This month, we examine the discernment programs of the Sisters of the Holy Cross around the world. These opportunities allow women to live in community as they discern a call to religious life. Here, Holy Cross sisters involved on vocation teams share how and why women connect with the Congregation, give an overview of discernment programs and discuss some of the challenges discerners face. We invite you to read the perspectives of Sister Barnita Scholastica Mangsang in Bangladesh, Sister Elizangela Matos dos Santos in Brazil, Sister Comfort Arthur in Ghana, Sister Beatrice Driwaru in Uganda, Sisters Helene Sharp, Rita Godhino and Patricia Anne Clossey in the United States, and Sister Esperanza Jacobo Acevedo and Sister Patricia Anne in Mexico. First-year novice Sister Lupa Hajong also offers impressions of her discernment experience in Bangladesh.
How women learn about religious life and why they consider the Sisters of the Holy Cross
Women in Africa, Asia, North America and South America come to know the Sisters of the Holy Cross in a variety of ways. Most frequently, they encounter the Family of Holy Cross, sisters, brothers and priests, through its ministries in education, health care and parish life. For example, Sister Lupa was introduced to sisters who served as teachers at her school administered by Holy Cross priests. “Most discerners come to know [us] either through experiencing our services in ministries or interacting with friends of our sisters, or through reading our brochures and other materials,” said Sister Beatrice. In Bangladesh, said Sister Barnita, young women are impressed with “how dedicated the sisters are in their ministries to the people and working with the poor.” Similarly, added Sister Elizangela, women witness God’s love through sisters’ ministries “and through our testimonies of life and mission.”
For some, the first contact with the sisters is through vocation materials. “Some of the women came to know [us] by checking our vocations website [or through] vocation drives held at their local parishes,” noted Sister Comfort. In Ghana, “Come and See” events are held regularly in various parts of the country, providing information about the Congregation's mission and ministries to those who want to learn more. According to Sister Beatrice, brochures, newsletters, magazines and website materials about religious life are shared with interested women in Uganda. In the United States, women may encounter the sisters in parishes, colleges and universities, or by way of the Congregation’s website or Facebook page.
As for why discerners want to explore the Congregation, the desire to love and serve God by addressing the needs of the world is a global theme. “The way the sisters love and care for the people and the poor … touches their hearts and minds,” said Sister Barnita. Sister Comfort noted that most discerners identify with the Congregation’s mission to “give something to the world. They see how sisters touch the lives of people in the Church, workplace and in life.” Sister Helene said that discerners see the sisters as “joy- and hope-filled women who serve the poor and work for justice. They see us as women of faith and prayer who live in community.” According to Sister Elizangela, discerning young women typically wish to serve God, but also desire an intimacy with God and a have a passion for bringing about the kingdom of God.
An overview of discernment programs
Each country’s discernment program is different. The educational requirements to enter the programs are similar—equivalent to completing high school in the United States. In Bangladesh, anywhere from seven to 12 women enter the discernment program each year. The program typically lasts two years, and discerners and sisters live together. In Ghana, however, the length of the “live-in” discernment may last three to six months, depending on the readiness of the discerner as assessed by both the discerner and the Congregation. “Discerners come with different educational backgrounds and faith journeys and so can be at different levels of readiness,” said Sister Comfort. The Uganda live-in program also extends from three to six months and helps acclimate discerners to community living.
Gaining an understanding of ministry is critical to the formation experience. Examples of ministry opportunities include assisting children living with disabilities, tutoring and supporting children who have dropped out of school, teaching in schools, working with parish women’s groups and youth group ministries (Holy Childhood Association, etc.), and providing pastoral care through home visits, guidance and counseling.
During this time, the women also are introduced to the liturgical elements of prayer, the sacraments and Mass, and learn about living the Gospel through ministry and outreach to the poor. In Ghana, a typical day for a discerner will include morning and evening prayers with the sisters, Mass during the week, and on Sunday, basic classes on the Catholic faith and opportunities for sharing about their faith journeys. The discernment program “helped me in my prayer, through its daily schedule of personal and community prayer (such as the Rosary) and offered the opportunity to grow in community as we shared our lives—not only our gifts from God, but also our sorrows. I especially enjoyed being able to sing as a community,” said Sister Lupa.
In Ghana, vocation directors meet monthly with discerners to check in with them on their progress and see if they need any additional support, said Sister Comfort. In the United States, the formal live-in program is typically six months, but this can be adapted to match the individual needs and readiness of the discerner. For the U.S. program, “The women live in their own places, continue working and meet with a mentor-sister on a regular basis,” said Sister Helene.
