Mother Mary Francis and the Renewal of Religious Life | Archbishop Raymond L. Burke | The Foreword to Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience, by Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C.
The late Mother Mary Francis of the Poor Clare Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Roswell in New Mexico lived intensely the renewal of religious life, which was mandated by the Second Vatican Council's Decree Perfectae Caritatis, "On the Fitting Renewal of Religious Life" ["Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life"], promulgated on October 28, 1965. Having received an initial formation in the apostolic religious life from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who had taught her at the historic and beloved Saint Alphonsus Liguori Parish in her hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri, Mother Mary Francis heard the call to enter a religious institute dedicated completely to contemplation. On July 7, 1942, she entered the Poor Clare Colettine monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Chicago. In 1948, she, together with seven other nuns of her monastery, was chosen to make a Poor Clare foundation at Roswell in New Mexico.
Mother Mary Francis was elected Abbess of the Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Roswell in 1964, an office that she exercised with the greatest distinction for over forty-one years. The vitality of the monastery at Roswell, from which six foundations have been made, is a testimony to the totally sound and profoundly loving governance of Mother Mary Francis. A most gifted writer, Mother Mary Francis has left us an account of the foundation at Roswell in her classic, A Right to Be Merry, first published in 1956 by Sheed and Ward and republished in a new edition by Ignatius Press in 2001. A Right to Be Merry not only tells the story of the foundation at Roswell but, more importantly, describes, in a most accessible and engaging manner, the nature of the life of a religious dedicated completely to contemplation.
In 1997, Ignatius Press published Forth and Abroad, Mother Mary Francis' sequel to A Right to Be Merry, in which she gives an account of the first five foundations made from the Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In both volumes, the reader discovers a remarkable depth of reflection upon the consecrated life, especially as it is lived by contemplative nuns. Mother Mary Francis' reflection makes most evident her love of her vocation.
Mother Mary Francis not only loved her vocation but also had the gift of communicating to others the great gift of religious life, the gift of total espousal to Christ and, therefore, of total love of the Church and, indeed, of all mankind. As Mother expresses it so strikingly and well in chapter three of A Right to Be Merry, the walls of the monastic enclosure encompass the whole world with love.
The just-mentioned volumes are only two of a number of books written by Mother Mary Francis, which include not only reflections on the consecrated life but also meditations, poetry, and religious plays. In 2006, Ignatius Press published a new edition of her But I Have Called You Friends, the collection of her most inspiring and helpful conferences on Christian friendship. One of the most beautiful of Mother's plays is Counted As Mine, which presents the story of the apparitions and message of Our Lady of Guadalupe. First published by Samuel French in 1954, it was published again as an operetta in three acts, with the musical score of Father Joseph Roff, in 1961 by the Gregorian Institute of America and is available today through the monastery at Roswell.
Her study and writing were devoted, in a most special way, to the vocation and mission of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Clare of Assisi, and Saint Colette of Corbie. Regarding Mother Mary Francis, one of the nuns at Roswell has rightly observed: "Her exceptional love for our Holy Father Francis and Holy Mother Clare gave her a connaturality with them in living and understanding their ideal and form of life, which she freely embraced and chose with a sense of privilege, as one who considered herself unworthy of such a grace." Mother's study of the life of Saint Colette of Corbie, Walled in Light: St. Colette, is remarkable for the depth of its research and of its insight into the Providence of God at work for the reform of the Poor Clare discipline. Mother Mary Francis could rightly declare, as Saint Colette of Corbie had declared so many times: "I am only the servant of Sir Saint Francis and Madame Saint Clare."
I know well of what I write not only because I have been blessed to read the writings of Mother Mary Francis. After having exchanged correspondence with Mother Mary Francis, beginning in 1999, when I, as bishop of La Grosse, had the hope of a Poor Clare foundation from Roswell in my beloved home diocese, I met Mother, for the first time, in January of 2002. At Mother's invitation, I made a three-day visit to the Poor Clare monastery at Roswell. Each year since January of 2002, I have visited the nuns at Roswell for three to four days. Meeting Mother Mary Francis and having many conversations with her and with the community of nuns in chapter, over the years, has been a source of the greatest inspiration to me as a bishop.
