New Horizons for the Women Religious

Author: Pope Paul VI


Pope Paul VI

Sermon to Women Religious at Mass at Castel Gandolfo on the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady September 8, 1964

Beloved Daughters in Christ! It brings Us great spiritual consolation tobe able to celebrate the feast of the Nativity of Mary Most Holy with allyou good and dear Sisters!

Very often as We celebrate sacred feasts We are anxious about theunderstanding and the participation of the faithful present for theceremony. We have reason to doubt whether they understand, whether theyare really joining in the prayer of the Church, whether they enjoy a fullgrasp of the mysteries being recalled, of the prayers being offered up,of the spiritual and moral value of all things that worship ought topresent to our souls. No such thought, no such doubt, exists now! We aresure that you are all here with Us to give full meaning to this holy Massin honor of Mary's birth, and to devote all your fervor to it. There arethree obvious reasons for this that combine to make the present ceremonya solemn and memorable one.

The first reason is that it obliges us to recall the appearance of OurLady in the world as the arrival of the dawn that comes before the lightof salvation, Christ Jesus; as the opening out, on an earth covered overwith the dirt of sin, of the most beautiful flower that has everblossomed in the garden of mankind. We refer to the birth of the purest,the most innocent, the most perfect of creatures, the one most worthy ofthe definition that God Himself gave when creating man: image of God,likeness of Godwhich is to say, a beauty that is supreme, profound, soideal in its being and form and so real in its living expression as togive us an idea of how this original creature was destined, on the onehand, to an exchange with his Creator, to the love of his Creator, in anindescribable outpouring of the most blessed and beautifying Divinity andin an unconditional reply filled with poetry and joy (as the "Magnificat"of Our Lady really is); and how he was destined, on the other hand, toroyal dominion over the earth.

Through a design of infinite mercy (We could almost say through aresolution for reconquest like that of the artist who, upon seeing hiswork shattered, decided to do it over and to make it even more beautifuland more in accordance with his creative idea), God took what was toappear and then disappear in miserable fashion in Eve, and He made itlive again in Mary"ut dignum Filii tui habitaculum effici mereretur,Spiritu Sancto cooperante, praeparasti"[1] as the prayer you all know sowell puts it. Today, a day dedicated to the veneration of this gift, ofthis masterpiece of God, we recall, we admire, we exult: Mary is born,Mary is ours, Mary restores to us the image of mankind perfected in herimmaculate human conception, which corresponds in a stupendous fashion tothe divine mind's mysterious conception of a creature as queen of theworld.

Mary, to the fresh and supreme joy, the enchanting joy of our souls, doesnot hold our gaze fixed upon herself but rather urges it to look ahead,to the miracle of light and of holiness and of life that she proclaimswith her birth and that she will bring with herChrist the Lord, herSon, the Son of God, from whom she herself receives everything. This isthe celebrated interplay of grace that is called Incarnation and thattoday makes us see a presage of the coming of our salvation in Mary, thelamp that bears the divine light, the gate through which Heaven willdirect its steps toward earth, the mother who will offer human life tothe Word of God.

You know all these things, most beloved daughters. You meditate on them,you honor them, you imitate them. Mary gives you the sublime picture ofthem, in which she triumphs in humility and in glory without equal. Isnot this a reason to make Us glad to know that all of you are intimatelybound up with this joy of the Church, with this glorification of Our Lady?

Secondly, you are celebrating this sweet and intimate feast with Us likea day in your own home, like a family event that draws hearts together toshare in lovely sentiments. It is the feast of everyone's heavenlyMother; and We realize that your devotion increases by reason of the factthat today you are celebrating it together with this humble father ofeveryone on earth, with the Pope. And the pious satisfaction that goeswith this makes Us happy too, as We feel your devotion united to Our own,your prayer to Ours, your trust to Ours.

