Cable TV is currently featuring the joy of religious life. In a Year of Consecrated Life coup, Lifetime TV has been airing a series, The Sisterhood, that provides a window into convent life in America today (which regularly has a following of religious sisters watching and live-tweeting on Twitter using the hashtag #TheSisterhood). It follows a group of young women as they get a taste of religious life and discern whether a vocation with a particular religious order is their calling.
What is the Year of Consecrated Life? you ask. It was initiated by Pope Francis and began just after Thanksgiving, on the first Sunday of Advent, just about as the series began airing. And its focus, as it happens, is joy.
With sisters in the news and on screens, I met in Washington, D.C., with Sister Marie Bernadette Thompson, O.P., with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, more commonly known as the Nashville Dominicans. Sister Marie Bernadette is also council coordinator at the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), and I spoke with her about her life. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s a woman of the modern day doing wearing an 800-year-old habit? Where are you from? How did you get to be a Dominican sister?
Sister Marie Bernadette Thompson, O.P.: I was born and raised on Long Island, to a Catholic family. We were regular Mass-goers. Faith was always central. When I had graduated from college and began a teaching career, I began to ask those serious questions: What am I really supposed to do with my life? Does God have a different plan for me? Is He really out there? Who am I to marry? How can I really learn to pray? During a period of increased commitment to prayer and spiritual direction, I began to attend a prayer group for twentysomethings, and occasionally went on retreats. I heard about the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia while on retreat with the Sisters of Life, in New York. The Dominican motto, “To contemplate, and to give to others the fruits of contemplation,” most completely explains how I am in the Dominican order. Contemplating these questions I have mentioned, I discovered that the Lord gradually would answer them all. In experiencing that a committed Christian life is a happy life, I realized that He did have a further plan, about which I needed to speak to Him, and to listen.
Lopez: What is it about the sisterhood that most attracted you?
Sister Marie Bernadette: What attracted me was a Who, rather than a what. Daily prayer led me to really know Jesus Christ, develop a relationship. The more I listened, the more I realized, He gave his life for me . . . How can I return? I took a priest’s advice to see what religious life was all about. There I realized, I was made for the religious life. This is how I make the return, to lay down my life for Him in a radical way. This is the only sufficient response, and in this I have found my peace.
Lopez: With all the problems in the world, including what he himself has called a crisis in family life, why ever would Pope Francis call a year to be dedicated to consecrated life?
Sister Marie Bernadette: This year dedicated to consecrated life draws our attention to those who are full of joy — the religious — whose very call it is to be a sign of unity and hope in the midst of a world torn by darkness and division, to be a sign of the kingdom of God, which begins here and now. That is the Christian message, that God entered into time when He sent His Son, that in this Son, Jesus, the kingdom is among us, and that He yet calls us to eternal life with Him. And so, this is a perfect time to celebrate the consecrated life, a sign of the union with God in love that each person is called to.
Lopez: What is consecrated life, exactly?
Sister Marie Bernadette: A consecrated person freely chooses to follow the Lord more closely by a narrower path. He or she is called by God and is set apart for Him, making the permanent commitment to live for and with Him completely, out of love. This choice acknowledges that although earthly marriage is a great good, God has called this person to belong totally to Himself. Consecrated men and women are called to live the life of heaven now, in this life, in imitation of Jesus. This is what Pope Francis is talking about when he speaks of religious as experts in communion. We are to show others how to live in communion with God, and with each other.
Lopez: Why is consecrated life necessary?
Sister Marie Bernadette: People need witnesses of Jesus’ love in the world, people who live for Jesus alone and show us that such a life is possible and brings joy and fulfillment. They are a reminder of the life that is to come. Men and women totally given to Jesus Christ proclaim by celibacy that love seeks to give itself freely without personal gain. Love is a choice. Love gives life. The love of a religious brother or sister diffuses itself among many spiritual sons and daughters, many souls who long to be loved for who they are, not what they look like or what they have. The celibate love of a religious gives witness to the truth of the love each of us is called to. By living vowed poverty, the religious shows that trust in God is never in vain. God is the richness, the inheritance of every person, whether he or she knows it or not. A religious brother or sister reminds us of this truth, in the midst of a culture that seeks personal gain, wealth, luxury, and vice to give happiness. By obedience, the religious imitates the life of Jesus Christ more closely, by doing the will of another, for God’s sake, out of love.
Lopez: How do you discern such a life?
