Interviews of African Women Religious: Vow of Poverty
Sister Martin Flavin, OSF is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, Manitowoc, Wisconsin. She presently serves in the Congregation’s sponsored ministry system office as Special Assistant to the President. She summarizes interviews on the vow of poverty with African Women Religious who are Sister Students at Silver Lake College of the Holy Family, Manitowoc, WI.
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“All the sisters and brothers zealously follow the poverty and humility of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” (TOR Rule No. 21)
The formation program of each of the three Congregations represented at Holy Family Convent this past academic semester is somewhat similar while mirroring the culture of each country. A formal study of the vows extends from one to two years. As to their understanding of their introduction to the vow of poverty, the Sisters offered a number of reflections.
To vow poverty means “accepting all things God gives us as a gift from Him with everything shared as community,” this definition from a Sister whose understanding of poverty is rooted in her Congregation’s “fourth vow” of Community whose mission is to live “the Gospel Way of Life” through “Spirituality, Community and Service.”
Another Sister shared this reflection as she remembered with gratitude her years of formation:
We study the vow of poverty according to the mind of Christ, emphasizing the spirit of poverty rather than the letter. The spirit of poverty is that humble spirit that made Jesus empty Himself for our sake. Christ is God, yet He did not hold on to His greatness, but became a slave for us. In the vow of poverty we respond to Christ’s invitation to be poor, following Him as our model. The spirit of poverty disposes us to live with inner freedom, having a non-possessive attitude towards material things, positions, power, persons, talents and even one’s life. Once a person understands the vow of poverty in the mind of Christ, that person can live poverty in any challenging situation.
Another confessed the difficulty she experienced in trying to grasp the explanation of poverty as vow:
To me, it was being twice poor. But now I am beginning to realize that the vow brings me blessings because I have chosen to follow the poor Christ. Understanding of the vow has deepened for me as I observe other communities practicing poverty.
Reflecting on the years of formation, this Sister shared that
Just as with any goals and values which a group sets for themselves, the individual still lives according to her level of understanding, conviction and personal commitment to Christ. Throughout formation we learned to value the spirit of poverty according to the Institute’s law.
As the Sisters explained the living out of the vow of poverty, their thoughts, for the most part, turned to their community living, with such sentiments as:Learning to follow the common life and sharing everything – time, talents, skills – as Saint Francis would have had his followers do is the objective of our community living.
The reality of fasting every Friday and then giving the food of the day to the villagers who come in the early evening makes the young religious begin to realize what living vowed poverty means.
One interviewee described this practice associated with her learning to live the vow:
When young women enter the novitiate after having received many and usually beautiful pieces of cloth, they learn that giving their treasures to the superior who will then share with those who have none is an excellent expression of lived poverty.
“The truly poor in spirit, following the example of the Lord, live in this world as pilgrims and strangers.” (TOR Rule No. 22)
It was in speaking of the difference between the poverty of destitution and the vow of poverty that the reality of the life of the African poor was articulated by the Sisters. Obviously, poverty to the extreme as lived both within and outside the walls of their convents has been experienced by each of the Sister students. As each reflected on her life as a religious in Africa, the expression of the difference between choosing to be poor and forced by circumstances to live poorly was immediately evident.
The religious whose experiences have been in their congregations’ ministries located principally in Uganda and Tanzania spoke movingly of their sharing poverty with the native village people.
We live as simply as they do in our poorest missions, going out daily to fetch our water from the common well or the river; and we pick up firewood in the bushes or tree stands. How we do this is truly a miracle; our courage comes from God.
Each Sister spoke of the difficulties they experienced in trying to explain to their own families their living according to the vow of poverty’s restrictions, that is, not being able to share all things with family but with community first. When a Sister goes to visit her family, the Superior tries to give the Sister some soap or cloth or foodstuff to take along, especially if her family’s home is in a poor village.
One of the Sisters pointed out that living poorly in an African setting can either foster or hinder the living of the vow, the latter action especially for that individual who does not grasp the “spirit of the vow.”
Coming from an extended family, as many of us do, where we share all things, inclines our relatives, even the whole village, to view us as ‘mean’ because now as an individual we do not share. Acquiring the spirit of vowed poverty is difficult.
It is the practice in one of the congregations that Sisters, rather than being assigned, are permitted to volunteer to work in the very poor villages, knowing that living as the poorest does allows for a deepening sense of “Christ’s having lived among us as a poor man in service to others.”
