Religious, Clergy Find Renewal in Celibate Vocation

Nun Discovers New Method of Ministry

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By Genevieve Pollock

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania, JULY 30, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The theology of the body is often seen as something for married couples, but many clergy and religious are finding renewal in their celibate vocations through John Paul II's teachings.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Wusinich of the Sisters of Life told ZENIT about her experience when she took a seminar with the Theology of the Body Institute.

Today the institute concluded its first National Theology of the Body Congress, which began Wednesday near Philadelphia.

Of the 450 congress participants, over 60 were bishops, priests, deacons and religious.

Sister Wusinich, a participant as well as a speaker, spoke with ZENIT at the congress. She explained how studying the theology of the body contributed both to her ministry, especially in her service as the director of the New York Archdiocese Family Life/Respect Life Office, and to the living of her own vocation.

She recalled that when she went to the institute's seminar with the rest of the office staff, it "was a turning point for us."

We had been discussing "how to engage in the new evangelization" and apply the Pope's teaching to pastoral work in the archdiocese, the nun said.

Through the theology of the body, she noted, the staff learned "a whole new language and a new method" for their work.

New evangelization

"It's actually so rooted in the Gospel and in Christ's first method of evangelization," Sister Wusinich observed, "because when you look at it, his method was very relational and personal."

She continued: "He met people one-on-one and, when he was inviting people to follow him, he said, 'Come and see; come and experience my way of life.'

"Or if you look at his encounter with the woman at the well, you see that he would pose questions to her to have her look inside, to her own experience, in order to go deeper, to question her own perception of reality, before he presented his view.

"Thus he would prepare the person's heart to receive the truth he wanted to convey."

The family life office team decided to implement this method in its evangelization efforts in New York, especially with the marriage preparation programs.

"We found it very effective," the nun said.

She continued: "I think part of it lies in the genius of the method of theology of the body, because often people are expecting to have the Church's teaching shoved down their throat.

"But instead we propose the Church's teaching -- the way that we would propose it would be as God's plan, or God's vision, for their marriage, in a broader context of his vision of the human person.

"We then invite them to look within their own experience and verify the truth of what we're saying in what they have seen."

Radical shift

Sister Wusinich added that the theology of the body seminar was also "a blessing for me personally in my own vocation."

She continued, "It helped me to correct some of my own perceptions or images of God that I didn't even realize I had just from growing up Catholic."

Many Catholics, the nun noted, "tend to see God more as a judge or the rule maker," whereas "the theology of the body proposes this vision of God as Father, but also, in the whole Trinitarian view of God, as this eternal exchange of love, a communion of persons."

"That's such a radical shift," she affirmed, "a very different kind of paradigm."

It "affected my own prayer life," this experience of a "relationship with God, the three Persons of the Trinity," as "this unity of love, of mutual self-giving," she said.

Father Roger Landry, parish priest, speaker, writer and executive editor of The Anchor, also noted this deepening in the understanding of God through the theology of the body.

In his address at the congress on "Theology of the Body in the Life and Ministry of the Priest," the priest, a Harvard University graduate and bioethics expert, noted that through John Paul II's teaching, he became more deeply aware that God is not a doctrine, but rather a communion of Persons.

For the other

Father Thomas Loya, a Byzantine Catholic priest who gave a congress workshop on "Understanding Celibacy in Light of the Theology of the Body," underlined the importance of the personal relationship with God and with the Church for a religious or priest.

To be a "happy celibate," he said, one must live it in a spousal way. In other words, the priest explained, a spouse makes a choice to invest himself in the other, which for a priest or religious would be Christ and the Church.

He added that clergy and religious must also, like married spouses, "die to self continually and live for the other."

The priest pointed to religious sister in the audience who was wearing a wedding ring on her finger, noting that she is living the "real thing," as she recognizes that she is espoused to Christ.

Father Loya shared that he is from a long line of 300 years of married priests in the Eastern Catholic Church. Although he himself is celibate, his grandfather was married, and his great-grandfather.

He denounced the idea proposed by people during the clergy sexual abuse crisis that it would be better for all priests to give up celibacy; he asserted that allowing marriage does not mean throwing off all self-denial and discipline.

All of us, the priest said, as baptized Christians, married couples, religious, and even married priests, must practice asceticism and work to grow closer to God. He pointed out that even married priests of the Eastern Churches are supposed to abstain from marital relations at certain times, such as 24 hours before celebrating the Eucharist and during the four annual periods of fasting.

Mutual inspiration

The real problem, Father Loya said, is that many religious or clergy have not truly tried celibacy or understood what it really is.

He affirmed that celibates can draw inspiration, encouragement, and a reminder from married people about how to live their vocation in a spousal manner, giving themselves fully to God.

The priest added that religious and priests, in turn, by embracing the living of their Christian baptism in a radical way, remind married people of the truth that we are all going to God for eternity, to be entirely focused on him.

Sister Helena Burns of the Daughters of St. Paul, affirmed in the same workshop, "We as celibates show married people that God is the spouse of every soul."

The religious vocation, she said, is the living of "conjugal love pledged to God himself," as John Paul II stated in "Love and Responsibility."

Father Loya explained that marriage and celibacy are "indispensably together," and that they must be understood in terms of "complementarity, not bipolar opposition."

"We have to think like Catholics," he said. "We have to think in a way that is integrated."