VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A church without religious sisters would be "unthinkable," Pope Francis said, honoring the contributions consecrated men and women make to the church and society.
"Every consecrated person is a gift to the people of God on pilgrimage," he said Feb. 2, reciting the Angelus with visitors in St. Peter's Square. The pope had just finished celebrating Mass for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, which the church marks as the World Day for Consecrated Life.
"There is such a great need for their presence, which reinforces and renews the commitment to spreading the Gospel, Christian education, charity for the neediest, contemplative prayer, the human and spiritual formation of the young and families, and the commitment to justice and peace in the human family," the pope said.
Straying from his prepared text, Pope Francis told people gathered in the square: "Think what would happen if there weren't any sisters, if there weren't any sisters in the hospitals, no sisters in the missions, no sisters in the schools. Think what the church would be like without sisters -- no, that's unthinkable."
Consecrated life is a gift that moves the church forward, he said.
"These women who consecrate their lives to carrying forward the message of Jesus -- they're great," he added.
Pope Francis asked all Catholics to pray "that many young people would respond 'yes' to the Lord when he calls them to consecrate themselves totally to him."
The earlier liturgy for the feast of the presentation, once widely known as "Candlemas," began with dozens of sisters, brothers and religious priests carrying lighted candles into St. Peter's Basilica ahead of the pope.
In his homily, he urged religious to allow the joy of the Holy Spirit to guide both their observance of their communities' rules and their willingness to be prophetic.
Religious must "never be rigid or closed, but always open to the voice of God who speaks, who opens and who leads and invites us to go out toward the horizon," he said.
Within religious communities, the pope said, the elderly should communicate their wisdom to the young and the young should accept "this patrimony of experience and wisdom and carry it forward, not to preserve it in a museum -- no, no, no -- but to continue it and bring it to bear on the challenges that life poses."