Vocation in the Lay State
The Oblate Sisters of the Holy Face
Fr. Vili Lehtoranta

In the Summer of 2022, St. Gertrude the Great Roman Catholic Church started a group called Oblates of the Holy Face. The group consists of young women who serve the parish in the spirit of Catholic Action, and help the priests in whatever manner they should need in their missions or work in the parish.

 

Who are “Oblates,” or Oblate Sisters, as our group members are also called, then? Firstly, Oblates are not nuns. The word nun comes from Latin word nonna, meaning a child’s nurse. Though this word has in the English language become a generic term given to any female member of a religious order, the word nun has a very specific meaning. “Nun” also shouldn’t be used interchangeably with “Sister,” although the latter word is prefixed to the religious name of a nun when addressing her.*1 When St. Vincent de Paul started his Daughters of Charity, one of the models of our Oblate group, he fought very hard against the general public’s view of regarding them as nuns. He emphasized that those who are in religious state live in a monastery, and that the Daughters of Charity must see the city streets as their cloister, their parish church as their chapel, obedience as their enclosure, and modesty as their veil. The Vincentian Sisters of later times always let the faithful know that, whatever else they were, they were not nuns.*2 And the traditional habit of a Daughter of Charity, with its blue gown and white cornette, which became one of the most recognized habits of a “nun” in the world, was in 1633 nothing but the simple garb of a French peasant girl.*3

 

So our Oblates are not nuns. They are not even, strictly speaking, religious, but still laywomen, because they do not take vows. In the legislation of the Catholic Church, one does not enter into a religious state except by taking vows.

 

What is a vow?

 

According to Canon Law, a vow is “a deliberate and free promise made to God about a possible and better good” which binds by “the virtue of religion.”*4 When a person enters into a religious state, he takes the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty, also called the evangelical counsels.*5

 

The vows separate a person from the world. They are called “counsels” since they are not meant for all Catholics, only for those who seek the state of perfection; and also because they are not commandments, which all Catholics must observe under a pain of sin, i.e. love of God and love of neighbor.*6

 

What is a religious?

 

A religious institute is a society approved by legitimate ecclesiastical authority, of which members make public vows, perpetual or temporary.*7 Female religious are called nuns when they are religious in solemn vows, and sisters, if they are in simple vows.*8

 

Therefore, in our own situation, it is impossible to have religious orders, properly speaking, or religious nuns or sisters in the proper sense of the term, because a real religious institute is not possible without the approbation of the legitimate ecclesiastical authority. This approbation involves two elements: an authentic judgment, or declaration that the institute is becoming, licit, and useful; and the faculty to rule, because the superior must act as a public person or in the name of the Church, wherefore the vows accepted by him are called public vows.*9

 

Private vows

 

What are then the vows which we can have? Canon Law states: “A vow is public if it is accepted in the name of the Church by a legitimate ecclesiastical Superior; otherwise it is private.”*10

 

Neither the pastor, as such, nor a confessor, as such, can accept a public vow or render a vow public. Private vows can, though, be made to the pastor or confessor, without any intervention on the part of the Church.*11

 

With the lack of a legitimate ecclesiastical superior, who would be an official intermediary between the person and the Church, any group which consists of members taking vows can only be an unofficial group. These groups can of course function in the spirit of some former religious orders, e.g. Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, etc. But their members are not “nuns,” “brothers,” or “sisters,” because they can only make private vows, i.e. a promise to God to perform actions pleasing to Him.*12

What is an Oblate?

The members of our own Oblate group, on the other hand, are not religious, since they have not taken public vows – which, as stated, are impossible to have today. They also have not taken private vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty.

Instead, an Oblate is a layman or a laywoman who has been offered to God, or has dedicated himself or herself to His service in holy religion.*13 While still in the world, he or she searches for a more perfect state. This reaching for a higher degree of perfection in one’s own state of life can be compared to the transfer of a religious to a stricter religious organization. A sister or nun who has bound herself by vows to a religious congregation is generally not allowed to change her membership from one order to another, unless it is for the benefit of a stricter order. Thus the Fatima seer Lúcia dos Santos, who had first professed her perpetual vows in the Sisters of St. Dorothy, later received a special papal permission to be released from these vows and enter the Discalced Carmelite order. The case of an Oblate Sister is similar. She is still a layperson, but through her act of oblation she enters into a more perfect state, without becoming a religious, as can happen only through vows.

