Community is a gift that continues to amaze (and challenge) me. How is it, I sometimes wonder, that God managed to break through my self-imposed barriers and brought me to this particular group of women seeking God's gift of peace, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace?
Somehow this realization becomes even more poignant when we say goodbye to one of our sisters.
We thank you for the life of our sister. Comfort us who mourn. Preserve among us her good example, and keep us in the way of peace, until we come to your eternal kingdom. Amen
This prayer is one we prayed shortly after Sr. Camillus Elliot passed away on Easter Monday, just shy of her 99th birthday and days before her 80th jubilee celebration. We were gathered around her bed in her room in our care center in Washington state, waiting for the funeral home to arrive to prepare her body for her final journey. As I looked about the room, I saw women who deeply loved Sister Camillus for all of her ordinary and extraordinary ways of living life, loving community, and serving God. Many of the sisters gathered around Sister Camillus had known her for many of her 80 years in community, some of us less, yet we were all united in our love and prayer.
A few days later found us in another room in the same sisters' care center, this time praying with Sr. Ellen Caldwell who had breathed her last at 100 years old. "Preserve among us her good example ..." As it happens, my religious community has lost two other stalwart community members in recent weeks in our care center in New Jersey. Sr. Ita Duffy passed away just shy of her 99th birthday, while Sr. Mary Donohue was 95 years old and is celebrating her 70th jubilee in heaven.
Each of these Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace lived full lives of faith and service as vowed women religious. Sister Camillus was a nurse who loved the emergency room best ... because it was busy. Sister Ita was an educator who taught in classrooms in New Jersey and the Philippines before she shifted to shareholder advocacy work and taught corporate leaders the importance of serving the common good. Sister Ellen started out as a laboratory technician before she answered the call to hospital administration. Sister Mary began her religious life as a teacher before transitioning to community ministry and, in her later years, supporting women and children in the inner city on the path to self-sufficiency. Four extraordinary women, indeed!
As I have reflected on the lives of these holy women, saying goodbye in my own way, I also found myself reading Gaudete et Exsultate, the new apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis:
To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.
These women of peace are not holy because they are religious or did extraordinary things. They are holy because they lived and loved in the ordinary moments of life.
I cannot help but think of Sister Mary in her later years, incapacitated from illness yet still happiest when she was in the midst of her sisters. Commitment and presence to community are important and holy things.
I cannot help but think of the gleam in Sister Ita's eye as she shuffled past you in the hallway. Finding joy in the everyday — and spreading it ... that is holy.
I cannot help but think of Sister Ellen, putting down her daily newspaper for a chat about current events and my own ministry. Reading the signs of the times and engaging in the wider world, even when one is homebound, is a holy and prophetic act.
I cannot help but think of Sister Camillus, who I had the privilege of sharing community with when I lived at our western regional center during my first year of temporary profession. She had her perch in the community dining room, always ready to share a spot of tea, along with a bit of the latest news and a warm welcome. Hospitality is holy.
"The common life," Pope Francis tells us, "whether in the family, the parish, the religious community, or any other, is made up of small everyday things."
And so I pray:
Loving God, source of everything that is good, preserve in us, preserve in me, the good example of Camillus, Ita, Mary, Ellen and all our sisters who have gone before. In the ordinary and extraordinary of life, in the turmoil and in the peaceful moments, may I bring just a little bit of your light and love, mercy and peace, hope and promise to a world yearning for your presence. May the gift and challenge of community help me to live a life that is also a good example worth preserving. Amen.
[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]