A reflection on the role of women religious in parochial life

I had been at Saint James for a couple years when, sometime near January or February, Mother Joan Paul, Superior of our dear School Sisters of Christ the King, had come to visit as she normally did.  Mother liked to touch base, to review the arrangement between the Sisters and our parish, to check up on the morale and welfare of the sisters.  This particular meeting, however, seemed foreboding.  After exchanging pleasantries, Mother took a deep breath and I could tell she had something difficult to say.  In fact, she explained to me that the following school year, there would be no sisters in college, and the sisters were therefore not planning to occupy the House of Studies.  This fell on my desk like a ton of bricks!  That was the first, perhaps the only, year since the sisters had first come to St. James that there would be no sisters here during the school year.  Mother quickly explained that there were two sisters completing their novitiate year who would be studying at Benedictine College the following school year, and the sisters would return to the parish at that point.  To say the least, I was saddened by this news.  The parish (and the pastor) had truly come to enjoy having the sisters around.  However, that one-year hiatus became a blessing for me inasmuch as I came to understand the immeasurable value that the presence of sisters brings to a parish.  

Before I continue, I would like to tell you a little about myself:  My parents divorced when I was about 6 years old.  Though they parted amicably and were always courteous to one another, I still contend that something was missing from my upbringing growing up in a single-parent home.  At a time when mothers were almost universally granted custody of young children, my own Mom voluntarily relinquished custody of my brother and me to my father because she recognized that he was in a better place to raise us.  She also maintained close contacts and we were able to spend a great deal of time with her.  My Dad did a great job raising my brother and me and I am grateful to both my parents to this day.  Nevertheless, growing up in a single-parent home had significant disadvantages, and though it is now much more common than it was in the 1980s, it still has significant disadvantages.  

During the school year that the sisters were on hiatus (I honestly cannot remember what year it was!), I had agreed to take on the responsibility of teaching our second graders and preparing them to make their First Holy Communion.  This gave me a tremendous appreciation for the effort and dedication of all our teachers.  It also formed a special bond between those students and myself.  In the absence of the sisters, however, a clear picture began to emerge that the Parish was different, somehow incomplete, without their presence.  

In preparing to write this reflection, I had mentioned the concept to a few friends and one of them - a married lay woman and a veteran teacher in Catholic schools, a woman for whom I have tremendous respect - reminded me that our lay teachers do a wonderful job and are just as dedicated as the sisters.  In response to that point, I would emphasize that my thesis is not about sisters as teachers, but about the unique motherly gifts that only vowed religious women can bring to a parish - a spiritual motherhood which has parallels with the spiritual fatherhood that is part-and-parcel of my own calling as a priest, and the witness of an exclusive, spousal love for Jesus.  These thoughts could be applied to any group of sisters living within a parish, whether their apostolate is in the classroom, in the clinic, in the kitchen, in the sacristy or in the streets.  It is true that most parish-based sisters are teachers (including our beloved "CK Sisters") but my point on spiritual motherhood is not about their mere contribution to the school but the way in which their presence brings a unique motherly genius which is lacking in those parishes which have no sisters.  

be mothers, as a figure of Mary … and of mother Church. It is impossible to understand Mary without her motherhood; it is impossible to understand the Church apart from her motherhood and you are icons of Mary and the Church."    

- Pope Francis addressing Women Religious 

Last year Pope Francis reminded women religious that they are to “be mothers, as a figure of Mary … and of mother Church. It is impossible to understand Mary without her motherhood; it is impossible to understand the Church apart from her motherhood and you are icons of Mary and the Church.”  As mentioned earlier, single-parent homes have become quite common in our day.  In fact, nearly 1/4 of children in the United States now live in a single parent home.  This prevalence may change our perception about what is "normal" but it doesn't change the fact that God has created us to be raised by a mother and a father - each of which brings gifts and teaches lessons that the other cannot, despite best efforts and intentions.  This truth - that men and women are different and complementary - is now being obscured by theories which posit gender as a mere social construct - even though it is a biological truth, in fact, it is literally written into our DNA!  If 25% of children grow up in a single-parent home, a far greater percentage of Catholics have been reared in the Faith in parishes lacking spiritual mothers for nearly two generations.  This absence of sisters has become the norm, and many parishes cannot articulate what is missing!  

When our sisters returned to St. James the following school year, I was almost immediately able to sense the mantle of their maternal care.  I wish I could better articulate this but it is not easy to put into words.  Ask a child - or his Father, for that matter - to describe what his mother uniquely contributes to the family and he may speak about practical things, but at the end of the day, even if the Father can fulfill some of those practical roles, the Mother brings a unique, feminine genius and warmth into the home that is otherwise lacking.  This is what vowed religious sisters bring to the parish family.  We are so grateful to be blessed by their presence.  

- Fr. Totton

Ck Sister 2020
Sr. Mary Maximilian, Sr. Marie Caritas and Sr. Mary Jacinta have returned to St. James Parish for the 2020-2021.


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