Flying joyfully with my sisters: key lessons learned in religious life
Welcome to our third year of The Life, featuring a panel of 20 sisters who will reflect on issues that impact the lives of Catholic women religious around the globe.
We chose a panel from more than 50 applicants from around the world who reflect a diversity of ages, nationalities, religious congregations, ministries and charisms.
Our panelists this year are from, have ties to or work in: Australia, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Ghana, India, Kenya, Lithuania, Nigeria, Northern Ireland, the Philippines, Senegal, South Africa, Thailand, Uganda, the United States and Zimbabwe. You can meet them here.
They include an art therapy counselor, a former banker, college professors, an international financial expert, a missiologist, a mother and grandmother, a nurse, pastoral workers, a radio producer, spiritual directors, teachers, theologians, a web manager and writers, as well as sisters who work in congregational leadership, communications and formation, or with the aged, HIV/AIDS victims, people who are homeless, refugees, street children, and female prisoners.
This month's panelists tell us how they were led by the Spirit to "the boondocks," behind the former Iron Curtain, on the back of Mother Eagle, and by the people to whom they ministered as they responded to this topic:
Describe a key lesson you have learned from your ministry or life as a sister.
Mary Ann Flannery is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati who held teaching and administrative positions at several colleges. Before her community, the Vincentian Sisters of Charity, merged with the Sisters of Charity, she served as community president and in other leadership roles. She has been a freelance journalist, the director of a Jesuit retreat house, and active in social justice issues for more than 30 years. She continues to offer retreats and spiritual direction.
I remember the dense and fetid hot air of the room. The stench of human suffering that hangs over all of us, over the people sitting and lying on the floor in exhaustion and over the pregnant women and older people sitting on the few metal chairs available.
I remember the vacant stares from hollowed yellow eyes of the men whose chests heaved their visible ribs and whose emaciated arms hung carelessly over their folded knees. They wonder why I, a Caucasian woman holding a little baby, am among them.
I have been taken to an area in the Miami airport where refugees are detained for paperwork.
When the door is locked behind me, I realize I am alone with large group of desperate people seeking asylum.
They are Haitians. Boat people.
The baby I carry is a 5-month-old Salvadoran orphan to be named David.
I am American, and we are en route to Ohio, where David's adoptive parents wait for us.
I sit patiently, waiting to be called by officials from within a small annexed room with a barred window. But mostly, I look around the room carefully, letting the reality and pain of desperation sear into my brain and heart. I hold little David closer, thinking of how his future is assured, but the future of those scattered around us is unknown. And I think that right here in front of me lie the mangled bodies and souls so palpably described at the base of our Statue of Liberty, the "teeming refuse yearning to be free."
I resolve that day that I will do all I can to be an advocate for refugees by writing, speaking out, marching in protests, and joining justice and peace groups, both local and national.
When David's name is called, we approach the window, where a flurry of papers are stamped and I am asked to sign a few. When I have finished, the serious official reaches through the bars, takes both of David's cheeks in his hands and says affectionately, "Welcome to America, David."
Maria Magdalena Bennasar (Magda) is a Sister for Christian Community from Spain. Studies in theology gave her a foundation for the charism of prayer and ministry of the word with an emphasis on spirituality and Scripture: teaching, conducting retreats and workshops, creating community and training lay leaders in Australia, the United States and Spain. Currently, she is working on eco-spirituality and searching for a space to create a center or collaborate with others.
Amma Eagle flies and flies. Her young on her soft feathers, she goes high and low, very high, then softly lowers as in a dance — in circles and back — playing and dancing, amusing her little ones.
She knows the time is ripe, that today is the day, and, closing her eyes in trust, she lowers rapidly, leaving the little ones up in the air for one eternal second, two, three. Finally, they open their baby wings and begin flapping again and again. Mom is underneath; they now feel secure, not looking down for her anymore, simply beginning to enjoy the flying that will be their life.
I was young, only 16, and the ability to preach was awakened in me, in the mama eagle's way, the same way I learned to swim when I was thrown very young into the sea under the vigilant eyes of three women. I had experienced the method, and when invited to talk about the experience of love that still today keeps my heart warm, I felt up in the air, but there she was: Amma God flying under, still today.
And in that flight, I learned and enjoyed the beauty and the pain of cultures and races and different languages. The flight was high, very high. I was young and steadily flying. Suddenly, I clashed against a storm: It was dark, I was alone, shaken by the winds, and couldn't catch sight of her. She had always been under, just as now she might be, and I continued flapping my now stronger but vulnerable wings. Too dark, too stormy, too high, God!
