– As Pope Francis’s year dedicated to consecrated life concluded at the start of 2016, one nun shared her thoughts on how her religious garb serves as a “visible sign” that God exists and loves every person.
Though the official Year for Consecrated Life concluded earlier this year, it’s actually “the beginning of helping people get reacquainted with religious life,” said Sister Mary Christa of the Sisters of Mercy of Alma.
She said that while there are those who have a general idea about religious sisters, there’s still a degree of uncertainty on the part of many about what religious life looks like.
Right now, Mary Christa added, there’s “confusion” – over questions such as why some sisters wear habits and some don’t – and her hope is that this year marks the start of “a fruitful understanding of religious life in the Church in its most authentic, visible witness.”
The Year for Consecrated Life, which began November 30, 2014, concluded February 2, 2016 on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus.
Mary Christa, who also runs the U.S. bishops’ visitor’s office in Rome with several other Sisters of Mercy, called the habit of a religious sister an important part of being a witness.
“The religious habit should say a number of things, both to the sister herself, and to those who see her,” she said, recounting how she is often approached by strangers asking for prayers, who automatically trust her on account of her appearance.
“The habit is a visible sign of the love of God,” she said. “But it’s also, I have found, a great responsibility and a reminder to me: the responsibility to be what I show that I am.”
“It’s a sign of the love of God and that this life is not all there is: that God exists and loves them,” she said.
One of the distinguishing aspects of their habit – a dark veil and a simple, pale blue frock in the summer, and a darker color for the winter – is a simple black cross, overlaid by a smaller white cross, which is worn around the neck.
“The black of the cross represents the misery of mankind that we find in the world, and the white represents God’s mercy, which we are called to bring into the world as Sisters of Mercy,” explained Mary Michaela, who works at the visitor’s office.
“There is a long tradition in religious life of wearing a habit as a visible sign that we are consecrated to God and to the service of the Church in a special way,” she said. “It’s also part of poverty,” she added. “Our habit is simple, so we don’t buy a big wardrobe.”
Living in Rome, Mary Michaela noted how she too is approached by people asking for prayers on account of her habit.
“When they see the habit, they realize that there is something particular about our life,” she said.
“They recognize that we represent, in some way, God’s presence. We remind people of God’s presence here in the world.”
First established in Ireland in 1831 by venerable Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy centered their work on education, catechesis, healthcare. Spreading to the United States, the order was refounded in 1973 in Alma, Michigan, where its motherhouse is currently located.
In addition to the three vows taken by all religious sisters, the Sisters of Mercy take a fourth vow of service to the poor, sick, and ignorant.
In Rome, the Sisters of Mercy offer orientation to U.S. Pilgrims – obtaining tickets for papal events, answering their questions about the city, and helping them with the pilgrimage aspect of their visit.
“This is one of the apostolic works that we do as a community,” said Sister Regina Marie, speaking on her work at the visitor’s office.
Pilgrims “can come here and learn about the faith,” she said. “We will often have a priest that will come at a certain time for a half hour and give catechesis for anyone who wants to. We have catechetical materials out for the pilgrims, (or) even just a place for them to sit down for a few minutes.”
“Our charism is the mercy of God,” she said. “Our apostolates are usually focused around the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which can manifest themselves in many ways.”
Sister Anna Marie, another sister at the office, adds that “the consecrated life is a sign of his presence on earth.”
“We live our vows so that when people see us, they think of God, and they think of Jesus, and they think of the Church. That’s a tremendous privilege.”
On how people will often ask her about her life as a religious, Anna Marie said she is excited to answer their questions.
“It’s a gift not only for me, but a gift for the whole Church and for the world,” she said.