Learning everything again -- and other challenges of religious life

This story appears in the The Life feature series. View the full series.

Too far away. Too close. Culture or charism? Church changes. Lifestyle changes. Holding preferences lightly.

The panelists relate what they found most difficult about religious life, both when they entered community and — for some — even now. Influences of culture, of charism, of age all play a role. They addressed this question:

What was your most challenging adjustment to religious life?


Susan Kidd (2) c.jpgSusan Kidd is a member of the Congregation of Notre Dame and is currently the campus minister of the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada. She has worked in education and parish ministry in Toronto and Cameroon, West Africa.

The most challenging thing for me was to be so close and yet so far!

I joined an international congregation whose motherhouse was in Canada, two hours from my family home. I knew the novitiate was in my hometown, but I did not know how challenging that would be for me and for my family.

I am from Ottawa, Canada, and my canonical year was in Ottawa. I was taking a next step, a new step, a well-discerned and possibly over-thought step. My family and friends knew and were supportive. But I now know of three examples where my entering religious life was felt by my family and (only later) by me.

I was told I needed to be at the novitiate Aug. 27. The evening of Aug. 26, my mom had gone to the bank, and I called the new novice director to ask what time I needed to be there the next day. "The next day?" I was supposed to be there now! I was supposed to sleep there and wake up there Aug. 27. That meant arriving Aug. 26. My understanding did not matter much then. When was I coming that night? When my mother returned from the bank, I had to ask her to drive me the 15 minutes to the novitiate on the other side of town that night, a drive neither of us was ready to take.

At Christmas, my community usually volunteered at a women's drop-in center downtown. I believe my family found it harder than I knew at the time, knowing that I was downtown but not allowed to join them for the family celebration.

My mother was the coordinator of a local college English as a second language program and was often looking for volunteers for whom English was a first language. As we moved into the second half of the canonical year, we were encouraged to find a ministry for a half-day a week. English is my first language. I could help non-English speakers and help my mother as part of my formation! After all, education had been our congregation's primary work. I was totally perplexed to be told I needed to find another ministry location.

Luckily, in my second year, I had experiences across the country that made it much easier to enter into that certain separation from family and friends.

Lucia Guerra (2) c.jpgLucίa Aurora Herrerίas Guerra is a member of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity from Mexico. After years of ministry in education and as a missionary, she now serves in Rome as the president of her congregation.

I joined my institute in 1976, just one year after its first arrival in Mexico City, only 13 years since its foundation.

I had already said yes to Jesus' call, and I was looking for a community to join. I met Verbum Dei during this search. I was reluctant to join a foreign institute, but the simplicity of the lifestyle of the missionaries, their closeness to the "regular" people and their joy were stronger than my nationalism: I understood clearly the call of Jesus to become a Verbum Dei missionary.

Then came the new challenge: Because the community had just arrived in Mexico, there was no possibility for formation there at that time. I had to go to Spain to join what we call the "formation course" (novitiate).

In my 20s, full of desire for adventure, just two months after I met the missionaries, I left my house and my land for the land that the Lord would show me. Nowadays, we don't do things in such a hurry!

In my course of formation, I was the only Mexican living among roughly 20 Spanish and four Peruvian girls. The three formators were also from Spain, and none of them had ever been to Mexico before.

My institute did not have a lot of experience of inculturation at that time. The main challenge then was culture: the need to distinguish, in the formation I was receiving, what was part of the "Verbum Dei charism and consecrated life" and what was "Spanish culture."

Many of these "discernments" I made on my own, and it was only later that I realized that some of the aspects I had judged to belong to the charism were, in fact, cultural customs. However, some of the aspects I had judged as cultural were important for consecrated life. This made my process of formation very slow!

I know from experience that whenever possible, the first years of formation should be in the native culture. However, I also learned to open my mind to other ways of doing things and to different visions of life.

I believe those years also trained me to distinguish the essential characteristics of the Verbum Dei charism from what could be incidental, even if this process never ends!

