Monday, December 31, 2012

But How Do You Feel About It?

Among other things that St Joseph's holds, including the Basilica and National Shrine of St Elizabeth Ann Seton, is the Villa, one of our retirement facilities. Over the past two years, there has been one particular Sister that I've visited many times, in fact every time I went to Emmitsburg. She is quite a whip for being in her 90s. We'd sit for hours and have conversations about the Baltimore Orioles, joke about new souvenirs for the shrine (including a St Elizabeth Ann Seton bobblehead), share our stories and, of course, she would share her wisdom about vocation. She even met my family when we once traveled to Emmitsburg together.

And two days ago, when I knocked on her door, she answered with a great smile. "You sent me a Christmas card, didn't you?" I beamed - "yes, I did". "Oh, I've been meaning to write you back". I sort of chuckled to myself because I know what a bad corespondent she was. As I entered her room and got closer to her, she clasped my hand and said "Now we've met before, right?" I didn't show it but my heart sank. Instead, I squeezed her hand and said "Yes, Sister, many times"

A stained glass in the Basilica
depicting Srs performing the
Corporal Acts of Mercy
The question is.....why would a healthy 20-something join a community like this, a community where the average age is in the 70s, a community where she may soon see Sisters she knows and loves forget who she is?
Why not join a community where the average age is in their 30s or even maybe 40s?

It's a question many Catholics still ask about new vocations to so-called "dying communities".
To clear up things, first, the Daughters of Charity are not a "dying community". New vocations have been in smaller groups, but they've remained consistent and ongoing. For the past decades, our Seminary (novitiate) has never remained empty for more than a few months.
Second, even for other communities...using the phrase "dying community" (in my opinion) is insulting to these women who have dedicated their lives to God.

I've already talked about how God is still calling to all types of communities. That's the big picture.

Yet, discerners and others alike have asked me "well, yeah,....but how do you feel about it?"

Is it hard living with Sisters that are generations older? Well, yeah....sometimes. Cultures are different, likes/dislikes are different, experiences are different, etc. But most of the time - and this is the truth - I don't even notice the age gap anymore.

Yet, even beyond that, I believe there is a great advantage we have, compared to communities with younger average ages (though they are obviously wonderful too)

What possible advantage could be that, you ask? What possible good thing could come from having more Sisters that are older instead of younger?
For me, it's been an advantage that's carried me through the rough times and an advantage that has led me to smile as I travel on this journey.
It's been the wisdom of our older Sisters.

I've heard wisdom from our Villa Sisters (and those still active) that come from their own experience. Most of the Daughters of Charity who recently celebrated 50 years as a Sister are still in ministry, including one I live with. Another Sister I lived with in Macon celebrated 60 years last year. And believe it or not, but we actually have some who have been a Daughter of Charity for 80 years. They've lived through the changes of Vatican II (and maybe even got frustrated over how fast or how slow the changes were moving). They lived through times of crisis in the country. And, more personally, they've lived through periods of spiritual darkness, periods of incredible joy and maybe even crises of vocation.

They have wisdom that those of us who are younger - whether that be much younger or just a few decades younger - are still figuring out. While there is something to say about learning things ourselves, there is something deeply reassuring about receiving that wisdom, even if we may not quite fully "get it" at the time.

One Sister in the Villa had recently moved to Emmitsburg from St Louis, so I met her for the first time. When she heard I was soon to be a Seminary Sister, she clasped my hand and said with a smile "There are tough times, but it's all worth it - every moment"

Could a Sister in their 40s or 50s have told me the same thing? Sure. Yet, it meant something different coming from a woman who had dedicated the majority of her life to God and lived through so much as a Sister.

So, how do I feel about being a 20-something in an older community?

Blessed.

Blessed to have great inspiration surrounding me, to have the opportunity to meet and know amazing servants of the poor, to have my name on the lips of those Sisters as they pray for these younger Sisters, and to hear wisdom that will carry me through the joys and trials of religious life.

Will I continue to pray and work to encourage new vocations so the average age gets younger? Absolutely. But meanwhile, I will thank God for those Sisters who served before me and paved the way...even those who no longer recognize me.

(This post is dedicated to Sister Regina, a Sister that passed away while I was staying in Emmitsburg a few days ago. I didn't know her personally but she was in her 90s and active until the very last day. This is for her and all the wisdom she surely passed on through the years....)

Friday, December 28, 2012

Greater Than One: A Guest Post by Sr. Meg Kymes


Sisters represent so much more than just themselves. It is both a big responsibility but also one that invites lots of reflective and joyful experiences. Speaking about one of those experiences, here is a guest post from Sister Meg Kymes, a Daughter of Charity. She currently lives in Emmitsburg, Maryland where she works at Mother Seton School and the Seton Center.

Thursday I was awaiting a package from Fed-Ex while I was at school. I felt my phone ring in my pocket (luckily during snack time) and stepped outside to receive the call. I answered and the gentleman on the other side said, “Ms. Kymes? This is Bill from Fed-Ex. I’m looking for your house, but I can’t seem to find it. I’ve passed the antique store.” 

It’s a common problem in Emmitsburg. My own father missed the house twice when he came to visit. “You’ve gone just a little too far.” I replied. “Turn around at the next street and come back about a block. At the first stop sign turn right.” 

He arrived a few minutes later and asked, “What is this place? I’ve delivered to the school, but never here.”
“This is the Daughters of Charity convent.” I replied.
“Oh, so you’re a Sister?” 
“Yes, about two years now.” 
“Tough life. My daughter went to Mount St. Mary’s. A friend of hers became a Sister after college.” 
“Really? What community?” He thought for a moment, but could not remember. I signed for the package told him good-bye and God Bless then returned to class.

Later that evening I checked my phone and saw a voicemail. It was from Bill. “Sister? I wanted to ask you to pray for my daughter. Her name is Megan. She has been having some really bad headaches lately. I know God listens to your prayers, so I thought I would ask. Could you mention it to your Sisters too? Thanks and God Bless you Sister.” 

I was shocked this man would ask me this after a less than a 10 minute conversation. I reflected on this encounter that evening and mentioned it to some of the Sisters I live with. They reminded me that it is not what you do or say, but the fact you represent something much larger than yourself. I later found this quote from Paul to the Thessalonians. “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia— your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it…” (1 Thessalonians 1:8)

When I began considering religious life, one of the thoughts that kept coming back to me was I wanted to be part of something larger than me. I am always amazed and proud at community gatherings and when we receive letters from our superiors in Paris and Rome when I hear about all the great work that is being done for our brothers and sisters living in poverty all around the world. It’s beautiful to know that somewhere in the world there are women who like me are given to God, living in community, and serving those living in poverty.

(Sr Meg also wrote a post on Sr Denise's blog about why she wanted to be a Daughter of Charity - check it out here!)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Seminary: Accepting the Seemingly Unbelievable

Almost a year ago to the day, I was accepted for postulancy.
About six months before that, I was accepted for pre-postulancy.

Those were all pretty big steps, or at least in my eyes.

My road of discernment in 2003 as a senior in high school. And now the moment I fantasied about during those good times of discernment and the moment I thought was inconceivable during the rough times is here.

I've been accepted to Seminary. Since we are a Society of Apostolic Life, we actually become a Daughter of Charity at a ceremony called Incorporation as we enter the Seminary, instead of at first vows like many other religious communities. Our vows, which we renew every year, are taken for the first time many years later.

Soon I will be joining the history of the Daughters of Charity that has spanned for almost four centuries (so beautifully illustrated by the image to the right)

In January, I will stop being "Amanda the postulant" and start being "Sister Amanda, DC"

In January, I will become a Daughter of Charity.

In January, the tagline of this blog will turn into "a journey of a Daughter of Charity Seminary Sister".

After nine years of searching, nine years of journeying over two continents, I'm here.

While it was a great joy to know I was accepted, I'm still left in a state of disbelief.

It still hasn't hit me yet that, in a month exactly, I will be a Daughter of Charity.

