Preparing the next generation of Sisters of Providence
Our charism is a unique spirit present in this community of women that attracts and draws each one of us. Even before a woman enters the Congregation, she has already been touched by the charism of the Sisters of Providence. This is generally true for every Sister of Providence. Often it is hard to articulate, but we all experience it. Before application for entry, a woman is encouraged to visit other religious congregations so she can better discern which congregational charism seems to draw and be a fit for her. So while she may not be able to define it, she has experienced the SP charism.
As postulant director, I work with the woman during her first year after acceptance. During this time the woman continues to explore what attracted her to this Congregation. She shares her vocation story with others and listens to the vocation stories of the sisters. She lives and ministers here at Saint Mary-of-the Woods where Saint Mother Theodore’s footsteps are clearly seen in ministries, in visitors to the campus, and in the lives of our elder members. During this first year the postulant is also sent out to the missions for several 3-5 day ministry site visits with our sisters. Upon returning from each of these visits she is asked to do a written reflection. The woman participates in several intercommunity gatherings with other women and men in initial formation. This gives her a chance to observe the charisms operative in different communities and to further appreciate the SP charism. These gatherings offer an opportunity to explore not only how religious communities differ, but also what we share in common. Values such as prayer, vowed life, community building and intercultural living are common ground for religious life today.
In the end, however, the charism is not so much taught as caught. This happens in day-to-day living. This is where the postulant hopefully sees what it means to be sister to one another, to pray, celebrate, have fun together and to experience the sacred in the ordinary. She is invited into our common efforts to be Providence through sustainable living, accountability to one another, and respect for differences. Living close to the Motherhouse this first year allows her to participate in the Congregation worship and feast days, to hear the beautiful stories told when we bury our dead and to absorb the history and character of this birthplace of our charism.
Of course during this year the postulant is also exploring how her personal gifts fit with the SP charism. And while this question is always evolving, she is invited to share her skills and talents as a volunteer minister. She is also invited to stretch herself by trying out something new or developing a latent talent. Often the ministries she serves in this first year are not the most glorious, but they give her an opportunity to interact with sisters, associates and co-workers, all of whom are helping to carry on the charism of the Sisters of Providence.
The “forming” process in religious life has taken on different foci and appearances over the years. Today, the needs of God’s people are more global and diverse than ever. Therefore, the formation process for women entering today has adapted in answer to the call of these times.
Our newest members speak of this time of preparation as “transformation” rather than “formation.” They are acutely aware that Providence is calling them to serve in new ways. They understand that before they can begin this new life, they first need to look at what they must change or transform in themselves — spiritually, communally, emotionally and personally — in order to address the difficult challenges of today’s world.
The core of the novitiate program in the second year of formation remains the same as it has been through time — prayer, studies in Scripture, Church History, Community History, spirituality and the special traditions of this Congregation. These areas are entered into very intensely during the canonical year.
During this special year, the woman receives the title of “Sister.” She begins to go deeper into understanding what the day-to-day life of a sister in community really means. She also participates in extended time for daily prayer, both personal and communal, in spiritual direction, in volunteer ministry, and especially in the study of the vows.
She also participates with her director in weekly gatherings of novices and directors from other religious communities. Here she participates in special studies to prepare for vowed life. Presenters from other religious and professional entities offer instruction and guidance in their particular fields or areas of expertise: prayer, spirituality, theology, intercultural living, Catholic social teachings, and many other aspects of sociological, cultural and psychological well-being. All of these areas are designed to help the woman develop her potential for committing herself to a life in God, community and God’s mission in this world.
During this third year of formation, the novice is given the opportunity to “test” her vocation. After a period of discernment with her director and others, she chooses her first full-time ministry. It is one to which she feels called and which is in keeping with the charism of the Sisters of Providence — “to honor Divine Providence through works of love, mercy and justice.” She now lives with a local community of professed sisters also in ministry. In addition, the novice continues her studies of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
At the end of these first three years she, in discernment with her novice director and other sisters, discerns whether this is the life for her and if she is now ready to profess her first vows.
For me as the novice director, one of the most rewarding aspects of this experience of initial formation is the privilege of walking with each novice during these two years of her formation journey. It is rewarding to see each woman grow internally as an individual and as a woman dedicated to the life and mission of the Sisters of Providence. Watching each woman move from self-focus to embracing a life of interdependence is profound. Being part of this transforming time in the woman’s life as she responds to the call to bring hope and healing to a broken world as a Sister of Providence is both gratifying and humbling.
(Originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of HOPE magazine.)