In the midst of the difficulties I experienced, supported by the strong conviction of Jesus' call, I was able to persevere, acknowledging that it is also a bit of a miracle that after 42 years, I am still here!

Karan Varker (2) c.jpgKaran Varker is a Sister of Charity of Australia. She has been a teacher, principal, and teacher-trainer, working in Papua New Guinea, America Samoa, Australia, and the Solomon Islands. Her present ministry is nurturing the spirituality of teachers.

As I pondered the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord this year, the journey of the Magi seemed to reflect for me the journey of my religious life.

The Magi faithfully traveled a long distance, following the guiding star, seeking the Child. When they took a wrong path — their encounter with the deceitful, cunning Herod — the star disappeared. It reappeared when they were back on the right track and led them to the infant in Bethlehem.

Matthew's Gospel says they offered Jesus three gifts: gold, myrrh and frankincense. He does not say how many they were, but Christmas cribs traditionally include three figures that represent the magi — one young, one of another culture, and one old.

When I entered, religious life seemed to be the star that would lead me to the One whom I was seeking.

My "golden" years were probably when I was a young sister, a young Magi figure. I was energetic, very focused on teaching and enjoying family, friendships, and the companionship of many sisters.

On my religious life's journey, I followed my star in cultures not my own. Like the Magi figure of another race, I ministered and journeyed with people of other cultures who opened their homes, hearts and hands to me.

Through some of my most difficult periods of desolation, when I struggled with relationships, with what I perceived as unfair treatment or injustices, and with the death of loved ones — parents, siblings and friends — the star seemed to be very dim or to disappear.

During these wounded times of my life, the danger for me to be bitter and unforgiving was real. I needed the healing power of prayer, of grace, of myrrh. These came also in the form of caring people who listened to me and guided me through these times.

Now as a mature woman, I live in a time of many changes in the life of religious sisters and am challenged by our aging and diminishment in number — and the loneliness to which that leads.

Another adjustment for me has been to keep belonging faithfully to a church in need of great healing at certain levels.

It is important that I remember my life journey with gratitude. As an older Magi figure, I will stay focused on the star, the place of consolation, and seek continually in my life the sweet perfumed frankincense of the presence of Christ.

Immacula Chukwunyere (2) c.jpgImmaculata Chukwunyere is a member of the Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus. She was a headmistress and teacher in Nigeria and Kenya before moving to the U.S. in 1999 and now teaches high school English.

I often catch myself thinking of what could have been if "what is, is not!" I think of the religious life, of how I became a nun, of the role of nuns in the church. I think of life, death, faith, charity and all the contradictions in the world, especially in the church.

Reminiscing about my childhood, I picture the sanctuary of my parish church. The priests sat at the left side of the altar, the nuns at the right side of the same altar, and the laity sat inside the body of the church, facing the sanctuary, in two long rows separated by a long royal-blue-and-white aisle.

I think of how things have changed in the church, even in my village parish church, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Uzoagba. Now, instead of priest and sisters flanking the altar, as ordained ministers and consecrated persons, visible symbols of the life of Jesus Christ, the priests now claim the sanctuary, with the nuns pushed to scramble for seats among the laity outside the sanctuary space.

I recall vividly the first time I saw nuns. It was in the church. They were all seated at the right side of the sanctuary. I watched them lovingly decorating the altar. I watched them clean the sacred vessels, the ciborium and chalice, with utmost reverence and diligence.

I watched them during the consecration. As I raised my eyes to the chalice — just as the nuns had taught me in catechism class — I saw their faces intensely focused on the chalice and host.

I loved them and wanted to be like them. Like Pope John Paul II, I saw the nuns, consecrated women religious, as special people to God and his church, the mystical body of Christ.

Today, I keep wondering what has become of that intense awesome feeling of the sense of the sacred.

Like the sisters in my childhood parish church, booted out of the sanctuary, in most places, women religious have to find new ways to at least make ourselves visible.