 

The term “Oblate” comes from the Latin word oblatus, one offered up. As can be found in many lives of the Saints, parents would, in imitation of St. Joachim and St. Anne, vow and give their child to the monastic life. Later on, when laymen dedicated themselves in the service of a particular monastery, they were divided into the conversi, who took religious vows and wore a habit, and the oblati, who were simply workmen or servants, who wore secular clothes and were serving the needs of the monastery in obedience to its superior. Later on lay brothers and -sisters took the place of the conversi, and oblatus changed to mean anyone who, for the sake of his generosity or special service to the monastery, received the privilege of lay membership.*14

 

The Oblates of St. Frances of Rome

 

At the development of Canon Law, there were two distinctions made between those who entered religion: the religious in the strict sense, who were professed, and the oblates. The latter ones retained some control over their person and possessions, while it was only religious who enjoyed full ecclesiastical privileges.*15

 

The first person who established a group of Oblates in the latter meaning of the word was St. Frances of Rome. In her childhood her biggest dream was to become a consecrated virgin and enter a monastery. But at the age of 12, out of obedience to her parents, she consented to marry. In 1425 she became a member of a confraternity which was attached to the Olivetan Benedictines. The members of this confraternity were called Oblates. They changed neither their state of life nor their clothing, but made a resolution to practice described exercises of piety. St. Frances then developed a plan of forming a congregation of young women and widows, who would live together in a community, under the direction of the Olivetan Fathers. In 1433 she assembled several women in a house called the Torre de Specchi, gave them the rule of St. Benedict with special constitutions, and submitted them to the jurisdiction of the Olivetan priests. Pope Eugene IV gave his authorization to this congregation. The Oblates of St. Frances consisted of choir and lay sisters. Each Oblate was allowed to have a servant, who wore the habit of a lay sister. At the reception of the habit, the Oblates promised obedience to the Superior, made the year’s novitiate, and were allowed to leave the congregation and marry, if they so desired.*16 During the Italian unification, the convent and treasures of its sacristy escaped confiscation by the Italian government, because its members were not, in the strict sense, nuns.*17

 

The Ursuline Order

 

Perhaps the greatest reformer in creating a religious vocation for women who did not want to become nuns was St. Angela Merici (d. 1540). In her work of creating what would become the Ursuline order, she developed the educational system for girls that ran parallel to the work of the Jesuits in the schooling of boys. She had started her work by herself and collected many young admirers, several of whom were no more than girls. These were meant to live and work in the world, so she ordered them to wear a simple and modest dress. Thus she started the tradition of the unenclosed religious sisters who walk and work in the busy streets and towns, which soon became a part of the Catholic life throughout the world, but was a novelty in her own day. St. Angela would gather her companions for prayer and spiritual conferences, which constituted an informal novitiate. She wanted each and all of her companions to be completely under the ecclesiastical authority of the Bishop of the diocese, and at the same time in submission to their director in all matters of governing. The practice of poverty was recommended but not made binding. She stated explicitly that neither obedience, poverty, nor virginity are the subject of vows, but simply of resolutions. Through the practice of these evangelical counsels, as she wrote in her Rule, her companions would receive “an ever-increasing charity” and become the “sisters of the angels - - possessors of all good.”*18

 

From the beginning to the end in her Rule, St. Angela insisted on humility and submission, both at meetings of the Ursulines and at home, “to father and mother or other superiors.” And this submission is to be without any reserve “unless there be something commanded contrary to God’s honour and one’s own good and salvation.” But she also emphasized devotion. All the members are to attend Mass every day “because in the Holy Mass” and not in any extraordinary personal experiences or manifestations are found in a unique way all the merits of the Passion of Christ. After Mass, the Ursulines were not to attract attention to themselves by prolonging their prayer. “If you wish to pray,” she said, “go into your room and there, retired, pray as much as your spirit and conscience dictates.” In her Rule St. Angela also strove to get as far away as possible from the type of superior she had known in her childhood – the great dame of the cloister who was no true mother of the community. She never ceased to impress on her girls the need of gentleness in dealing with others, particularly those in distress. In her summary of the way superiors should behave towards their subjects, St. Angela urged them to “love with a fine and deep love the sisters under their protection.” At the same time she stressed the duty of affection and obedience in the members of the Ursulines equally with the obligation of charity in the superior. The superior was to behave as Christ, while the subject was to obey Christ in the superior.*19