It's just......God is crazy, but very very good.

My Incorporation will be January 20th. Please pray for me and my fellow postulant Whitney as we become Daughters of Charity and begin our 18 months of study and prayer at the Seminary!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What to Do After Newtown

On Friday, a devastating tragedy happened when 26 people were killed in an elementary school, twenty of them being children between the ages of 6 and 7.

I was an elementary/middle school teacher for three years before I moved here to Texas. And as I heard more and more about the tragedy, I kept imagining my own students from those years being shot down and left to die on the classroom floor. It sent more than one chill up my spine and that afternoon, as I was running errands, I listened to the newscast on my radio and gasped tears.

I'm truly left without words. So, instead I will point you to other great articles by people who do have words and wise ones at that:
The real reason I'm writing is not to point you to spiritual and theological articles/blogs about yesterday (though that is nice), but rather to suggest what you can do next.
  • Donate: A Trappist abbey is donating handmade caskets for all those affected in the tragedy (see this article) The abbey frequently donates or discounts child caskets to families, especially in times of tragedy. However, to make up for the cost of the materials, the abbey has set up a Child Casket Fund so that more families don't have to face the burden of buying caskets for their children.
  • Speak out: Has this tragedy affected your views on gun control? Don't keep it to yourself. Write your elected officials. Demand change. Do what you can to prevent this from ever happening again.
    On a perhaps more difficult note, talk out your feelings. Talk to your children about what happened (see this article on how to do it) so that they can do the same.
  • Pray: Pray for the souls of the victims. Pray for their families. Pray for the family of the shooter. Pray for those left behind - the children and teachers who have lost their friends and co-workers, for whom life will never be the same. And pray for our world.
  • Love: Just love.
(Have you read any other faith-related articles about the tragedy? Or know of any other related organizations to donate to? Leave it in the comments!)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Playing Billiards and Cleaning Floors: The Story of Sister Martina Vázquez Gordo

Sister Martina Vazquez Gordo had slowly become famous all over Spain for her service of the poor, similar to the fame Mother Teresa of Calcutta had in India or Bea Gaddy in Baltimore. Like Blessed Rosalie Rendu before her, she became a friend of the rich and the poor alike. And that is why it was all the more surprising when she was martyred on October 4, 1936 by the same soldiers she had served so faithfully.

Stories of Sister Martina are different than the flowery descriptions I've found of some of the martyrs. Rather, she seems like the type of person you'd like to sit and have a beer with (that is, if Sisters drank...) I can imagine her with a loud belly laugh telling others of her blunt unconventional actions while, at the same time, remaining humbly silent about the many ministries she founded to serve the poor of Spain (that is, unless she could use the opportunity for fundraising!).

One such story is in her beginning years as a Daughter of Charity. She became the superior of the school Colegio de la Milagrosa in Zamora, Spain. There was poor enrollment in the school and soon Sr Martina found out why - people in the community thought the school gave inferior education. So, what did she do? She went out in the community and spread word of the school to boost enrollment. Admirable, but this is itself isn't that interesting of a feat. What is interesting is how she did it. Discretely (I'm assuming out of her habit - the cornette is pretty noticeable), she entered one of the men's clubs in the community. Surely, the club was full of cigar smoke and alcohol - certainly not the typical hang-out of a nun unless you're telling jokes. But Sr Martina struck up conversation with some of the men playing billiards, attempting to convince them to enroll their children in the school. Maybe annoyed, one man jokingly said "Fine! If you make this shot, I'll send my son there!" She took the cue stick and, lo and behold, made the shot. Upon enrolling his child, the man must have figured out that this billiards-playing woman was actually the superior, Sister Martina. From there, the school flourished....and so did her fame.

After her stint at the school, she was missioned to a hospital and school in Segorbe. The institution was in much debt and very poor physical condition. But similar to what she did for Colegio de la Milagrosa, Sr Martina turned the situation upside down. She not only built relationships with wealthy families to improve the physical condition of the buildings, but she also used her own personal family money to do so. But she wasn't satisfied with what the institution and the Daughters were already doing - she knew the poor needed more.

So she founded a soup kitchen called "Gota de Leche", a consultation center for nursing mothers, a center for the transient poor who needed help getting employment, and created the Charitable Board of Segorbe, a group of wealthy families to assist maintain the nursing home and hospital for the elderly. Oh, not to mention, she also taught courses in the school.
It's a wonder this woman even slept.

Soon, she was elected onto the Provincial Council but, after five years, she was off on a new adventure - going to North Africa to nurse the wounded Spanish troops from the Battle of Annual. Sr Martina did everything she could to serve the soldiers, even cleaning floors, stating often that they and the poor are what would lead her to heaven. At one point, a truck overflowing with wounded soldiers came and there was no more room in the hospital for all of them. The officers' club was nearby and would do perfectly. But one of the high-ranking officials refused. But Sr Martina didn't accept his answer so submissively. She went to a higher power - the war minister. Not only did he allow the use of the club as a temporary hospital, but he appointed her Captain General of the military, perhaps the highest title in the Spanish Army, which gave her the authority to do whatever it was she wanted.

Three years later, at the end of the war, she was sent back to Segorbe, though not before befriending the Muslim leaders in the area who gifted her a silk cloth to be used for the Virgin. It would be ten more years before the troubles would begin. Around 1936, Sr Martina started to become suspicious of the new government and its movement against the Church. One day, fearing a takeover of the house, the Sisters consumed all the hosts, prepared to be booted out of the hospital. And that they were. Told that they had to leave or the soldiers would bomb the hospital, the soldiers led them to an abandoned house, where they remained locked in for a few months.

Soon, like Sister Josefa after her, she got the premonition that she would be martyred. So she prepared for her death by making confession. Since a priest obviously couldn't enter into the makeshift jail the Sisters lived in, she improvised. Like Father Damien who confessed by yelling from one boat to another in the movie Molokai, Sr Martina confessed through signs in the window. When the soldiers came for her, they came for her alone. The Sisters cried to accompany her but the soldiers wouldn't allow it. Placed in a truck, Sr Martina bluntly told the soldiers You're going to kill me and so there's no need to take me far away. When the time came for her to be martyred, her killers asked her to turn her back to them. She absolutely refused. I want to die facing you like Christ and also like Christ, I forgive you.

With holy water, she blessed herself and kissed the crucifix, saying If I have offended you in anything, I ask forgiveness and if you kill me, I forgive you … when you want, you can fire your weapons. With her facing them, they shot and, in typical strong Sr Martina fashion, the two shots in her neck and face didn't kill her right away. With the strength she had left, she yelled My God, have mercy on me!

With that, Sr Martina Vazquez Gordo - the billiards player, the Capital General, the friend of Christians and Muslims, the admirable Daughter of Charity - fell into a ditch and died. She was 68 years old and had been a Daughter of Charity for over 30 years.

She is one of the many Daughters of Charity to be beatified this October, all martyrs of the Spanish Civil War. You can read the story of a fellow Daughter of Charity martyr, Sister Josefa Martinez Perez, here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Five years ago today....: Divine Providence Alone at Work

I have great reason to say, in truth, that it has been Divine Providence alone at work. Going there, I had no knowledge of what there was to do. I can say that I saw what was being done only when it was completed. In encounters where I could have met with obstacles, the same Divine Providence provided, totally unexpectedly, persons who could help me . . .. It also seemed to me that I was doing what I was meant to do without knowing how. May God be forever blessed for it! - St Louise de Marillac (L. 159)
Hna Paula and aspirant me
meeting an American Daughter of Charity
Five years ago today, I rolled in my suitcase through the front doors of the Divino Niño Convent. By doing so, I started my first day as a member of a Salesian religious community. I was very nervous. In fact, I spent the night before crying (which, in hindsight, I should have considered a sign...) A few weeks later, I would receive the aspirant habit and start my second job as a third-grade religion teacher soon after that.

