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BEFORE THE CROSS | In gratitude for our religious sisters

The life cycle of declining and rising religious orders has been part of the history of the Church

On June 30, I turned 75. In accordance with Canon Law, I submitted my letter of retirement to the Holy Father. Indications are that he’s not in a hurry to replace me. But it remains true that on any day, he may call with the news that St. Louis has a new archbishop. So I consider all my time with you now to be bonus time.

The first thing I want to do with that bonus time is to thank the religious sisters who have served in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. I’m prompted to do so in part because the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is this week (July 16). But I’m not only thinking of our two communities of Carmelites. I’m thinking of all the religious sisters who serve and have served in the archdiocese. So many vital ministries have been created and kept alive because of them.

Let me give you some numbers, just to give you a sense of their impact. There are currently 54 women’s religious orders in the archdiocese, and more than 1,200 women in these orders. Last year, when we celebrated the women who were observing significant anniversaries in religious life (25 years, 50 years, etc.), the 158 women had contributed a total of 9,690 years of service to the Church.

Considering that those celebrating significant milestones last year represented just 13 percent of all the women religious in the archdiocese, a rough estimate of the total years of service of all the women religious currently serving comes to more than 70,000 years! The sisters are, truly, one of the wonders of St. Louis, and one of the reasons we are known as the Rome of the West.

Sometimes people get discouraged by declining numbers in religious orders. And it’s true: there has been a decline in vocations in many religious orders. As a result, some of the orders are dying out. I am sorry for that, because it’s the loss of a true treasure.

But I want you to know two things.

First, if we look through all of Church history, many religious orders spring up and pass away. Very simply, there is a life cycle of religious orders. On the one hand, it would be good if there were an abundance of vocations to every religious order. On the other hand, history tells us that this kind of living and dying is as natural for communities as it is for individuals.

Second, part of that life cycle is the rise of new religious orders. This is something we know about firsthand in the Archdiocese of St. Louis because we have been served by some of these new communities and have sent young women to join others. Consider, for example, the Missionaries of Charity, the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich., the Nashville Dominicans, the Sisters of Life and the Apostles of the Interior Life. We should be encouraged to know that God is still at work, building up the Church through new women’s religious orders.

So, as we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and recall all of our religious sisters, I want to say, both from myself and also on behalf of all of us: Thank you, sisters!

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