 

The Catholic Lay Revival in France

 

During France’s Wars of Religion in the latter part of the 1500s, the Minim friars of St. Francis of Paola were gaining attention both with their fiery preaching against heresy and for their austerities, which implicitly reproached the self-indulgence of unreformed clergy and laypeople alike. The mortifications practiced by the Minims were, moreover, themselves a weapon in the battle against heresy. Silently advertising the importance of good works in response to the Protestants’ claims of justification by faith alone, they embodied a theology of the Cross in which Christ’s sacrifice was to be affirmed through the imitation of His suffering. One effective tactic in their mission to stir a Catholic revival was the development of a Third Order for lay persons who wished to live a more devout life. By the mid 1500s the Minims, by means of their Third Order, had become spiritual directors to important members of the Parisian wealthy class, whom they encouraged in both physical mortifications and internal prayer. The publication of the funeral sermon commemorating the life of one Parisian Minim Third Order member Marie Du Drac (1544-1590) by her spiritual director, Fr. Antoine Estienne, OM, was clearly intended to help propagate the model of the devout life that she embodied.*20

 

Marie Du Drac was married at the age of seventeen to one of her father’s colleagues in the Parliament of Paris. After her husband died in 1572, she vowed not to marry again, but to devote her life to God. She joined the Third Order of Minims for the wish to live a more devout life. She abandoned her jewels and worldly attire, covered her hair and donned severe garments that shocked her relatives and friends. She transformed her home into a “little monastery”, raising her seven children in the fear and love of God, emphasizing humble obedience. She practiced charity by going into hospitals and the homes of the poor. She also visited prisons to bring hope to the inmates and worked to secure their release.*21

 

The faith of Du Drac was focused on Christ’s Passion and, above all, on His Cross. She once had a vision where Christ, wrapped in a purple robe and crowned with thorns, holding a reed in each hand and bleeding in all the parts of His Body, murmured in a lamentable voice: “O my daughter, see how much I have suffered for you.” She also went to Communion as often as possible – at least three times a week and daily during Advent and Lent. She often remarked that if the misguided heretics had only tasted the unmistakable delights with which her soul had been divinely nourished, this would be more than sufficient to convert them from their heresy and bring them back into the bosom of Mother Church.*22

 

Marie Du Drac also undertook the daring ministry of confronting her Protestant friends and relatives, admonishing them for their apostasy, and attempting to convince them of the error of their ways. In her spirituality she was ahead of her time. Her contemporaries judged her behavior bizarre, even unseemly for a woman of her station, and started to call her la Dévote, a nickname that, depending on the speaker, could carry overtones of either admiration or jest. Half a century later, the ascetic practices and penitential spirituality that characterized Du Drac’s religious conversion had been broadly adopted by the supporters of the Catholic revival. These women were called dévotes, and the term was still used in both derision and respect.*23

 

Daughters of Charity

 

The origin of the Vincentian Sisters were in the Confraternities founded by St. Vincent de Paul, which were meant for the religious education and corporal works of mercy done by laypeople. St. Vincent’s trusty supporter, St. Louise de Marillac, was asked by some Confraternities if she would send girls to help them in the service of the poor. So in 1633 St. Louise took some girls to live with her to train them for this service. Under her and St. Vincent de Paul’s spiritual training, these rough country girls were trained to discipline and prayer. And as soon as their training was done, they were sent out on mission work, frequently in distant parts of France.*24

 

