Our Treasure: What Sets Our Hearts on Fire

Friday, June 22, 2012

This morning, Jesus tells us "where your treasure is, there also will your heart be". I smiled as I stood in the pew at Mass because, in these past few days, I've completely understood exactly what Jesus was saying.

Sunday, I arrived to Harlingen, Texas to my new mission. Sister Elizabeth, a Sister I lived with in Macon, and I drove twenty hours, with a stop in New Orleans, to get here. I now work at Proyecto Juan Diego in the nearby city of Brownsville. It's hard to describe what exactly PJD is - a community center would be the best description. There are summer camps, exercise programs, citizenship and ESL classes, health education, tutoring, etc.

As Daughters of Charity, our treasure here on earth is the poor. Our heart is where the poor are. Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Louise didn't found a religious community simply to start one - it had nothing to do with different Bible verses as charisms, a different spirituality...although those things did have a part. They founded the Daughters of Charity (and Saint Vincent - the Congregation of the Mission, our brother community) to serve the poor in a world where religious were cloistered. Nothing more, nothing less. They didn't found the community to start a revolution within the Catholic world, although other communities would soon follow their example, slowly changing the face of religious life in the Church.

It is Christ in the poor
that sets our hearts on fire
(This is the logo of the DCs)
No, it was all to serve the poor. They are our treasure. They are our reason for being. Without them, we would be nothing. They are where we find Christ - Blessed Rosalie Rendu wrote "never have I found God so much as I have in the streets". Without the poor, there would be no reason for the Daughters of Charity to exist.

Yet I also believe there is a vocation within the vocation of a Daughter of Charity. Serving the poor makes our heart come alive. My own vocation as a Daughter of Charity means that treasure that holds my heart is the poor, yes, but there is another "treasure within a treasure" that is special to me - serving the Hispanic poor. It seems like my whole life pointed me to the Hispanic poor - (now here we go with some much-deserved promotion) with my Spanish teacher at the Institute of Notre Dame who inspired me, volunteering and then later working at Education Based Latino Outreach, and then my time in Bolivia with VIDES (Salesians). God pointed my whole life so I would fall in love with them.

While I liked living in Macon, my service to Hispanics was limited. As Sr Irma drove me around the "colonia" (neighborhood) surrounding Proyecto Juan Diego, I was overcome with emotions. I felt an intense sense of belonging. I felt my heart growing in joy.

I don't mean to speak for all Daughters of Charity but, based on what I know and experienced, every one of them would say that there is some group of the poor that makes their heart come alive. It may be working with Hispanics or even other immigrants, may be the homeless, may be working with the rural poor, may be working with abandoned children, may be working with single-parent moms struggling to make ends meet, it may be the sick. While the poor are our treasure, a special piece of our heart is held by a people.

Sister Elizabeth was with us in Texas for a few days before going back home. She was able to see me at I first met the ministry of Proyecto Juan Diego. As we drove back to the house in Harlingen, we had this exact conversation. A comment she made made me laugh but only because it made so much sense. She said "I want to learn Spanish but mainly because there are Hispanics at St Peter Claver Church [the church we attend in Macon] and I want to connect with them. I don't necessarily feel a calling to be in Hispanic ministry. But give me a guy that lives under a bridge that smells of cigarettes and beer, and I'm there!"

Jesus was right (but of course He was) - if our treasure is the poor, then our heart is there as well. But only that, but later, He tells his disciples "And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be." (Matthew 6:23) If we are with our treasure, if we are where our hearts live, there will be not great darkness and the light in us will shine and shine its brightest.

(As I write this blog post, I feel more and more that this is one of the poorest posts I have ever written but only because it's so hard to put into words the passion that I feel for the Hispanic poor, it's so hard to do justice to Sr Elizabeth's love of the homeless or to any other Daughter of Charity and their love of the sick, of children, of parents, etc, yet it is something I feel compelled to share...or rather, borrowing from the Daughters of Charity motto, Christ urges me to do so.)

