The elderly man was kneeling on cobblestone outside of an 18th century convent in Antigua, Guatemala, hands outstretched, totally absorbed in prayer. He was oblivious to the traffic, chickens and tourists behind him.
Sister Karen Elliott, who was visiting the convent on a yearly trip to Guatemala with her students from Mercy College of Ohio, watched the man pray. As she stood quietly, she was struck by the heritage of the Sisters who had lived there. It was their legacy of prayer and spirituality that called the elderly man to that very spot more than 200 years later.
Inside the convent, Sister Karen marveled at its beauty, the construction and how it was built in a manner to provide community for the Sisters. It’s the same sense of community Pope Francis calls men and women religious to today in order for them to enliven and encourage each other.
Those were among the stories Sister Karen shared in her keynote address to the National Conference of Vicars for Religious at the group’s annual gathering March 15-16 in Chicago. About 70 vicars from across the United States and abroad attended, including an official from the Vatican. Vicars serve as their bishop’s representative to the religious communities working in their diocese.
Speaking on the gift of consecrated life, Sister Karen used the tale of the elderly man at the historic convent to illustrate that a religious community’s spirituality transcends geographic boundaries and ages, bringing Christ to people today.
“The Sisters’ lives gave birth to a spirituality that still lives on,” she said in an interview after her presentation. “That’s what I believe is the gift of consecrated life.”
She opened her presentation with a prayer from St. Teresa of Avila that calls us to be Christ’s physical presence on earth. While in Guatemala, Sister Karen took her students to a museum and showed them a statue of Jesus from the 16th century. The hands of the statue had deteriorated away over the centuries, but one of the students, recalling St. Teresa’s prayer, placed her hand in front of the statue where the missing hand had been. Sister Karen was overjoyed that the student not only read the prayer, but really understood the message. Such teaching is what religious are called to do, Sister Karen explained to the vicars.
Despite being chairperson of the religious studies department at Mercy College and a popular professor, Sister Karen admits she was “very humbled, but very nervous” to address the vicars.
“This was a very, very large net in terms of the sphere of influence within the church and the United States,” she said. “I tremendously respect the ministry of the vicars. They encourage those of us who are already ministering in religious life. They minister to those who minister.”
Sister of Notre Dame de Namur Marilyn Kerber, director of the Office of Religious in the Cincinnati Archdiocese, said Sister Karen focused on gratitude, passion and hope – the themes Pope Francis outlined in his letter on the Year of Consecrated Life.
“For me, she brought the message on the Year of Consecrated Life alive,” Sister Marilyn said. “She did it with sharing who she is as a person, sharing life experiences and touching photos as part of her presentation.”
Sister Marilyn said she enjoyed that Sister Karen wove personal stories from religious life, ministry and, even, her childhood into the address.
“I was certainly inspired,” Sister Marilyn added. “She talked about us being called to inspire. She talked about how the gifts we have been given as individuals are not just for us.”
Ursuline Sister Nancy Mathias, vicar in the Toledo Diocese and president of the national conference, said Sister Karen resonated with the group. Sister Nancy had asked Sister Karen to speak at the gathering.
“The vicars loved her,” Sister Nancy said. “She shared her own experience of being a religious and living out the gifts of consecrated life. She was so real and sincere.”
As a result of the presentation, Sister Karen has been asked to present in the Brooklyn and Long Island, New York dioceses and the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Story by Dave Eck