WASHINGTON, DC – Before the pandemic, Felician Sister Desiré Findlay’s calendar was full.
When the Appeals Secretary returned home from a retreat in March last year, all scheduled conferences, college visits and other events she wanted to attend were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At first she thought she would love the unexpected free time, but then she wondered not only what she would do but how she would bond with young women who might have a calling to the religious life.
The sister, who lived outside of Pittsburgh, found a point of sale on social media. To express herself and show that religious women are not just one-dimensional, she posted some videos of herself on Instagram dancing as an expression of prayer and she was surprised at what she gave.
She has also used the platform to speak out on justice issues as a young black woman, especially last summer amid protests against racial inequalities.
Encouraged by one of the young women she spoke to about vocational discrimination, Findlay started regular Zoom calls for the group where they could learn what the sisters are doing, meet, pray, and get resources to think about what this would mean being a religious woman.
“I’m hopeful because of the creativity we had to find,” she said. She also sees the online chats as a stopgap until those who recognize a calling meet the sisters in person, which is what they have to do.
“The hard part is that most communities don’t allow women to move forward if they haven’t visited,” she said, which makes it frustrating for women stuck in this virtual environment.
More than 1,000 miles away in Grand Prairie, Texas, Sister Emmanuela Le, national appeal director for the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, found that their very busy schedule had stalled a year ago. She also took up her ministry online and is very willing to meet people in person again and to let women and their families visit the sisters.
Shortly after the pandemic began, she took out her lists of young women she had been in contact with who were considering a calling and invited them to join the sisters on social media every day for Holy Hour Prayer, Vespers, and Evening Prayer to connect. Every day she sends out materials that cover the readings and a reflection.
“It takes a lot of work, but I enjoy it,” she told the Catholic News Service on March 11th.
After a few prayer sessions, she invited those who had joined to stay and talk about what was going on or if they needed prayers and she said this group was like a small church or family.
Typically visiting families of women interested in a calling, Le has met with families on Zoom but recently resumed face-to-face visits. In early March, she flew to Las Vegas and rented a car to visit one of these families – 6 feet apart and in a park – and then flew back to Texas the same day.
The Vietnamese sister, who grew up in New Jersey and never imagined she would live in Texas, is excited to reopen, especially her open house convent and retreat for those who want to learn more about her lifestyle.
With the pandemic, she said, “there has been a pause because of the uncertainty,” and while there has never been a pause in dialogue with women interested in a calling, “the need to be connected is even greater.”
Other sisters have also found that women are still interested in jobs even amid the pandemic.
Sister June Fitzgerald, appeal director for the Dominican Sisters of Peace at her convent in New Haven, Connecticut, said that in the past six months, about 30 different women have participated in Zoom programs run by the sisters for those interested in a calling are. The group includes those who are a little curious about those who definitely feel called to be.
Her community had been using monthly zoom sessions for several years, so this was nothing new to have to take up after the pandemic broke out.
“By lucky guilt we had it there,” she said.
But although they were able to continue the discussions online, she said she looks forward to meeting the Distinguishers in person.
When you’re online, she realizes that you’re losing the sense of community because it’s not the same as having a cup of coffee with someone or sharing a meal or a laugh in the hallway. And as she put it: “You can only do so many icebreakers and scavenger hunts on Zoom”.
Fitzgerald, like other appointment leaders, also traveled a lot before the pandemic. She said she is usually out about half of each month. The extra time she now has is, in a sense, a blessing to spend more time in prayer with the sisters who didn’t always have to run away afterward.
Another pandemic adaptation that also worked was the Order’s online welcoming ceremonies for new candidates, which allow people to see what this ceremony is like. The church has also invited people to pray with them online on a monthly basis.
When life returns to normal, she believes the Order will continue its online reach along with its personal service.
“I met differentiators by phone for eight years – all of my time in the calling service,” she said, emphasizing that starting and ending each call with a prayer helps “hold this sacred space together.”
Of course, religious women are not the only ones facing pandemic challenges on how best to meet applicants.
Benedictine brother Zachary Wilberding, appointment leader at St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, said he also switched to working online when the pandemic began interviewing potential candidates over the phone, Skype or Zoom.
He said he had “scratched his head for a while” thinking about how men could safely visit the abbey during the pandemic until the abbey officials worked out a plan for visitors to stay in another building, not even the one usual guest house Join the monks for prayer, some quiet meals, and hours of work with the novices.
“We couldn’t do everything digitally. You must be in contact with the monastery. You have to see the place. You need to be in contact with community members. You have to see how we are, ”he said.
Ideally, Wilberding believes that those who feel they have a calling should really be visiting for several days.
“I tell people I want there to be a point where you might get a little bored, or that it gets a little monotonous because it is. It is a reality. … Really part of what defines us as monks and as Christians is how we deal with it. ”
“We want it to be a bit of a challenge for them,” he added, which may not always be the case with a Zoom call.
Katie Rutter in St. Meinrad contributed to this report.