Sister: Religious’ role evolving, but mission remains the same

Sr. Rose Marie Kujawa

Sr. Rose Marie Kujawa

Year of Consecrated Life a chance for many to reflect on the ‘joy’ of vocation

Detroit — If the past is prologue, then those in religious life have already written a classic.

For much of the Church’s 2,000-year history, no one has done more to help build the kingdom of God through tireless works of charity, mercy and prayer. And as the Year of Consecrated Life draws to a close, Felician Sr. Rose Marie Kujawa knows their story isn’t close to finished.

“One of the wonderful things about having history behind you is it gives you the opportunity to recall wonderful memories,” said the former president of Madonna University and the Archdiocese of Detroit’s new delegate for religious as of October.

“Consecrated life has been a part of the Church for 2,000 years,” Sr. Kujawa said. “I don’t personally recall that it was ever celebrated quite this way.”

The Year of Consecrated Life, proclaimed by Pope Francis to honor the work of consecrated men and women across the globe and to promote vocations to religious life, has been a rare opportunity to highlight the special role of religious communities in the life of the Church, Sr. Kujawa said.

The special year concludes Feb. 2, and to celebrate, religious communities from across the Archdiocese of Detroit will gather for a special Mass and reception Jan. 17 with Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Though “consecrated life” has many variations — sisters, brothers, priests, consecrated virgins and hermits among them — at its core, the religious life is “really about being dedicated to God,” Sr. Kujawa said.

“We’ve traditionally spoken of three vocations in life: the call to marriage, the call to the single life and the call to religious life,” she said. “We know the numbers (of religious) are diminishing, but that doesn’t do away with the wonderful works that these individuals were able to do throughout their lifetime.”

While Pope Francis hasn’t called for a “change” in the way people view consecrated life, Sr. Kujawa said the special year has been more about giving it “balance” within the life of the Church.

The pope, a Jesuit and the first religious order pontiff in nearly 170 years, has challenged men and women religious to view their calling with a joyful spirit, Sr. Kujawa said.

“I think he wants to make sure we associate this life with joy. There’s always a temptation to remember negative things, sad things,” she said. “Any person who is in consecrated life and is not a joyful, positive person is not following the right life and maybe doesn’t belong there.”

In the Archdiocese of Detroit, religious communities have helped found hospitals and universities, worked to educate students in Catholic grade and high schools and have been advocates for the poorest of the poor in the inner city and elsewhere.

That legacy goes all the way back to Fr. Gabriel Richard, the Sulpician priest who founded many southeast Michigan institutions, churches and missions, including what would eventually become the University of Michigan.

Sr. Kujawa drew inspiration from Fr. Richard, who was “well-educated but yet grounded in spirituality,” as a leader of Madonna University, where she served for 17 years as academic vice president and 14 years as president before retiring in July.

“He himself was able to gather people and resources — intellectual resources as much as anything else — to work for the city and believe that we could found a university,” she said. “Young adults — and not so young adults — have their own questions about wanting to use whatever talents they have been given. That’s what a university education does; it helps you discover yourself and hopefully for the benefit of society.”

The mission of helping society is what prompted Madonna to start programs such as distance-learning classes for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and an initiative to help black males from inner-city Detroit attain a college education.

“We were always aware of diversity, an important characteristic we wanted to bring forward,” Sr. Kujawa said, adding that the Felician community “worked with diversity right from the time when our early sisters served in the war in the 1800s.”

Sr. Kujawa said despite the war, the sisters were told to serve the wounded on both sides, including “the enemy,” she said. “And so they were serving the enemy equally with their own people. Diversity was important, whether it was racial or economic or social.”

While fewer religious communities are founding endeavors such as hospitals or universities today, they are leading in other ways, Sr. Kujawa said. A relatively new development for those in consecrated life, many communities are turning to social advocacy as a way to promote justice in areas such as housing, free trade and women’s issues.

In Detroit especially, members of religious communities have stepped up to promote the rights of the poor by “not allowing society to forget the cities,” Sr. Kujawa said.

Along with lay Catholics and non-Catholics, religious brothers and sisters “keep pushing and pushing for the underrepresented to be recognized and not only to get the basics — clothing and food — but pushing to get their opinions heard and to treat them as real individuals who have by no fault of their own gone into terrible circumstances,” she said.

While the nature and role of consecrated life has changed over the centuries, the mission of consecrated individuals to promote justice and holiness in the Church and society will always remain, Sr. Kujawa said.

“We certainly want to continue the momentum of calling lay persons closer to the Church that we are all baptized into,” she said. “The members are not as numerous, but there are still people entering religious life regularly.

“Whoever chooses to enter consecrated life receives an outside grace that’s given. I hope people understand the joy that’s associated with this life and that it continues.”

By the numbers

1,185 consecrated individuals serving in the Archdiocese of Detroit:

    899 sisters

    207 priests

    79 brothers

79 religious and consecrated life communities represented in the Archdiocese of Detroit:

    22 communities headquartered in the Archdiocese of Detroit

    49 communities headquartered outside of Michigan (16 states)

    8 communities headquartered outside of U.S. (five countries: Italy (3), Canada (2), India, Ireland and Montenegro)

Year of Consecrated Life closing Mass

Members of religious communities and the faithful at large are invited to a special Mass with Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron to celebrate the closing of the Year of Consecrated Life at 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 17, at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. After Mass, a reception will be held in the gymnasium of the cathedral’s former school, where information booths from more than 20 religious communities will be on display.