The doubts started pretty soon after that first day. For many different reasons, I was unhappy there. And about six months later, I finally decided and got up the courage to tell the Sisters I was leaving the community. I don't like talking about the details of those months in that community because I find those experiences and emotions to be very private for me. However, I will say one thing....

...I know now it was all part of a plan of Divine Providence. Like St Louise said, I was doing what I was meant to do without even knowing it.

And it led me here five years later, in late 2012, in the final months of my postulancy with the Daughters of Charity. And I can't imagine myself anywhere else but with the Daughters. I had no idea that my journey would be like this, that a relative "mistake" would bring me to what I was always meant to be - a Daughter of Charity.

Almost four centuries ago, our foundress Saint Louise wrote to a Sister that was leaving for Poland, one of the first foreign missions of the Daughters of Charity. She wrote this, showing her dear affection for the Sister that she quite possibly would never see again. Yet, quite egotistically perhaps, as I read it, it's as if Saint Louise is talking straight to me and I can feel her comfort and love.
With all my heart I wish you the joy and interior consolation of a soul that is lovingly submissive to the most holy will of God . . . Oh, what an excellent way of life, hard on nature but sweet and easy for souls enlightened by eternal truths and by the awareness of the joy to be found in pleasing God and in allowing Him full mastery over their wills! This, it seems to me, . . . is the road that God wills you to travel to reach Him, however difficult it may appear. Enter upon it, then, wholeheartedly as would a vessel that will carry you where you must go. - St Louise de Marillac (L.448)
I pray that I may always lovingly submit to Divine Providence and remember where He has already taken me....and I wish the same for you, readers, wherever you may be on the journey.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent Through the Eyes of the Virgin Mary

This past Sunday began the season of Advent, a liturgical season in the Catholic Church that's a time of waiting, of hope and of preparation for the coming of Jesus. Advent obviously brings me closer to Jesus, but it also brings me closer to the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary. While Catholics especially have a deep respect for the Blessed Mother, I think even we can easily forget just how great her example is.

The Virgin Mary in
"The Nativity Story"
C.S. Lewis once said that if you were looking for a religion to make you comfortable, he wouldn't recommend Christianity. One day, I was praying over this quote, it occurred to me that our most holy books, the New Testament, start with a challenge. And who completed that challenge? It wasn't a king, wasn't a prophet, it wasn't even a man. It was a young poor girl from Nazareth. 

She truly was the first to say "yes" to Christianity. And she easily had the biggest challenge of any other Christian to come - to bear a son in a world that could easily stone her for being unmarried and pregnant. Not only any son, but God's own Son, the chosen Messiah.

Mary was conceived without sin (that's the Immaculate Conception - Jesus' conception is "virgin birth"), but she was still human. Not only was she still human, but she was still a young teenager. Like the rest of us, she felt emotion. She had to be confused, but, perhaps most of all, she had to be scared, even with the faith that God would always be with her.

How did she explain to Joseph, the one who she was promised to marry, that she was pregnant? How Joseph's initial reaction must have hurt and how relieved she must have felt when he heard the angel in a dream. How did she explain her pregnancy to her family and friends? Those of us who are discerning religious life sometimes stress out over telling our family/friends that we might just become a Sister/priest/etc. Imagine how Mary must have felt.   This wasn't a discernment, this was a call and action that had already been completed. There was no "Well, Mom and Dad, I'm thinking about this....". No, she was already pregnant. Becoming a Sister/priest/etc is accepted in religious circles, if not in our family and friends. Being unmarried and pregnant, on the other hand....

But what is so amazing about Mary is that she stayed true to her calling. The Gospels never tell us that Mary said "No, God, I change my mind...pick someone else". And well....there were probably times when she doubted, maybe even times where she broke down and cried. But she stayed faithful through all the difficulties. She knew that God was with her - both spiritually and physically - and, through the message of Gabriel, that absolutely nothing was impossible for God.

Dorothy Day once said "don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed that easily" I believe that it is a big temptation for us to dismiss Mary with flowery language and images, especially in the Catholic world. While those can be nice, it is essential for us to know her as a real person who made a very radical choice to accept God's call through carrying Christ. By saying "yes", she made the first footstep on the road we all long to follow. 

This Advent, let us remember her faithful example as the "first Christian", the first one to accept the challenge of Christianity and the first one to wait for the coming of Christ. 
Let us put ourselves in her place as we wait, as we prepare and as we hope as she did.
And when Christmas finally arrives, let us welcome Him as Mary did, with absolute inexplicable joy.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Daybreak: Hope for the Homeless in Macon, Georgia

One of the most popular images lately is that of a New York police officer giving new boots to a homeless man. It reminded me that I had never written in this blog about a wonderful event that happened a few weeks ago in Macon, Georgia.

When I was in Macon as a prepostulant and postulant, one of the wonderful Sisters I lived with, Sr Elizabeth Greim, was in the process of opening a day shelter for the homeless, named Daybreak, as part of the organization DePaul USA, which helps homeless all over the country. While there is no lack of meals/soup kitchens for the homeless in Macon, Daybreak is to serve as a place where they could go during the day. There were to be washing machines, offices for case workers, showers, classrooms, computer rooms, and simply "a place to hang out" with books, magazines, and games.

I watched as Sr Elizabeth worked so hard to convert the old warehouse they bought into a workable shelter, as she raised funds, and as she got to know the homeless through an already-existing program called Come to the Fountain. Here is a video from their capital campaign, actually created by local high school students.


In less than a year, Daybreak not only exceeded their capital campaign goal, they actually doubled it.

I miss Macon a lot but one of the things I miss the most is when Daybreak officially opened on November 15th (that wonderful event I mentioned in the beginning of the blog). The Macon Telegraph, the local newspaper, did a wonderful video on the opening - it's worth checking out here. Sr Elizabeth, as well as the rest of the Macon community (especially local churches of all different denominations), has done and continues to do an amazing job in their dedication to the homeless in Macon. When Saint Vincent de Paul founded the Daughters of Charity in the 1600s, he told them that one of the most important ministries was simply being with the poor. Daybreak is doing that same thing over 300 years later, following the Vincentian charism in seeing Christ in the poor.

If you're interested in donating to Daybreak, you can either donate directly to Daybreak and mail your contribution to P.O. Box 204, Macon, GA 31202 or donate to DePaul USA through their website (or call them directly at 215 438 1955 to see what other donation options are available).

Thank you to Sr Elizabeth, the Daybreak staff and volunteers and all who help Daybreak keep going with their contributions! Many blessings!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Sisters, We Have to Be Courageous": The Story of Sister Josefa


Her name was Sister Josefa Martinez Perez. She seemed like any other Spanish Daughter of Charity in the 1930s, donned in a low white cornette and blue dress, walking the hallways of the hospital. Spain was at the height of its civil war but the Daughters continued their work, as they always had in the past during times of turmoil. Yet, as times got worse, Sister Josefa warned her fellow Sisters "Don't be afraid. We have to be courageous. Sisters, let us prepare ourselves because martyrdom will touch some of us" She was right. On October 15, 1936, she was taken away in a truck to be executed.

Her story begins in Alberique (Valencia), Spain where she was born in 1898. At the age of 27, she entered the Daughters of Charity Seminary, inspired by her membership in the Association of the Children of Mary, a co-fraternity for young women run by the Daughters of Charity. After Seminary, she was sent to her first (and what would be also her last) mission - the Provincial Hospital of Valencia. There she would stay for ten years, working in a ward for abandoned children and then one for women with infectious diseases.

In 1936, the Marxists took over the hospital and expelled the Daughters of Charity. It wasn't simply a matter of asking the 100 Sisters in the hospital to move somewhere else, but rather as a way to expel the community of the Daughters of Charity as a whole. So, for their own safety, the Sisters split up - a repeat of what the Daughters had done years ago during the French Revolution - hoping to one day be reunited and live once again as a normal religious community.

