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Women religious offer prophetic witness in modern world, says US archbishop

Sister Mary Eucharista pictured in St Louis during the symposium organised by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CNS)

Consecrated religious life has a prophetic dimension that communicates a significant message in the modern world, a leading official in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said.

US Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, adjunct secretary of the Congregation, presented the opening keynote address on November 13 at the Symposium on Religious Life sponsored by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

Approximately 500 women religious attended the two-day conference, held in St Louis, marking the Year of Consecrated Life.

“Everything in a religious institute that is directed toward the sanctification of its members can communicate a prophetic message to others,” said Archbishop Di Noia, who is a Dominican. “To those who are not Christians — a revelation; while to those who are — an encouragement and confirmation. … It is a grace leading others to seek salvation and a life of holiness — to seek in the words of St. Paul: life on high in Christ Jesus.”

Unlike the first prophets or Christ and his apostles, religious communities are not communicating anything that is not already known, but instead share a confirmation of the faith, he said. Their message is expressed in the visible form of religious life, for their own salvation and the salvation of others.

St John Paul II wrote in his 1996 postsynodal apostolic exhortation, Vita Consecrata, that religious communities embody different charisms, established by their founders to help the members and others “seek the things that are above.”

Consecrated religious life “takes the shape of a special form of sharing in Christ’s prophetic office,” St John Paul wrote. “There is a prophetic dimension, which belongs to the consecrated life as such, resulting from the radical nature of the following of Christ and of the subsequent dedication to the mission characteristic of the consecrated life.”

The Dominican order, which will mark its 800th anniversary in 2016, for example, embodies the charism of preaching. These charisms are not “something in addition to being a Christian, it’s a way of being a Christian, a way of following Christ,” said Archbishop Di Noia.

The prophetic witness of consecrated religious women and men is especially important as the primacy of God and ultimate destiny of humans is lost in the modern culture. The vows of poverty, obedience and chastity also present challenges, he said, as they directly confront “the massive cultural challenges posed by a materialistic pursuit of wealth and possessions, by hedonistic sexual attitudes and practices and by notions of freedom detached from truth and moral norms.” Through embracing these vows, men and women religious make a prophetic appeal to society.

Reflecting on the news that evening of terrorist attacks in Paris, Sister Mary Gabriel Devlin said women religious have a special calling to build a solid foundation for creating a culture that respects life. She is a member of the Sisters of Life, a community founded in New York in the 1990s to protect and enhance the sanctity of all human life.

“We wonder why there are these terrorist attacks, when we as a worldwide Christian community need to step back and say this is not the answer — it doesn’t have to be the answer,” she said. Christians first need to look at the evil in their own front yard — abortion for example — and do something about it. “I need to take a courageous stand for love, and it’s going to cost me, but it’s worth it.”

By their visible witness, consecrated religious can offer a sign of hope to others, said Mother Mary Agnes Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life and CMSWR chairman.

“People know that you are for them, that you exist for their sakes,” she said. Being a prophetic witness “is a word of God that needs to be heard in the present moment and in the present culture.”