Religious mark milestones of service

Married couples busy with the work of raising a family and running a home don’t often stop to consider their commitment to each other, except on their wedding anniversary.

Religious men and women don’t marry, of course, but when consecrated to God they become spouses of Christ. Since the Church is the Body of Christ, it’s appropriate to celebrate with religious priests, brothers and sisters the anniversary of their commitment to follow Jesus and serve His people through the dedication of their whole lives.

In religious life, these anniversaries are called jubilees. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia takes the opportunity this weekend to hold a special public celebration of all this year’s religious jubilarians.

The Mass for jubilarians to be celebrated by Cardinal Justin Rigali Sept. 7 at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul will welcome and give thanks to God for the their lives of dedicated service and prayerful witness. The special supplement in this week’s edition of the Catholic Standard & Times honors them by presenting brief biographical sketches of each of those celebrating their anniversary of religious life. At the minimum, they teach us two things:

One, the numbers astonish: 278 religious in the Archdiocese are celebrating their jubilee this year, of whom 254 are religious sisters. Nine of those sisters are celebrating 80 years in religious life, which means they continue to witness to the presence of God well over the age of 90.

The contribution of religious to the life of the Church, through works and prayer offered over a lifetime, is incalculable. But here is a figure to ponder: the men and women religious celebrating anniversaries this year collectively represent 16,335 “service years” (all the anniversary years of service), with 15,110 contributed by religious sisters alone.

Second, the biographies indicate many assignments in education, health care, mission work and numerous other apostolic works that have built up the Church over the jubilarians’ lifetimes. But it must be remembered that their most prized offering came in the form of the prayers they each offered over the many years. Today in fact, they are dedicated in retirement to continued ministry of prayer for the needs of the Church.

Whether each of us was served by one of these heroic men and women or not, we all have benefited by the dedication of their lives. The Church, and indeed the world, have reaped the good seed sown by them in ways that only God knows.

This Sunday we have a way to thank God for them by offering our prayers of gratitude to our Lord for His good and faithful servants. On that day and after, we might find a way to thank a particular religious for affirming through his or her life the loving bond with Christ and all the members of His Church.