Vocations directors from two congregations of women religious with a significant presence in the Diocese of Wilmington know the numbers of women entering their orders will never approach what they were 50 years ago. They also know, however, that there are women for whom religious life is the direction they want to take.
“I think it’s an important witness in our world today. We’re called to be of service, to be that witness,” said Sister Mary Beth Antonelli, director of East Coast vocations for the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.
The Franciscans currently have three women in their novitiate, Sister Mary Beth said. One is in her late 20s, one in her 30s and another who is older.
More important than numbers is quality, said Sister John Marie, the vocation director for the Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales in Childs, Md. The Oblate Sisters have initiated a few programs designed to help women discern whether this life is for them.
At De Sales University in Center Valley, Pa., an Oblate has started a discernment group, and the congregation has partnered with the Diocese of Arlington, Va., to hold a weeklong program where women can ponder vocations, talk with each other and ask questions. Just recently, Sister John Marie said, the sisters opened a retreat house in Galena, Md., where groups of three or four women can rest, take a canoe ride, “spend time with the sisters, if you want to ask questions, if you want to talk. It’s a beautiful experience.”
The group at De Sales gives young women a chance to think seriously about their future, so the talk is not only about religious life, but married life and consecrated life as well, Sister John Marie said.
“We’re trying to help young girls who perhaps are confused or frightened,” she said. “It’s mostly, ‘I want to talk about my future.’ How do you know what is the true way for you? Your time is often spent reassuring them.”
The Oblates have 11 sisters in residence in Childs, where they operate Mount Aviat Academy. In the Diocese of Wilmington, the Franciscans minister primarily in parishes, at St. Francis Hospital and with the Ministry of Caring, but their motherhouse in Aston is next to Neumann University, which the congregation founded. Sister Mary Beth said the sisters have a good relationship with the students at Neumann.
Sister Mary Beth works on service projects with the students, and groups of young people visit the motherhouse for dinner and to get to know the sisters.
“They get to know our sisters,” she said, who inform the young people about their way of life.
“There aren’t as many religious in the schools now, so it allows them to meet religious and hear a little about our lives,” she said.
When Sister Mary Beth visits schools, she talks about religious life in general and how everyone is called to a vocation and has a baptismal call. For some, the way to live out their faith life is through religious life. Her goal for those visits is to cause people to think.
“It’s like planting the seeds, as far as visiting the high schools and the grade schools. It’s important for them to know that a vocation to religious life is an option for them down the line as they get older,” she said.
The Franciscans also hold gatherings with other congregations, where those who may have a vocation can hear about the differences between orders. Each has its own charism, which is its spiritual orientation and any unique characteristics specific to that order.
“We encourage young people to explore the possibilities of the different congregations so they can see what is a fit for them,” Sister Mary Beth said.
Upswing in some areas
Each congregation has its own specific timeline for new vocations, but in general a young woman will spend a year as a postulant, then another year or two as a novice, followed by annual temporary vows and, lastly, final vows.
“By that time, you surely know if you’re finding fulfillment in the life or not,” Sister John Marie said.
The Oblates have one sister who will be making final vows this June.
The Oblate novitiates in South America and Africa are doing well, Sister John Marie said, while the motherhouse in France has seen an upswing in vocations as well. The sisters in the United States are doing “whatever we can to help foster that movement.”
Sister Mary Beth finds her role with the Franciscans to be very rewarding because she has the opportunity to meet with young people who are serious about their relationship with God. And a vocation, to her, is about living out that relationship.
“I believe there are young people who are searching for that way that is the best way to live out their relationship with God,” she said.