The End of an Era: My Passport Takes Its Last Breath

Saturday, June 16, 2012

My passport expires tomorrow. It marks the end of an era for me - that decade of constant travel within Latin America is over. I was one page away from having a full passport. Today, when I should have been packing for Texas, I flipped through the pages nostalgically, remembering the people I met in country after country, remembering the hell I went through to get one of the resident visas, and smiling for and missing those friends I left behind.

Truthfully, that last one was the main reason for the nostalgia. I love traveling, yes; love airports and flying, yes but what I miss more than anything is the relational part of international travel, connecting with a person despite the differences, creating deep relationships cross-culturally and even cross-linguistically. Through those connections, I've formed friendships with people I otherwise wouldn't have talked to or maybe not even met. Without either one of us knowing, it is those people that have formed me into who I am - both emotionally and spiritually.

My passport expires tomorrow (or today, now that it's 12:30am), but a new adventure starts. Tomorrow, I begin the two-day car ride to Harlingen, Texas to complete the second half of my postulancy. It's a different journey now than what started a decade ago - it's one without stamps, red-eye flights or visa bargaining. (There are, however, applications involved) 

Later on today, after some passport nostalgia and packing, I was led to the new international Daughters of Charity website through an email I received. I was drawn to the "where we are" section and I got sucked in. 

As of January 2012, we are 17,743 Sisters. In ninety-three countries.
Let that sink in, Amanda.

23 countries in Africa.
16 countries in Asia.
3 countries in Oceania (Australia, Cook Islands and Fiji)
28 countries in Europe.
ALL of Latin America.
ALL of North America.

My passport may be expiring but I have a feeling this journey I'm on now, this decade to come, may be  even more international than I think...not in the sense of uncomfortable and awkward airport naps, or visa headaches, or pretty stamps, but in that relational sense I love.
And that makes me very excited for the decade ahead. :)

Hearts on Fire: Quiet Heroines of World War II

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

It was tomorrow seventy-two years ago that the capital of France, Paris, fell into German hands. Suddenly, Nazi flags began to fly, road signs were put up in German, soldiers roamed the streets. The war had now become real, as if it weren't before.

And there, in the middle of Paris, sat 140 rue du Bac - the motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity, a religious community that had celebrated its 300th anniversary not too long before, and home to the chapel where the Blessed Mother appeared to St Catherine Laboure the century before. The Daughters, by this time, had already spread throughout the world. There were Sisters in countries under Axis and Allied occupation. And now, the city of their motherhouse, the home of the community, their whole history was now under the Germans.

Sister Helene Studler
Meanwhile, a French Daughter of Charity by the name of Sister Helene Studler, had already prepared for the Axis occupation. Sister Helene had already been carrying out her work for a year by the time France officially fell. She had been to the border various times, assisting those who had been evacuated. A few days after the occupation, prisoners arrived, having marched there. Taken by surprise, Sister Helene cleaned and bound their wounds. It was this event that would change everything. Just a month after the Axis occupation, Sister Helene set up an escape system to save French soldiers from the Gestapo. Almost 2,000 Frenchmen escaped under her direction. She was arrested in 1941 but released before her year sentence was up because of poor health. She went straight back to her work, though she quickly escaped to Lyons when she discovered the Gestapo were after her again. Frustrated by their inability to find Sister Helene, the Gestapo arrested the Superioress General of the Daughters of Charity and grew even more frustrated when she refused to release any information about Sister Helene's whereabouts.

Sister Agnes Walsh
As Sister Helene hid in Lyons, seven hours away in Dordogne, France, lived another Daughter of Charity - Sister Agnes Walsh. Sister Agnes was actually British, an Allied citizen living in an Axis-occupied country. She had to lay low, for the danger of the Nazis finding out she was British was simply too great. She had accidentally received an Irish passport earlier, which bought her some leeway, yet her accent quickly gave away her English heritage. And she had already seen the way the Gestapo went after the French Jews. Yet one day, a man named Pierre Cremieux knocked on the door of the convent asking the Sisters to hide him, his wife and three children. Hiding them would mean even extra danger for the Sisters - after all, they were already hiding the fact one of them was British - but Sister Agnes pleaded their case to the superior and the family of five remained with them, hidden in the convent.

