NEW YORK — On the morning of June 6, hundreds of people packed the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in New York City to celebrate a quadruple wedding; but instead of white, the four brides wore black and gray.
Surrounded by family and friends, these young women had come to take final religious vows with the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. When the Mass began, the bustling church fell silent.
Grinning ear to ear, the four professing sisters walked down the aisle to the wedding music of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, while clouds of incense rose slowly to the ornate ceiling. They were there, after years of discernment, to give up everything and follow Jesus Christ.
And they had indeed given up everything. Three of them nurses and the fourth a trained civil engineer, these young women were leaving behind careers, education, friends and family; but for them, following Christ with the Franciscans was worth any sacrifice in the world.
Established in 1988, the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal follow the principles of St. Francis of Assisi through vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In convents in New York, England and Ireland, they live a life of contemplative prayer and radical service of the poor — offering soup kitchens, food pantries, pro-life work and youth ministry to the children of the inner city.
Taking final vows with this order represented the culmination of a long journey of prayer, discernment and sacrifice for each of the sisters. The Scripture readings and the homily at the Mass spoke to the reasons for their commitment to Christ.
“[L]ike a bride bedecked with her jewels,” the congregation heard from the Book of Isaiah. “You, Lord, are my allotted portion,” intoned Psalm 16. And all of this, as Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of John, so “that your joy may be full.”
In his homily, Bishop Dennis Sullivan of Camden, N.J., gave the sisters the passionate words of St. John of the Cross: “How tenderly you swell my heart with love.”
Radiant Love and Joy
Joy and love were the operative words for these newly professed brides of Christ.
Sister Guadalupe Magdalena Gonzalez, who came to the United States from Mexico when she was 16, said she originally felt drawn to the Franciscans because of this joy.
“When I first visited,” Sister Guadalupe said, “just seeing the joy of the sisters, the charity, the way they loved each other … I wanted to have what they had.”
What the Franciscans have is a deep love for their Divine Spouse, Jesus Christ; and it was this that impelled each of them to a lifelong and total commitment to contemplative prayer and service to the poor.
Sister Kelly Francis, a New Jersey native who attended Villanova University, said that she finds Christ precisely in the people she serves.
“Christ comes to us in every person, and so the people who come to our door are Jesus,” she said. “He’s present in anyone who is broken, anyone who has suffered. He comes to us through them, and if my eyes are open, then I encounter him.”
When the ceremony of the vows began, the sisters stood barefoot and silent before the altar of God.
“Are you resolved to embrace the life of chastity?” “Are you resolved to faithfully observe the precepts of the holy Gospel?” “Are you resolved to serve the Lord in poverty” and as a “stranger in this world”? The sisters replied, “I am.”
In front of the whole congregation, the sisters prostrated themselves in the aisle of the church, while the choir chanted the long litany of the saints. Then, one by one, the sisters knelt before the bishop to profess their vows to God. Finally, in the presence of witnesses, each of the sisters signed her last will and testament upon the altar, legally renouncing all of her possessions and finalizing her commitment to the Franciscans. The sisters then each received a gold ring, a candle and — in a dramatic sign of unity with their suffering Spouse — a crown of thorns.
Brides of Christ
It was a long-awaited moment. Sister John Paul Marie Spinharney, a former neonatal intensive care nurse, said she felt complete peace and closure after her final vows.
“Discernment is over,” she said. “I know God’s will for my life. I belong to him. I’m his bride for life.”
Sister Chiara Rose Fedele, her Italian-American features lighting up with a bright smile, described her final vows in similar language: Speaking of Jesus, she said, “our souls are wedded together forever. Nothing can separate me from his love.”
Spectators, including the celebrant himself, found themselves moved by this powerful Christian witness.
After the Mass, Bishop Sullivan said that the most beautiful thing about the final vows was “the voluntary gift that these sisters are offering.” It “stirred my soul,” he said.
Sister Chiara said she knew she had a religious vocation starting in her teens.
“Through prayer, in the Blessed Sacrament, I heard his call,” she said. “I was 15. But I went off to college, and dated, but that call, through prayer, never left me.”
Sister John Paul, who chose her religious name because of St. John Paul II, credited the Polish pope with her vocation.
“When I was 5 or 6,” she said, “I had a dream — myself and John Paul II. He said, ‘Do something good for your convent.’ When I woke up, I just knew in my heart — I knew I would be a sister.” But through adulthood, she struggled to embrace her calling. “I tried to avoid it,” she said, and it was only years later, when praying on the night before John Paul II died, that she finally accepted her religious vocation: “I finally felt joy. All of a sudden, this incredible peace came over me.”
The Parents’ Part
Nor was the process of discernment always easy for the parents of the young women.
Rosemary Fedele, mother of Sister Chiara, said, initially, she was “totally against it.” “My daughter was a registered nurse,” she said, “and she gave it all up. What could I say?”
A child’s lifelong vow to any religious order always involves what Fedele described as “total parental sacrifice.” But over nine years of discernment, Sister Chiara’s parents grew to accept her vocation.
“I don’t get to make her choices,” her mother said, and although she still struggles to understand her daughter’s commitment, “I accept her life.”
“I love her,” she continued, “She’s my daughter. Now when I see her, I see that she’s happy. I rejoice in it.”
Ramón Gonzalez, father to Sister Guadalupe, said of the joy he felt for his daughter: “There is nothing that surpasses it — to feel a happiness that is totally complete and deep within.” Gonzalez, who serenaded his daughter with a mariachi song at a celebratory dinner the night before, continued, “But I feel that I have arrived at the height of happiness. I thank God a thousand times for those blessings.”
Sister John Paul’s father, Bob Spinharney, said, “I was very happy for her because she said, ‘God is calling me.’” His oldest son is a priest of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The grateful father offered this advice to parents of children considering a religious vocation: “Encourage your children to be open to God’s call. Don’t push your agenda. But be very happy for the decision they make. Children are God’s gift. They’re not for us to keep.”
The sisters sought to encourage openness, prayer and discernment in anyone feeling called to the religious life and offered the following advice:
Sister Chiara: “Follow your heart. Listen: Listen to God’s voice.”
Sister Kelly Francis: “If you might feel called, be open, because God wants what’s best for you. The best thing you can do is to always say ‘Yes’ to him.”
Sister John Paul offered practical advice: “Live a sacramental life. Pray daily. Pray for your vocation daily. Get a spiritual director, and go meet religious.”
Mother Lucille Cutrone, the superior general of the Franciscan Sisters, also offered her advice. The petite, middle-aged sister smiled serenely and spoke in a heavy Brooklyn accent: “Prayer and sacraments, confession and frequent Mass. Go where there is joy.”
The bishop himself weighed in with his final challenge for all those considering the adventure of religious life. Quoting Christ’s words to the fisherman Simon Peter, when he called him to be a disciple, the bishop said simply, “Put out into the deep.”
Kelly Scott Franklin, Ph.D., is an assistant
professor of English at Hillsdale College.
He attended the final vows in New York.