Sister Josefa stripped herself of the cornette and dress she had worn for over ten years and headed to her family's house in her hometown of Alberique. Things there were relatively calm, unlike what some of her companions were experiencing wherever they were hiding. But one day, in September, her brother-in-law was taken away for being a Catholic and doing charitable works. When they arrived, Sister Josefa pleaded "let him go and kill me! He has three small children and expecting a fourth". But they wouldn't accept her offer and he was arrested and executed anyway.

She probably had an idea that they would return. And they did, less than a month later on October 14th. However, probably to her surprise, they took away not only her but also her pregnant sister. Her sister Natalia, now a widow after her husband's execution, left behind three small children in the house when the two of them were taken away. When they arrived in the prison, Sister Josefa spent all her time in prayer, pleading to God and the militants that she would sacrifice herself for her sister's life.

Some hours later, in darkness, the prisoners were thrown into a truck. As Sister Josefa stepped into the bed of the truck, she once again pleaded for them to free her sister. Probably tired of her insistence and maybe even inspired by her sacrifice, they let Natalia go. The last memory Natalia would have of her sister Josefa is a hug they shared, in which Sister Josefa whispered "see you in eternity". With that, the truck left, leaving Natalia behind.

The truck drove to the outskirts of Alberique at El Puente de los Perros, where every prisoner in the truck were executed, including Sister Josefa, who had sacrificed her own life for her sister.

Some Daughters of Charity and Vincentian priests martyred
during the Spanish Civil War
It turned out that Sister Josefa wouldn't be alone in her martyrdom. Dozens of her companions, fellow Daughters of Charity, would also be martyred during that war, many in groups but some alone as Sister Josefa. This coming October, twelve of those martyrs, including Sister Josefa, will become Blessed by being beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.



Sister Josefa Perez Martinez, pray for us!


(More stories of these courageous Daughters of Charity to come!!)

Sources (for those interested):


Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Different Type of French Revolution: The Founding of the Daughters of Charity

On this day, three hundred and seventy nine years ago, in Paris, France, a few young women started a revolution. It wasn't a revolution with guns or even with non-violent protests. In fact, these women, young peasants who could barely read or write, didn't understand the immensity of their quiet action of moving in with Mademoiselle LeGras (also known as Louise de Marillac) and forming a new religious community called The Daughters of Charity under the direction of a priest who was slowly becoming famous all over France, Monsieur Vincent de Paul.

But their simple action on this day and afterwards changed Church history forever.

These women were former servants who fell in love with the work of serving the poor and now were dedicating themselves to that mission, yet in a way that would have seemed nearly impossible before. They were now to be religious, to be Sisters. But unlike other religious communities, there was to be no separation based on the background of their family, no such thing as "choir sisters" and "lay sisters" to differentiate between Sisters from poor or rich families. And also unlike other religious communities, they were there not just to pray but for an apostolic purpose - to serve Christ in the poor.

The first "habit" of the
Daughters of Charity
These first Sisters probably didn't know anything about canon law at the time, but Monsieur Vincent de Paul did. He knew that, under canon law, all Sisters were to be cloistered and there were no "if's or but's" about it. He had seen religious communities that tried to bend the rules either crumble or forced into the cloister, even the religious community of his friend Francis de Sales (the Visitation Sisters). But he was determined that his Sisters would survive. So, being the clever man that he was, he took the loopholes to his advantage. Instead of taking perpetual vows, his Sisters would take annual vows. Instead of calling their house a "convent", they would simply call it a "house". Instead of calling it "novitiate", they called it "Seminary". And instead of wearing a religious habit, his Sisters would simply wear the typical clothes of French peasants. He summed it up when he wrote the Daughters were to have "as a convent, the houses of the sick; as a cell, a rented room; as a chapel, the parish church; as a cloister, the streets of the city and the halls of the hospitals; as enclosure, obedience; as grating, the fear of God; and as a veil, holy modesty."

Maybe these first Sisters didn't exactly know how much of an experiment their new community, called the Daughters of Charity, was. But the "experiment" worked. There was no category in canon law for such a community - and, although the Vatican approved their Constitutions soon after their foundation, there wouldn't be a term for their type of community until hundreds of years later when the Vatican came up with the term "Society of Apostolic Life". 

Simply by becoming Daughters of Charity and paving the way for others, these women changed what religious life would become in the Church. After the foundation of the Daughters of Charity, priests and bishops started founding new religious communities, also under an apostolic purpose. Eventually, canon law changed, allowing but not requiring the cloister for Sisters anymore.

Some claim that it was St Vincent's ingenuity that allowed this to happen. While that is true, that ingenuity would have been useless if it weren't for a few peasant girls who decided to leave everything they knew to serve Christ in the poor.

They had no idea that millions of Daughters of Charity would follow after them (some now numbered among the saints and martyrs), no idea that one day their community would be serving the poor all over the world in almost 100 countries. and no idea that they would change the face of religious life in the Catholic Church.

They just knew they loved Christ and loved the poor and that was enough. That was enough to start their own kind of French revolution.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Bashful Poor: A Guest Post by Sr Mary Jo Stein

(As Thanksgiving approaches tomorrow and we feast with family and friends, it is important to remember those who are poor. How do they feel receiving turkey dinners from food pantries, homeless shelters, etc?
Here is a guest post by Sister Mary Jo Stein, a Daughter of Charity and nurse at a health clinic in Washington DC, about that very subject. She celebrated her 25th year as a Daughter of Charity this past year.)

Sometimes when I walk through the neighborhood to and from the health center where I serve, I imagine myself in Sister Rosalie Rendu’s time and place, as if I were one of the Sisters who served with her in her health center. I think about all the poor people we are privileged to serve here in Washington DC. I come and go in and out of their world, but always remain in my world of privilege, security, education, etc. My coworkers who grew up in this or similar neighborhoods say that those of us who come to serve here but who aren’t part of “the hood” are protected by those who live here. They won’t let anything happen to us because we provide them a safe place to receive health care. So, even in that case, I remain safer and more protected from their harsh reality.

A couple of weeks ago. I think that maybe I caught a glimpse of what it might be like (a very qualified maybe and might) to be on the fringes. I went to the bike shop to see about buying bike lights to continue my urban bike commute safely now that Daylight Saving Time is over for a while.

I walked in wearing my old sweats and t-shirt, not the blue and white habit I usually wear. The owner of the shop asked how he could help me and proceeded to show me his selection of rechargeable bike lights. I had checked my options on the Internet beforehand and had an idea of the price range that was within my budget. He told me all about several options, all of which were much more than I was planning to spend.

However, I had already spotted some rechargeable lights that looked what I needed at the right price. So, I reached for them and he said, “Oh, yes, those are good ones too.” After studying them, I realized I needed to bring my bike into the shop to make sure the lights would actually attach to the front and back frame of my bike.

Later, when I brought it in, the owner showed me how I could connect them to my bike. I remarked that I could detach the bike pack I had rigged up under my bike seat. Well, it wasn't so much a "bike pack" as it was "a lunch pack I have hooked to my bike with binder clips" (the Velcro on the straps wore away last year). As you can probably tell, none of my bike packs are real bike gear – they’re all improvised and rather worn, although still serviceable.

When I said I could carry my work clothes and lunchbox on my back and remove my improvised bike packs to make room for the lights for the ride home, the owner said, “We have a nice selection of bike packs you might want to check out.” I replied, knowing full well that I didn't need any new bike packs “Well, maybe I’ll put that on my Christmas list,

Perhaps he had also noticed the duct tape repairs on my old faithful bike, because as I reached into my pocket to pull out my budget money to pay for the lights and told him that I had the change in my purse,  he said, “We can forego the change and call it even.”

I immediately felt a mixture of shame and pride that he was thinking I must be poor and he was taking my last pennies. I’m a coupon clipper and love getting a good deal, but my reaction to this was that he was making a judgment of me and I didn’t want his charity. I said, “No, I have it” instead of “thanks, that’s kind of you” or “sure, I’ll take a discount”.

So how do the people I serve feel when I reach out to them? Do they feel like a charity case? Do they feel shame and pride? The owner at the bike shop meant well, I'm sure. But the shame and embarrassment I felt was very real to me, and my quick reaction to maintain my pride was just as real. This was only a few cents; what about those who need so much more, so much more often?