A year ago, reading Global Sisters Report, a column by Sr. Margaret Gonsalves of the Sisters for Christian Community caught my heart's eye. In reading it, I began to feel under my heart the close softness of Sister Eagle's soft feathers. I was impelled by the Ruah to find out more about the Sisters for Christian Community.
Thank you, Global Sisters Report. You've been like Mama Eagle, flying under me; I've passed through the storm into the light of a new sisterhood.
Now, in my sky, there is a rainbow, and flying is fun and creative and risky again. I'm slowly recovering my being, three months away from flying full blast with them. Now I'm becoming Sister Eagle for many others, flying joyfully with my sisters, my equals, trying new ministries in an evolving world that is very tired of words.
Grace Mary Kenyonga from Uganda is a member of the Congregation of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, South Africa. In South Africa, she first ministered to adults and children with HIV/AIDS and taught high school religious education and catechism. For two and a half years, she served in a predominantly Muslim area in Senegal, where she worked in the community's clinic for the most marginalized and vulnerable in society. She has recently been missioned back to South Africa.
I can clearly remember the day I decided to leave my job, and told my friends and employer that I was leaving to join the convent. Their reactions were based on a worldly understanding of success, where one's achievements are measured by academic success and monetary gains.
"Who will care for your mother and your siblings since you will not earn a salary as a sister?" "How do you feel about not coming home for three years since you will be a missionary in another country?" All these were the questions addressed to me with the intention of discouraging me.
I remembered the words of Jesus to his disciples: "Whoever leaves his family for my sake will receive a hundredfold" (Matthew 19:29). This gave me the courage to move forward and follow my heart's desire: serving those in need with no expectation of material reward.
In all the ministries I have been assigned as a sister, I have experienced joy in giving myself in the service of others. Working in our orphanage of children living with HIV/AIDS, I saw children brought in as young as 1 day old left in the hospital by their parents who did not expect them to survive. The children were put on medications and given good care and, in no time, smiles would appear on the faces of these young innocent ones. Seeing these children live normal lives gives me inner joy in having been good to them without expecting anything in return.
Another touching experience in my ministry is when I worked with a support group of people living with HIV/AIDS. The members would hold frequent meetings in our convent compound and had a vegetable garden there. Members would use the harvest to boost their nutritional needs, and the rest was sold to generate income for the group. In one of our meetings, one of the ladies told me that what encourages her to come for the meetings is the assurance she will meet someone ready to listen to her without judging her.
I have learned that I can give more meaning to other people's lives and to my own if I am open to encountering Christ in the people I serve by seeing the presence of Jesus in each person I meet each day of my life.
Mary John Mananzan is a Missionary Benedictine sister from the Philippines. A noted theologian and author, she has served as the president of St. Scholastica's College, as prioress of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters in the Manila Priory, and as national chairperson of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines. She is a political and feminist activist who helped develop an Asian feminist theology of liberation and works with a number of organizations that deal with gender issues and women's concerns. Currently, she ministers as superior of the Manila community and as a member of the Priory Council.
I have learned it really does not matter what brings you to the convent. The important thing is why you stay.
I entered the convent at 19 and really had not had much experience of life. As the years went on, I discovered many things that made me more and more convinced this was the life for me. So I stayed, and I have actually celebrated my golden jubilee of profession.
I learned that the things I did out of obedience turned out better than what I thought was the best for me. For example, after teaching for four years in our flagship school in Manila — enjoying my interactions with both students and teachers — I got my notice of transfer to a school in the province. My first thought was: "Why are they sending me to the boondocks?"
But looking back, those two years of my province assignment were one of the richest experiences of my life. I learned to be creative and innovative. I was most surprised when the speeches I wrote for two students competing in speech contests won gold medals for two consecutive years. I never thought of myself as a speechwriter.
Later on, when I got involved in the political resistance in my country, I learned that when you open yourself even to one area, all areas will open to you.
For example, my formation made me fear communists, who, I was told, were practically devils. But in my work with the poor, I learned to work with them, since they were there before me, and they were the most decent, the most dedicated, the most compassionate people I have ever met.
When I assessed my attitude toward other religions, I realized they are all efforts to understand transcendental experiences in different cultures and are therefore valid. I started to question things I learned from the catechism of my youth about "salvation only in the Catholic Church." In Asia, only 2% of the population is Christian, and there are many fewer Catholics; isn't it absurd and uneconomical of God to allow 98% to be lost?
In other words, I began to realize there are not as many absolutes as we have been taught. I learned how to understand things in their different contexts and became less judgmental or self-righteous.
This radical openness to life is the great lesson I have learned.