Such visibility calls for creativity in the renewal of charisms for the building-up of the people of God. This is not a simple challenge! It requires a constant shift in the mindset of nuns like me.

janet2 (2) c.jpgJanet Gildea is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. A retired family physician, she is liaison for women religious for the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, and directs women in initial formation for the Sisters of Charity.

I entered the Sisters of Charity two weeks before I started my residency in family medicine. I thought that my greatest adjustment would be the schedule of every third night on call at the hospital while I was beginning formation, living with four professed sisters in a parish convent.

But they had diverse ministries and schedules, so I learned quickly that the active apostolic life could accommodate irregular schedules. We created our life together around our ministries, and I was treated as an adult at age 25, an equal member in community. I learned about community life and active apostolic spirituality while I continued my professional development as a physician.

The big adjustment was allowing my sisters, particularly those in leadership or formation ministry, to weigh in on my decisions. On very rare occasions, those decisions were made about me without my input and without explanation.

Professionally, I was making life-and-death decisions day and night. Personally, I had to learn to hold my preferences lightly, to wait until approvals were given for things like how I would spend my days away from novitiate or with whom I could live.

I found this very challenging! These experiences helped me to deepen my understanding of the vow of obedience and to be a fervent advocate for adult models of formation and community life.

Communal discernment, whether in local community living or in the context of congregational decisions, depends on all of us accepting the challenge of listening beyond our own personal preferences, desires and opinions in order to allow the Spirit working through our religious charism to guide our decisions.

For me, this brings the same dynamics into play. I can offer my ideas, my inspirations and my recommendations to my sisters, but then I am continually challenged to let the wisdom of the gathered community lead us.

We are a community of adult women, and we have moved well beyond the days of trivialized obedience. Still, there are moments when I realize that what was my challenge entering religious life has deepened into a learning curve of congregational proportions!

Mary Lan 1 (3) c.jpgMary Nguyen Thi Phuong Lan is a Dominican Sister of Our Lady of the Rosary in Vietnam. She studied in universities in Vietnam and the Philippines and has worked in formation in Vietnam.

Traditional Vietnamese people's customs are very close to their faith, and they still retain values like filial piety, mutual love and care, loyalty, care for the elderly and the sick, love of children, and multigenerational harmony.

But as their society grew more open, Vietnamese were able to embrace globalized communication and got in touch with the new values of the Western world. The market economy has invaded Vietnam and made them forget their traditional values. Today, Vietnamese are richer materially but poorer spiritually.

The educational system has made many serious mistakes, like focusing on the achievement of quantity over quality. This is called "achievement disease in the educational system." Parents want their children to be the best. Teachers want their students to excel to the point that they disregard quality teaching. Students want to achieve to the extent that they even resort to cheating.

Even sadder, many people, especially the young, display individualism and pragmatism. They focus only on themselves, wanting to get plenty of money, good grades, or convenient lives without working.

All these trends are even affecting religious in Vietnam today. We are pulled by pragmatic lifestyles and affected by social pressures. Some sisters might choose religious life to escape from difficulties. A congregation might seem to be a good place to have a comfortable life or improve themselves without worrying about earning a living.

Religious usually want to dedicate their life to God by serving the church and the congregation. But because we are accustomed to free lifestyles, we find it very hard to adapt to the lifestyles and rules of community life.

Some cannot get up early to attend daily Mass or sit in silence to pray and meditate on the daily Gospel. They find it difficult to accept limitations on the use of money, technology, communication devices and other familiar gadgets. So they find ways to use them without permission with the help of their family or benefactors.

In such a society, as a Dominican sister, one of my most challenging adjustments to religious life is that I always have to remind myself to be honest in word and deed — because St. Dominic's charism is truth. I continually pray to God that I can avoid temptations to cheat, pretend, or tell lies. And I pray that I can remain aware of my mission as a poor sister of Christ to serve God through the poor and abandoned, especially the street children for whom I am caring.

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