It should be emphasized that St. Vincent never intended to establish a new religious order. The Daughters of Charity were, in his eyes, only a lay association that was to help his Confraternities. The dress they wore was not a religious habit, but a rough dress customary in the districts around Paris, or those of the peasant girls of the countryside. St. Vincent de Paul wished only a simple, modest, uniform dress for all his Daughters. He also would not tolerate either the members of the general public or the Sisters themselves to regard the Daughters of Charity as nuns. In his conferences to them, St. Vincent de Paul kept reverting to the point: “If some mischief-making person should ever appear in your midst saying, ‘We should be religious; it would be much nicer,’ Oh, my dear Sisters, the Company would then be in a state to receive Extreme Unction. - - Weep, groan, tell the Superiors about it, for whoever says ‘religious’ says ‘cloistered’ and Daughters of Charity are bound to go everywhere.”*25

 

But though they were not nuns, they were not on that account to think less highly of their vocation. St. Vincent used to tell them: “There are no nuns of whom God demands as much as of you.” He would not even allow them to have any contact with nuns – though, as he put it, they were not to tell the religious so, lest they should think they were despised. Nevertheless a modification was made in his original plan to permit a few carefully selected Sisters to take private vows on the feast of the Annunciation in 1642. Eventually the Daughters of Charity ended up taking yearly vows; on March 25 each year every member was free to remain in the community or to go back to the world, just as she chose.*26

 

In all his plans St. Vincent showed his confidence in God. He was well aware that the abnormal place in which he put his Daughters had disadvantages as well as advantages. The fact that they were not religious and without vows left them without the protection of the civil power. Yet they were obliged to go into disreputable city slums. And later they faced still greater dangers when they worked among the badly disciplined armies during the civil wars. But he accepted, and asked them to accept, all these dangers rather than bind them in a way as would have made their distinctive work altogether impossible. Had they become nuns, they would have received a recognized status; but they would have ceased to be Daughters of Charity.*27

 

Devotion to the Holy Face

 

The religious movements above have served as some of the inspirations for our Oblates.

 

The spiritual life of our Oblate Sisters centers around the devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus, which was also a favorite of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897). From her childhood years, St. Thérèse was accustomed to venerate the Holy Face, as it was represented on the veil of St. Veronica. On April 26, 1885, when she was 12 years old, she was enrolled in the Confraternity of the Holy Face, together with her father Louis Martin and her three older sisters. The devotion was inspired by the revelations received by Sister Marie of St. Peter (1816-1848), a Carmelite nun from Tours, who wanted the world to make reparation for the outrages and blasphemies that disfigured and continued to disfigure the Holy Face of the Savior. In 1851 Leo Dupont founded in Tours the Confraternity of the Holy Face, which Pope Leo XIII raised to the status of Archconfraternity and established for the entire world. When St. Thérèse joined the Carmelites in 1888, her older sister Pauline, who was also a nun there, told her that the disfigured Face of the Savior must encourage her to live in humility. She would remain hidden from the world and become Our Lord’s “little Veronica” who would console Him. St. Thérèse was so impressed by this devotion that on the day she received the habit, she added to her religious name the title “of the Holy Face.” She also often used stamps bearing the image of the Holy Face.

 

The statutes and rules of our Oblates

 

Since the members of our Oblates of the Holy Face do not take vows, they are not religious. But if our Oblate group is not a religious order, what is it then? The closest thing to which it can associate itself is that which Canon Law calls a pious union: “Associations of the faithful that are erected for the exercise of some pious or charitable work come by the name pious union.”*28

 

Because our Oblate group is not a religious order, as such it does not have the official recognition of the Church. Instead it relies its authority to every Catholic’s duty to help his or her priests in their mission efforts. In 1919 Pope Benedict XV published the encyclical Maximum illud, where he outlined these duties. The vast misfortune of the enormous amount of non-believers was a great sorrow for this Pope. He tells in this encyclical that all the responsibility for the propagation of the Faith rests immediately upon Bishops. A Bishop who governs a mission must be “a true father – an alert, efficient man, a man filled with charity, deeply interested in everyone and everything, a man who rejoices when things go well with his subjects and sympathizes when things go badly.”

