I asked what they were wearing and she said long white robes with blue and white veils, prompting me to suggest that they might be the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa.
Her dentist then confirmed that they were indeed Missionaries of Charity Sisters and went on to explain that she gave them pro bono dental services. She also said she had been involved in some of their humanitarian projects, including providing dental training in developing countries.
I told my daughter that I had once visited the Missionaries of Charity convent in Surry Hills where the Sisters run a soup kitchen for the homeless and what amazing women they are.
This brief conversation came up when I was interviewing Sr Mary Cresp rsj about her new book Evolution of a Movement. From humble beginnings growing up in Gurra Gurra, near Berri, this gentle and wise woman has made a huge contribution to the life of the Church through her writings and her ministry.
I asked what her thoughts were on the future of consecrated life and she responded by saying it has been part of the history of the Church from its beginnings and, she believes, always will be, albeit in varying degrees and styles.
She spoke with passion of the ministry of the Sisters of St Joseph in country towns and said for many people they were the only sign of the Church, and God, in those places.
I questioned whether they would still be a ‘sign’ now that they no longer are easily identifiable by their dress, as the Missionaries of Charity were in the dentist’s waiting room and when carrying out their work in Surry Hills.
Firstly, she pointed out that Mother Teresa wore a sari, the civilian dress of women in India, and secondly she referred to Jesus’ comment about certain Pharisees: (‘Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long’. Matthew 23:5)
But she added that anything about Religious and their clothing is a vexed issue and that “context is everything”.
For example, in the 4th century Jerome urged the group of virgins he was advising to wear veils ‘since only prostitutes display their hair, the veil declares a woman is married and you are married to Christ’ (paraphrase). Of course, when women consecrated to the service of Christ and God’s people continued to wear the veil in those cultures where a woman didn’t wear it to show she was married – which happened gradually over time in Europe – the veil became associated with religious life instead of ‘decency’.
More important than what someone is wearing, of course, is what they are doing to make a difference and I’m sure the Sisters of St Joseph would still have been a sign of the presence of God in the world (and still are) if they were dressed in civvies (with an emblem and ring as identifier).
The story on Sr Sally Duigan and her years of missionary work in Limpopo, South Africa, (page 10) is another reminder of one person giving witness to the Gospel, in her case far from her home and in relative obscurity.
Sally was a close friend of Sr Janet Mead, whose chart-topping version of The Lord’s Prayer has gained Australian icon status and whose extraordinary life of service was far more important to her than being in the spotlight.
The recent World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life was an opportunity to thank the women and men who have devoted their lives to showing God’s loving presence. They continue to inspire all of us to do our small bit to create God’s Kingdom on earth.Jump to next article