ROME (CNS) — Women consecrated in religious life and engaged in apostolic work must realize their vocation is not about building and maintaining great institutions, but about being prophetic witnesses of God’s love, superiors general from around the world were told.

The greatest challenge facing women religious today is not declining vocations in the West, insisted Divine Providence Sister Marian Ambrosio, former president of the National Conference of Religious in Brazil.

Speaking May 11 at the assembly of the International Union of Superiors General, Sister Ambrosio said, “Our crisis does not depend on the fact that we are few,” but on a mistaken view that preserving large institutions where the Gospel was shared in the past is key to remaining faithful to the founding charism of the religious order.

Referring to the assembly’s theme, “Weaving solidarity for life,” she asked the almost 900 superiors of religious orders to think about the differences between a woman who sits at home at a loom weaving cloth and one who presses buttons on a massive machine in a factory, producing hundreds of yards of fabric that all looks the same.

“Dear sisters, how are we living, how are we witnessing?” she asked. “Like a machine turned on day and night for greater production? Or like a weaver who has before her eyes the person that will be warmed, valued and honored?”

The response impacts vocations as well, she said. When people visit the community, do they encounter “machines or weavers?”

If production and maintaining institutions is the point of religious life, Sister Ambrosio said, no one will join. Laypeople can carry out those works today just as easily and with the same love for God and for others.

The men and women who founded the women’s religious orders were moved to action as a prophetic response to the needs of the people of their time, particularly the need for education and health care.

Today, she said, people are pleading for peace, care for creation, mercy, shelter for refugees, an end to human trafficking, protection of the sacredness of human life and the promotion of dialogue. Religious are called to respond precisely as religious: grounded in prayer, as models of community created among people who are different, committed to serving the poorest and prophetic in “denouncing sin and proclaiming hope.”

Addressing the assembly May 10, Notre Dame Sister Mary Sujita, the first Indian superior general of her order, told the sisters that prayer, “sustained by divine intimacy, is the fundamental requirement for engaging with one another in solidarity and moving to the peripheries with the heart and mind of Jesus.”

Echoing a call made throughout the triennial meeting of superiors, who represent nearly 500,000 sisters around the world, Sister Sujita insisted religious women today are called to “cross over the tightly held, comfortable boundaries of our religious life and move to the peripheries.”

Such a move and such ministry, she said, cannot be a matter of talk alone, which might give the religious “a good feeling about doing God’s mission even when we are busy doing our own mission of conserving the past, protecting our institutions or legitimizing the present.”

Religious, like all Christians, can be tempted to seek a “comfortable life,” but following Jesus, she said, means giving totally of oneself, sacrificing for the good of others and living alongside them in their struggles.

“The future of religious life will be decided on the peripheries where Christ is in agony,” Sister Sujita said. “To minister for and with the poor, we need to move away from our privileged position of power, control and security and displace ourselves existentially toward the peripheries.”

Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, celebrated Mass with the sisters May 11 and praised them as exemplars of ministry on the world’s peripheries.

“You women religious are (ministering) where no one else wants to be,” he said.

Pope Francis, he said, has called consecrated women and men “to wake up the world” and to “be prophets.”

A prophet, the archbishop said, “calls in the name of God, denounces in the name of God, announces in the name of God and intercedes before God.”

Of course, he said, Christians are called to be “prophets of hope” and that includes resisting the temptation to be “prophets of doom” about the future of consecrated life. “They’ve been proclaiming the end of women’s religious life for years — but thank God you are here,” he told the superiors.

At a liturgy filled with music, silence and smiles, Archbishop Rodriguez asked the sisters also to be “prophets of joy.” After all, he said, “no one eagerly follows a hearse.”