Our lives are mission: Sisters reflect on Pope Francis' call to holiness

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Call to everyday holiness ... for ordinary people ... a call to happiness ... to a balanced lifestyle ... to a holistic life ... to action, to silence ... to discernment ... all embedded in the option for the poor.

The panelists responding this month all noted that the apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, released in April 2018, is about a call to personal holiness, about finding God in practical ways in everyday life, by doing ordinary things. All recognized the Beatitudes as a practical guideline for following Jesus Christ today, as an "identity card" for Christians. They asked, "How would it change us if we did it?"

In a variety of ways, they concluded that the entirety of our lives is mission, as they responded to the following question:

How are you and/or your community carrying out Pope Francis' call to holiness in his new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate? Or: What impact do you think this document will have on the world or the church?


Brenda Peddigrew is a Sister of Mercy of Newfoundland. A writer, speaker, high school teacher and director of adult faith development for St. John's Archdiocese, she collaborated with Diarmuid O'Murchu on Religious Life in the 21st Century. She facilitates chapters for congregations of men and women around the world.

I have never read an entire "apostolic exhortation" without many breaks in between, but I dove into this one — and finished it, twice — mainly because of Pope Francis himself. I believe in him. I applaud his courageous witnessing. I worry about seeing his physical diminishment and about opposition from within the clerical church growing.

What I especially appreciate is his loud emphasis on the "call to holiness" being offered to ordinary people doing everyday things: "To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious." Instead, he highlights that "the 'genius of women' is seen in feminine styles of holiness." What might those "feminine styles of holiness" be?

That sentence drew me into deep reflection. The theme of "witness" became emphatic for us women religious in the years following Vatican II; most of us interpreted it as getting out there and doing good works. Individual ministries often took precedence over common prayer and community, as our old structures dissolved. In this document, I hear Francis calling us to a more balanced lifestyle, recognizing the smallest activities as significant ministerial witness — especially when they are done in love.

 The entirety of our life as mission (not just what we do as ministry) is a theme throughout. Francis calls us to consider the quality of our whole lives, not just what we "do." He invites us to reflect more deeply on the quality, motivation and kind of presence we offer; "ministry" is only a part.

The way we are present to our own sisters in community is as much of the essence of ministry as whatever service we offer to this fractured world. Francis even says to "stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God."

Here, it is significant that Francis highlights the struggle with devices that applies to religious now as much as to anyone else. Discernment, he says, is essential when so much is open to us.

Paying attention to "the little details of love" is the soul of this teaching.

So though I am not a fan of reading papal letters, this one surprisingly called me to an inner depth that startled me. How would it change us, vowed religious women, if we walked with one another through these challenging words? I wonder if we have the courage, and how it might change us.

Thomas Limacher is a Sister of the Holy Cross of Menzingen, Switzerland. She ministered in South Africa during apartheid and later worked at the Swiss Pilgrim Place of St. Brother Claus, a famous shrine and pilgrim destination. She now does development work in Missions Procure, an intercongregational nongovernmental organization that supports the projects of her sisters worldwide.

Recently, Rome hosted the Synod of Bishops on youth, inviting groups of young people from all over the world. With the bishops, they followed the discussion of the topics (gathered by youngsters of their age who were invited by Pope Francis to prepare the synod). And young people came forward with their questions and needs, in order to give the church a more sensitive guidebook for future generations.

What church is Francis dreaming of? We find it in his exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, in which Francis sketches what a holistic human being looks like, with its goodness and its setbacks. In reading the exhortation, I had some difficulties with the clerical language — I often have this problem with messages from Rome! But going deeper, I found powerful ideas that match perfectly with the life of Francis.

In Chapter 3, he explains and updates the invitation to live the Beatitudes well:

Being poor of heart: that is holiness. ...

Reacting with meekness and humility: that is holiness. ...

Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness. ...

Hungering and thirsting for righteousness: that is holiness. ...

Seeing and acting with mercy: that is holiness. ...

Keeping a heart free of all that tarnishes love: that is holiness. ...

Sowing peace all around us: that is holiness. ...

Accepting the daily path of the Gospel, even though it may cause us problems: that is holiness.

