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Sisters of St. Francis: ‘It’s a way … of living the charism in their own lives’ — National Vocations Awareness Week

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The traditional image of vocations, particularly for women, involves sisters taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, then going about the work of the congregation. But in the 21st century, the approach to vocations has changed for some religious orders, including the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

Sister Diane Tomkinson is the director of “charism engagement” for the local Franciscans, who are based in Aston, Pa. She took over the position over the summer after a career in academia, so she is still figuring out exactly what her ministry will look like going forward. The office was previously called charism promotion, but the leadership team of the Sisters of St. Francis reconfigured after a general chapter in May.

“We’re trying to work collaboratively in all the different ways we invite people to engage with our Franciscan charism and to see how God is calling them to that charism, and how they might be called to live out that charism,” Sister Diane said recently.

Part of her ministry is to walk with people as they discern whether they have a vocation as a vowed member of the Franciscans. She also works with young adults who have been part of the Franciscan Volunteer Program, although the coronavirus pandemic slowed that program. Some previous Franciscan volunteers had indicated that they wanted to stay engaged with the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia and one another.

Sister Diane Tomkinson

They were meeting for Sunday cafes before the pandemic, but they went virtual during 2020.

Those gatherings are geared toward young adults, but people of any age are invited, Sister Diane said. Women in discernment and Franciscan sisters of varying ages would take part.

“I’m continuing to work with those. How do we keep those going virtually until we can gather more in person again? The same thing with women in discernment,” she said.

The overall idea of ministry is to explore the various ways people might be called to join in living the Franciscan charism in the world, she continued. There are women who are determining whether they are called to be vowed religious, but also Franciscan Companions in Mission who make an annual commitment to be in collaboration with the congregation. The Companions in Mission have their own part-time director.

“It’s a way of being in relationship with us and a way of living the charism in their own lives with us as lay professionals and parents, single people and married people. That group is very active,” Sister Diane said.

She recalled her own vocation and her journey with the Franciscans. Sister Diane entered the congregation in the 1980s, a few years after graduating from college. Initially, she worked in parish ministry, including a stint at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Prices Corner, where she was director of liturgy. She also served in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and in the Diocese of Charleston, S.C., she was a parish administrator.

She returned to school to get a doctorate, studying the early Franciscan tradition. She had been teaching at Neumann since 2013 until assuming her newest role. One area where she has had to improve her skills has been in the use of social media. She didn’t use it a lot while teaching, but it is a must for her now because that’s where young people are.

“You’re not going to see me on TikTok,” Sister Diane joked. “I have my first YouTube video out there.”

She noted that the women who enter her community range in age, and she said Mother Francis Bachmann, one of three co-founders, was a young widow with four children. Although primarily associated with education and health care, “we never have really been exclusively a one-ministry kind of congregation. We try to go where the needs are, so we’ve always had sisters doing social ministries.

“We have a very strong advocacy ministry. We have two sisters working in Washington, D.C., with the Franciscan Action Network, advocating for Catholic social teaching approaches in the public sphere. We have a sister and another lay employee who work on corporate social responsibility initiatives out of our motherhouse.”

Despite the smaller number of women entering vowed religious life, and the increasing age of sisters, Sister Diane said she approaches her position with great hope. Part of that optimism comes from her study of the Franciscan movement.

The Franciscans began as a movement within a medieval Catholicism, led by Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. From its genesis, the movement has included members who are vowed and consecrated religious, but it has also been more than that.

“It’s included members who were lay, who wanted to live in this style of being brother and sister to all people and all creation and living very simply and sustainably,” she said.

The Third Order Franciscans, of which the Sisters of St. Francis are part, have a charism of “ongoing conversion,” she continued. She sees that at work in the modern church.

“For me the hope is, I think the spirit is always doing its thing in the church, in the world and in the Franciscan family. And I think we’re at a moment where there are new ways of being Franciscan possibly emerging,” Sister Diane said.

That doesn’t mean the old ways die, although they might look a bit different. She said God is still calling people to religious life and to serve the most vulnerable in the world. The congregation’s job is to welcome the people who express a desire to explore the Franciscans and to help them discern whether they are called to that way of life.

“That makes it really exciting because it’s about walking with people as they discern,” Sister Diane said. “It’s not newness for the sake of newness. It’s newness to say, ‘How is the spirit calling us today?’ It’s always about listening to what is God calling us to?”