A group of dedicated young Catholic women in the diocese aspire to be part of a new religious order they hope will be recognized by the Vatican. Members of the Marian Franciscans have spoken with Bishop Richard J. Malone about the path to becoming a formal community.
The group includes Kristen Leaderstorf, who currently works at St. Joseph Cathedral in Buffalo, as well as Nicolette Langlois, Lindsey Martin, Alycia Murtha and Catherine Chance. The group's discernment is to found a new community of women religious in the Diocese of Buffalo, dedicated to the New Evangelization, which is their apostolic ministry. Langlois, Murtha, Leaderstorf and Chance met while attending the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Martin, the order's affiliate, joined them later.
"Our apostolate, which is really who we are, our identity, is a Marian Franciscan community. Our end goal is to found a religious community of Franciscan sisters," Langlois added. "Right now, what we do is we live in common and we live as much of that life as possible. We do ministry together, we eat together, and that spirituality that we have, as Marian Franciscans, is what feeds the ministry we do."
According to Murtha, the order's ministry is three-tiered. The first tier involves ministering to existing entities in the Church, "with the understanding that there's a lot of great and beautiful ministries that the Catholic Church has, and there's no need to replace them." With this in mind, Murtha said the group will strive to work toward making changes by providing "a little assistance" if necessary.
"The second tier is to reach out to those who have experienced a crisis of faith, and really to exercise a ministry of presence, and to meet people where they are," Murtha added. "One way we want to do that is by opening up a coffee shop, like on Main Street, and just giving people the opportunity to encounter a religious and to begin a dialogue, if they want to. It would be non-confrontational."
Finally, the third tier would help those who are now active in the faith by helping them to remain solid in doing so. Suggested plans for this include organizing retreats and parish missions.
When asked what went into having Bishop Malone approve them as a private association of the faithful, Langlois said the process is an "interesting" one that takes time. The Marian Franciscans have been discerning together for the past six years. At first, it included Langlois, Murtha and Leaderstorf, who graduated in 2009 while Chance was still attending classes. Chance graduated in 2011. Martin, a Georgia native, contacted the rest of the group and moved to Western New York to be with them.
As the Marian Franciscans continued discerning, it soon "got to a point where all roads were leading to the bishop," Langlois said, which led to a meeting with Bishop Malone on Oct. 28, 2013. As a private association of the faithful, they will have a Mass of thanksgiving and commemoration where they will receive common garb as postulants. They wear necklaces with Tau crosses, their symbol of unity.
"Since we are making a formal step forward as a private association of the faithful, then we're moving forward also in our process of formation, with the intended all of the different stages going forward, that eventually one day we will be professed religious," Langlois said. The Mass is scheduled for May 23, the eve of Pentecost, during which Bishop Malone has agreed to celebrate the Mass. Once they receive the postulant garb, they will begin a novitiate and become a public association of the faithful.
The Marian Franciscans would be a public association of the faithful until they reached 40 people, upon which they would be recognized as a diocesan rite community. Langlois said there is no set time frame for the process, and it depends on a number of factors. At each stage, Bishop Malone must give permission to proceed, and he discerns with the prospective sisters. Father Joseph Gatto, the president and rector of Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, is the community's spiritual director. Father Gatto meets with the group on a monthly basis to do formation work. Father Robert Zilliox is the group's canon lawyer.
"Our end goal is to be pontifical, which will be after quite a while, to be a religious congregation under the Holy See. You have to kind of go through those other stages, first, to fulfill all of the requirements in formation," Langlois said. "Bishop Malone is so pastoral, and he's really been such a father to us. Even when he sees us out at events, he always says hello to us and greets us with a smile."
The Marian Franciscans are open to young women in any diocese who is interested in joining, although there is a discernment period, as with any other religious community. Since Murtha serves as the vocation director, interested women between the ages of 18 and 35 should contact her, after which they may visit with the group to spend time with the existing members in ministry or on a retreat.
As a private association of the faithful, all existing Marian Franciscans are currently postulants, so new members would be absorbed into the group at the different stages and agree to the same things that the existing members currently do. All prospective members must be practicing Catholics. If they want to be an affiliate, they should commit themselves to daily prayer and avoid dating, in order to prepare themselves for the process of becoming a woman religious and affirm commitment to the lifestyle.
"We discern with them. They discern on their own, and then there's an ongoing dialogue back and forth until the woman feels like she might be ready to join us," Langlois explained. "I think a lot of people have this image of religious as boring people who are really serious all the time. Women religious are just normal people who are called by God to serve the Church, and so I think that's the biggest thing."
"There's not a level of perfection that you have to have," Murtha commented. "The journey in religious life is not, 'I have to be holy before I enter a religious community.' It's just a desire to serve the Church, a desire to be holy and a desire to love in general. Mother M. Angeline Teresa (McCrory), the founder of the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, once said, 'A religious vocation really is just falling in love with the Sacred Heart.' That's what religious life is: it's a great love for Jesus and His Church."