In the next chapter, I got some ideas about how to live my daily life. I like how Francis asks us to persevere, to be patient and meek. To adopt a sense of humor and be ready for joy, to boldly make an impact on this world, and to have passion for the poor: These are virtues that enlighten us and make our lives holy — "whole," as we would say today.

Characteristics of a happy life are discernment and listening, which free us from its dark side. Francis says we can become holistic persons only when we set aside times for silence and prayer.

Gaudete et Exsultate is an inspiring text for Christians all over the world. It hints at how to follow Jesus Christ today. He is the masterpiece of a holistic human being: full of his God and full of engagement with the people he met during his life.

Though my community is aging and many do not have the energy to study much beyond their daily prayers and the newspaper, I was not content to hear just parts of this document read here and there in sermons.

How many will take the time to seek the treasure in Gaudete et Exsultate?

Henrietta Eziashi belongs to the Franciscan Sisters of Glasgow, Scotland. After ministering in teaching and educational administration, she served two terms as provincial superior in Nigeria, then was elected to the central leadership team of her congregation. Currently, she does pastoral work in Lagos, Nigeria, and does development work for her province.

In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis offers practical steps to holiness that are not based on prayer alone but on practical relationships and services to those in need. He tells us that our journey toward holiness is a continuous effort with patience and perseverance. His message also calls for compassion, love and consideration toward others in our actions and judgments.

The pope's exhortation reaffirms the words and spirituality of Francis of Assisi on continuous conversion. In his message to his order, St. Francis of Assisi speaks of beginning again, a call to continuous renewal, through daily practice of virtue, until we hit the mark. Every day is an opportunity to change, to be better. He told us that we must persevere in doing good. 

Hospitality is our hallmark as Franciscans. Since we strive to give time and space for relationships in a world that speaks more of individualism, it is important that we remain communal. The message of Francis is embedded in our option for the poor, the marginalized and vulnerable. St. Francis of Assisi's famous story of kissing the leper and preaching by one's way of life challenge us as Franciscans to persevere in compassion and love for those we serve in our apostolates, especially those in prison.

Currently, we have joined a child rights advocacy program in Nigeria. We stand against all forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, child labor, trafficking and domestic violence — especially violence against women and girls, which is currently on the increase. Recently, some of us in the congregation were trained to respond to child abuse and violence against women and girls; we have in turn trained two members of the staff in each of the 25 institutions spread across six states of Nigeria where we work.

We shall continue to train more people to help victims and also create awareness of the evil of violence against girls and women as well as other forms of abuse, so that we all can work toward upholding human dignity.

Andrews Mary Robinson is a Franciscan Missionary of Mary sister. Indian by nationality, she has worked in Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua, accompanying elderly women at an old-age home, doing pastoral work, ministering in villages by visiting families, preparing catechists, and working with women in income-generating activities. Now she lives in Leon, Mexico, studying educational administration.

The call of the Holy Father to holiness in Gaudete et Exsultate reminds me of the words of our mother foundress some 120 years ago. "I want my daughters to be saints and I ask it with all my heart."

The God who created us in his own image and likeness wants us to contemplate him face to face, and this is also the desire of every human being. Our religious community, present in many parts of the world, has taken steps to live the call of the pope to personal holiness by starting a process called "Transformation," which calls us to take the time, energy and consciousness to improve ourselves by evaluating our lives, and to remove all that blocks us from seeing each other with a fraternal love.

This process has consisted of several phases. First, the general leadership were formed in a process called "generative listening," which they then gave to the provincials of each continent. The provincials in their turn passed it on to the local animators and leaders of their respective provinces. Finally, the local authority formed the community sisters in generative listening. This has given life to our conversations with everyone, and helped us become better religious and better missionaries.

"Being poor of heart: that is holiness" says the pope. The transformation calls us to have humble hearts and minds to live the beatitudes — which is not so easy! It is only possible if we pinpoint all that blocks our minds to the process and destroys the structure of an institute, a community and an individual.

A dried tree versus a green tree is a good metaphor for this process: We need to nurture a tree to give it life and to keep it green. We need to nurture life in our way of talking and acting.