In Bangladesh, in addition to the daily life of prayer, skills are also taught. “During their time living with the sisters, discerners learn many things and become skilled in something. They learn to take responsibility through leading prayers, going out to ministry weekly, developing creative writing and artistic talents, learning how to sew and even attending a leadership training workshop,” said Sister Barnita. Most women in Bangladesh, India, Mexico, Peru and Brazil do not know English, and a requirement of the programs in these countries is to attend an intensive English language training program.
Gaining an understanding of ministry is critical to the formation experience. Examples of ministry opportunities include assisting children living with disabilities, tutoring and supporting children who have dropped out of school, teaching in schools, working with parish women’s groups and youth group ministries (Holy Childhood Association, etc.), and providing pastoral care through home visits, guidance and counseling. “While they are discerners, the young women go to their ministries weekly. Some go to … the Home of Compassion of the Sisters of Mother Teresa to accompany the hungry, and others go directly into the poorest slum neighborhoods to work with children [who are] struggling,” said Sister Barnita. In Mexico, discerners can work with the Children for Peace parish program in Guadalupe, Nuevo León, which promotes nonviolence among young people and families experiencing adversity. They may also minister with the hungry and poor through Caritas. The needs of immigrants are extensive, as are the opportunities to accompany them in their hope for a better future.
Poverty is a reality in each of the countries where the sisters have formal discernment programs. In most cases, women entering discernment can contribute very little to program expenses. In Bangladesh, expenses are assessed for food, lodging, education and health care, and adjusted according to family need and ability to pay. In Ghana and Uganda, families cannot afford to pay for food and lodging, and the Congregation's Ministry With the Poor Fund helps support these costs. “In this way, our donors are actively helping to ensure the long-term health and viability of the Congregation,” said Sister M. Rose Edward (Goodrow), CSC, director of Development.
Is God calling you?
Please visit our Vocation coordinators page to contact the Vocation Director in your area.
The goal of the program is to help women understand if this is the life to which God calls them. Discerners who choose to pursue religious life cite many reasons for their choice: the hospitality of the sisters, a robust prayer life, the internationality of the Congregation, the intentional building of inclusive communities, a life of simplicity learned during the discernment program.
Challenges in discerning a call to religious life
In most cases, discerners are leaving home for the first time as they pursue this major life decision, and adapting to community life can be difficult. “Some [women] are more social than others, and it can be a challenge living in community,” said Sister Barnita. Sister Lupa recalled her own experiences among women from different cultures and tribes in Bangladesh. “Simple things, like how they might prepare vegetables, were experiences in accepting different approaches to daily life,” said Lupa. In Brazil, said Sister Elizangela, the biggest challenges include leaving family, friends and previous work. And in Ghana, some discerners have expressed “fear of the unknown,” which sometimes leaves them “unable to reach a conclusive decision about their future” in religious life. In all countries where the sisters serve, women feel the pressure to support their families, who often have significant financial constraints. And in the United States, the burden of student loan debt can be a hindrance to young women considering religious life. In each case, the Congregation helps discerners navigate and overcome such barriers.
“Discernment is an individual responsibility. Some feel the call to religious life, and some do not,” said Sister Barnita. This is the goal of the program—to help women understand if this is the life to which God calls them. Discerners who choose to pursue religious life cite many reasons for their choice: the hospitality of the sisters, a robust prayer life, the internationality of the Congregation, the intentional building of inclusive communities, a life of simplicity learned during the discernment program. Living in community with other women who are striving to build up God’s kingdom and share his transforming love ultimately attracts women to continue their call with the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Women take a very brave first step when considering this call to carry forth the charism of the Congregation, to be witnesses of God’s love, and to discern and meet the most urgent needs of the time. Perhaps Sister Lupa said it best when reflecting on her discernment experience: “It was a great time to be with God.”
Learn more about religious life with the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
Discernment programs have positively impacted the Congregation’s membership in recent years. This growth would not be possible without the support and prayers of many friends and collaborators. With our growing numbers, tuition costs and expenses for food and lodging, catechetical materials, transportation and medicines also increase. The Sisters of the Holy Cross are grateful to the many people who, through their gifts and prayers, have helped meet some of these growing needs. We invite you to consider sharing a gift with the Sisters of the Holy Cross.