Q & A with Poor Sisters of St. Joseph, sharing a mission if not a country of origin

by Soli Salgado

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Three women religious gathered in a school in Mercedes, a town two hours outside Buenos Aires, Argentina. Though each of these Poor Sisters of St. Joseph comes from a different country — Romania, Uruguay and Argentina — their previous ministry work in various parts of the world as well as their shared mission in Mercedes to care for the elderly unite their experiences and passions. 

Sr. Patricia Acuña, who is originally from Entre Ríos, Argentina, and is the community's superior, spent a few years in the neighboring country of Uruguay. Sr. Ana Maria Farcas came to Argentina in 2008 from her hometown Galbeni, Romania, but didn't know Spanish before coming alone. And Sr. Yeny Ramos, who is from Minas, Uruguay, and who speaks only Spanish, did mission work in Madagascar from 2005 to 2009 with a group of sisters. 

In a conversation with Global Sisters Report, the three sisters talked about their current work with seniors and the challenges of enculturation they experienced while ministering abroad.  

"All you have is your availability and willingness to learn," Acuña said. 

GSR: How did your work prior to geriatric care prepare you for this ministry?  

Acuña: My background was with children. Geriatric work requires a lot of different expertise — working with the sick, with doctors, with the elderly. It's not like I was prepared for any of that.  

But you become right for the job every day. You learn every day — the difference between how to treat an elder and a child and a homeless person. You learn as you go and try to see the riches in them, in how they're able to express themselves. That you can apply to everyone — from the elderly to the children to the homeless. But old age is a stage of life, it's not an illness, so you have to explain that to them, that yes, despite many illnesses and difficulties thrown your way, you have to learn how to live in this stage as best as possible. 

Ramos: The accompaniment also includes getting them outside because they suffer a lot in solidarity, either because they don't have family or because they seldom visit, so they suffer quite a bit in old age. So like Patricia said, you have to take advantage of what they are able to do.  

What they teach me is the demand that it takes to get outside yourself. Perhaps your own egoism might keep you from going there, but you realize that, once you get outside yourself, there's joy in the work. In working with the elderly, I'm reminded of how God has time for everyone. 

Farcas: In 90 percent of the cases, you can't apply what you've learned from previous experiences because each person is a unique person with different experiences. You can't just give what you've always given. You have to be patient and enthusiastic. 

What challenges have you faced in your missionary work in foreign countries? How do you evangelize in a new culture without imposing your customs and trying to enculturate? 

Farcas: Enculturation [in Argentina] has been an issue for me, especially around the holidays. For me, having to deal with enculturation was primordial. Without knowing the language, you're limited in everything. Until I learned Spanish, it was almost impossible to assimilate without being able to communicate with anybody. 

Acuña: I've had the blessing of being a missionary in Uruguay, and even though that's as close as it gets, there was still some getting used to. Enculturation is a huge topic for us because we have sisters from all over, but we also need to know how to form communities and how to draw from each other's riches. How do they celebrate Christmas there?  

We can't lose each other's rich traditions, lose our own when we travel, or impose ours on others. We may feel called from Argentina with our charism, but so do those from Romania or Italy. So God is trying to tell us something, that he finds us in diversity, and from there, we must set out. Enculturation also requires acceptance of one another as my sister. 

Ramos: This brings to mind an older woman in Madagascar who had a lot of trouble speaking the native language, but the local people still followed her closely. And I think that shows that effective evangelization can happen despite not knowing a language well. Your love and faith is transmitted through deeds, through attention, through so many gestures.  

When I was in the U.S., I didn't know English, either. Though I studied and tried, it was very difficult for me. And I remember the children would really take in Christ still, even though I couldn't speak well. They were truly touched by him, so much that by Sunday, they would cry when they saw images of him.  

Evangelization happens through many different avenues, which includes, above all, how we express ourselves. I felt that powerfully in Madagascar. Sometimes, it's more powerful than a catechesis class, which is important and necessary, too, to teach the Gospel and doctrine, but there's something about evangelizing through actions that particularly moves me. If others are observant, then our gestures can go as far as our words, which is an advantage for us when we're abroad and struggling with language. 

I remember the older sister who was with us explained to us that we were all speaking the language of love. When you hurt someone and when you care for someone, you're speaking a language. As [Farcas] said, it's intense when you arrive somewhere and can't communicate or speak the language. But it's also an opportunity, because they can be the ones to teach you, and I found that the poorer they are, the more they want you to learn and be your teacher. That was my experience in Madagascar. You become evangelized by their care and actions, too. To humanize is to Christianize. The evangelization is two-way: The locals teach you the riches of the culture. 

