A religious profession in today’s Church is always a wonderful and fairly rare event to celebrate. Against the backdrop of years of falling numbers of vocations we are beginning to see a quiet increase in men and women offering their lives in the service of God.
Several weeks ago I was privileged to concelebrate a Mass of final profession with a difference. This occasion was unique because the person concerned, Sister Clare Francis, was in her mid-fifties. This may not seem that remarkable. However, in the Church this is almost unheard of as most religious communities and congregations will only accept candidates for the religious life into their thirties.
For many years a number of men and woman over the usual age limit were turned away and told that they were too old to be properly formed in the religious life. Many capable people felt frustrated that they had this sense of calling and yet there was no way to respond positively.
Sister Clare Francis’s profession represents a different and fresh way of enabling those whose vocation has developed later in life. She had a long career as a nurse and was widowed several years ago. Sister Clare brings many wonderful gifts that only life experience can provide. It would have been such a shame if these qualities and abilities had not been used in the way that they are now being employed within her congregation.
This inspiring final profession took place within a convent near Rugby. Mater Ecclesiae (previously the Congregation of Mary, Mother of the Church) was founded in the early 1980s by Sister Catherine Mulligan, a sister of Marie Repatrice.
Sister Catherine became increasingly aware that there were many women who desired to explore religious life but were prevented from doing so because of their age. She was determined that these women’s life experiences should be put to use in the service of the Church.
Cardinal Hume had known Sister Catherine since he was a boy and he enthusiastically encouraged her to develop the vision. When she sought his advice and support he was always positive. This gave Sister Catherine great encouragement event though she had no money, no sisters and no convent.
The early days of the congregation were tough and resources were thinly stretched. The sisters rented an old convent building which was in a poor state and had to be improved when resources allowed. The plumbing was eccentric and heating intermittent.
An initial advert brought eighty responses from woman who were interested in pursuing a vocation. Whilst many candidates came and went, a faithful core remained and made their final profession in due course. Today Mater Ecclesiae accepts woman well into their sixties who wish to explore whether they have a vocation.
At beginning of the millennium a generous local person gave the sisters a fine country house with a view to conversion into a convent. It truly was an amazing gift. Over the next few years the sisters set about converting the house, built a guest wing and a chapel. It is now a wonderful and prayerful place in a breath taking rural location.
The sister’s life today is centred on the Mass, Exposition of The Blessed Sacrament and the Office. Some sisters are involved in ministry in the local parish and there is an emphasis on the ministry of hospitality and welcome, although the main charism is to lead a semi contemplative life of prayer.
The final profession that I found so inspiring represents something wonderful that is quietly happening in the Church. It seems short sighted that for so many years woman who had the experience provided by careers and family life were turned away. Someone in their mid-fifties has years of service and energy to offer. Responding to a calling later in life can involve great sacrifices, especially when the person has a family or is used to living an independent life. Obedience and stability become far more challenging realities to be lived out.
Mater Ecclesiae deserves to be better known. The idea of a place where late vocations can be discerned and lived out seems so logical and yet is still sadly highly unusual.