Mother Mary Francis was most pleased when, on December 2, 2003, I was transferred from the Diocese of La Grosse to become the archbishop of her home diocese, the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, of which she had so many fond memories. After my transfer, our conversations always included the subject of Saint Louis, especially of her home parish, Saint Aiphonsus Liguori Parish, under the care of the Redemptorist Fathers for whom she had the greatest affection; of the School Sisters of Notre Dame who were her teachers at Saint Aiphonsus Liguori School and from whom she received a first formation in the religious life; and of Saint Louis Univer- sity of which she was a proud alumna. As she recounts in A Right To Be Merry, it was a Jesuit Father at Saint Louis University who assisted her in discerning her vocation. In short, the friendship I formed with Mother and her community has been and continues to be a singular and most treasured blessing in my life.
From 1965 to 1991, Mother Mary Francis served the Poor Clare Federation of Mary Immaculate, of which the Roswell monastery is a member, as federal abbess or first councilor. Both within her own monastery, in which she was serving as abbess at the time of the promulgation of Perfectae Caritatis, and in her visitations, as federal abbess, to other Poor Clare monasteries, Mother Mary Francis manifested the deepest love for the Church and a truly remarkable wisdom about the Holy Spirit's most delicate and esteemed gift of the contemplative form of consecrated religious life.
Indeed, contemplative communities throughout the world recognized Mother Mary Francis as an authoritative voice for the renewal of religious life, in accord with the teaching and discipline enunciated by the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar legislation. Mother Mary Francis died on February II, 2006, the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, almost sixty-four years from her entrance into the Poor Clare monastery at Chicago. On the following Saint Valentine's Day, the day on which she would have completed her eighty-fifth year of life, the Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated, and Mother was laid to rest in the burial vault of the monastery, within the enclosure from which she had poured out the love of Christ for the Church throughout the world.
Mother Mary Francis lived the charism of universal love, which is the mark of the contemplative religious vocation. She lived that life, according to the gift of the Holy Spirit given to Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi. She understood that the Holy Spirit's gift of the consecrated life in the Church, in the particular form in which it is conferred on each founder or foundress of a religious community, remains always the same, even when some fitting adaptation is made for the living of the vocation in a particular time and place.
With regard to such adaptation, she understood that the guarantee of the fittingness of the adaptation comes by way of the pastoral office of the Successor of Saint Peter, the Roman Pontiff. By her loyalty to the Church universal, expressed in obedience to the Bishop of the Universal Church, she guarded and fostered, with humility and confidence, the great gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, which has come to us through Saint Francis and Saint Clare. In reading Mother's writings and in my conversations with her, I have frequently marveled at how naturally and lovingly she referred to Saints Francis, Clare, and Colette, as if she had lived with them and conversed with them. She knew them intimately and loved them.
Having lived the contemplative religious life for nearly two decades before the Second Vatican Council, and having received the responsibility of governing a monastery and providing leadership to a federation of monasteries during the time after the Council, Mother Mary Francis manifested both the wisdom of one who treasures the life of Christ as it is handed down to us in the Tradition and the courage of one called to live the life of Christ in the present and for the sake of the future.
As with other aspects of the teaching and discipline set forth by the Second Vatican Council, the Decree Perfectae Caritatis was misunderstood and misinterpreted by some who, in the name of applying the teaching and discipline it contained, cultivated disdain for the life of religious in the time before the Council and proposed a future for religious life that was a kind of complete break with what had been. Mother Mary Francis knew that it was not possible that the Holy Spirit, who had been giving the gift of contemplative religious life to Poor Clare nuns over the centuries, had somehow been mistaken and was now giving the gift in a completely different form. Wisely, Mother knew that an approach to fitting renewal could come only through a deep appreciation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the religious community over the centuries and fidelity to the continued promptings of the Holy Spirit, in an unbroken line of grace from the first inspiration of the founder or foundress.
Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience: Recovering the Vision for the Renewal of Religious Life, originally published in 1967 by Franciscan Herald Press under the title Marginals, contains the wise reflections of Mother Mary Francis on the text of Perfectae Caritatis, especially as it applies to the vocation of the Poor Clare nuns. For example, at a time when participation in workshops and seminars led by those who had little or no depth of knowledge of the charism of a particular religious institute along with the consultation of various experts with a similar lack of knowledge and appreciation were held to be the sure way to foster the renewal of the various aspects of religious life, Mother Mary Francis did not hesitate to observe that many of these approaches to renewal turned out to be "mere long-ringing condemnations of the past".
