Along with three others sisters in their mid-30s, I am in a busy café in St. Louis, Missouri, enjoying a lunch of sandwiches and salads. A bit ago, we prayed over our food. Between bites, we're laughing and chatting about the work we need to do. Feeling happy and a little anxious, we still have many tasks to complete before nearly 80 more sisters arrive from all corners of the country.
It's the final day of preparations for the Giving Voice National Gathering at Fontbonne University that the four of us — along with a team of three more sisters and two other women — have been planning since the fall of 2018. The theme for our gathering is "The Boldness and Beauty of Communion: Living Religious Life NOW!" and we have four days of prayer, presentations, discussions, workshops, art and fun planned to help us break open how our communal lives compel us to be "experts of communion," as Pope Francis insisted. We long to be awake to beauty and to bravely build God's reign of unity and peace.
Through our meal, I find myself feeling warmed with gratitude. After endless virtual meetings, emails, documents, text messages and phone calls during our work together, I'm enjoying finally being physically close to these women who have become increasingly dear to me. It's been a process to develop our dreams together, and our labor of love has bonded us, has deepened our hopes for religious life and each other.
We finish our food and remain at the table. Perhaps we're procrastinating on the errands we need to run. More likely, though, we're simply enjoying the sacredness of being together, and none of us wants to move out of the moment. After a while, Sr. Kathryn Press of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus pulls out her phone. "Sisters, rejoice with me!" she says as she shows us pictures of her friend's children and tells us about her recent time with them.
"Rejoice with me." I heard. And I do. I smile as I look at the bright and happy faces of the children in the photos on the screen of Sister Kathryn's phone. I am grinning back into her happy face across the table from me, so happy for the freedom she feels to share people who are precious to her with us.
But I'm smiling in amusement, too. I don't know if I have ever heard anyone say "rejoice with me" in the way Sister Kathryn just did. It feels biblical. It definitely feels nunny — and that makes sense. We are, after all, a bunch of young nuns (so to speak) having lunch together. Later, I think about the phrase "Rejoice with me" and note that is a great way to ask people to join in one's joy, to introduce something happy and invite a response. It's a new phrase for me, and I really like it, I quickly decide.
A day and a half later, I'm sitting between two other sisters at our first celebration of Mass during our Giving Voice gathering, a simple liturgy before breakfast on our first full day together. Our gathering began late afternoon on Thursday, June 27, with introductions, an opening prayer, discussions about Communion and a meal before an art show and a talent show. At the talent show, some sisters sang, others juggled, one preformed a spoken-word piece and others dazzled us with comedy or instrumental acts. After a lot of laugher and awe, I went to sleep with a happy heart. At the Mass now, I enjoy the sacredness of sitting side-by-side with my sisters in the silent pauses felt between the proclamation of Scripture during the liturgy. It's the feast of the Sacred Heart. The priest and sisters stand as the song of "Alleluia" rings from our throats, fills the room with joyful noise. Then the priest reads the parable of the good Samaritan, which I have likely heard hundreds of times throughout my lifetime.
This time, though, a particular part of the passage grabs my attention, in a whole new way.
He calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them,
"Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep."
Rejoice with me!
There's that phrase again. Of course, it is in a parable about sacrifice, service and love for the sake of the other. Rejoice with me! I am not surprised the words first came from Jesus Christ and that my friend and sister was in fact being biblical, as she imitated the communal joy coming from the Holy Trinity — the Divine Union that will joyfully go to great lengths to include and welcome all. To help all know belonging and love.
Rejoice with me! When I heard the phrase during Mass, I almost laughed out loud with amusement. Instead, though, I allowed the biblical instruction to become a touchstone for me as I continued to pray and celebrate Communion with other women religious during our gathering.
It's not tough to be awake to the joy among us as I meet new peers and reconnect with old friends. "Rejoicing together" is a constant rhythm in our movements. When one sister approaches another and they silently hug and exchange an expression of deep knowing and gratitude, they are rejoicing together. When we lean in to listen a sister share from her heart, we are rejoicing. When we tell another sister how grateful we are for her, how much she inspires and enlivens us to live our own vocation, we are rejoicing. I rejoiced as I DJ'ed a night of dancing and gazed into the crowd of sisters smiling, laughing and moving together. My face felt stuck on smile when another sister spoke to my heart as she preached during Mass. Many of us marveled together about the beauty of the music that was played and the art that was displayed. Again and again, we rejoiced together for the goodness of God and the goodness of our shared consecrated lives.
It's only natural for us to rejoice together, too. It's an element of our vocation. Francis tells us, "Wherever consecrated people are, there is always joy!" After the Giving Voice gathering ended and I reflected on the joy I experienced with other sisters, I was reminded of a game of catch. I began to think that the rejoicing we do together is much like toss played among friends. With each celebration or delight in God's goodness, we allow the joy we feel to transform us and pass through us. But we don't cling to our joy — we share with others. We extend ourselves freely and move outward that which we have touched, experienced. The joy we send out returns strongly to us, too; it's a constant giving and receiving. The balls we exchange are diverse and brightly colored; the joy is bold and beautiful.
The joy of our religious life are loops of love, a constant dance of "rejoice with me."
[Now on staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in northern Wisconsin, Julia Walsh is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a Catholic youth minister, a committed social justice activist, and a graduate of Catholic Theological Union. Her award-winning writing has appeared in America, Global Sisters Report, Living Faith, and PILGRIM Journal. Visit her online at messyjesusbusiness.com and follow her on Twitter @juliafspa.]