It is a time of grace for each sister in the institute, because each of us is called to die and rise each moment of our life. It is a time when we are reminded of our first love for Christ; a time to live the reason that we are Franciscan Missionaries of Mary; to draw our strength from the eucharistic Lord and from our Virgin Mary's "way within the way"; to live our consecrated life; and to become saints by doing simple activities with great love.

Mercy Shumbamhini belongs to the Congregation of Jesus. With a background in accounting, social work, administration and finance, she has held leadership positions in community development and lectures at the university level in social work and theology. She is regional director of her congregation and president of the Conference of Major Superiors in Zimbabwe.

Pope Francis' new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate ("Rejoice and Be Glad") challenges each one of us to desire holiness in a down-to-earth, practical way in this 21st century. He is inviting us to rejoice and be glad in the call that we have received from God and to live that call to the fullest in the particular situations of our life, through both large and small acts.

As members of the Congregatio Jesu founded by Mary Ward in 1609, mission — the service of others experiencing hunger, thirst, nakedness, violence, injustice or sickness — lies at the very heart of our spirituality. Our mission is to "find God in all things" not only in holy places, but also in ordinary life, or as Ward would have put it, "to refer all to God" through spiritual ministries, education, health, social work and any other works that meet the needs of our time.

Congregatio Jesu welcomes Francis' call to share in the path of everyday holiness that sustains our ministry. Here are some of the little things we do in line with what Francis said about holiness.

Francis clearly propounds that our personal call to holiness requires action. This is achieved in the context of our communities around us and the wider suffering of our sisters and brothers. Ward said to her followers, "For the love of Jesus, take care of the sick."

Holiness is found in everyday people and things. However, Francis strongly begs us to spend time with Jesus in silence, contemplating him so that our lives are transformed in the light of mercy and grace.

Francis says that holiness is important in creating happy communities so that we bring out the best of who we are in order to "create an open and evangelizing environment."

Francis emphasizes this charity to reach out to the homeless, hungry, abused, abandoned children and victims of trafficking on our path to holiness.

Francis challenges us to see our life as a mission and a way of building God's kingdom here on earth through empowering youth.

I pray that every Congregatio Jesu member will take to heart the challenge of becoming a saint, relying on God's grace to achieve what is otherwise impossible. Venerable Mary Ward encourages her followers to "do good and do it well" and to find joy in the work of God.

Jane Quinlan is a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk, U.S. Province. A teacher, missionary to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and vocation minister, she later represented her order at the United Nations. She now serves in Brussels as assistant general superior of her congregation.

No longer do town criers announce big news with "Hear ye, hear ye!" Nowadays, myriad voices make it complicated to decide what news we should focus on. But Pope Francis's apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate ("Rejoice and Be Glad"), addressing the holiness and happiness of a Christian life, is big news.

In April 2018, Gaudete et Exsultate brought a media blitz, but how tangible has its impact been on the world and church? Sometimes "impact" is hard to measure for anything beyond the headlines.

The image of the Beatitudes as the "identity card" of Christians in Chapter 3 could serve as a foundation for a study of holiness. Impact is recognized in the actions and decisions of those who journey toward the Lord and discern his call daily.

When I chose religious life, I was intent on becoming a saint by imitating the "holy" novices and being faithful to each prescribed religious practice. Six months later, I still wasn't holy. "Why is it taking so long?" I asked the postulant mistress. I learned the process was slow and required patience!

Who might care how the Holy Father speaks of holiness? Some would think that those best poised to benefit from his teachings might include congregational leadership, formation personnel, religious men and women in training, religious nongovernmental organizations at the U.N., retreat centers and peace and justice groups.

Homilies, seminars, youth ministries and the media can ignite interest in Gaudete et Exsultate. But it's up to us to bring the exhortation to life, and to reach seekers ready for service and involvement. For example, forming children in holiness is essential, but it is in the family where love of God and seeds of prayer are first planted.

"Discernment is not about discovering what more we can get out of this life, but about recognizing how we can better accomplish the mission entrusted to us at our baptism" (Gaudete et Exsultate, 174).

Read more in Global Sisters Report's The Life series.