Saint Vincent de Paul, who helped organize the Confraternities of Charity, on which the Daughters of Charity were based and who helped write the regulations, used the expression “the bashful poor” at least 15 times in these regulations. What about the bashful poor in my life?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Love of Jesus Sees into the Future: Mother Theresa and Me

On a large spiral staircase made of slate, between the third and fourth floors, sits a larger-than-life painting of a nun. She stares straight ahead into the eyes of the viewer. Two school girls stand at either side of her, looking up in apparent admiration.

When I first saw this painting at the Institute of Notre Dame, I had no idea who she was. She was just a two-dimensional woman I passed on my way on my way to religion class. A meek freshman coming from public school, I had only recently met a Sister. And I certainly hadn't seen a painting of one quite so large before.

Turns out I was walking not so far from where this nun herself walked. Somewhere, underneath of the building next door, where the original school sat, was evidence of her footsteps.

Her name was Mother Theresa Gerhardinger. And those were probably some tired footsteps.

She was then in her fifties, the hair under her wimple and veil probably fading into gray. Her life journey hadn't been an easy one and perhaps her body already reflected that. During her childhood, the Napoleonic Wars had unfolded before her. Her beloved Catholicism faded away from Bavarian society - monasteries, convents and even schools (including her own) closed, property and possessions stolen from churches. She saw people formerly friends begin to hate each other. This led her, with the help of a friend priest, found the School Sisters of Notre Dame some years later. It wasn't an easy task - her friend priest died, the local people resisted her and she didn't have any money. But somehow, by the grace of God, she did it. And now she had gone along to bring the Sisters to the United States, leaving behind comfortable Germany and stepping into a new culture, a new language and a new need. After some other failed projects, the Institute of Notre Dame was founded as a boarding school for German immigrant girls.

Mother Theresa didn't stay for long, leaving for the German motherhouse soon after. It's more likely that a majority of those footsteps around the original school were her Sisters, bustling around to teach all different grades, to wake up the girls and feed them, to be there for emotional and spiritual comfort.

Although Mother Theresa physically may have left the school, her legacy never did. In those first years and years to come, American vocations from the school would pour into her new community. But then, more recently, as with most Catholic schools in the United States, the number of vocations from the school, either to the SSNDs or any other religious community, dwindled away to almost nothing. But yet, decade after decade, Mother Theresa was still there all the same, smiling over those girls who grew from timid freshmen to seniors ready to go out and change the world. She watched them come and go, and then watched as their daughters, and then granddaughters and even great granddaughters walked those same steps. I was one of them.

Students and alumnae agree that there is some sort of spirit in that school. God knows there's enough ghost stories set in the 160 year old building, but it's something deeper than that. It's a spirit of love and understanding motivated by deep faith in Jesus Christ. A spirit that I believe stems from the spirit of Mother Theresa Gerhardinger. Something occurred to me in high school, something I now attribute to the spirit of the school and her - a religious awakening, a metanoia, I don't know what to call it - but one day, in junior year, the idea popped in my head "maybe I'll become a nun". The thought terrified me. But every day, walking those slate steps to and from classes, I passed a painted nun with a tender face that told me "Look, this is what your life could be..." I mostly tried to ignore it, but other times it led me to deep interior reflection.

Now, I know that Mother Theresa was there, watching over and praying for me during those discernment years in high school. In her day, she was one passionate about religious vocations, often quoting the parable about the workers in the vineyard in her letters. Although I never knew much more about her in high school than a few of her words and brief biographical facts, she taught me that, if you have a burning desire in your heart, even if it means much sacrifice, even if that means giving up marriage, being misunderstood, or traveling to a different country, you can change the world.

She essentially said this same message to her Sisters before she left for the United States, telling them "Dear Sisters, why do we submit to religious obedience and not let our own will prevail? Why do we renounce property and love of earthly goods and voluntarily live poverty? Why do we remain celibate and separated from the world? Why should we unceasingly try to sanctify ourselves? Is it not that, being free from the cares of this life, we can better meet the needs of the dear children as spiritual mothers who meet our Savior in them?" 

A few weeks ago, I returned to the Institute of Notre Dame, my old high school, and talked to juniors about immigration and also about my own calling. I had an absolutely wonderful time and it took me back to my own days in high school. I once again passed by that painting of Mother Theresa Gerhardinger and reflected on everything she meant to me. And although she may be a bit disappointed I didn't join the School Sisters of Notre Dame and went to the Daughters of Charity instead, I really don't think she minds. She told her Sisters, also before her trip to the United States, "the reign of God will be extended when many virtuous, devout, obedient, and diligent young women go forth from our schools and to their families. This is our daily prayer" And I pray that I may be one of those young women from her schools that extends the reign of God.

And just as Mother Theresa Gerhardinger has done for more than a century, from her permanent place in heaven and from the wall on the slate stairs, she continues to watch over and pray for all those girls that pass through the halls of the Institute of Notre Dame....and I like to think perhaps most especially those girls silently discerning religious life in their hearts as I was. And it is by her prayers and spirit that, 133 years after her death, she continues to change the world.

(This next Saturday, Blessed Mother Theresa Gerhardinger will celebrate 27 years of being beatified in the Catholic Church. Let us pray for her canonization!)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Vincent's Metanoia: Hope for All of Us

Let me tell you a secret. The founder of the Daughters of Charity, one of the most famous Catholic saints, St Vincent de Paul became a priest to become rich. Sure, he probably loved God and all but he really did it to be comfortable, to enjoy all the privileges that priests did, and to put an end to this working in the fields. And he did, even living in palaces and castles, becoming the personal tutor and confessor to a rich family, the de Gondi.

But somewhere along the line, something changed in Vincent. He went through a variety of experiences, even becoming a slave to pirates at one point. With each experience, Vincent grew from that ambitious yet selfish young man into someone new. Thanks to Madame de Gondi, the matriarch of the rich family he served, he began to have even more experience with the peasants - the very life he was hoping to escape when he left home to become a priest. Vincent underwent a "metanoia" that changed his life, and the world, in a way he never would have expected.

Unlike "discernment" and "transition" (two of my least favorite words), one of my favorite words in the world is "metanoia". It's a word that's barely used outside of Lent, but yet it's one that could describe our entire lives. Vincent would certainly say that it would describe his.

I don't know Greek, nor will I pretend that I do. Yet, to my understanding, or at least according to Webster's Dictionary, "metanoia" means "a transformative change of heart, especially a spiritual conversion" The word is used in different contexts - theology, rhetoric, and psychology - but they all essentially point to the same thing, "a change for the better". It's basically a conversion.

Metanoia, in the Christian context, means repentance. We realize that we have been sinful and regret our actions. We recognize that sin was driving us further away from God and we dedicate ourselves to becoming better. In fact, the use of the word "metanoia" in the New Testament, originally written in Greek, is translated into English as "repentance" (example: Matthew 4:17).

All of that is good and true, yet I believe that metanoia doesn't always have to be a large "mea culpa" moment, in which we beat ourselves up over a sin we have committed. I think it's also the realization "there's something better out there. I can transform myself into something better than what I already am", which can come about through an experience that turns us upside down. Vincent's experiences with the peasants didn't come out of a sin he committed, but rather due to the persistence of Madame de Gondi, his employer and good friend. It's a change of mind and heart...and strangely enough and wonderfully enough, that's exactly what God wants.

Jesus tells a short parable in Matthew 21:28-32. He gives the example of two sons. The father tells the two sons to go and work in the vineyards. One says no, but then changed his mind and went. The other said he would go, but then didn't. Jesus uses this parable to illustrate to the disciples that tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God even before them. (I can only imagine how the disciples felt after that one, geez). But Jesus uses this parable to make a point - that it is because of metanoia, a deep transformative change of heart, that we more fully enter into the kingdom of God.

