Each February on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord (Feb. 2), the Church celebrates World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. In honor of this day of prayer, we’ve chosen to feature this article about the Sisters of Life and the beauty of the consecrated life.
White and blue fabric could be seen billowing in the morning wind as my family approached the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. These colors came from the habits of the dozens of Sisters of Life who were joyfully greeting all those coming to witness final vows that day.
When it was time for the sisters to process through the very long main aisle of this breathtaking Gothic church, I was struck by how many religious men and women were present to celebrate this momentous day. First, dozens of priests processed through, followed by the main celebrant, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York. Then over a hundred Sisters of Life processed in together, while the six making their final profession — including a dear friend of mine — walked in last.
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I studied the face of my friend as she processed into the church with these words being sung: “The bridegroom is here; go out and welcome him.” Her eyes didn’t scan the crowds assembled in the pews. Instead, her eyes were locked on one thing alone, one person alone: Jesus in the tabernacle.
Rite of religious profession
The Mass for my friend’s final vows was similar to an ordination or Catholic wedding Mass, where the vows take place following the Liturgy of the Word.
However, the unique thing about the vocation to consecrated life is that it is not a sacrament.
This union is so powerful that rather than being a sacrament, the union actually becomes the fulfillment of the sacrament. In the words of St. Augustine, a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” But religious life is not simply a sign, for in a mystical way these women become brides of Christ here and now.
This was visible through the Rite of Religious Profession, during which Cardinal Dolan asked the sisters what they asked of God and his Church. Their prayer was for perseverance in following Christ as their bridegroom for the rest of their days. The cardinal then examined the candidates by asking them if they were truly resolved in their dedication to God and to the Rule and Constitutions of the Sisters of Life. After the sisters confirmed their resolution, they laid prostrate in the sanctuary as everyone in the church interceded on their behalf, singing and praying the litany of saints. Finally, it was time for the sisters to make their profession of perpetual vows by kneeling before their Superior General. As they approached the altar, where they put ink to paper and signed their vows, the Veni Sponsa Christi was sung: “Come, bride of Christ, receive the crown which the Lord has prepared for you for all eternity.”
Cardinal Dolan then made a prayer of consecration over the newly professed sisters and blessed the rings that the sisters would wear as a sign that they were now set apart for Christ their bridegroom. He bestowed a ring to each of them saying, “Receive this ring, for you are betrothed to the eternal king; Keep faith with your bridegroom so that you may come to the wedding feast of eternal joy.”
One of my favorite parts of the Mass was when all of the other sisters formed a line to greet the newly perpetually professed. You couldn’t spot a somber face in the room. It was pure joy as the sisters enthusiastically embraced one another. Just watching the sisters hug made me feel like I was wrapped up in their love and joy as well.
A special charism
The Sisters of Life, which were founded by Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, have a special charism to uphold the dignity of life. In addition to the common vows to poverty, chastity and obedience (called the evangelical counsels), the Sisters of Life make a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. In the words of their founder: “This is the charism of the Sisters of Life: to mother the mothers of the unborn; to mother the unborn; to mother all those who are frail, all of those who are vulnerable, all those who are ill, all of those who are in danger of being put to death, all those whose lives the world considers useless.”
This charism fulfills exactly what Pope St. John Paul II spoke of in his apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (on the consecrated life and its mission in the church and in the world). He spoke of his desire that our world would be “entrusted to human hands, become ever more human and just” (No. 110); a world where human life would be respected and upheld with the dignity deserving of it.
Those who consecrate their entire life to Christ make him their sole purpose, and in doing so express the love of the Trinity. While only some women are called to this vocation, their witness reveals our common vocation: to be united to Christ the bridegroom. May we see this mystical reality in our own lives.