Sister Marie Bernadette: Are you serious about your relationship with God? A certain “coming clean” about our priorities, our prayer life, our relationships, and our daily activities can help us see if we are really asking, “What does God want me to do with my life? Why did he make me? What purpose does He have for me that no one else can accomplish?” All this is the work of conversion, of turning one’s life into a life pleasing to God. There are a lot of things we can change — today — in our habits and in the choices we make. So the life of virtue, of patience, of surrendering our plans to ask God what His plan is for my life is the life that leads to discovering that great adventure that is one’s vocation. There are things we can do only by grace when it is given, and there are other things we can change, today.
Lopez: What has been greatest about your consecrated life so far?
Sister Marie Bernadette: In the beginning of my religious life, the greatest thing was living in God’s house, where the Blessed Sacrament is in the chapel. As Catholics we have faith that this is the Real Presence of Jesus among us. In my religious life I have traveled the world, seen more of the United States than I ever had before the convent, met and lived with amazing people, and developed talents I didn’t ever imagine I had . . . but still, the best thing is living in the house of the Lord, with the Real Presence of Jesus. This too is a foreshadowing of heaven, where we will live with God forever. The Giver is always better than the gifts!
Lopez: What has been the most challenging?
Sister Marie Bernadette: Living with so many generous, loving, and committed sisters has shown me I have far to go to really love, to really be attentive, selfless, a credible sign of my consecration. This is a lifelong project. Community life shows us who we are. I am grateful for this, because it is how we really grow. Married life does this also, although in a slightly different way, as spouses call each other on to greater love, to be the best version of themselves. This is also what community life has done for me.
Lopez: Is consecrated life as you’ve experienced it removed from the world?
Sister Marie Bernadette: There are some things I no longer do, places I no longer go, because I am a religious sister. Instead, I have chosen the life of my religious community. However, in all honesty, much of my time is spent either preparing for or engaging the men, women, and children of our day, in the apostolate, or by praying for them when I return for prayers each day. They are always present to me, because they are the Church, and at my vows I was given to the Church, and the Church to me.
Lopez: What does your daily life look like?
Sister Marie Bernadette: We wake up at 5 a.m. Our life hinges on the communal praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, which our community sings. In the morning we pray the Angelus, have a half-hour of silent meditation, attend Mass together, and then eat breakfast while listening to a reading. Following breakfast the sisters go to their apostolates, mostly in the schools and universities, and I go to the CMSWR [Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious] office. Each of us returns at some point in the afternoon, for private prayer time, the communal praying of the Liturgy of the Hours, and the Rosary. We have dinner together in silence, listening to Holy Scripture or a reading from a spiritual book, and then have an hour of relaxed time together that we call recreation. We chat or enjoy a card game or other activity, spend time as a family. Following recreation, the sisters return to the chapel for 15 minutes of spiritual reading, followed by night prayer. The sisters observe silence in the evening to allow for prayer and study, lesson preparation, and time with the Lord. It is my favorite time of the day. When a husband or wife comes home, they might say, “Honey, I’m home!” and their conversation about the day would follow. The time of silence for us is that time with the One we love.
Lopez: We’ve seen Nuns on the Bus and lots of different orders, many of them tending to be older. Is there something different about the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, who, from your website, look fairly young?
Sister Marie Bernadette: The religious communities in the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious seek to live and renew religious life in the form they have received it. Our communities have young, middle-aged, and older religious sisters among our ranks, as any family would have several generations. For the most part, our communities are receiving steady vocations, some more, some less. While many are growing in size yearly, others are maintaining their numbers, and a handful are not receiving many vocations. The CMSWR is one avenue for communities with similar visions to support one another, collaborate on initiatives that support the Church, and also share resources in various ways. By collaborating on different initiatives, the sisters in our member communities are enriched by the charism, or gifts, of the others, and develop a wider view of the Church and religious life. They form bonds with other future leaders and are deepened in their own commitment. They are assisted in their ministries to the people of God, the Church, and are equipped better to meet the needs of the Church today.
Lopez: But the world of nuns looks very different today from what it looked like a few decades ago. Investigations. Dwindling numbers. Closed hospitals and schools that they once ran. What might be the state of the sisterhood, especially here in the U.S.?