That may sound wonderful, but this change of heart, this conversion, isn't easy. Ask anyone who has ever converted to Catholicism or even Christianity. Now, I can't speak from experience since I was born Catholic, raised Catholic, and now on the way to becoming a Catholic Sister. But any kind of metanoia means a peeling-off of the old self. Problem is there's something familiar and comfortable, maybe even easy, about that old self. A part of us is whispering "just stay the way you are", yet another part is screaming "but now, it's impossible for me to do anything but change".

After those experiences with the peasants, Vincent was probably distraught. What to do? Life in the palace, life with the de Gondi, was comfortable - yet it was that same comfort that bothered him. He ended up leaving that family and returned to parish life. He would never be the same - and, because of that, neither would France or the rest of the world.

In my opinion, metanoia isn't a one-time deal. In Jesus' parable, the first son's decision to obey his father and work in the vineyard wasn't the only change of mind/heart he would ever have in his life. The tax collectors and prostitutes won't enter the kingdom by a simple decision to become a Christian. Throughout Vincent's life, we see him constantly changing his heart to grow into the Vincent de Paul that would die at the age of 79.

Our life is full of metanoias. We are constantly evolving or, to use a Biblical image, we are constantly being formed in the potter's hands. We are being transformed through the heart.
And if one of the greatest saints in Catholic history went from a young man joining the priesthood for all the wrong reasons to a man known all over the world for his compassion and humility, what can metanoia do for me?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Happy All Saints' Day

Both Saint Vincent de Paul and St Louise de Marillac died 352 years ago. St Elizabeth Ann Seton, 191 years ago. St Therese, 115 years ago.

Yet not all of them died so long ago. Saint Katharine Drexel died 57 years ago. Thomas Merton, 44 years ago. Dorothy Day, Ita Ford and Oscar Romero, 32 years ago. And even more recently, even in my own memory, Bl Mother Teresa died 15 years ago and Bl Pope John Paul II 7 years ago.

There's so many from so many different eras - some whose bones are all we have, others so long ago that their only physical legacy is their legend, and still others who we ourselves can remember dying.

Yet somehow, they're all still alive.

In my life, God has used the saints to help me feel that I'm not alone, to tug my heart in a different direction, to develop my spirituality, even to turn my world upside down. Their lives, their faithfulness, their love, and their wisdom touch me in accordance to God's purpose.

Sometimes I meet the saints in books - a dusty biography on a library shelf, a recommended spiritual one, or one that "just looked interesting". Sometimes I meet them through other people, like how I met Padre Pio though a close friend with a special devotion. Sometimes I meet them "by accident" - through things that can only be labeled as Divine Providence. I met St Elizabeth Ann Seton when I went to college in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she founded the Sisters of Charity and later died. I met St Katharine Drexel during my prepostulancy/postulancy in Macon, Georgia, where I worked in a church and school founded by her.

The saints have become friends on the journey, a comfort during the hard times and a welcome presence during the joyful times. Outside of Catholic circles, it's commonly misunderstood our devotion to the saints. To me, they're friends. Not God, not Jesus...but rather, the saint is my imperfect friend there to teach me something (even if from their own mistakes) and there to embrace me and say "I'm praying for you". And, as trite as it might sound, there's nothing quite like someone saying a heartfelt loving prayer for you. And the saints do just that.

Each saint I've encountered, canonized or not, has taught me something. They taught me about the Good News of love, about service in the name of Jesus, about contemplation, about peace, about suffering and about resurrection. But perhaps the biggest lesson of all, or rather the summary of it all, is "keep on journeying, Amanda....there's lots to learn and lots to do but it's worth it, believe me."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Letter Writing: A Long Lost Ministry of Words

Nobody uses snail mail anymore. That's a generally accepted fact here in the United States and probably around the world. USPS is declining in business, we get more than a handful of emails a day but all the snail mail we get is junk mail, and we're more likely to send birthday cards with just a signature and some cash rather than a letter of more than two sentences.

It's true for almost everybody. That is, except me.

Here I sit, in south Texas, writing letter after letter. I've must have sent out more than twenty letters since I've gotten here. Is it a desperate attempt to keep in touch with others, now that I'm thousands of miles away but still in the same country? Maybe. Is it because I love to write? Maybe.

Dorothy Day wrote “Writing is an act of community...
 It is part of our human association with each other.
It is an expression of our love and concern for each other.”
But there's something else about it. When I pick out the perfect card to write in for this specific friend (it's a process - I don't pick just any card), when I put the pen (black, never blue) in my hand to begin to write, something happens. It's more than just me asking how they've been, giving updates on myself, etc. With each sentence I write, I think more about the person and subsequently pray for them. It makes me feel a spiritual connection with them despite the distance, and in some cases, despite the fact we haven't seen each other in a year or more. My letter actually becomes a form of prayer.

I don't write anything profound in the letters - they're really fluff compared to the letters of St Paul, St Therese, Dorothy Day, Henri Nouwen or Ita Ford (all of which I've read and loved) - yet I find it an extension of my prayer life. It makes me think outside of me and my own little world, outside of my local community, outside of my ministry in Brownsville, outside Texas and even outside the country. It increases my gratitude for all that I've experienced and all the people I've encountered in my life.

Outside of the benefits to my own life, it's also my own way of showing love (and such, showing God's love). When I send a letter, I send it with the hope that it brings a smile to someone's face and lets them know that someone cares. Someone cares enough to console them, to congratulate them, to encourage them or even to simply say hello from miles away. And when someone cares, it's a sign that God cares. Letter writing allows me to a be a daughter of charity from miles away, states away, even countries away.

It's a long lost ministry. Not many even think of it any more. But slowly, I've realized that writing is part of my vocation, its own separate type of ministry. And the wonderful thing about that (and also maybe the demanding) is that it comes in many different forms - journal entries, blog posting, letter writing. And as long as I continue to listen to this voice compelling me to write, the long lost ministry of letter writing won't die (and USPS and greeting card companies will continue to love me because of my business)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

My Own Mission Statement

The Daughters of Charity have a mission - "given to God in community for the service of the poor" - which I try to follow every day. Yet, I think, at my deepest core, I have a different one. It's not one in contrast with that of the Daughters; in fact, I think they go together. I live this mission through theirs.

My own personal mission - my own personal dream - is to spread God's love everywhere. I want others to be so totally immersed in the awareness that God loves them that they couldn't imagine living life any other way. Anyone that knows me - that really knows me - probably just let out a "ha!" because they know I have to remind myself of God's love all the time (I'm a not-so-closeted perfectionist). But perhaps it is for that very reason that I feel compelled. Just as the Daughters of Charity (myself included) remind ourselves of their mission, I too have to remind myself of mine because it is so easy, and so human, to lose focus.

I've always wanted to write on God's love in this blog but I have never found the words. And perhaps the words will never quite be there because, in fact, God's love is so beyond description, so beyond reasoning, so beyond understanding. I just know that it's there and it's amazing. I believe that as Christians, that is where our unique joy stems from - God's love. And if our faith could ever be truly explained, God's love would be the explanation - the explanation for the nativity, the cross, the resurrection, the mystery.

But just me writing about God's love here in this blog won't make you aware of it. Reading about it won't change your life, just as seeing a picture of Jesus won't change your life. Our true experience of God's love isn't anything that is felt with the senses. It's supernatural, as if a mystical blanket has placed over you and warmed your your soul at its deepest and at its most intimate. It's a consuming flame that engulfs us in a most beautiful way. 

It is indeed overwhelming - to know that you are loved beyond all understanding. You're loved not because of your talents and gifts but with your talents and gifts. Not despite your faults but with your faults. It's overwhelming to know that this love is not earned nor does it end.

You were born because God loves you. He loves you so much that He chose you to be born, He wanted you here on this earth.

You live because God loves you. You're still alive because God wants you to have those positive moments (even the negative ones too), He wants you to spend time with loved ones, He wants you to smile and laugh.

We are created for love. By love.

