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Potential postulants wait and see as COVID puts convent plans in question

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by Mary Farrow

Denver Newsroom, Apr 30, 2020 / 03:01 am MT (CNA).- If everything were going according to plan, Jessica would be entering the convent on August 22.

But, thanks to coronavirus, everything is not going according to plan.

“I was accepted to pre-postulancy with an order, and as of right now everything is going according to their schedule still,” she said, as far as the entrance date.

“But because of COVID-19 I haven’t been able to work (I had two jobs on campus which closed) and I lost my summer job opportunities, so I might not be able to enter because of student loan debt,” Jessica told CNA.

Jessica asked that her identity and the order be somewhat concealed because she hasn’t told all of her family and friends of her plans to join the convent – especially now that she’s not sure if it will even happen in the expected timeframe.

“I haven’t told many people about my plans to enter because I’m worried I won’t be able to enter,” she told CNA.

Jessica is not alone. Postulants – new members of a religious community starting the first process of formation before taking vows – are among the myriad of people whose plans have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Many women discerning religious life with communities of religious sisters or nuns in the United States are having to settle for tentative plans as their summer or fall entrance dates to their communities are fast approaching. Many otherwise-standard pre-entrance visits or retreats have been canceled or moved online, while some entrance dates have been postponed, and others are – very tentatively – staying in place.

Natalie Ross has been discerning religious life for several years, and decided in October last year to begin the application process with the Daughters of Mary Immaculate, often called the Marianist Sisters.

Ross turned in her application in April and should know if she is officially accepted by late May. If she is accepted, she would theoretically enter shortly thereafter, and move from her home in Austin, Texas to the sisters’ house in Dayton, Ohio.

“Right now there are no concrete plans to delay entrance if I’m accepted, but I think that’s the way a lot of people and institutions have been handling all this,” Ross told CNA. “You just keep your plans the way they were before until it gets closer to the time for them to happen, and then re-evaluate if they will really be possible now.”

Ross said while she doesn’t “terribly mind” having plans up in the air, and while she knows other people are facing bigger problems related to the virus, it has left her with a lot of questions.

“Our lease is up around when I would theoretically be moving, and someone else has already leased our apartment – should I look to sign a new lease somewhere? How do you safely move during a pandemic? Should I move back in with my parents (several hours away)? If I leave, what should my roommate do? Also, will I be able to say goodbye to my friends and family?” she said.

Because the Marianist sisters are not cloistered, Ross said she knows she will get a chance to see family and friends again, even if she doesn’t say goodbye before she initially leaves. But she had specific ideas of a “cheerful but slightly teary-eyed goodbye party,” of revisiting some of her favorite parks and restaurants one more time, of heart-to-heart conversations she’d have with friends and siblings in the days before she left.

“And now, I’m sure I’m being melodramatic, but I’m picturing me packing my stuff into my car and abandoning my roommate and driving to Ohio by myself and bawling my eyes out. And that breaks my heart. The idea of this temporary separation from loved ones becoming more permanent is really sad!” Ross said.

“But this situation is a reminder that I have to sacrifice things I really want, even things that are genuinely good, to pursue God’s call,” she said.

That doesn’t mean that she isn’t grieving the things she will miss, she added, “but it does give meaning to it in a way that strengthens me. I was reminded of Jesus’ words, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead’…that passage in Matthew made sense to me in a personal way that it hadn’t before.”

Brianna Farens would have been entering the convent of the Poor Clares in Roswell, New Mexico, a cloistered community, on May 26.

Because cloistered communities have even fewer opportunities for members to see friends and family in person after entrance, Farens had planned out her time before entrance. She had planned to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with her parish in Denver, and then to spend some time with her parents and extended family and friends in Connecticut before her entrance into the cloister, since she had been living in Denver for the past five years.

It started with the Holy Land pilgrimage. What was supposed to be a 10-day trip in mid-March turned into a whirlwind of about three days in Israel and hurrying to get home as countries quickly shut their borders. When Farens got home, she had to self-quarantine at her house in Denver since she had been traveling internationally.

She also learned that both of her parents had contracted coronavirus.

“I found out the day they got the results back, the day I landed back in the U.S. That was horrifying,” Farens said.

While they were both very sick for two weeks, they both have recovered and are doing well, Farens said. But it meant she had to wait until Good Friday to go home, to make sure that they were recovered and that her risk of infection was low. At home in Connecticut, Farens kept in touch with the Mother Superior of her convent. Just recently, they decided to push her entrance date from May 26 to June 30.

“So in that way, it’s giving me some extra time with my family here,” Farens said. “We’re also hoping that things might be a little bit better, it might be a little bit safer to travel a month later. Also we’re just really wanting to make sure I’m not at risk of bringing the virus or anything else there to the monastery, because obviously the sisters being cloistered, they’re very safe, very well-quarantined.”

Even June 30, Farens said, is likely just a tentative plan.

“I think as it gets closer, we’re going to have to see how everything is and reevaluate. We might also figure out if I should get tested before going,” she added. Some sisters in the community are older and immunocompromised, and are therefore at greater risk.

One of the hardest parts of this time has been being unable to see the extended family and friends that she wanted to see before entering, Farens said.