Sister Marie Bernadette: Religious life in America is diverse, perhaps more diverse than anywhere else in the world. Some communities are aging, and some are growing with new vocations, as I have mentioned. In fact, some new American communities have been started to meet the needs of the new evangelization and other needs of this particular time. Many religious are from foreign countries, and have set down roots in the U.S. owing to geopolitical circumstances that prevented them from returning to their countries, and have found a new direction, a missionary call to serve in America. My own community and the Dominicans from whom we came are an American foundation. Since 1860 the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia have served in schools, and they continue to do so. There are other communities who have persevered through the decades and also show a continuity of service in a variety of apostolic works, charisms, ministries. So, you have a panorama in America that cannot be explained simply by a passing generalization. It is true, there are many communities that will not be viable in 20 years. This is a great concern, a loss for our country, for the Church. These religious have built the infrastructure of the educational and health-care systems and service to the needy, for which our nation owes them a debt of respect and gratitude. A diocese without religious is an incomplete church, really poor in a certain respect. People deserve the witness of religious life in their local church today, as always.
Lopez: Lifetime has a new show about young women inquiring about religious life. One described her experience of Jesus as one of his “flirting” with her. As you can imagine, that got misunderstood and mischaracterized almost immediately on social media. What is the relationship of a woman religious to Christ? How can you possibly explain this bridal talk to a modern secular world?
Sister Marie Bernadette: Each woman who professes a vow, whether it is in marriage or in the religious life, intends to give her life to the other. Her life is a gift, and she freely gives it. This is the message of the Christian life, that to lay down one’s life is an act of true freedom, which yields happiness. A woman religious freely gives her life to Jesus Christ and vows chastity for His sake, and for the promise of life in Heaven with God. In this way we understand a sister as the bride of Christ. How can she be happy? A sister is happy to the extent that she allows God to work through her and does not get hung up on her own plans.
Lopez: Have you ever felt somewhat powerless in the Church?
Sister Marie Bernadette: No, in the Church I have found support, encouragement, and assistance, both before I entered religious life and now as a religious sister. I have experienced the sins of people, but the Church herself is a mother to me, and her members’ sinning does not change that. The Church has taught me how to be my best self, how to make a gift of my life to others, how to be truly happy and free.
Lopez: What about the priesthood? Where in the Bible does it say you can’t be a priest? You may not feel called, but other women clearly do. What about deacons? What about more leadership than simply talking “feminine genius” now and again?
Sister Marie Bernadette: Much ink has been spilled over these questions. This is a theological question and needs to be answered in that forum. Good people are asking these questions, and as they seek to understand God’s plan in all this, He is with them. We need to pray for docility, light, and patience. God first became man, and that Man, Jesus Christ, the high priest, chose to ordain men as his first priests. All we have to do is look at Church history and see many strong women saints to say that there is always a unique place in the Church for the gifts that women bring. Rather than looking here and there grasping at what we think we don’t have, what about asking ourselves the question “What has God specifically given to women to build up the Church?” Pope Francis has welcomed the development of the theology of woman. The writings of Saint John Paul II have started us in a wonderful direction in which, I pray, many of today’s young scholars will continue to follow and develop a deeper understanding of the gift and role of women, and of men, for that matter.
Lopez: From your perch at the CMSWR, what does the state of the Church look like?
Sister Marie Bernadette: There is so much good going on quietly in every corner of the vineyard, yet there is also the need for daily conversion and renewal, beginning in my own heart.
Lopez: What do you make of Pope Francis? What do you expect from his trip here next fall?
Sister Marie Bernadette: Thankfully, I had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis last month. I noticed that he has wonderful capacity to engage those he has never met, to bring joy to the encounter, to receive others and to listen to them. This way of being is a special gift he has, an outstanding quality. Each pontiff brings his own gifts of nature and grace to the papacy. We have had remarkable examples of holiness, gentleness, strength, intellect, and insight in Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. When I think of them, I cannot even begin to express how much they have both shaped so many holy families, priestly and religious vocations, ecclesial movements, and events in our recent history. They are giants, whose writings and lives we have only begun to study and learn from. Pope Francis brings anew the capacity for encounter, perhaps because we need to rediscover how to encounter others, to really be Christ to them, how to draw them to Christ — “by the power of attraction.” This will certainly characterize Pope Francis’s trip to Philadelphia: joy in the encounter.
Lopez: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about your life? About the lives of the women in your community? About the consecrated women who have been your mentors?
Sister Marie Bernadette: Through my work with the CMSWR, it has been a joy for me to get to know the great richness and diversity in religious life. There are so many branches on the tree of religious life, each unique and beautiful in God’s sight. We are all richer for knowing these sisters, for the gift they are to us. I think this year is a marvelous opportunity for people to explore religious life and avail themselves of the events, resources, and opportunities that the Year of Consecrated Life affords. And then, we will see you in Philadelphia!
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. (Some CMSWR sisters recently participated in a CVUSA communications workshop.)