She added that she was “saddened” by the L’Osservatore Romano article, because, she said, it paints a “misleading and bleak picture” of religious life, and does not emphasize the gift of the vocation, both to the consecrated individual and to the Church at large.
“There are disgruntled people everywhere, and also I have to admit there is probably some truth to what was written in that article, I can’t say that those people have never had any of those experiences,” she said. “But that has not been my experience or the experience of those sisters that I know.”
Rather than a feeling of servitude, religious sisters typically feel that they are daughters of the Church, and are loved and respected as such, said Mother Judith Zuniga, O.C.D., Superior General of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, California.
“I feel and know myself to be a daughter of the Church, which in essence means that the Church is my Mother and I sincerely love her,” Mother Judith told CNA by email.
“If there is sexism and discrimination, my sisters and I have not experienced it. There seems to be more a feeling of respect, affection, and gratitude for the services we render, for who we are. This would be the more standard response we've received from people within and outside the Church,” she said.
When it comes to monetary compensation, Mother Maximilia noted that while the salaries or stipends of a sister doing domestic work might be less than what she might make in other apostolates, “that was never an issue for us because first of all we see this as a real service to the church,” she said. Furthermore, the households in which sisters served often provided other compensation, such as meals or lodging.
“I feel like we were always adequately compensated for service,” she said.
Mother Marie told CNA that sometimes, if a particular parish is struggling, the sisters serving there might be paid less, or paid later as the funds come in, but “those are the parishes that are struggling, that is not the norm by any stretch of the imagination,” she noted.
“We don't expect that we would live simply on the love of God, we have to have insurance and we have responsibilities and overhead,” Mother Marie said. “But when that happens - when we’re in a ministry and we’re not paid adequately as the world would see it - that’s not servitude, that’s Gospel, and that’s a privilege,” she said.
Religious sisters in the Church typically make three vows - those of poverty, chastity and obedience. During the celebration of the final profession of those vows, a sister often lies prostrate, face down, before the altar and the cross, in a symbolic gesture that she is giving up her old life and rising with Christ as someone who totally belongs to him, Mother Marie said.
That moment is “one of the holiest moments of our lives as sisters,” Mother Marie said.
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“When we laid our lives at the service of the Gospel, we also laid at the foot of the altar our expectations for what we would gain in life,” in terms of worldly success or recognition, she said. Instead, “our hope is that we would gain souls, and I know that that might sound sort of Pollyannish, but that’s what gets us up in the morning,” she added.
Regarding the complaint that sisters with advanced degrees might be working in positions of service that are considered less intellectually stimulating, Mother Maximilia said that kind of thinking reveals a bias about what makes work valuable.
“The thought that [intellectual work] is objectively more valuable is already a biased opinion,” Mother Maximilia said.
“The point of any work is to serve and love God and neighbor, and I think actually that shows itself in a very particular way in direct service to a person’s needs,” she said.
“I would argue that it often is very intellectual work to balance and manage a household, so I think first of all we have a skewered notion of what valuable work is, and I would accentuate that what makes work valuable in the end is love, and we’ve always understood that service to the clergy is primarily that,” Mother Maximilia said.
It is natural, Mother Marie noted, that a religious sister with an advanced degree would want to work in her field of expertise at least for a time, and that is often the plan for those sisters. However, sometimes extenuating circumstances necessitate that sisters serve in other apostolates.