Acuña: When I was in Uruguay, I remember the classrooms didn't have crosses or anything. Over the course of my five years there, it changed quite a bit. The young women all lived together with the sisters, and we taught them spirituality and religion courses, and they would then attend their public school, where they would get made fun of for living with sisters.  

So we also had to strategize, in a way, to help the youth or elderly without totally clashing with their personal lives. We can have meetings and retreats and conversations, but then they go out into the real world, where it isn't the same. So we need to give them the tools to continue their own lifestyles.  

You need to be respectful of the times. I needed to observe first; you can't just come in and change everything — they probably would've kicked me out — and maybe in the second or third year, you can work more effectively knowing how they live and where you fit in that.  

But sometimes you don't have the time. Maybe you're only somewhere for a year and are assigned somewhere else just as you're figuring it out. I've been sent to a city for just five months when I knew a year would've been more effective, so sometimes, with the little time you have, you must give yourself and give to them according to how they live. You do have to be creative in how to reach the other. 

Farcas: I'm reminded of these young single moms in Genova [Italy] who were Muslim, who also had to enculturate themselves. And it was interesting to watch because they were also trying to keep their individuality. That's a tricky balance, to respect the new culture but not abandon your own. When one accepts the other's culture, they accept you. 

One thing I really struggled with was the teasing. They wouldn't understand me speaking. I would try incredibly hard to communicate a thought, and they'd all laugh in my face. I'd be so embarrassed.  

This was very tough for me. My first year, I would cry and cry and think, 'I can't believe how mean they are with me,' because I knew how hard I was working to learn Spanish, but it was all a big joke to them. Sometimes we'd all laugh, myself included, about certain pronunciations or words I mixed up. But once it became constant, like, I couldn't speak without being laughed at, it bothered me a lot. This is what made me suffer most. That's why I insist so much on the language aspect and accepting the other and his culture. 

I also suffered a lot the first Christmas I spent in Argentina, and not just because it'd be snowy in Romania and summer here, but also because the customs are totally different. There, everything would be ready and decorated by the first of December — you feel Christmas immediately, and the celebrations would last days, and the spiritual component is a lot stronger. Here, until the 24th, I really didn't see anything. I just couldn't understand that Christmas was like another day of the week. Sure, I eventually got used to it, but that was a major culture clash for me.  

It's easy to think your culture does it the 'right' way or the better way, but you have to learn. Learn to enjoy their dishes. Learn to get in their spirit of celebrating the holidays. It is how it is — you can be sad or embrace the differences because you never know how long you'll be in a certain place. You have to learn how to say, I don't see my culture here, I don't recognize this, but I will learn to be happy anyway. By the second year, I wasn't crying anymore, and I'm now in my seventh year. 

How do you see the Holy Spirit in your work? 

Ramos: You have to listen — listen to everything, because you never know how God will speak to you. You have to consciously create silence so you can hear God.  

For me, seeing the Holy Spirit in the community is to listen. It's tempting to live today thinking about tomorrow, about what will happen, but if you are present in prayer, God speaks to us. The Spirit manifests itself in the simplicity of day to day. There's no need to look for grand acts. 

Acuña: The Holy Spirit is like a lantern that lights the way for every next step you take every day. You have to be attentive. Prayer is our source of strength; it's what allows you to see. The Spirit is what opens up paths and opportunities for you to reflect on that.  

If you're doing something that doesn't bring you joy, if you feel called to do something and you're unhappy with it, that doesn't make sense, either. You'll become bitter and transmit and spread that feeling. You have to reflect. That doesn't mean we're never angry or bitter, but if you're always like that, then maybe you're not hearing God very well. You have to stop and listen and rediscover your steps. 

Farcas: I experience the Spirit most when I examine my conscience before going to bed, when I think about how I was that day, how I behaved or treated people, what I can implement the following day and what I should change. But I alone can't do that — I need the Spirit to help me. It's easier to forget about good things than bad things, bad habits. We seem to repeat those easier. I think the Spirit is that reminder — of the things we need to change, of how we need to be. 

Acuña: And the Spirit comes out of oneself. It's not just about what you receive, but what you can bring forward. 

[Soli Salgado is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @soli_salgado.]

Seven plowshares activists seen together at the Pax Christi event Sunday. They are holding a sign created by the late Philip Berrigan, who participated in the first action in 1980. (Photos courtesy of Ted Majdosz)
Seven plowshares activists seen together at the Pax Christi event Sunday. They are holding a sign created by the late Philip Berrigan, who participated in the first action in 1980. (Photos courtesy of Ted Majdosz)