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Experiencing the freedom of religious life

Augustinian Father Richie Mercado, vocations director for the Midwest Augustinians, preaches during Mass. Courtesy photo


Rock climbing. Kayaking. Playing bad pop-music covers in a band. Video games. Tennis. Hanging out with friends and having a beer in a bar. Trying new coffee shops. Irish step-dancing.

Ask members of religious communities what they do for fun and those are just a few of the answers you’ll get.

Augustinian Father Richie Mercado, vocations director for the Midwest Augustinians, said people who don’t know members of religious communities sometimes are surprised by just how normal they are.

“There’s always that misconception, that we pray 24 hours a day,” said Father Mercado, who has a ready laugh and is quick with a joke. “We’re normal people, so that means we thrive in relationships, in friendships, through the fraternity of our brothers in the community. Life is not meant to be lived in a boring way. It really has to be lived through a joyful experience.”

Augustinian Brother Jack Tierney professed solemn vows in December 2018 and has one more year of seminary before he can be ordained.

Having fun, he said, is part of the Augustinian ideal.

“It’s based on Augustine’s life,” Brother Jack said. “What he wanted to do was live with his friends and have a life of philosophy and Scripture studies. Friends typically have fun together.”

Brother Jack spent two years in the Bronx, New York, before moving to Chicago to complete his seminary studies and, while there, a friend introduced him to rock climbing. There aren’t many natural rock formations to climb in Chicago, but he’s doing his best to keep up with the sport.

“It’s definitely important to have fun,” he said. “It fits within the context of having a healthy balance of work and life and prayer and all the different things ministry entails.”

Playfulness in life

Sister Mandy Carrier works as a chef at a soup kitchen in Bridgeport, Conn. Courtesy photo

For Mercy Sister Mandy Carrier, finding ways to have fun gives her energy that she can carry over into her ministry, working as a chef at a soup kitchen in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“I do an Irish-step class on Thursday nights, and it’s kind of a late-night thing, and I have to be up for my ministry at 5:30 in the morning,” Sister Mandy said. “It’s something that’s creative and social and energizing.”

Sister Mandy lives at the Mercy by the Sea Retreat Center in Madison, Connecticut, and she also loves being outside kayaking or biking, playing video games and investigating new coffee shops and bookstores with friends.

“In most modern orders, people are free to pursue whatever interests make them happy,” Sister Mandy said. “I have a friend who’s a Carmelite who’s a drummer.”

Part of the reason women and men religious are so playful, Sister Mandy said, is that they have so many opportunities for spiritual growth.

“I think playfulness and religious go together really well,” she said. “People in religious life have to so many opportunities for spiritual work and personal growth that people focus on developing their inner freedom. That’s why there’s so much of a recognition that people in religious life are joyful.”

Freedom in authenticity

That’s something Emi Namoro has noticed as she’s been discerning a religious vocation over the past year. Namoro has been meeting with a discernment group in her home archdiocese of Vancouver, British Columbia, and she said the sisters she had met are “authentic.”

“They are able to be their full selves,” said Namoro, who said she has had a lot of fun at the various vocation events she has attended. “I was accepted as I am. I can sense the joy that the sisters have, and the freedom that they have. It’s not that they are free to do whatever they want. It’s that they are free to be their truest selves. And they are free to love people. It’s true, authentic love.”

Nikki Sereda also is discerning a vocation to religious life, focusing on the Daughters of St. Paul and the Sisters of Merciful Jesus, who have a house near her home of Leduc in Alberta, Canada.

“I know that lots of people have this idea that once you go into the convent, your fun is done,” Sereda said. But she saw the Daughters of St. Paul having fun together on an October discernment retreat in Toronto — “They had an entire room with movies and board games” — and has spent lots of time with the Sisters of Merciful Jesus.

“They always go on outings like you would go on with your family,” she said. “And last winter they made a big ice slide in their yard. I think the sense of fun … a big part of it is the joy. All the sisters I have come across, there always is that sense of joy. That joy sort of emanates from their being.”

Attractive, joyful witness

Jesuit Eric Immel, a third-year regent, said that members of all religious communities should be joyful, because “joy should be the primary witness to the Gospel.”

“People who are joyful are attractive,” Immel said. “People who are joyful are warm, and that draws people to them.”

“My first few years as a Jesuit were saturated with music,” said Immel, a drummer who sings and sometimes plays guitar. He found other Jesuits in formation who were also musicians, and they formed a group that would hang out and play cover versions of pop songs together. Eventually they were asked to play at shows and parties on Jesuit college campuses.

“There was a huge sense of novelty that young Jesuits would even know that music like this existed,” said Immel, who now works as dean for student success at Arrupe College of Loyola University Chicago. Arrupe is a two-year college within the university for local students who have financial need and are often the first in their families to pursue higher education.

Immel wasn’t surprised by the freedom to pursue his hobbies when he entered the Jesuits in 2011. He first encountered the Jesuits as an undergraduate at St. Louis University, then got to know several Jesuits better.

“It was as if they were part of the crowd but still different,” Immel said. “Now the community and the company I keep looks a little different. I don’t spend all day Saturday at a bar watching college football, but I could if I wanted to and had the time.”

The vows that people might see as restrictive — poverty, chastity and obedience — actually give members of religious communities the freedom they need to live out their vocation of service to God and others, Immel said.

Refreshed for service

Brother Jack Tierney has one more year of seminary. Courtesy photo

Brother Jack and Father Mercado said they find that sense of freedom in the Augustinian monastery.

“The list of things we can’t do is very long. We can’t own our own property; we can’t get married; we have to obey our superiors,” Brother Jack said. “But that gives us the freedom to serve God’s people, the freedom to be available to serve people, and you are free to love people the way Jesus did. You have to look at both sides. Both my bothers have jobs and are engaged to be married and their lives are very regulated.”

“Our vow of poverty is our freedom to share what we have,” Father Mercado said. “Our vow of chastity is not being limited to an exclusive relationship. Obedience is not dictatorship, but our ability to lead together as a community. It’s about freedom.”

Father Mercado said that as religious get older and more involved in ministry, they might have to try harder to make time for fun. He has been playing tennis since he was 8 years old and still finds time for games. He also makes time to connect with other young Augustinians. “That’s how I keep my sanity,” he said.

Sister Mandy, who entered the Sisters of Mercy just after finishing her culinary degree 10 years ago, said recreation — in the sense of renewing oneself — is essential for ministry.

“There are so many tough things in the world, people face so many difficult situations, and you’ve got to take care of yourself,” she said. “When you take time to rest and refresh yourself, you’re available for ministry, periods of prayer and participating in community.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

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