One of the saddest moments of my Pastorate here at Immac was the day that I said goodbye to the Holy Union Sisters who served our parish for so many years. I knew the last car would depart that morning, so I called the other priests to join me in saying goodbye. The superiors of the Sisters were here to drive the remaining Sisters to their Mother House in Massachusetts. After embracing them, they got into the car and settled in, and drove away.
We all knew that this was a profoundly sad moment in our history. These Consecrated Women Religious had served the parish for many years. They had educated thousands of children in the Catholic Faith. They had left everything and embraced a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. All this sacrifice for us! And now, advanced in years, they could no longer take care of themselves and needed more assistance. Reluctantly, they accepted the inevitable.
After the car pulled out, I entered the silent Convent alone. I thought to do it for safety sake: to make sure that everything was off that had to be turned off, etc. But the real reason was that I missed them and wanted to hold on to the past. The rooms were silent with only the occasional car or truck heard on 31st Street. I went to the Chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was still reserved. As I prayed, I heard in my imagination the many prayers that were said by these great women in that now abandoned Convent.
The moment of greatest poignancy was when I went to the Tabernacle to remove the Holy Eucharist, the Divine Presence from the Chapel and the Convent. Another historical moment was occurring. I could feel the great responsibility of carrying the Blessed Sacrament back to the Church.
For decades, these holy women had been praying in that Chapel, offering their sacrifices for the good of the children that they taught, for their sisters in the community, and for our parish.
As I turned off the light with the Blessed Eucharist clutched to my chest, I felt the great loss like a page turned for good.
This sad moment apparently has been experienced in many parishes of the Diocese as the few aging sisters return to their Motherhouses. Soon, there will be so few women and men in consecrated life that it will be hard for our children, teens and even some young adults to be able to visualize these great witnesses to Christ.
In growing up in the 50s, there were many priests and even more sisters in our parish of St. Rita in East New York. The Catholic presence in the neighborhood was unmistakably real and apparent. In looking around me today, I feel acutely the loss and the need in the future for a rebirth of religious life in our Church. Is that even possible? Yes, it is, and I believe that the roots of revival are in the ground, unseen. I feel hope for the future.
It is so because the way of consecrated life is very beautiful and appealing when seen in its radical and world defying power. It relativizes not the way of God, but the way of this world, which in the long run cannot bear the weight of meaning that we give it. This transitory life cries out for another more permanent vision of being that can sustain the great hope that God gives us through our Christian Faith. It alone bears the symbolic majesty that the whole Church needs. Consecrated Life is a living signpost that points to the eternity that waits for those who are faithful to the struggles of our earthly life. It gives meaning and purpose to the journey that does not end in death, but through judgment leads us to the harbor of peace and love that we so long for in what is by comparison the desert of this life.
These benefits will always be true and applicable to our life’s situation. These are perennial resolutions to humanity’s apparent conflicts and as such will always be needed by us in the Church. Our ecclesial imagination works on providing vibrant and compelling examples to spur the large and complicated diversity of the faithful to wish to live the virtues that they see manifested. The cult of the saints is such a dynamic. Not everyone is called to live poverty like St. Francis. A father or mother can’t just say to their children: Goodbye, Mommy is going to live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience! This would be horrendous and funny at the same time! But all of us will benefit from the example of St. Francis not to absolutize material goods and to strive to live simply. This can even make economic sense for a family to live by!
We need Consecrated Life in the Church for this reason. It images for us the virtues we need to inculcate and live in this earthly abode whatever our station in life may be.
The Sisters of the Holy Union provided that lesson for us in great splendor and in moving joyfulness. While we are in sorrow over their loss, I firmly believe that the providence of God will continue to raise up for the Church new forms of Consecrated Life that will enrich us with both traditional and new forms of living witness.