Religious life and family

(Unsplash/Tim Marshall)

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving this year, my small community of sisters had a party at our house. Unlike typical parties in religious communities, this was not a celebration of a birthday, or a jubilee, or of someone's vows.

Nope. This party was for a 5-month-old who has no blood relationship to anyone in my house.

Let me explain: we are Marianist Sisters (formally, Daughters of Mary Immaculate, but Marianist Sisters is less tongue-twisting) and part of the "package" of being a Marianist Sister is what we call the Marianist Family.  

When I professed vows as a Marianist Sister this past May, I joined a community of not just my own sisters (roughly 350, globally) but an entire, worldwide Marianist community of roughly one thousand Marianist Brothers and thousands more of committed Marianist laypeople.

The Marianist Family is unique in the history of the church because the lay Marianists came before the religious Marianists. The first lay Marianist communities were founded in Bordeaux, France, in 1800.

In 1816, the Marianist Sisters were founded, with much of their membership coming from this first community in Bordeaux. Finally, in 1817, the Marianist Brothers began their first community.

This trajectory shapes who we are today, particularly how we relate to each other as family. In my religious community of sisters, when we talk about the Marianists, we aren't just talking about our own sisters: we are talking about the whole Marianist Family and the complementary relationships that exist between the different "branches" of the family, lay and religious.

Which brings me back to the party for a 5-month-old.

Our community of Sisters is blessed to have close friendships and ministerial relationships with a wide variety of Marianist Brothers and Marianist laypeople.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, a lay Marianist couple's recently adopted baby was baptized. The party after the baptism was hosted at our house.

For this Marianist couple, it was natural to have the party at a house where they had grown in Marianist commitment, both as college students at the University of Dayton, and as adult lay Marianists.

It was natural that our sisters' community could host the party, since we had a house big enough to accommodate the people present at the baptism, and since we strive to be a house of hospitality, a "school of prayer" as our Rule of Life says, a place where people can grow and encounter the charism.

That was one of the most beautiful things about the day: it was natural that a 5-month-old would celebrate her entrance into the Body of Christ in the house of a community of religious women.

And this entire day made me reflect deeply on what family means for me as a religious sister and as a vowed Marianist.

A fundamental aspect of religious life is choosing not to have a family of one's own — that is, a spouse and children — in order to embrace a wider concept of "family." As one wise spiritual director explained to me, as a religious, your "spouse" is the Body of Christ — the church. That becomes your family.

I take this concept very seriously because it holds a deep truth: in the vow of chastity, we strive to love in an inclusive way that creates a new kind of family that witnesses to how we will relate to each other in God's Kingdom, when we will "neither marry nor be given in marriage" (Mt. 22:30).

This doesn't mean that religious completely leave behind their blood family — I see my parents and siblings as often as I can, and I will be visiting them after Christmas. However, my concept of family is necessarily stretched, both by the vow of chastity and by my Marianist commitment, to include more people than just my family of origin.

And for me, this family is larger than just the Marianist Family. I also recently celebrated the first vows of a sister in another religious community. Present at her vows were at least a dozen other young religious and people from other religious communities, as well as local church friends and community members.

We had Eucharist together. We ate a meal, danced, laughed and sang together. Might that also be a glimpse of the Kingdom?

This larger idea of family is one of the reasons why, in my religious community, it is very important for my sisters and I to spend holidays with each other and with other Marianists.

This past Christmas Eve, for example, we celebrated the birth of Christ at the Christmas Eve Mass at the University of Dayton. Many people attending this Mass came over to one of the Marianist Brother's communities for dessert, so that we could continue to celebrate Christ's birth together.

On Christmas Day, my sisters and I attended Mass and had a meal at another community of Marianist Brothers, which is also how we celebrate Thanksgiving. After Christmas Day, some of us went to visit our blood families, because that is also important. But as a primary community, we spend the holiday — as family — together.  

I realize that, so far, I have been painting a rather romantic picture. This is not to deny the real challenge of family and community life.

The truth is, like any family, we often hurt each other. Some people who desperately need family and community sometimes do not feel welcome; they feel left out, and don't know how to join this larger family, whether it is the Marianist Family or the wider Church family.

We fail at this invitation. We can also forget that these relationships of community and family are not for ourselves alone: they are meant to draw people in, to be places of communion and healing in a broken and fractured world.

So: we forgive and we ask for forgiveness. And then we have no choice but to try to do better.

This sweet, 5-month-old girl has no idea of the hope she has created, or of this crazy family she has joined in her baptism — this Marianist Family, this Church community. May we be a family that embraces her, that is worthy of her presence, and that offers her a glimpse of God's Kingdom.

[Sr. Gabrielle Bibeau professed first vows in the Daughters of Mary Immaculate (Marianist Sisters) in May 2017. She is currently getting a graduate degree in theology at the University of Dayton and has a graduate assistantship position at the North American Center of Marianist Studies in Dayton, Ohio.]

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