Sandra Wiafewa Agyeman (Ofia) is a Ghanaian member of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit. She began her ministry in a school in Ghana as an account clerk, helping with registration and admission. Later ministries there included pastoral work with people living with HIV/AIDS, ensuring their children's education, and organizing prayer experiences and recollections. For the past year, she has been attending the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies in the Philippines.
I arrived in the Philippines on the evening of June 5, 2018, around 8 p.m., and I was surprised to be met by two elderly sisters, one 82 years old (who passed on to the next life two days after Christmas the same year).
The next morning, I got ready for Mass. There are about four to six steps from the entrance of the visitors' wing corridor to the chapel. Two steps before the entrance, I came to an abrupt halt. It felt like running into a wall!
I had to overcome my unexpected inertia by reversing directions. To where? I just knew I had to get out of the building, take a deep breath, sink down and talk myself into the reality of what I had just seen. The sight of about 20 elderly sisters in wheelchairs, completely helpless, some nearly bent over, shocked me.
Right after Mass, I noticed the younger sisters and the caregivers wheeling the sisters back to their rooms or to the dining room.
To help brace myself for this reality of old age, I decided to visit them every now and then, even though some can neither hear nor talk. Watching them for 30 minutes is enough meditation for each day: The sight of these sisters automatically leads to contemplation, makes me think ahead and back on life.
I have now come to terms with illnesses associated with old age such as Alzheimer's, dementia, Parkinson's and stroke. This reality challenges me as a millennial on how I respond to my own age and generation. Gradually, I have noticed I don't have such a strong emotional reaction to death, as I see aged sisters dying nearly every month. I tell myself, "Life is a journey, and no one remains forever young."
I keep thinking of my home province, a young province with the oldest Ghanaian in her early 60s. But gradually, we too are walking toward old age and its related issues. One day, we'll all find ourselves seated in wheelchairs patiently waiting at the "pre-departure area" to be taken away from this life. As to our next destination, it's highly dependent on how we handle people and situations.
And old age blooms from the inner self, the beyond, where all good springs from where the Triune God dwells.
Barbara Valuckas, a School Sister of Notre Dame currently based in Connecticut, has a communications background. She taught in schools and via educational television in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. Both before and after serving in province leadership as councilor and provincial leader, she has been ministering as a facilitator and consultant for parishes in the United States and with religious congregations internationally.
I was in retreat preparing for my silver jubilee in 1983. My retreat director invited me to pray with Leviticus 25 on the theme of jubilee: It emphasizes the theme of justice in land distribution and the theme of home. "In the year of jubilee, return to your ancestral home."
I realized I could deepen my commitment to justice anywhere I served as a School Sister of Notre Dame. But my "ancestral home" was Lithuania, still an occupied country under Soviet rule. I couldn't go there, especially as a Catholic religious. Yet the call persisted, and I prayed to understand its meaning.
My prayer was answered in 1990, when I attended a School Sister of Notre Dame meeting in Hungary. We were encouraged to travel there by way of other Eastern European countries. By that time, Lithuania had become the first Soviet republic to declare independence. I could go look for relatives, though I had no names or addresses!
On my first morning in Lithuania, our tour guide had been listening to the radio and heard, "You have been listening to Jonas Voluckis. If you have any questions, call the station at the following number." Recognizing my last name, she called Jonas. The first door opened and let me meet Jonas and his family.
Jonas later invited me to accompany him to the Congress of Lithuanian Physicians. To my surprise, he invited me to speak, and I introduced myself as a Catholic sister. Later, the leader of the underground Catholic sisters approached me and begged me to help the sisters, who were just emerging from a clandestine life. Already, God had opened the second door!
The third door was an inner, spiritual one. Jonas took me to the famous Hill of Crosses in Lithuania. People come with sorrows and joys to place thousands of homemade crosses there. The Soviets tore down the crosses many times, but at night, the crosses were resurrected by brave Lithuanians in acts of faith and resistance. As I prayed there, I felt a powerful sense of sorrow for the Lithuanian people; in them, I felt the presence of the suffering Jesus and heard a call to return there to help.
Then, in Washington, D.C., I met a priest from the bishops' conference. He was looking for volunteer religious to help sisters in countries where they were emerging from underground life. He promptly invited me to serve as a consultant to the newly established Catholic Television Studio in Lithuania. That was the fourth door.
Now, years later, as a diamond jubilarian, I can look back in gratitude on the help we were able to give: grants and donations to develop Catholic TV, theological updating and training in communal discernment to Lithuanian sisters, trained spiritual directors, internet access, women's programs ...
My journey to Lithuania this year may well be my last one. But our work is now being done by Lithuanians.