As for my mission - to spread God's love everywhere - whether that awareness comes through me personally or not isn't the issue, just as long as others reach that milestone in faith. Thinking it can only come through me would be egotistical, not to mention far-reaching. I'm also not as unique as I make myself sound, for millions out there probably have the same mission and I'm just not aware of it. Yet, for some reason, I still cling to it as it were personal....because, really, it is. Just as God's love is personal, yet universal.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Contradiction of Vocation: Choosing to Stay

Tomorrow, a young woman is about to step into a plane, heading back to Bolivia. She'll return to the orphaned, abused, or abandoned girls she loves, to the little town of cows and cobblestone streets, to a language of indigenous vocabulary, to a city of snow-capped mountains, and to a climate of sweatshirts and scarves in mid-August.

Amber with some of the girls of
Hogar Maria Auxiliadora, July 2010
Her name is Amber (here is her blog). She arrived in Bolivia soon after I left and she's returning to spend yet another year there - her fourth year, to be exact. I don't know Amber extremely well. As I said before, we just missed each other when it comes to arrivals and departures. I met her when I came to visit a year after I left and we've communicated occasionally through Facebook, letters and Skype. But I know her well enough to admire her. Recently, during her time helping out with the orientation of the Salesian Lay Missioners this summer, we were able to have a conversation over Skype.


She said something that I immediately wrote down and knew that I had to write a blog entry about it.
"It's definitely a hard thing for people to understand. Mission work or religious life. We have extremely low and challenging moments, but it's something we freely choose anyway and then have the audacity to claim it's our source of joy and fulfillment. That's something that only God's wisdom can explain."

Mission life is not without its difficulties, and neither is religious life. Ask any missioner, ask any Sister, ask any priest or brother.

The mystery is that we stay. Not only that we stay, but that we choose to stay.
We, in religious life, stay despite the fact that the majority are older than us.
They, in mission life, stay despite the stress of new language, of new culture, and sometimes the stress of more work than can possibly be handled.

As everything within us begins to run away, it is God pulling our sleeve, and pulling us back to stay. And every time we encounter a difficulty - whether it be loneliness or overwork - if it is His will, He pulls us back even more.

The mystery is that as the pull becomes stronger, somehow we become happier. We find that He is not actually pulling us to stay, rather He is pulling us closer to Him. We find that it is in the life we live, frustrations and all, that we are most fulfilled. It is contradictory to those that don't understand. It may even seem contradictory to ourselves, yet we know this is what makes our soul come alive, this is what sets our hearts on fire and, most importantly, this is where we most experience God...despite the times we feel lonely, despite the times we yearn for a little time to ourselves, despite the times we are frustrated with our work, despite the misunderstandings, despite the times we look at our suitcases and wonder.

Amber is right. Only God's wisdom can explain it. But it is vocation - it is that same pull that led Moses to keep going on the way to the Promised Land, that led Joseph to stay with Mary despite her pregnancy, that led Simon Peter to not run away during Jesus' trial (despite the denials), that led Paul to continue his work despite the persecutions. It is a pull that has spanned the centuries...yet also a pull that is unique to each and every one of us.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Peace is More than Just Words: St Vincent's Take on Peace

Some famous Catholics, like Merton or Day or Francis de Sales, have written unceasingly about peace - both our need for it and how it fits into Christian theology.

Saint Vincent de Paul, though, remains mysteriously silent on the topic. He writes (or talks, as in the case of the Conferences to the Daughters of Charity) about everything else under the sun, but nothing specifically on peace or violence - at least, not anything quotable.

I'm currently reading a collection of letters from Dorothy Day, an obvious pacifist, so this bothered me. How could Saint Vincent, the founder of my religious community, really have nothing to say about the topic?

But oh, he did. Only, in typical Vincentian fashion, he did through action, not words.

Vincent, a Frenchman, lived through a century of wars. And, of course, as anyone will tell you, the first to suffer in war is the poor. People were starving, their lifestyle of farming was gone, and many were fleeing. In today's day, we can imagine crowds of African refugees walking, with nothing no longer to call their own, fleeing war to live in white tents. I recall a particular scene (the last scene?) of Hotel Rwanda. This, indeed, was the French equivalent of that three centuries earlier. His accounts from the war-torn areas are haunting.

No tongue can express… no tongue can express nor ear dare to listen to what we have witnessed from the very first day of our visits: almost all the churches desecrated, sparing not even what is most holy and most adorable; vestments pillaged; priests either killed, tortured, or put to flight; every house demolished; the harvest carried off; the soil untilled and unsown; starvation and death almost everywhere; corpses left unburied and, for the most part, exposed to serve as spoils for the wolves.
 The poor who have survived this destruction are reduced to gleaning a few half-rotted grains of sprouted wheat or barley in the fields. They make bread from this, which is like mud and so unwholesome that almost all of them become sick from it. They retreat into holes and huts, where they sleep on the bare ground without any bed linen or clothing, other than a few vile rags with which they cover themselves; their faces are black and disfigured. With all that, their patience is admirable. There are cantons completely deserted, from which the inhabitants who have escaped death have gone far and wide in search of some way to keep alive. The result is that the only ones left are the sick orphans, and poor widows burdened with children. They are exposed to the rigors of starvation, cold, and every type of misery and deprivation (CCD., IV:151-152).

As I read this, I can imagine Vincent's shock upon arriving that first day. I can imagine him writing with a shaky quill, still re-playing those memories from that first day, and the words not coming. You can hear his shock "no tongue can express nor ear dare to listen to what we have witnessed from the very first day of our visits..." He knew that no one could understand their misery unless they saw it with their own eyes as he did; he even wrote to Pope Innocent X "they must be seen and ascertained with one’s own eyes" (CCD., IV:446)

He knew that, not only did the war-ravaged poor need priests (both for material and spiritual aid) but they also needed someone influential to plead for peace. And so, Vincent, a friend to both the rich and the poor, did just that. Not only did he write (including to Pope Innocent X), but he also traveled, meeting directly with the rulers themselves who could bring peace. Travel in a war-torn country wasn't too easy nor safe in the seventeenth-century but Vincent, in a holy stubbornness, was determined. On one such trip, to plead with Anne of Austria, Vincent's carriage was attacked by villagers with pikes and guns. If one of the villagers hadn't recognized Vincent as his former pastor and stopped his companions, Vincent's story may have ended there. Later in the journey, he encountered a flooded river - his only means of reaching Anne of Austria. But as I said before, he was determined so the elderly 68-year old Vincent got on his horse and forded the river.

There is no way to determine if Vincent's words brought any peace, but he knew that it was something he had to do. Because of what he first saw in the war-torn areas, he was now committed to the pathway of peace. Not only did he send Vincentian priests to serve there, he also organized relief efforts for the victims of war among the rich and influential he knew - he created leaflets containing their stories and distributed them in parishes all around Paris. Vincent organized a relief effort very similar to how Catholic relief organizations gain collections today. He provided seeds, axes and other farming tools to the war victims, explaining "in this way, they will no longer be dependent on anyone, if some other disaster occurs which could reduce them to the same wretched state."

Throughout his work for peace, plagued by the misery of those affected by the war, by their starvation, by their illnesses, by the destruction, he wrote words that still resonate today and words that truly show how the war-torn poor had indeed traveled to the core of his heart and soul:
After that, what can be done? What will become of them? They must die: I renew the recommendation I made, and which cannot be made too often of praying for peace.... There’s war everywhere, misery everywhere, In France, so many people are suffering! O Sauveur! O Sauveur! If, for the four months we’ve had war here, we’ve had so much misery in the heart of France, where food supplies are ample everywhere, what can those poor people in the border areas do who have been in this sort of misery for twenty years? Yes, it’s been a good twenty years that there’s always been war there; if they sow their crops, they’re not sure they can gather them in; the armies arrive and pillage and carry everything off; and what the solider hasn’t taken, the sergeants take and carry off. 
After that, what can be done? What will become of them? They must die. If there’s a true religion … what did I say, wretched man that I am …! God forgive me! I’m speaking materially. It’s among them, among those poor people that true religion and a living faith are preserved (CCD., IV:189-190).

