By Anthony Barich
With the streets of Sydney flooded with Religious Sisters, Brothers and priests, World Youth Day turned into a community for religious communities, strengthening them and makes those from secularised Western countries feel more at home.
Ursuline Missionary of the Sacred Heart Sister Maria Mori, from Western Australia, has been a Religious Sister for four years and is the only Australian-born member of her Religious congregation in Australia.
She’s also one of only three to have taken their vows in Australia – all in Fremantle, Western Australia’s harbour city. But it’s the harbour city on Australia’s eastern seaboard – Sydney – where she felt more at home this past week.
Sister Maria, 38, is a high school teacher at Emmanuel Catholic College in Success, Perth. She has the distinctive southern Italian olive skin but talks like an Aussie teenager.
Words like ‘awesome’, ‘really cool’ and ‘like’ pepper her speech, and she’s prone to bursting out into spontaneous laughter that’s infectious.
She also wears her order’s habit – something that’s barely seen in Australia, unless they’re only recently relocated from countries with larger proportions of poor people, like India or Brazil, where Catholicism thrives.
But in first-world Western countries, the Second Vatican Council’s decision to allow Religious congregations the choice to wear their habits or not has been embraced, leading also to their invisibility – except through the works that they do.
But with over 225,000 young people – lay and Religious – descending on Sydney from around the globe for World Youth Day, Religious congregations were as obvious as the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge.
For Sister Maria, it’s like being in the heart of Catholicism again.
Young vocations to Religious life are scarce in Australia, and she misses being around young Religious.
“It’s really awesome,” Sister Maria says. “I feel like I’m in Rome again.
“People come up to me in the streets of Sydney and say ‘you’re Australian and you’re a Religious?’
“They didn’t think they existed in Australia as they ‘don’t see them around’.
“Just being around other Religious and saying, ‘I’m a Religious’ is awesome.
“People have been really cool.
“Every day I randomly meet Religious from other countries and they’re so happy that I’m a consecrated Religious from Australia; and we always promise to pray for each other. It’s beautiful.”
That’s not to say orders who have chosen not to wear their traditional attire, are any less holy.
In fact, Sister Maria says that if you don’t love others and have Christ in your heart, then wearing a habit is just a charade.
“I’m very good friends with a young Josephite from Perth, Sister Julia, who’s a wonderful person. They have Christ in their hearts and you know that they’re Religious because they’re loving and kind, and you just know they stand out as consecrated people. “A visible sign (wearing a uniform) is important, but if it’s not within your heart it’s just a load of… it’s just a cover.”
She says that childhood stories her grandmother told her of the witness of the saints who were both Religious and lay people made her think ‘oh man, I want to be holy’, though I got in trouble a lot as a kid. It’s a call to be close to God and to serve others.
“I really wanted to be a missionary.
“My dream is to be a missionary overseas, but it seems like God wants me to be a missionary in my own country, which is really, really important,” she said.
Sister Maria said she hope that World Youth Day would help more young Australians recognise the call to Religious life, or to married or single life.
Either way, she sees benefits in locals evangelising locals, as they know the culture more intimately.