Acknowledging that "mistakes have been made in the past," Mother, in her acute and most charming way, observed: "Let us go on from there, not hold a seminar there." She reminded her sisters in Christ: "Let us by all means get expert guidance in the areas just mentioned [the formation of novices and juniors, the psychological aspects of religious life, and mental hygiene} and many others, the while not letting the fact elude us that the Holy Spirit remains the Expert, the Counselor." In the mind of Mother Mary Francis, the fitting renewal of religious life consists in the changing of the expression of a truth which itself must remain unchanged. To make such changes of expression, "we must be absolutely sure of that truth and educated to deal with it."
Rightly, she understood that authentic renewal of religious life must have its inspiration and take its direction from the gift of the Holy Spirit, namely, the charism given to the religious institute, which is fundamentally always the charism of Christlike love. She wisely observed: "The religious in ardent pursuit of charity will work first of all and most energetically of all at an interior renewal of love, both welcoming new ideas and reverencing valid old ones." In her wisdom, Mother saw that the "interior renewal of love" would guarantee the "good sense" of the renewal. For Mother Mary Francis, the fitting renewal of religious life could not admit of a rupture between religious life as it was lived before the Second Vatican Council and the way it is lived today. If it did, it would not be the renewal but the corruption and eventual destruction of religious life.
Throughout her reflections on Perfectae Caritatis, Mother Mary Francis demonstrates how the teaching and discipline set forth by the Second Vatican Council leads the religious to an ever deeper knowledge and love of the gift of the Holy Spirit given to his or her religious institute at its foundation. The Council insisted that the fitting renewal of religious life must, at once, include both: (1) "the constant return to the founts of the whole Christian life and to the original inspiration of the institutes"; and (2) "their adaptation to the changed conditions of the times" (Perfectae Caritatis, no. 2). Commenting on no. 14 of Perfectae Caritatis, on obedience to superiors, for example, Mother Mary Francis declares: "'Medieval' Saint Clare condensed a workshopful of ideas on the accessibility, serviceability, and approachability of the superior in one sentence of her Testament: 'Let her also be so kind and courteous that they can confidently make known their needs and trustingly have recourse to her at any hour as it will seem to them profitable to do, both for themselves as for their sisters.'"
In conclusion, in accord with the humility and confidence manifested to a remarkable degree in her contemplative religious life, Mother Mary Francis sets forth, with a most accessible and reliable text, the teaching and discipline contained in Perfectae Caritatis. She demonstrates how the Council served so well the good of each individual religious institute, urging its members to a constant study of the original inspiration of the institute and to the faithful expression of the inspiration in our time. I wholeheartedly commend Chastity, Poverty, and Obedience: Recovering the Vision for the Renewal of Religious Life to all members of institutes of the consecrated life, and to all who seek a deeper understanding of the renewal of religious life in our time and all that it means for the Church throughout the world. According to the wisdom of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, "[t]he more fervently, therefore, [religious] join themselves to Christ by this gift of their whole life, the fuller does the Church's life become and the more vigorous and fruitful the apostolate" (Perfectae Caritatis, no. 1).
Mother Mary Francis is an always reliable spiritual guide. Reading her commentary on Perfectae Caritatis, you will discover a woman who was indeed a bride of Christ, a woman who gave herself totally to Christ for love of him and of his Mystical Body, the Church. You will experience her love which, modeled on the love of the Mother of God, will lead you to Christ and to a more complete adherence to him in all things: "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5). Writing to her most loved sisters in her spiritual testament, Mother expressed the truth of her religious vocation, a truth which remains unchanged and unchanging, a truth which is a great source of blessing for the whole Church, for us all:
"Cherish the Spouse of your hearts,
cherish your vocation,
and cherish one another.
It is everything. I bless you.
-- The Most Reverend Raymond Leo Burke
Archbishop of Saint Louis
August 28, 2007
Memorial of Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
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