Throwback Thursday: Women Religious Manifest the Faith and Love of the Virgin Mary, Bride and Mother
When we look to the scene of the Annunciation, we find the archangel Gabriel sent by God to a humble daughter of Israel, Mary. She is told of God’s plan for her, and on her response would depend the fate of all mankind. Here was the focal point of all creation, “the fundamental event in the economy of salvation,” said Saint John Paul II (Redemptoris Mater, 39). Her answer would change forever her life and that of the world.
The mystery of the Annunciation brought humanity to the pivotal moment. Pope Benedict XVI explained that after a long period of courtship, then came the definitive moment, the establishment of a new and everlasting covenant – “[I]t was as if God made a marriage proposal to the human race. And in our name, Mary said yes.” Her acceptance was essential because the Word would enter the world by taking on human nature through the very flesh and blood of the Blessed Virgin.
In her fiat, her “yes” to God, Saint John Paul says, Mary was “guided by spousal love, the love which totally ‘consecrates’ a human being to God. By virtue of this love, Mary wished to be always and in all things ‘given to God’” (Redemptoris Mater, 39). In humbly accepting God’s call, Mary is forever the example of what we mean by faith – true, profound faith – and love for the Lord.
Throughout human history, in the divine teaching set out in scripture, God’s love is presented in the image of the nuptial love of a husband for his bride (CCC 1602-17). In the book of the prophet Hosea, the Lord says to his people, “I will betroth you to me forever” (2:21). Christ, the Bridegroom, embodies this love in his union with his Bride, the Church.
Mary is the model for us all, but consecrated religious view her in a special light. “The consecrated life has always been seen primarily in terms of Mary – Virgin and Bride,” wrote Saint John Paul, and the “spousal dimension, which is part of all consecrated life, has a particular meaning for women, who find therein their feminine identity and as it were discover the special genius of their relationship with the Lord” (Vita Consecreta, 34).
In a culture that struggles to understand the consecrated religious life, that wonders why anyone would want to become a nun or religious sister (or religious brother) instead of getting married, we might pause a moment on the World Day for Consecrated Life, which is celebrated on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, to reflect on the vocation of consecrated life as a living sign of the nuptial union of the Church as Bride with her Spouse, particularly with respect to women religious (Vita Consecreta, 3).
When we speak of the personal quality of the solemn profession of vows, the “yes” to God that is given, we highlight the declaration of each sister to unite herself to the Lord Jesus in a bond of commitment, dedication and love that marks this profound level of discipleship. Each religious sister is reminded, in the language of spousal love, how complete and total is their self-giving to Christ in a love that focuses totally on him. He, in turn, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, embraces each sister in a love that makes it possible for his presence to be manifest in each of them.
A long tradition helps us to grasp in human terms the reality of this love through the use of symbols and images. As a sign of their union with Christ, many women religious wear a habit, and some wear a ring to explicitly identify themselves as a “spouse of Christ” and a “mother of souls.”
Through their lives consecrated to the Lord, in their religious communities and out in the world, in a blessed and particular way, each religious sister becomes fruitful, fostering the spiritual “birth and growth of divine life in people’s hearts” and contributing to the growth of a new humanity (Vita Consecreta, 34). In turn, let us all express our thanks to God for our women religious, for all those we happily call “Sister” who show in their lives the love of the Virgin Mary, Bride and Mother, handmaid of the Lord.