“Isn’t the stock of the priesthood kind of low right now?” Fr. John asked.
I sighed, mostly because I knew he was right. I was on the phone with the priest of the parish I grew up in, and I had just told him that I was midway through applying to enter the Jesuits. I had made the call hoping to sort out a problem with my baptismal certificate. Up until then, I had been good at keeping the whole thing a secret, and I thought I had pretty good reason to. It seemed like half my college friends thought that the Church was a cohort of worn-out men hell bent on eroding human rights and the other half barely thought about religion at all. The bad news as of late was not helping things. Only a few months had passed since the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on clerical sexual abuse. Most days it felt absurd to consider religious life at all, let alone admit it to other people.
“I’m only doing this because they won’t let me be a sister,” I responded, a little surprised. We both laughed then, for a long time.
Even then I knew I was only half-joking.
As a young person, I belonged to parishes full of sisters. In my memories, it seems like they were always around, and always getting into good things. I remember Sister Marge and Sister Catherine who doted on my brothers and I, always there for a hug after Mass, even if we had been distracting and antsy the whole time. There was Sister Julie, who enlisted me most Sundays in helping to organize the donations to the food pantry and who spent her weekdays compassionately caring for people suffering from HIV/AIDS. Or Sister Janet, whose brilliant preaching spoke of God with delight and challenged her hearers in unexpected ways. And of course Sister Julia, who loved to talk college basketball and sent me detailed notes during my novitiate with all the news from back home. At Mass, I would look across the congregation gathered around the altar and see them, singing and all smiles. It was one of my first glimpses of God’s deep consolation.
I grew up with Sisters, I trusted them, I loved being around them. They came from so many different congregations—the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, the Dominican Sisters of Peace, the Ursuline Sisters, the Sisters of Providence—different charisms, but the same God and the same joy. Sr. Charlene reminded me of this on the Sunday before I left to enter the Jesuits. “There are contemplative spiritualities and there are active spiritualities,” she told me. “What my order does in contemplation, yours does in action. The Church needs both.”
This is the witness of love and service that first made me dream about religious life. In the sisters I encountered the joy of the Gospel, women who loved God and others with their whole selves, women who were easy to talk to, women who were wisdom figures and good neighbors and whip smart. They lived lives that made me wonder what it was that they had, if such a joy might one day be mine. I would eventually follow those questions stumbling into the Jesuit novitiate, leaning on the God they had shown me how to love.
My dreams about becoming a priest came later. I played Mass like a lot of Catholic kids, draping a blanket over my shoulders for a chasuble and distributing rolled oats for communion wafers. But it was not until much later, after I had joined the Jesuits, that I thought with any real aspiration about sacramental ministry. When the day comes, I hope to be a priest like Fr. John—generous, gentle, and completely in love with the Body of Christ, in every sense. But I hope I might be a religious like my friend Sister Margaret.
A few weeks ago she passed on. I had first gotten to know Sister Margaret as a middle schooler writing a report on Jawaharlal Nehru, and we took a shine to each other from the beginning. She told me stories of her childhood in India, of her time as the first Indian-born provincial of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, of coming half a world away to Kentucky for her juniorate. And I would talk about school, friendships, and my teenage worries. She would listen carefully, then offer precise and very direct advice. Sr. Margaret never beat around the burning bush. A few times, as a treat, this was over Indian food at a local restaurant—she knew the best ones. In everything she carried a deep reverence for all people. As she said often, “the God in me greets the God in you.”
The Sunday before I left for college, Sr. Margaret pulled me aside and blessed me, her hands a strength on my shoulders, her prayers a comforting voice. This past All Souls’ Day I remembered her at Mass, but I have a feeling that she was already praying for me on All Saints’ Day the day before. Another gift, even now.
When I think about what it means to live the life of the vows, to do my best to dedicate my whole self to loving God and my neighbors through poverty, chastity, and obedience, I think about the sisters. I think about their attentive faith, their radical joy, their lives like Jesus’s life. I am still so new to religious life, but who these women are is a kindly light showing the way toward what I might become on my own pilgrimage. The sisters walk beside me, as they always have.