We feel, dear and good Sisters, that this morning you are the bouquet offlowers with which We appear before Mary to express Our best wishesorbetter, Our devotionon her birthday! A kind of childlike speech risesto Our lips: See, Mary, what We are offering youthese flowers. They arethe most beautiful flowers of the Holy Church. They are souls with asingle love, a love for your divine Son Jesus. They are souls who havereally believed His words and have left everything to follow Him alone.They listen to Him, they imitate Him, they serve Him, they follow Him,along with you, yes, even to the Cross. They do not complain, they arenot afraid, they do not weep; instead they are always joyful, they arealways good, they are holythese daughters of the Church of Christ!

We hope that Our Most Blessed Lady will listen to these simple words andthat she will feel honored by the offering that We today make to her ofyou, Sistersindeed, of all the Sisters in the Holy Church. We hope thatshe who is blessed among all will choose to look upon all of them withthose merciful eyes of hers ("illos tuos misericordes oculos . . . "),that she will choose to gladden them, that she will choose to protect andbless them; because they are hers, and they are hers because they are theChurch's!

It seems to Us that this meeting brings out this aspect of your religiouslife in a very special way. Why are you so happy to assist at the Pope'sholy Mass today and to venerate Our Most Blessed Lady along with him? Andwhy is the Pope so happy to have you with him? Because you are, as Wesaid, the Church's. You belong to the Mystical Body of Christ throughbonds of very special adherence, and you have a special place in theChurch community. You are the Church's joy, you are her honor, you areher beauty, you are her consolation, you are her example. You, We couldadd, are her strength! Your piety, your humility, your docility, yourspirit of sacrifice make you the specially loved daughters of the holyChurch.

This meeting ought to bring back to life in you a "feeling for theChurch." Sometimes it happens that this "feeling for the Church" is givenless attention or is less cultivated in certain religious families, byreason of the fact that they live apart and find all the objects of theirimmediate interest within the confines of their own communities and knowlittle of what is going on beyond the limits of their own activities, towhich they are completely dedicated. Sometimes it happens that theirreligious life has limited horizons, not only with regard to the courseof events in this world, but even with regard to the life of the Church,her major occurrences, her thoughts and her teachings, her spiritualardor, her sufferings and her good fortune.

This is not an ideal situation for a Sister; she loses sight of the greatoverall vision of the divine plan for our salvation and for oursanctification. It is not a privilege to remain on the fringes of thelife of the Church and to build a spirituality of your own that hasnothing to do with the sharing of words, of grace and of charity that isproper to the catholic community of the brethren in Christ.

Without depriving Sisters of the silence, the recollection, the relativeautonomy, and the special manner that the type of life they are leadingrequires, We hope that they may get back a more direct and fullparticipation in the life of the Church, in the liturgy in particular, insocial welfare, in the modern apostolate, in the service of the brethren.A great deal is being done in this direction; and We feel that it is tothe benefit of the Sister's sanctification and to the benefit of thefaithful who are edified.

We recall that when We were at Milan, on the occasion of this very feast,We invited the dear Sisters of the Child Mary to assist at Our pontificalMass in that Duomo which is certainly one of the greatest and mostbeautiful cathedrals in the world, and which is dedicated to the Nativityof Mary. None of those Sisters had felt called through her own devotionto take part in the solemn and splendid ceremony honoring Mary's birth, aceremony in the Cathedral of the city where they have their mother-houseas well as a magnificent network of charitable activities; the Archbishop invited them. Afterward they came to the Duomo every year in largenumbers. They were happy to feel that they were specially loved daughtersof the Church on that day, just as We were happy to greet them during Ourhomily and to bless them as models worthy of Our approval and good will.We recall too how edifying it seemed to see, in specially reserved placesin the churches of the flourishing missionary communities of SouthernRhodesia and Nigeria, Sisters of various religious families assisting atthe Sunday services, to their great honor and to the great consolationand admiration of all the faithful.