Sister Marejanna Reszko
Yad Vashem Photo Archive
But Sister Agnes was not the only one hiding Jews. Countries away, in Poland, the Daughters of Charity were hiding Jews at St Anthony's Orphanage, under the direction of Sister Marejanna Reszko.Not too far away, Sister Bronisława Wilemska, along with Bishop Małysiak, hid Jews in their institution for the eldery and disabled. In fact, hiding Jews started to become the unofficial ministry of the Daughters of Charity in Poland. All in all, Yad Vashem has recognized five different Daughters of Charity from three different Polish cities.

In nearby Hungary, Daughters of Charity hid Jews in an all-girls school. The Sisters there were crafty, making the school a fake military workshop until that city was liberated and the hidden Jews were saved. The provincial house in Hungary, under the leadership of Sister Klara Rath, also served as a hiding place. The Nazis constantly appeared wanting to search the house, yet miraculously went away every time because of Sister Klara's doings - whether it be distracting them with drinks, claiming the children there were all baptized Christians, or quoting a dangerous line of the Hungarian anthem. All the Jews there were also saved.

The war was trying for the Daughters of Charity, yet it seemed that it only set their heart even more afire for love of the poor, the persecuted, the abandoned. Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944 and the war would end within the year. Sister Helene, that brave non-violent woman of the French Resistance, wouldn't live to see the end of the war. In December, just a few months after the liberation of France, Sister Helene died of a painful cancer. Sister Agnes, however, did survive the war as did the Jewish family she hid. She lived to the age of 97 and was posthumously honored as one of the British Heroes of the Holocaust. Sister Klara of Hungary also survived the war. She died in 1991 and now has the title "Righteous Among the Nations".

These women, although their history now dates back seventy years or so, still remain alive to me. Their stories still resonate with me. Their bravery inspires me. I thank them for their service, I thank them for their dedication to our mission as Daughters of Charity, I thank them for the example they give to me and all the Daughters of Charity now and to come and pray that they will never be forgotten.

Daughters of the Church

Monday, June 11, 2012

Due to recent events, I've seen my Facebook wall, Twitter and other blogs explode with comments/links supporting cloistered nuns, some underhandedly implying that they are the only ones getting young vocations because of their faithfulness to the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church (bishops and the Pope). I wanted to jump and wave my hands in front of them saying "HEY, LOOK OVER HERE!"

When some monasteries are filling to the brim with young vocations, it's easy to forget about active Sisters out there faithful to the Magisterium. We do exist, we are often left in the dust and I strongly believe there are more of us that exist than people think.

Recently, while reading an article celebrating the opening of our new Seminary in St Louis, a commenter posted, attacking the Daughters for the use of the word "Seminary", painting us as a religious community obviously in favor of female ordination for "re-naming" our novitiate "Seminary" Talk about a facepalm.

Because we use the word "Seminary", because some of us don't wear veils (coifs), because we do not call our community a "religious order", some Catholics write us off as unfaithful Sisters, without even glancing at our history. 

Many of those attacking us have no idea we're actually not "nuns". We are actually a Society of Apostolic Life, a genius idea of St Vincent de Paul. This idea of his allowed us to work among the poor while still remaining Sisters faithful to canon law, which said that "nuns" were to live cloistered in monasteries. So what's the difference? Historically, we were founded without a real habit - we were meant to walk with the poor, blending in with them. We take annual vows (of poverty, chastity, obedience and service of the poor), not perpetual ones. We live in houses, not "convents". We are a "community" or "Company", not a "religious order". And to avoid confusion over whether we are "nuns" or not, St Vincent named our "novitiate" to "Seminary". 