For one interviewee, the difference between living poverty and the vow is clearly expressed through the dynamics of living the vow.
We bear witness to the vow of poverty in such things as our clothes, furniture, buildings, food; however, we need to practice good management and buy quality merchandise so as to make all things last.
All of the Sisters noted that security is a priority in each house, regardless of the reality of poverty; it is understood that the convents are to be built as strongly as possible, with sturdy walls around the property to protect all who reside there. Sometimes this requires extensive explanation to the surrounding villagers – a challenge for the Sisters in their practice of the vow of poverty.
“Clinging completely to poverty, let us, for the sake of Our Lord Jesus Christ, never want anything else under heaven.” (TOR Rule No. 22)
While expressing their observations about the practice of vowed poverty as they have witnessed it in the United States, the Sister students all made comparisons with their Congregations’ practices in their native lands. None have heard the expression “disturbing presence” in relation to religious life as enunciated by the International Franciscan Conference but each was soon able to articulate how her own Congregation meets the challenges, both positive and negative, which confront the Sisters in their daily life. Instances regarding poverty over and beyond those already cited were quickly called to mind and expressed. The inter-tribal warfare, inner-village violence, and especially the abduction and rapacious treatment of women and children were blamed for keeping so many people in abject poverty. Helping the poor who suffer most provides motivation for the Sisters’ ministries.
Religion and education are the ways we can overcome the violence in our countries. It is by our being educated to teach the children that God wants peace for Africa not hatred for one another, that we will make the difference.
The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity have always opened their rural Wisconsin Motherhouse to welcome Catholic women religious seeking assistance in their need. Only a short nine years after the young community had settled in its convent on Silver Lake (1875), Archbishop John Martin Henni of Milwaukee asked the American Franciscans to accept a congregation of German Franciscan forced to leave Geilboldihausen, Brixen, because of the Bismark government’s attack on German religious educators. It is the culture of the two young communities fused into one that welcomes all who have since enjoyed the hospitality of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. “Simplicity, firmly built on faith in a loving God, joyful acceptance of poverty, love for the Church, and selfless dedication to the service of others are the cornerstones on which the Congregation is built.”
Congregations within the United States and beyond have accepted the American Franciscans’ open invitation to live with them while students, among whom have been Sisters from India, Vietnam, Africa and Japan, all of whom have witnessed the Congregation’s willingness to share their gifts with others. The Sister students living at the Motherhouse this academic year of 2010-2011 are unanimous in their expression of gratitude for the example shown by their hostesses.
Your Sisters are so willing to share everything with us – not only the good food and beautiful living spaces but more so your time and yourselves in helping us in every way.
It is expected that all who live at the Motherhouse offer prayers together, joining at choir to make the liturgies meaningful to each Sister. You truly make each one part of the Family.
When I saw all the cars on the drives around your large home, I was sure that you did not understand what the vow of poverty meant – at least not as I understood it! But soon I saw the unselfish ways you all do everything, even taking another’s turn at dishwashing when asked. And the cars, they are just another way you show of not owning anything but of having things which are necessary to serve the people who themselves are accustomed to material things in such a different way than we are.
As the Sisters reflected on their insights about the vow of poverty as lived at Holy Family Convent, one spoke of her appreciation for the “spirit of poverty being actualized by such a large group.” Because all the community members gather before Evening Praise to listen to the reading of the Rule, the Constitutions and the Directory, this made an impact on another of the students. “I came to the realization that these norms (yours and ours) have everything stated that will bring about salvation if we live them.” Another shared this: “I had been told that collective witness to the vow of poverty really is meant to be redemptive; truly this is made visible by this group of religious.”
For their part, the American Franciscan Sisters, who have become accustomed to the students’ queries about their way of life, find themselves in that state of mind reflected in “The Canticle of Disturbing Presence:”
Peace by to You, O God
for the “little ones” whose disturbing presence
calls into question the warrants for accumulating
all measure of power, privilege and prestige
to which the world attaches such importance…
Seeing the little luggage with which the African students arrived at our door, witnessing the wide-eyed amazement at the brightly illuminated, highly polished corridors of our residence and listening to their description of life in their homelands have indeed caused some among us to be shaken “from our complacency” and willing “to become a disturbing presence in the world today as Francis and Clare were in their day.”
The challenges presented each day that students reside with us are calling us personally to a deeper contemplation of the true meaning of the vow of poverty but even more to fraternally responding to the needs of God’s people, caring for them “to the best of our ability.”
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