Among the 40,000 runners who will line up to start the 2018 London Marathon on 22nd April is one ‘fancy dress’ competitor with a difference: Sr Theodora Hawksley CJ, 32, has decided to run the marathon in religious dress to promote vocations to religious life.

‘When I told my community that I would be running the marathon this year, my provincial superior said, “Do you want to run it in a veil?” My first reaction was “Gosh, it’s a big enough challenge as it is!” but then I thought, “What a great opportunity to witness!” It’s a great way of showing the world that religious life is alive and well – and even running marathons!’

Sr Theo entered the Congregation of Jesus in 2015. That year, 45 women entered religious life in the UK, which was the highest number in 25 years. ‘Entering religious life is still a very unusual choice for a young person,’ says Sr Theo. ‘It’s not like fifty years ago, when people would have been taught by nuns in school, or seen sisters in their parish or in the street. Nowadays young people have very limited contact with religious life, so it’s important to provide opportunities for encounter, and to do all we can to encourage and support people in exploring their vocations.’ A lot of vocations work now takes place online, and Sr Theo helps to run the website and Facebook presence for the CJ sisters in England. ‘Young people curious about religious life will often begin their search online. There are some great resources from the National Office for Vocation, and VISION Vocation Match – it’s like online dating for religious congregations! But it’s also important for religious congregations to put themselves out there.’

Sr Theo is running the marathon to raise funds for the charity Jesuit Missions, which supports the work of the Jesuits with poor and marginalised people around the world. It’s a very personal connection. ‘I spent seven months of 2017 in Guyana, alongside the Jesuits in their work with indigenous Amerindian people in the interior. The Jesuits provide pastoral support to some of the most remote and marginalised communities in the country, and we travelled to communities of Catholics who may only see a priest once or twice in a year. Jesuit Missions is absolutely key in supporting that pastoral presence.’ Sr Theo’s first visit to Guyana was as a novice, on a three month mission experience placement. ‘I fell in love with the people, but when I left in May, I didn’t know if I’d ever return.’ Then, within a week of her first vows in September, she was on a plane back to Guyana, this time to help with the development of a bilingual education programme for indigenous children. ‘Roughly half of Amerindian children never get to secondary school, and only one in a hundred will ever get to university or college. Amerindians are the poorest group in Guyana, and lack of education leads to further marginalisation and exploitation.’ Drawing on their expertise in education and their century-long relationship of trust with the Amerindians, the Jesuits are supporting local people in developing an education programme which will see children taught in their own indigenous language, as well as English, for the first time. ‘The bilingual programme aims to improve children’s standard of education, but it’s much bigger than that. It’s about enabling Amerindians to continue nurturing their indigenous languages and unique cultures, which have so much to teach us about how to relate to creation.’

What about the outfit? In the UK, the sisters of the Congregation of Jesus don’t usually wear religious dress. Sr Theo explains: ‘Our foundress, Mary Ward, had a pretty practical approach to religious dress. Our congregation was founded in the seventeenth century, when it was illegal to be Catholic in England. When in England, our sisters wore ordinary clothes, so they could carry on their mission and escape the notice of the authorities; on the continent, they wore simple religious dress. Their attitude was: mission comes first, and you wear what you need to to get the job done!’ In many countries, CJ sisters still wear religious dress, and it was a community in Slovakia who helped out by providing a veil. Sr Theo says, ‘My mission is to show as many people as possible that giving your life to God doesn’t mean giving up what makes you you, or what brings you joy. It means living life to the full, for God and for others.’

You can sponsor Sr Theo by sending a cheque to Jesuit Missions, or by visiting her fundraising page: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/TheodoraHawksley