52 weeks a year women religious stand with the poor and immigrants, teach children, fight injustice, heal the sick, share spirituality, empower women, defend the planet, promote peace, create community and offer hope. But for one week each year in March, we shine the spotlight on women religious during Catholic Sisters Week.
Catholic Sisters Week is a week dedicated to celebrating the traditions and changes in the world that Catholic sisters have accomplished globally. These changes have directly and indirectly impacted the development of individuals, communities and countries both locally and globally. The accomplishments of Catholic sisters often go unmentioned because sisters never seek publicity in what they do. Rather, the deepest satisfaction of Catholic sisters emanates from the sustainable positive transformation in the lives of individuals and communities they serve.
ASEC’s two publications Voices of Courage (2015) and Transformative Partnerships (2019) highlight the voices of Catholic sisters in Africa and how networking and partnerships are key tools of the Catholic sisters' success in changing the world. sisters are the social “face” of the Catholic church. Catholic sisters are also the primary providers of social services and pastoral care, teachers, healthcare workers and environmental advocates in Africa.
During Catholic Sisters Week, we celebrate the charism of the sisters, which is the unique gift God entrusted to each congregation to share with humanity. We celebrate their spirituality, a specific divine aspect of God that drives sisters’ altruistic service to humanity and the mission into which God invites them to participate together with humanity.
Is this tradition of service worth a celebration? Without a doubt.
Altruistic Service of Catholic Nuns
The sisters have a duty of altruistic service, which is service oriented towards concern for the welfare of others. Catholic sisters dedicate themselves to the service of God and humanity by embracing vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, lived in the context of community.
The evangelical vows professed by each sister requires her to “put her boots on the ground” where she is most needed and keep her ears open to listen to the needs of the society. The vow of obedience allows the Catholic sisters to be responsive to the needs of their time, freed by the vow of poverty to offer the gift of her life to serve humanity. The vow of chastity opens the sisters up to love and to embrace all people especially the most vulnerable of the society.
Embracing religious life has historical significance; in that long before women were allowed in the public spaces, religious life gave women a unique opportunity to extend their influence beyond the domestic space. In this sense, Catholic sisters were pioneer women who challenged issues of injustice against women. Tradition has it that sisters not only participated in the works of social justice, but also, they played a major role in education, healthcare and pastoral and social services. This is only possible because behind the life of the sisters is the charism of the community that guides their steps by the power of the Holy Spirit.
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Collaboration and Partnership
The African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC) is the epitome of the tradition of collaborative effort of Catholic sisters in the USA finding common ground and in solidarity delivering educational services to Catholic sisters in Africa. ASEC’s Founders’ drive to collaborate was motivated by their love of God and neighbor and their desire to spread the same gift of love to Catholic sisters in Africa where the harvest is rich and the labors and resources are limited. Through ASEC’s programs Catholic Sisters are not only responsive to the needs of the society, but also, the needs of each other in the spirit of sisterly collaboration in service delivery in-line with the advice of St Peter in the New Testament:
“As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10) .
The joint venture adopted by the Founding Members of ASEC to address the numerous challenges facing the people by training of Catholic sisters is a typical of their tradition and is worthy of celebration. Therefore, pulling together their effort to effect tangible change in communities and in the world, requires preparation of personnel (laborers) to effect that change.
Educational service as a means to effect change is a long standing tradition of Catholic sisters across the globe for centuries. The impact of women and men who are beneficiaries of the education of the Catholic sisters are numerous in the society.
ASEC’s Partnership with the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago
During the National Catholic Sisters Week of 2021, the Board, staff, students and alumnae of ASEC would like to celebrate our most cherished partnership with the Franciscan Sisters of Chicago (FSC) that began over eight years ago. The partnership of the FSC enabled ASEC to extend educational services to Catholic sisters in four countries (Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Ghana) where the sisters were most in need of certificates, 2-year courses and diplomas to authenticate their services to needy populations.
Sisters in these African countries were offering valuable services for which they are underqualified and not certified to perform. The Catholic sisters in these countries learned to perform those services through mentorship and practical experience via ASEC’s Scholarship Program. With the intervention of the FSC, more than 371 of those sisters have been trained in various fields.
Alongside the Catholic sisters, 11 lay girls (at the time of writing this article) who were financially challenged were also given access to education and have been trained alongside the sisters. Today, these girls are great resources in their communities. ASEC is privileged and proud to celebrate the sister-to-sister ministry of the FSC to Catholic sisters in Africa through ASEC.
A Tradition of Education
Along with the FSC, ASEC celebrated the centuries of the tradition of education, which has been a great strategy of the sisters in championing sustainable human development. For 21 years now, in collaboration with national conferences of women religious in 10 African countries, ASEC has succeeded in providing extra educational tools for sisters in Africa.
The change occurring through the services of Catholic sisters in Africa because of these educational tools is evident in their ministry work. ASEC alumnae are on the front lines of health services, including the fight against COVID-19 pandemic, as well as providing educational, social and environmental services with minimal local resources. With their big hearts and dedication to service, the sisters are courageously venturing out into these ministries without concern for their own safety to serve their communities.
The Resilience of Sisters
Catholics sisters are learners in the journey, working with challenging situations in hard-to-reach areas. With institutional structures now in place, sisters have broken new ground in humanitarian service to communities and peoples who would otherwise not have these services were it not for the big heart and courage of the Catholic sisters.
Capacity to Operate and Function with Limited Resources
No resource is too small for a Catholic sister to impact lives. Transformed by the marvels God accomplished through them, the Catholic sisters seek to bring wholeness in all areas of life.
With their presence and few resources, sisters are addressing some of the most daunting development issues related to healthcare, education, food security, sustainable agriculture, human rights advocacy, peace building and conflict resolution. Their service is breaking the cycle of systemic and cultural discriminations against women, children and youth and vulnerable families and persons.
Through their ministries, the sisters are also creating jobs therefore alleviating human suffering. The presence of a Catholic sister reassures people of their intrinsic value and dignity and fires them up to pool their local resources to address their local needs.
Diversity of Culture in the Sisterhood
Communities of Catholic sisters by their nature are flagships of diversity, interculturality and social cohesion. Catholic sisters are drawn to live and share their lives with sisters coming from all racial and socio-cultural and economic backgrounds. The diversity of the communities gives the Catholic sisters the skill sets to operate and serve people of equally diverse backgrounds.
Sisters are known for breaking cultural, racial and economic boundaries in unique ways. Catholic sisters face enduring adverse conditions yet their services often go unnoticed. Sisters traverse communities, cultures, countries and continents – often very far from their own families and relatives for many years – and learn to embrace cultures, open up to new people and their ways and allow the light of God to shine through them to the people.