“These were going to be some of the last times I get to hug my family and friends here and all my friends’ babies. This process of surrendering all of that, realizing that that actually might not be – at least in a way that I was wanting and hoping – it’s been really, really hard to let go of,” she said.

But despite the challenges, the changes to her plans haven’t deterred Farens in her conviction of being called to the Poor Clares. “Living in such chaotic times and realizing the brokenness of our world, and hearing the sufferings of so many people and people I know, and especially people dying alone…if anything, I feel even more steadfast and convicted that is my call, this vocation to give my life praying for this world that is suffering so much,” she said.

Sr. Emily Marsh is the national vocations director for the Daughters of St. Paul, an order of religious sisters with convents throughout the United States and Canada.

Typically, new postulants would enter the community in the order’s St. Louis convent in August or September, but there hasn’t been a final decision made yet as to whether the women will enter at the normal time, or at a slightly later time, she told CNA.

“We have not had any conversations with my superior or council for formation regarding that, we don’t have enough information regarding August or September,” she said.

The sisters’ infirmary is housed in a separate convent in Boston, Marsh added, but there is a 92 year-old sister living in the postulancy house who would particularly be at risk for coronavirus. Marsh said she has been keeping in touch with the women who are planning to enter this year, and she said that even if their entrance date were to get bumped back by a few months, it wouldn’t cause major logistical problems for most of the women.

However, “if things get pushed back more than six months we would have some concerns,” she said.

Other than the entrance for postulants being up in the air at the moment, the community has “basically been taking our vocation apostolate online,” Marsh said.

Many of the order’s convents have monthly in-person discernment gatherings, Marsh said, and those have all been moved online in the form of video chats, recorded talks, or live question-and-answer sessions with the sisters.

The sisters also usually host an in-person Holy Week retreat at their convent in Boston. This year, as the retreat approached, the sisters decided to move the event online, particularly out of concern for the sisters in the infirmary at the Boston convent.

Normally, Marsh said, there would be about 6-15 women on any given year at the Holy Week retreat.

This year, she said, “we had 7 or 8 confirmed, when we realized we couldn’t have people travel. We decided to at least do something online for those who had signed up, and we started planning an online alternative.”

Word spread, and soon there were five times as many young women registered for the retreat.

“I woke up to 40 emails inquiring about it,” Marsh said. In total, the retreat had 43 registered participants from the U.S. and Canada, as well as Trinidad and Tobago, and one from Australia who had to completely “flip her schedule” in order to participate in the real-time events.

There were also about 150 additional people viewing the discernment videos and downloads that the sisters posted online who were not registered participants, Marsh said.

“I don’t know why it took a pandemic for us to come up with a discernment retreat online,” Marsh said, adding that the sisters are looking into planning another one for this summer.

“I think just from what I’ve been seeing, it’s weird, but it’s been a very fruitful time,” as people have been forced to stay at home because of the virus, Marsh said. “People have a lot of time, and it’s just making people think about life. I think God is giving special graces for vocations and vocational discernment, and we’re basically trying to do what we can in providing women with resources.”

Marsh said while she doesn’t see virtual retreats ever replacing in-person discernment opportunities, she thinks the community will plan on offering a few online discernment events in the coming years, as they can provide a good first step for young women looking into the community who may not be able to afford an expensive plane ticket to a faraway convent.

“It will provide a nice first step, and then from that interaction we can make a mutual discernment of what’s a good next step,” she said.

Sr. Anne Catherine, OP, is a sister with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee. She told CNA that the order typically welcomes the new postulant class in August, and so far those plans have not changed.

“From indications we’re seeing at this time, we do think we can go forward with an August entrance date,” she said, and the current postulant class is still proceeding in their application process.

But if the public health situation regarding coronavirus were to change for the worse, the entrance date could be changed, she noted.

Already, some of the young women in this year’s entrance class have experienced other natural forces throwing off some of their plans, when a tornado blew through Nashville on March 2, just days before a discernment retreat at the convent, knocking out power for most of the weekend.

“It was all very funny, normally they eat in this one dining area, but it was so dark we couldn’t take them down there,” Sr. Anne Catherine said, “so we made a makeshift refectory with candles.” The rest of the weekend went well and the women had a good attitude about everything, even without power, she added.

The week of March 16 is when many non-essential businesses started to shut down and people started to shelter at home in the state of Tennessee due to coronavirus. Since then, Sr. Anne Catherine said, the sisters haven’t been able to have retreats or visitors.

Looking ahead to August, Sr. Anne Catherine said that because the sisters’ convent is so big, it is possible that they would have the young women entering do a kind of quarantine-retreat hybrid in their first two weeks, to ensure that they are not bringing the virus into the community as they’re entering. They would normally have the new members do a retreat upon their entrance anyway, but this one would be a little longer and in a separate part of the house.

“We’d want to protect the young women who are coming to us, to make sure that they feel safe and their families feel safe, and also protect our community,” Sr. Anne Catherine said.

“A vocation is an invitation to put out into the deep and trust the Lord,” Sr. Anne Catherine added. “In the pandemic, the emphasis on God’s plan and trusting his will…it’s even more palpable in this time.”

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