Extract from Madeleine Fredell, “From Knowledge and Power to Wisdom and Authority: Religious Vocation in the Life of the Church” in Visions and Vocations:
What holds a community together is the vows, traditionally the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. However, there are differences between religious orders and congregations. Sometimes one of the three classical vows is emphasized in a special way, such as poverty for the Franciscans. Some take vows for life, others renew them on a regular basis. What matters is how we interpret them together as a community and on a personal level. They must be life-giving over decades and therefore their deeper meaning may change not only over time, but also for the individual sister or brother.
Obedience is certainly not what that word suggests – it is not about taking orders! If we don’t pay attention to our own will, our own capacities and our own strength or lack of it, we shall fail. We must know ourselves very well to be able to obey. The word comes from the Latin oboedire which means hear and listen to. We listen to God’s voice in studying, interpreting and sharing the biblical message in an intelligent way, but we also listen to God in our sisters and in ourselves. The big challenges in religious life usually come from inside ourselves rather than from superiors and whatever constitutions or rules we are following. Obedience is also the most important of the vows because it is the one which gives a deeper meaning to religious life.
The vow of celibacy is of course about living a celibate life but equally about accepting our sexuality and sexual orientation. Each sister must come to grips with herself, with her body and how it functions. The vow is traditionally called chastity, a virtue to be practiced by all the baptized. It is about the humility to accept ourselves as the person we really are. That sounds great, but it is the most difficult challenge people have to struggle with. We must not compare ourselves with anybody else but love ourselves just as we are, with our limitations and capacities. Being chaste and humble is not about comparing oneself with others but about being happy with ourselves just as we are.
To live the vow of poverty is a bit of a scandal today. Religious sisters are generally not poor, although there are communities who literally live in poverty. Sociologically speaking, religious people will be taken care of by the institutional Church in one way or the other if they cannot provide for themselves. Therefore, they can rely on basic security for housing, food and health care. Poverty in religious life is more about material simplicity. It is also a strong witness to society that I as an individual do not have free disposal over material goods, but that they are the common good of the whole community. The real poverty, though, is that one is quite alone as a sister or brother. We do not have intimate partners or children, we live at a distance from our families, and we have to struggle with the meaning of life in a lonely way. This leads me to what is crucial for a religious vocation in the Church today.
Unfortunately, many religious sisters have lost meaning in their lives. Why is this so? It usually happens later on, when religious life has become a routine – when we no longer marvel at anything. In such cases a sister might know what she believes – the contents of Christianity, the dogmas and doctrine – but she no longer has faith. The deep meaning of life is gone. The tools for creating meaning in life are not always provided by the Church or by our different religious congregations, and still less in society as a whole. These tools show what religious life is about and the only real mission we are called to. Living a meaningful life is our one and only witness, and it is a witness of deep joy.