April 17, 2020

Religious communities in archdiocese refocus on prayer during pandemic

By Sean Gallagher

Like all other residents who are living under Gov. Eric Holcomb’s March 24 stay-at-home order, religious across central and southern Indiana have had their lives significantly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

They’re taking special measures to protect the health of their many older members, who are especially vulnerable to the virus. This includes isolating those who live in infirmaries or health care facilities from the rest of their communities, keeping the number of lay people working on their campuses to a minimum and closing their campuses to all visitors.

Some communities also operate centers that offer retreats and other programs. All these offerings have been cancelled until further notice.

These sisters, brothers and priests also look to the spiritualities of their order and its founders to help them endure during this difficult time.

“Like our founder, Mother Theresa Hackelmeier, the community has approached this new reality with courage and trust,” said Franciscan Sister Delouise Menges, a member of the leadership team for the Oldenburg Franciscans. “Many have commented on this as a call to prayer, to go deeper in their own spirituality, and to extend spiritual support for persons so strongly affected.”

Conventual Franciscan Father Wayne Hellman, who leads the Our Lady of Consolation Province, which is based in Mount St. Francis in the New Albany Deanery, looks to his order’s founder for encouragement.

“St. Francis of Assisi reminded his brothers and all of us: ‘We are what we are before God, that we are, and nothing more,’ ” said Father Wayne. “Now we clearly experience that we are all vulnerable and among us there are no exceptions. So, Francis calls his brothers ‘to rejoice among those who live by the wayside.’ ”

Like leaders of other religious communities in the archdiocese, Benedictine Sister Jennifer Mechtild Horner, prioress of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, said she and other sisters there have made prayer their “top priority.”

“It is stronger than any virus and dictates our every action,” she said. “The best thing we can do is continue our unceasing prayer, and let others know we are praying for them. Morning, noon and night, we gather in our chapel for prayer. As we call on God and listen with the ear of our heart, we believe that God is the one who walks with us through this dark valley. It is to God that we cling. We are all learning lessons that can be taught no other way so our hope is secure and our faith is solid.”

Ordinarily, the Benedictine sisters at Our Lady of Grace gather for prayer at Mass and through the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office) with guests who come to the monastery. In the Rule of St. Benedict, which guides the life of the sisters, the sixth-century monastic leader calls on those who follow his guidance to receive guests as Christ himself.

But in response to the directives of state health and government leaders, the community has closed its doors to guests for the time being.

“As Benedictines, that was a difficult decision to make,” Sister Jennifer Mechtild said. “It is very strange not to have others join us for Mass, the Divine Office and meals. but we are committed to doing our part to stem this tide.”

Guests can join the Benedictine sisters online as they livestream Evening Prayer daily at 5:15 p.m. EDT on their Facebook page. The Benedictine monks of Saint Meinrad likewise livestream their liturgies on their Facebook page.

Prayer has also been affected for the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Members of its community have passed away since coronavirus restrictions have been put in place. 

Providence Sister Denise Wilkinson, a former general superior of the community, said it was “heartbreaking” for her and her fellow sisters not to be able to gather for their funerals. “We’re accepting of the why,” she said, “and realize how important it is in keeping us well.” 

In response to the pandemic, the Sisters of Providence’s leadership team has invited the community to return to a prayer practice that dates from the time of St. Theodora Guérin, who founded their community in 1840 and died in 1856. She was declared Indiana’s first saint in 2006. 

It is their “prayer of reunion,” which the sisters and the lay Providence associates have been asked to pray aloud, wherever they are, at 3 p.m. daily: 

“We unite with all our sisters and all who share the charism of Providence, wherever they may be, to praise you, our living Father, present to us in your Word, Jesus Christ, holy, wise, humble, amiable and merciful. We give, we consecrate and immolate ourselves to you and your loving service. Deign, Lord, to send your Spirit to receive, possess, purify, enlighten and sanctify our hearts. O Divine Jesus, keep us yours always. Amen.” 

“It is all about uniting with one another and giving ourselves to God and God’s loving service,” Sister Denise said. †

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