Now then, this meeting will, We repeat, serve to re-enkindle love for theChurch in you and, We hope, throughout the vast ranks of women Religious.It will serve to put you in ever closer communion with her. This is agreat thoughtremember itand one that can open a window onto thespiritual reality to which you have dedicated your life; the Church isthe work of salvation established by Christ. It is a great thought thatcan comfort and sustain the modest and the hidden nature of your works;the Church is the kingdom of the Lord, and whoever belongs to it andwhoever serves it shares in the dignity and fate of this kingdom. Yes,the Church is something great to think about, and the thought opens up toyour generosity pathways that enable it to be ever more productive ofapostolic results, wise charity, immense merits.

We believe that the day has come when the life of women Religious has tobe given greater honor and be made more effective, and that this can bedone by perfecting the bonds that unite it to the life of the wholeChurch. We will let you in on a little secret in this regard: We havegiven orders that some devout qualified ladies are to attend as auditorsseveral of the solemn ceremonies and several of the General Congregationsof the coming third session of the Second Vatican Council; what We havein mind are those Congregations that will discuss matters of particularconcern to the lives of women. Hence we will have present at anecumenical council, perhaps for the first time, a representation ofwomenonly a small one, obviously, but still significant and you mightsay symbolicfrom you Sisters, first of all, and then from the greatCatholic women's organizations. Women thus will know just how much honorthe Church pays to them in the dignity of their being and of theirmission on the human and Christian levels.

While it gives Us joy to let you in on this news, We are saddened by thethought of all the many aspects of modern life that portray woman asfallen from the spiritual and ethical heights attributed to her by thebest civic standards and the loftiness of her Christian vocation, to thelevel of moral insensitivity and often of pagan license. They also showwoman, in the course of having pathways of the most dangerous and harmfulexperiences opened to her, being deprived of the true happiness and truelove that can never be separated from the sacred meaning of life.

And it pains Us too to see that many feminine souls, made for lofty andgenerous things, today no longer know how to give their lives a full andhigher meaning, because they lack two elements of interior fullness:prayer, in its complete, personal and sacramental expression; and thespirit of dedication, of a love that gives and vivifies. They remain poorand tormented souls, getting a deceptive remedy from externaldistractions.

And here you have the third reason for the spiritual joy that comes to Usfrom this meeting and brings Us consolation. It is that your numbers andyour fervor show that there are still strong and pure souls who have athirst for perfection and are neither afraid nor ashamed to put on thereligious habit, the habit of total consecration of one's own life to theLord.

In truth, here again We have to make a double observation that is not ahappy one. Religious vocations, for women too, are falling off; yet boththe Church and secular society have a growing need for these vocations.This is one of the problems of our time for whose solution we must workand pray.

But let Us linger for a moment now over the proof of religious vitalitysupplied by your presence here. We want to thank Our Lady for thisconsolation, which permits Us to glimpse her providential and maternalhelp to the Church. It offers Us the example of a rebirth of Christiangenerosity, which makes us think of the whole treasury of good works towhich your life is consecrated.

We are praying to Our Lady for you, that she may give you an assurancethat the choice you have made is a good one. It is the best, the mostdifficult and at the same time the easiest. It is the closest to that ofMary Most Holy because, like hers, it is completely governed by a simpleand total abandonment to the divine will: Fiat mihi secundum Verbumtuum![2] We will pray that she may make you strong; nowadays thereligious life calls for strength. In times past it may have been arefuge for many weak and timid souls, today it is the workshop of soulsthat are strong, dependable, and heroic. Last of all We will pray thatOur Lady may make you happy and joyful. Religious life, no matter howpoor and austere it may be, cannot be genuine except with interior joy!This is what We wish you as a lasting reminder of this meeting, as We askall of you for prayers for the Council and for the whole Church, and asWe give you Our Blessing.


1. "With the help of the Holy Spirit, you have prepared her to deserve tobe made a worthy dwelling place for thy Son."

2. Be it done unto me according to thy word!