Honouring the strength of religious women


30 Jan 2022

Pope Francis’ February Prayer Intention for religious sisters and consecrated women reminds us also of all the other women without whose generosity the Catholic Church would wither.

They include the women who lead Catholic agencies, ensure that churches remain open and clean and safe for children, teach children their faith, lead choirs and shape the Catholic community.

We are in debt to all the women who have served the community in these ways. Religious Sisters and consecrated women are special because for them the Church has been home, workplace and family. For many of us they have been friends and have modelled for us service and courage.

While in El Salvador I used to visit the little community of Ita Maura. In it lived villagers whom the military had attacked, killed and driven across the borders after destroying their houses. There they had built communities through reflection on the Gospel and its meaning for their lives. Led mostly by lay women, they had found the courage and the strong identity needed to return to El Salvador. Ita Maura was one of many such communities. It was named after two Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford. With two other women who also worked with the poor in El Salvador, they had been beaten, raped and murdered by a military death squad.

Religious such as Ita Ford and Maura Clark also helped build the courageous communities that continued to resist military oppression. In these communities the spiritual leaders were often strong women who led reflection on the Gospel and preserved its generous spirit. In Ita Maura was one such woman old enough to be a grandmother. Her seven sons, however, all of whom were catechists, had been murdered by the military for their leadership in forming faith in their communities. She was left with neither children nor grand-children, but remained a source of inspiration to her community.

These extraordinary women lived in mercifully extraordinary times and places. Their courage is echoed in the less dramatic lives and work of equally generous and enduring women religious. The Josephite sisters, for example, moved in pairs along the new railways in Australia, staying in tents at the rail heads and gathering the schools for teaching, for example. Other sisters held on in isolated and unsupported missions despite not knowing where the next meal would come from. We remember, too, the sisters in overcrowded city schools and hospitals and parishes, who lived faithfully and generously in the face of illness and often lack of recognition.

Pope Francis prays that women Religious and consecrated women will find new responses to meet new challenges. One of the obvious challenges, of course, is the diminishing number of religious, both women and men, and of young women actively involved in parish life.

This trend is widespread and is likely to continue. We should not, however, lament the past but honour the responses of older women who have gathered wisdom, are free from institutional commitments and have time to listen to people and to share their rich experiences. Women Religious and consecrated women continue to live the Gospel in a way that challenges a world that prizes efficiency, multi-tasking and speed. Their gift of time going slow is a response not only to individuals but to the ills of a febrile society.

Image: Josephite Sister Jan Barnett was among six Christian leaders arrested after holding a prayer vigil at the then Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s electorate office in 2014. https://flickr.com/photos/lovemakesaway/14868850656/

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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