Vincent teaches us that peace is not words. You won't find eloquent or flowery words from Vincent about peace. You will, however, find action, which as Vincent shows us, is the only way of truly being a Christian who stands for peace.

(I owe much thanks to Fr John Freund's response to my email, in which I asked about the Vincentian response to war and violence, and his research (you can also search "peace" on famvin), including David Carmon's study on Vincent and Peace)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Inventive, Even to Infinity: The Story of Sister Hilary Ross

Saint Vincent de Paul said to the Daughters of Charity "Love is inventive, even to infinity". That inventiveness is something that first struck me about the Daughters of Charity - whether it's doing art ministry like Sr Maria or teaching at a university like Sr Anne.

Sister Hilary Ross was one of those inventive ones.

I first saw her picture in an article about the "Women of Spirit" museum exhibit traveling around the United States. And, of course, it's pretty unmistakable that Sr Hilary was a Daughter of Charity.

Sr Hilary was not a doctor or a nurse or even a physician's assistant. No, she was a biochemist and a pioneer scientist. She published in many scientific journals and soon became renown for her research in Hansen's Disease (leprosy) Meanwhile, she lived and worked in a leper hospital in Carville, Louisiana.

But researching leprosy at Carville isn't where her story ends nor where it begins. Sr Hilary was a Californian, the daughter of immigrants. At the age of 11, tragedy struck when her father drowned in the San Francisco Bay. Just a few months later, the famous San Francisco earthquake took everything. So, the Ross family, both fatherless and homeless, lived in emergency shelters until they were able to afford a house in Berkley, CA. Affording the house, however, meant that everyone in the family, even the children, had to work to pay the bills - including Hilary, once she finished eighth grade.

Meanwhile, Hilary, along with the rest of her family, was baptized Episcopalian but she frequently branched out into other Christian religions. She volunteered with the Salvation Army and also frequently attended Catholic Mass with a friend. Eventually, at the age of 19, she reached the decision to become Catholic. Her conversion made quite the splash in her house. It became the butt of jokes for her brothers and her mother was so upset that she constantly cooked meat on Fridays to spite Hilary.

Things must have calmed down by the time that Hilary announced she wanted to be a Daughter of Charity two years later. Her mom consented, although she didn't want her to go. As a Daughter of Charity, Hilary became a nurse (a quite popular occupation of the Daughters at the time) It wasn't before long that her newly-learned skills were put into practice, as the influenza pandemic of 1918 hit her hospital in Milwaukee. It grew to be something she'd never forget - the hospital filled to the brim, so many dying around her.

Shortly after, Hilary, now Sister Hilary, had to get a mastoid operation - an operation to remove an infection in the mastoid bone (the bone behind the ear). The surgery was somehow botched. she was left with facial paralysis. Since the first surgery was unsuccessful, Sister Hilary went for two more. Both would have great complications - first she contracted typhoid fever, then pneumonia, and then headaches that would never leave her for the rest of her life. When asked about it years later, Sr Hilary shrugged it off, saying "one learns to live with one's ailments"

Mainly because of her facial paralysis (which slowly decreased but never went away), she could no longer be a nurse. The Daughters of Charity, instead, sent her to study pharmacy. Soon, she was sent on her first mission as a pharmacist - to Carville, Louisana to the Carville National Leprosarium, one of only two leper hospitals in the United States. It was a mission that probably terrified her family and friends, who probably thought for sure she'd catch the contagious disease. But she herself had no fear - "I just had a job to do – and I had to give God the best of what I had. He’s always been my boss, you know."

Her job as a pharmacist soon turned into that of a biochemist. From 1927 on, she began to publish medical studies, especially on the changes that take place when the Hansen's bacteria enters the body. Thanks to her investigations, the world would have a greater knowledge of all the aspects of Hansen's Disease (leprosy). She, a humble Sister who never even went to high school, became recognized in the science industry as a pioneer. When an interviewer commented on her various awards and how great it was that she was now an international figure, she replied, probably with a roll of her eyes or a wave of her hand, "That’s all a lot of bosh. I just did my job as well as I could. And there were a lot of other good Sisters and people doing much better than I."

Sr Hilary stayed at Carville - researching, investigating and generally caring about the welfare of her poor sick - for 37 years. In 1960, she retired at the "old age" of 66. Perhaps people thought she'd finally slow down now that she was officially retired - but Sister Hilary thought the opposite, saying she still had much more life to give to the poor. Instead of taking it easy, she volunteered for the foreign missions - more specifically to Wakayama, Japan - to work in a hospital for crippled children.

And this is where Sister Hilary's story turns black for me, as I couldn't find any other details about her past her move to Japan, except this interview of her on the Daughters of Charity website. I do know that she died in 1982, at the age of 88, still living and working in Japan.

Sister Hilary was truly inventive in her love for the poor. (After all, do you know any other Sisters that are famous biochemists?)
She was courageous.
She was a fighter.
She was strong.

Yet, following in the footsteps of Saint Vincent de Paul, she was so humble in the face of such international fame, saying "I just did my job. Now you take Father Damien of Molakai. He’s the real hero in the fight against leprosy. I’ll have a lot to tell him when we meet in heaven!"

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Cheat-Sheet for Discerners of Religious Life

I don't know about you but I loved that time in junior/senior year of high school when colleges began to "recruit". Why? Because that meant lots of mail from different colleges, which meant, for me, lots of anticipation and excitement for the future. As I flipped through the pages of their brochures and magazines, I tried to imagine myself there. And there were so many choices, so many places to imagine. But the number of choices were also overwhelming at times. So overwhelming that, in fact, I applied to five different colleges - not making a final decision until shortly before graduation.

Discerning religious life can be a lot like that. Sometimes it seems that there are just as many religious communities as there are colleges. Each one has its special quality, each one has something that makes it different than the others, each one attracts someone in its own way. And just like a college, not every single religious community is for you. And unless you live in Catholictown, USA (hint: it doesn't exist), there is no way for you to encounter every single community out there. And sometimes you have no idea what you're even looking for.

Because of that, when you're discerning, the Internet can be your best friend. 

And so can something called Vision Vocation Guide, who just came out with their new 2013 issue. (no, they didn't pay me to say that) Because, unlike those mailings by individual colleges, Vision sends you a "catalog" of all religious communities in the United States - both mens and womens (there are also some great articles in there, like one called Why Catholics Care About People Living in Poverty from a fellow Sister blogger (Musings of a Discerning Woman). If you're afraid to get it sent to your house (...and I totally get that), there's also a digital version available. And be not afraid - you won't be contacted by any religious community unless you contact them first.

Each listing of a religious community includes a small description of their mission, ministry, etc and contact information in case you do decide to take the leap (...and yes, I do know it is a leap!) Afraid to take the leap and contact the vocations director, yet there's still something gnawing at you about that community? Investigate. Go to their website. See if they have a blog or two. (Shameless plug: some Daughter of Charity/Vincentian blogs are on the sidebar of this blog, as is the website) Check out their Facebook page or Twitter account.

So, don't feel overwhelmed. Breathe. 

Think about what it is that attracts you in a community - do I want to live in a monastery? do I want to teach? do I want to serve the poor? do I want a small community or a large one? do I want a habit? etc (and there are many more!) - and go from there. If religious life truly is your calling, you'll find the religious community where God wills you to be. But it's up to you to take the first step. 

You may even realize that the answers to those initial attractions may change with time, as they did with me. After all, at first, I wanted a non-habited American community with a focus on foreign mission. And now here I am, in a habited French community with a mission on serving the poor wherever they may be found. The journey changed but it was taking those first steps that led me here.

Be curious. Investigate. Create that first footprint. Be not afraid!

(On another note, speaking of "catalogs", the Response Directory, created by Catholic Volunteer Network, is a great way to find Catholic volunteer service opportunities. I used it to find VIDES+USA, which led me to Bolivia!)
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