St Vincent de Paul founded us to be Daughters of Charity, specifically "to honor our Lord Jesus Christ as the source and model of all charity, serving Him corporeally and spiritual in the poor" But he also emphasized in his many conferences to the Sisters that we are also to be "daughters of prayer" and "Daughters of the Church", urging us to remain faithful to the bishops and the Pope. St Elizabeth Ann Seton, centuries later, whom we consider to be our third founder, in her last words whispered to her Sisters "Be children of the Church"

We haven't forgotten Vincent's conferences nor Elizabeth Ann's last words. 

One American Sister recently was awarded the Papal Cross Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice. Two Irish Sisters received Bene Merenti medals. Bishop John McCarthy raves about the Daughters of Charity in his state of Texas. Pope John Paul II, in a letter to us in 1997, he wrote "as a pledge of encouragement for your assembly’s work and the apostolic life of the institute, I entrust all the Daughters of Charity to the motherly protection of the Immaculate Virgin, Mother of the Church and Mother of the Little Society, as well as to the intercession of St Vincent de Paul, St Louise de Marillac and St Catherine Labouré, and I wholeheartedly send them my Apostolic Blessing." (Fun fact of the day: we actually own a vial of his blood from his assassination and his undershirtAnd decades before, our Superioress General, Mother Suzanne Guillemin, was one of the few women invited to the Vatican II Council. 

We love our Church.

For me, it isn't a blind love. If it was a blind love - love without thinking for myself - it wouldn't mean a thing. Ask any active Sister (Daughter of Charity or not) faithful to the Magisterium and I'm sure they would tell you the same. We don't follow those teachings just because we're told to, but rather because it's what our consciences tell us is the right thing to do, the right thing to believe. It's the same conscience that tells us to be Roman Catholics rather than Methodist, rather than Baptist, rather than non-denominational.

We are children of the Church and I, for one, long to not be forgotten by our fellow Catholics. We exist, we're still here, we're still on fire with love for our Church and trying to follow our founders' teachings.

Belonging: Being the Right Ingredient

Monday, June 4, 2012

I sit here in Cape May, vacationing with the Sisters, a vacation I've longed for as things got more and more frantic in Macon with the end of the school year. The Vincentians lend us two very large houses, connected by a tiny foot bridge, that fit about 20 Sisters combined. I'm vacationing with a few Sisters that I've never met before in my life.

But as I sat this morning, apparently too early for other Sisters to be awake, I sat, ate and talked with a New York Sister that I've never met before. As we shared with each other things about ourselves and she shared stories of her time in the Congo, it hit me - "I blend in. I can sit and talk with any Sister, without 'faking it'. I simply blend in." As I thought about it, it was the same feeling I got in Chicago last weekend, the same feeling I got in Georgetown (SC), Evansville (IN) and Jacksonville (FL). Not only do I feel I belong, but it seems the Sisters feel I belong too.

And that blending in doesn't mean losing yourself. In fact, blending in, for me anyway, means the opposite. And to me, it's a sign from God that I truly do belong here.

It's like blending a milkshake or a smoothie. Put in an ingredient that doesn't "fit" and the smoothie could easily go from delicious to disgusting, even though that ingredient may be delicious itself (as well as the others). It just needs the right ingredients to be with.
I believe it's the same with communities. If you're discerning and just looking for the right community, you have to find which blender you fit in. Some blenders may seem great - a delicious combination - but it could be that you somehow you know that you just don't fit, you just don't mix in well.

And more than anything, as I spend more and more time with Sisters I don't know, I see I fit into this blender. I'm still myself. I'm still my own ingredient yet something about them - about the Sisters, those other ingredients, no matter if I know them well or not - intensify who I already am.

Ask any Sister and, if they really thought about it, that sign from God that they belonged to a certain community was the fact they could blend in so easily.
Ask any younger Sister and I can almost guarantee they will give that answer.

It's a belonging that occurs despite everything - despite an age gap, despite different backgrounds, despite different missions, despite different interests. And it is those contradictions and that belonging that makes me realize that it's something that can only come from God. It is Him telling me that I belong, that I'm meant to be here, that these Sisters are my new family. And there is nothing compared to feeling God's love within community, within this new family I belong in.
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