Support for the discernment of women’s vocations is growing in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and organizers hope methods can be replicated nationwide.

When Fr. John Burns, a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, began walking with young people discerning religious life, he noticed the vast gap between focus on men’s vocations versus women’s. It wasn’t until meeting with vocations directors at various local women’s religious communities that he realized just how wide that gap was.

“Most of them shared that vocational numbers had declined so steeply and for so long that they were no longer able to accept women in their 20s, or even 30s, due to age and generational differences,” Fr. Burns said. “Some said that they could not accept any new vocations at all and were in plans to wind down their apostolates completely.”

Fr. Burns was concerned at the lack of support for young women called to a consecrated life. For most of history, priests took care of the young men in discernment and the sisters took care of the young women. Through the mid and late 20th century, many religious sisters had to withdraw from their engagements in schools and parishes; thus, new generations of women lost the visible reminder of their calling.

Even still, young women feel the stir to pursue religious life, whether or not they see their vocation reflected in school and Church communities.

Fr. Burns said, “Even without encountering sisters the way former generations had, in the vocations office we would get a lot of calls and emails from young women inquiring about a religious vocation. At the same time, I was traveling around the county working with communities of women religious that are still receiving new vocations and are growing quite rapidly. Some of these communities have hundreds of parishes and dioceses on a waiting list who have requested sisters back in the parishes and schools.”

Despite what communities, media and the secular world may suggest, women’s vocations are still very much alive, and Fr. Burns felt a call to ensure that young women receive adequate shepherding to help them to pray, discern and step fully into their God-given vocation.

In 2022, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki assigned Fr. Burns to fully devote his time to helping religious life and to broadening the stewardship of vocations in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Founding the Friends of the Bridegroom

In building a foundation for women’s discernment, Fr. Burns founded an apostolate called Friends of the Bridegroom, with a mission to renew the Church through the healing, renewal and expansion of women’s religious life in America. The apostolate has two main focuses. On one front, they assist existing religious communities in the engagement of personal and communal healing to facilitate well-ordered growth. On another front, they work to establish and deepen a culture of vocational discernment among young women and in families.

“At the foundation, we identify whatever needs to be done to foster an awareness among young women that God still calls, and in fact greatly desires, many women to come to him in consecrated life,” Fr. Burns said. “Then, once a community — family, parish or diocese — has sufficiently fostered that awareness, it becomes vital to set up real, meaningful and sustained encounters between young women and women religious.”

As that begins to happen, many young women recognize the need to formally discern a religious vocation, and it then becomes the task of the local Church to facilitate adequate vocational accompaniment in spiritual direction, discernment groups and formation.

In bringing women closer to Christ through awareness, encounter and accompaniment, the Church grows stronger and more unified by women living their vocation in consecrated life.

What’s to Come

While much of the Church and nation has devoted a significant amount of energy to the vocational and spiritual direction of priesthood, there is still much work to be done in the realm of women’s vocations. As Fr. Burns explained, a woman discerns religious life in a distinctly feminine way, and consecrated religious life has many nuances that distinguish it from the priesthood.

Fr. Burns and Friends of the Bridegroom hope to develop a template of women’s vocational promotion that can then be mirrored in other parts of the country. One initiative is the Bethany House of Prayer, which is a community of young adult women who assist with the Friends of the Bridegroom’s mission. The Bethany House provides space for the local Church to be renewed in its love for Christ through hosting events with visiting religious.

Subsequently, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity assigned Sr. Miriam James Heidland, S.O.L.T., as executive director of Friends of the Bridegroom. Sr. Miriam has done tremendous work over the years, both in Milwaukee and nationally, to foster healing and renewal, and is sure to bring unique value in her role as executive director.

These initiatives are part of a broader movement to empower priests, religious and laity to renew the Church, the Bride of Christ. Investing in the spiritual and vocational direction of young men and women is not only valuable but crucial. The unity of the Church throughout Milwaukee, the country and world is only as strong as its individuals — clergy and lay — who devote their lives to serving the Church through their unique vocation and calling.

Fr. Burns said, “[We must] allow ourselves to get creative and, at the same time, refuse to imagine the future of the Church without religious women.”

Fr. John Burns