18. Ten years later, Sister Maria Luisa took her vows promising that she would forever be faithful. It was then she received the ring she wears proudly on her right hand symbolizing her “marriage” to Christ.
“The ring is our reminder,” Sister Maria Luisa said. “We sisters are called spouses of God.”
There is quite a process to the promise; taking at least 10 years to complete. The first one to two years is considered "Postulancy." Here participants determine how invested they are, and following that they earn their habit. "Novitiate" is a two-year period of formation. This is a period of training and preparation before they enter the life of the sisterhood. All those called to the religious life then take on a "Temporary Profession" for five to eight years. Those who endure then take their final vows and receive their ring, illustrating their marriage to Christ.
But Sister Maria Luisa is on a path few choose. As of 2014, there are about 50,00 sisters in the United states, a 72% decrease from the 180,000 sisters in 1966. Dissatisfaction lingers, from Church doctrine to the Vatican’s oversight of religious women in the United States.
Sister Mary Eileen O’Connor is approaching her 97th birthday, but she clearly remembers a time and place when the community celebrated a young girl’s decision to become a Catholic nun. She was 15 when she entered the convent, and her parents “rejoiced,” she recalled.
Sister Mary Eileen has recognized the decline in young women choosing to become nuns since she took her vows in 1933. She attributes the decline in desire to changing attitudes of women and the emergence of women in the workplace.
“Vocations do decline, but it’s a different world. Now young women are attracted to their jobs and so on...and we have to pray for them that they will choose their vocations over their job. I don’t think jobs are the only reason,” she said. “But God is still calling.”
Pope Francis recently instructed bishops to survey their congregation about various social issues in Europe and the United States. The issues included birth control, premarital sex, divorce and gay marriage. It showed a wide gap between the church and its followers. On every issue, American Catholics are more liberal than the church’s teachings.
Recently a Catholic pressure group has aimed to tackle other issues. “Nuns on the Bus,” led by Sister Simone Campbell, has begun to lobby for economic justice, immigration reform, healthcare and overall peacemaking instead of making divisive issues their platform.
“There’s a part of me that has always believed we can make a difference,” Sister Simone Campbell said at a 2014 Ware Lecture.
Sister Simone Campbell has created an avalanche of attention across the nation from religious communities, elected officials and the media. The Vatican originally frowned on the efforts of these nuns, deeming their position as “radical.” But recently, under the guidance of social-justice minded Pope Francis, the Vatican has ended its crackdown on US nuns accused of radical feminism.
“I deeply appreciate the mercy of Pope Francis,” Sister Mary Eileen said.
Sister Mary Eileen has been around for close to a century. And though she has lived through the tides of change, she has never wavered from what Jesus was trying to accomplish. And that is to bring help and hope to society’s marginalized.
“I study the state of immigration in this country. I stay informed and give an immigration report to the Catholic Bishops every month,” she said. “I am hoping the country will be more merciful to immigrants, and make it easier for them to become citizens and not separate families.”