 

The Pope listed three ways in which Catholics can support their Bishops and priests in the missionary effort: 1) prayer that God may grant the missions His merciful aid; 2) fostering vocations for the missionary work; and 3) economic help in whatever way and amount they can afford. Our Oblates of the Holy Face at St. Gertrude the Great Church have made their oblation to serve their Bishop and priests in this call. And they do this by their prayers and work in the parish, which is their monastery and cloister.

 

The rules of this work which the Oblates do in the parish are outlined in the statutes and declarations of the Oblates of the Holy Face. These define the purpose of the Oblates, lay down the conditions for membership, and recommend the specific good works which they are expected to perform. Since our Oblates are not religious, these statutes and rules do not bind under pain of sin, not even venial sin. The members of the Oblates of the Holy Face are not, therefore, bound by any rule which they are under obligation to follow out of justice, and under the threat of punishment. Instead, they have offered themselves to help their priests and neighbor out of charity, obeying their pastor more as a father than a superior.

 

In the parish work the Oblates serve first the pastor, and also the other clergy. Though they are not bound by the vow of obedience, they will respectfully submit themselves to their authority. It is by the act of oblation that an Oblate spiritually affiliates herself with her parish and its clergy. She does this in order to live a more perfect Christian and Catholic life in the world, and to promote, as far as lies in her power, the good of her parish, and devotion to the Holy Face as reparation for the sins and outrages of the world.

 

At the acceptance of the application, the candidate can start to wear the Oblate dress and is addressed as “Sister”. Postulancy usually lasts for three months, after which she receives the Holy Face medal, thus becoming an Oblate Novice. A year and a day after this investiture, the Oblate Novice can make her final act of oblation.

 

As their spiritual motto the Oblates have the words of Isaias: “Despised, and most abject of men, a man of sorrows, and knowing infirmity: and His look as it were hid and despised, whereupon neither have we esteemed Him.”*29 These words were the foundation of the piety of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. Their other motto is the same as that of St. Francis of Paola, i.e. the simple word CHARITAS – Charity.

 

Endnotes:

 

*1 Nevins 1965, 408.
*2 Maynard 1941, 155.
*3 McCarthy 1958, 29.
*4 Canon 1307 §1.
*5 Canon 487.
*6 Nevins 1965, 160.
*7 Canon 488.1.
*8 Canon 488.7.
*9 Augustine 1919, 47-50.
*10 Canon 1308 §1.
*11 Augustine 1923, 293.
*12 Nevins 1965, 598.
*13 Almond 1913, 188.
*14 Almond 1913, 188.
*15 Almond 1913, 188.
*16 Currier 1894, 534-535.
*17 Almond 1913, 188.
*18 Caraman 1963, 117-140.
*19 Caraman 1963, 142-166.
*20 Diefendorf 2004, 59.
*21 Diefendorf 2004, 3-4.
*22 Diefendorf 2004, 4.
*23 Diefendorf 2004, 5.
*24 Maynard 1941, 153-154.
*25 Maynard 1941, 154-155.
*26 Maynard 1941, 156.
*27 Maynard 1941, 157.
*28 Canon 707 §1.
*29 Is. 53:3.

 

Sources:

 

Almond, Joseph Cuthbert
1913    Oblati, Oblatæ, Oblates. – The Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume XI. New York, NY: The Encyclopedia Press.

 

Augustine, Charles
1919    A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law. Volume III. De Personis. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co.
1923    A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law. Volume VI. Administrative Law. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co.

 

Caraman, Philip
1963    Saint Angela. The Life of Angela Merici Foundress of the Ursulines. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

 

Currier, Charles Warren
1894    History of Religious Orders. New York, NY: Murphy & McCarthy.

 

Diefendorf, Barbara B.
2004    From Penitence to Charity. Pious Women and the Catholic Reformation in Paris. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

 

Maynard, Theodore
1941    Apostle of Charity. The Life of St. Vincent de Paul. London: George Allen and Unwin.

 

McCarthy, Thomas P. (ed.)
1958    Guide to the Catholic Sisterhoods in the United States. Washington, D.C: The Catholic University of America Press.

 

Nevins, Albert J. (ed.)
1965    The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary. New York, NY: Dimension Books.

 

Peters, Edward (ed.)
2001    The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law in English Translation with Extensive Scholarly Apparatus. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.