After Christmas this year, I was able to take a few retreat days for some prayer, spiritual reading and reflection.  One of my traditions on retreats is to re-read the Gospels. Each of the four sacred texts has a unique character and tone, some passages complimentary while others seem to relate similar accounts in different ways. I don’t consider myself a “Scripture scholar,” but I have read and studied the Gospels and commentaries about them many, many times throughout my 40 years as a priest. The “story” they tell never gets old for me. In fact, each time I read them, something stands out that I may not have previously paid much attention to or noticed.

This year, I was struck in the four accounts by the “call of the apostles.” While the details differ in each Gospel, the core message is the same: ordinary people going about their business personally encountered the Lord Jesus Christ and responded to his invitation to follow him.

I think of about those different passages and their core message this weekend (Feb. 5-6) as the Church celebrates “World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life,” established by Pope St. John Paul II on Feb. 2, 1997, the Feast of the Presentation.

Quoting St. Teresa’s autobiography, he asked, “’What would the world be if there were no religious’?” (“Message of the Holy Father,” Jan. 6, 1997). Like the apostles, thousands of women and men, “ordinary people going about their business” yet prompted by the Holy Spirit, have responded to the personal “call” of the Lord Jesus Christ to follow him throughout the long history of the Church.  Some of them became great saints whose names are recognized to this very day.  Most of them, however, are known – with the passage of time – only to God.  Still, their holiness, accomplishments and witness to the Lord have been the building blocks of his Church.

Growing up in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I had the privilege of attending my parish Catholic elementary school generously served by an amazing group of religious teaching sisters known as the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM). That was over 60 years ago yet I still remember their faces – each one – and I can still hear their voices in my mind. I recall their names after these six decades (and the nicknames we gave them!): Sister Ronald Marie, Sister William Mary, Sister St. John, Sister Agnes, Marie, Sister Thaddeus Marie, Sister Mary Regina Pacis (my favorite!) and Mother Mary Agnes. Dressed in long blue habits belted with Rosary beads at their sides and heads covered in black veils trimmed in stiff white material, these dedicated religious women made an enduring impression on me and, I am sure, on my schoolmates as well.

They taught us well: geography and history, art and music, arithmetic – later called math (my worst subject!) and science, English, poetry and spelling, and, most important of all in Catholic school, religion (my best subject!). These sisters built a solid foundation not only for my future education but for the rest of my life. I owe them a great deal. Under their watchful eyes, constant good example and devoted care, along with the witness of good parish priests, I heard the Lord’s call to follow him in the vocation I pursued to the priesthood.

Most of these women have long since passed away as far as I have been able to find out, but the lessons they taught me about the Lord Jesus, the Church, faith, prayer, Mass and the Sacraments have never left me. At the time, I knew nothing of different “religious charisms” spoken about today or their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but the witness of their consecrated life made all the difference to me.

To celebrate a “World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life” comes easy, given the experience of religious life I have described.  I never expected to become a bishop, but I often wonder what I would have become were it not for the presence of those sisters in my early life.

For the most part, seeing religious habits is rare these days, but the proverb in all its many literary iterations “clothes make the man (woman)” does not apply to consecrated life if it ever really did. It’s what’s inside a person that counts: the heart and soul shines through whatever a person may or may not wear.  That was certainly true of all the religious sisters I have known, and it still is.  I should add that the same holds true for men who have pursued consecrated life as religious brothers. Like the first apostles, they, too, encountered the Lord Jesus in their lives and followed him on the path to holiness.

In the newly proposed version of the “Order of Religious Profession,” the Church observes:

Many of the faithful, called by God, are consecrated to the service of the Lord and the good of humanity by the sacred vows of religion.  They strive to follow Jesus Christ more closely by observing the evangelical counsels (vows of poverty, chastity and obedience): this way, the grace of baptism brings forth in them more abundant fruit. Holy Mother Church has always held in high honor religious life which, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has assumed many forms through the course of the centuries. … By her public prayer, the Church herself begs for them help and grace from God; she commends them to God and obtains for them spiritual blessing, uniting their offering to the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

The “World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life” does just that, and is one means by which the Church publicly acknowledges the vowed commitment of women and men in consecrated life.  They “encountered” the Lord Jesus Christ at some point in their life’s journey and responded by seeking holiness through vows, common life, prayer and various forms of service in the Church.  Whether teaching, ministering in hospitals or nursing homes, works of social service, pastoral ministry in dioceses or parishes, living a life of prayer in monasteries and cloisters or in retirement, consecrated women and men – sisters and brothers – joyfully live out their calling, inspiring the rest of us in Church to deepen our own desire for holiness.

We should, indeed, gratefully pray for them and for those who may be searching for “something more” in life as they “go about their business.”  The first apostles did not expect to encounter the Lord Jesus Christ that day along the Sea of Galilee.  He still walks among us, calling out to women and men with an invitation to follow him.

On this “World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life,” recognizing that the number of religious women and men as well as priests – especially in the United States and our Diocese in particular – is becoming smaller and smaller, whenever we think of all the religious sisters and brothers who have been such a wonderful part of our lives, let us recall the Lord Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel with “his heart was moved with pity for the crowds because they were troubled and abandoned … ‘the harvest is abundant but the laborers are few, so pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest’” (Matthew 9:36-38).  And thank you, sisters and brothers, for answering his call.