Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Essence of Risk

By S. Laura Coughlin
SC Federation Under Ten Years Professed
Click HERE to learn more about Laura
Click HERE to learn more about the SC Federation

Our community divides itself into conferences according to the Vincentian model. Conferences in the early history of the Daughters of Charity were meetings whereby Saints Vincent and Louise could accomplish two goals. The first was to instruct the sisters, and the second was to listen to their hearts by inviting them to lift up their concerns so that these concerns could be treated through a dialogue.

The conference to which I belong recently read and discussed an article written for Global Sisters Report, “Metaphors for the Future,” by Sister Janet Gildea ( There, Sister Janet talks about the famous Duomo added in the fifteenth century to the great cathedral in Florence, Italy. When the dome was begun, the main body of the cathedral had been finished for about forty years. A huge gaping hole in the church’s ceiling reminded the city’s leaders that they had, to paraphrase Jesus, built a tower without first counting the cost, without first knowing whether they could finish it, and without first considering how painful it would be to be mocked for the embarrassment of an incomplete temple of worship. In other words, the city’s venerable had taken a risk even Jesus suggested as imprudent.

To confront their shame, Florence’s wool merchants hosted a competition between architects for the work of the dome. Filippo Brunelleschi, known to be a difficult and aggressive person, won the competition by a trick he performed with an egg, and by a commitment to his own non-transparency! Why avoid transparency? Perhaps because this showman wasn’t too sure about how to fill in the hole either.

What Brunelleschi had was confidence in an idea inspired by the Roman Pantheon, a building which even today possesses the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The architect knew that Florence’s great embarrassment would be turned into an even greater victory if he could discover the secrets of the men who had succeeded in finishing off the Pantheon.

In her treatment of the Florence cathedral, Sister Janet likens the unfinished church to members of religious orders who have built a foundation. The gaping hole stands for the aims of younger members desiring to take risks. These unfulfilled aims are a challenge to our communities because they speak to a lack of effectiveness, perhaps owing to fear. They are, however, connected both logically and imaginatively to the dome, a hope-filled metaphor for the bringing to fruition those dreams of younger members.

What is required by the foundation builders, suggests Sister Janet, is a willingness to risk. I’d like to elaborate briefly on this particular concept since I too think we need to take more risks, and since what I know of Brunelleschi’s story connects with what I know of effective risk-taking from my former work in the technology industry. It often strikes me that the facilitators of meetings of women religious talk about risk, but avoid the precise qualities of the concept that make a mission effective. Here are some things that ought to enter into our conversations about risk:

Effective risk is not only, or primarily, about gambling, but about learning.

Large professional organizations have whole departments established to absorb the failure of experiments. These they name R&D, or Research and Development (in healthcare, Risk Management) Our way of life proscribes grand expenditures for experiments, but surely we can test the waters in small ways and cultivate what success comes of these “trial runs.” Are we willing to expand small plans into greater ones when we experience momentum and success in our efforts? Are we willing to abandon those projects that have become ineffective?

Effective risk involves speed.

Do you remember the days when Microsoft dumped one lousy OS update after another on the market? Ok, yes, they still do that! Microsoft [and Apple] taught both the world and IBM a lesson about the effectiveness of bringing a bad product to market quickly. You read that right – a bad product. They were even energetic in their efforts to unload bad product because what was bad in the buyer’s world was only imperfect in theirs. They knew that the customers’ first negative impression would be transformed by improvements that followed on the heels of the first run.

As is true of most entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs understood that imperfections in both product and project can be resolved on the journey through people who are engaged, energetic, and intelligent. To those in Florence who expected a finished church, that hole in the cathedral ceiling was bad, but to those with vision it was a problem sure to be solved by the right person. A sad fact of our contemporary world is that the growth of technology has ratcheted up the speed of innovation now expected by the culture. Waiting to act on good ideas today is far more deadly than it was in Brunelleschi’s time. It is important that religious women act with patience and prudence, but these qualities must be balanced by agile risks that open up opportunities and space for younger women to imagine themselves really belonging within the futures of our communities.

Effective risk involves a thorough evaluation of existing models.

Brunelleschi looked at the Pantheon to advance both his own and the city’s aims. Thus, we must ask, ‘what successful models exist that would help us to move forward?’ Have we evaluated why such models are successful? Even the greatest minds don’t work without reference points. The rhetoric of meetings of women religious often comes across to me as too ethereal, or as operating on an expectation that God should perform another creatio ex nihilo just for us. In the service of remaining open to mystery we are perhaps too frequently asked to down-dial rationality, to stay away from problem solving, and to limit the concern we have for effectiveness. The good intentions of those who lead our meetings are directed at helping communities imagine and dream. Nevertheless, their concern to avoid an excessive pragmatism is an overreach in my opinion.

Imagination can’t be fruitful unless it is disciplined by reason, and dreams remain dreams unless we bring some technical skill to bear. God gave Brunelleschi a model that was more than a thousand years old and filled with secrets begging to be revealed. Was the Pantheon a mystery to the architect? – YES! Was it meant to remain a mystery? – NO! Brunelleschi’s vision was tightly connected to the challenging details of problem-solving, yet he didn’t just reproduce the Pantheon’s dome in copycat fashion, but built an icon of a new age from what he learned about the ancient structure. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if we could say of our younger members, “they are building the icon of a new age from things ancient!”

Sunday, January 7, 2018

An Epiphany in Dazzling Darkness

By Sister Rejane Cytacki, SCL 

I have spent a lot of time this past December reflecting on the healthy balance we need of darkness and light in our lives. In my current ministry at the Eco-Justice Center, we do  both equinoxes and solstices celebrations and it is wonderful to be aware of the natural  yearly rhythm of  light and dark. Winter Solstice is one of the harder ones for people because it is the longest night of the year and the shortest day.  Most people are just ready to recognize there will be more light the next day! 

We would rather focus on the light and push aside darkness because it represents fear, depression, evil, hurt, and a slew of other negative terms.  Hence all our Christmas lights, street lights, security lights etc to keep the dark away. As a society we have forgotten the importance of darkness. Several positive images come to mind: the seed in the rich dark soil, being outside gazing at the moon and stars, the need for darkness to have a restful sleep, and a baby gestating in her mother’s womb.   

As I wrote the script for Eco-Justices's  2017  Winter Solstice celebration someone recommended the book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” by Barbara Brown Taylor. She has a chapter devoted to how light and dark are portrayed in our holy scriptures.  During the Christmas season we focus primarily on  light, but Taylor has unearthed scriptures that show God is in the darkness.  One that struck me in particular was when Moses was ready to go up Mount Sinai a second time God said “I am coming to you in a dense cloud in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”  Moses was chosen  to enter the “dazzling darkness” and have a conversation with God. When I think of our Lord Jesus coming into the world, he was born in a cave in Bethlehem in the dark.  And when the Magi came to find him 12 days later, they had to travel in the dark in order to follow Jesus' star. Great things happen in the dark, let us be aware of the beauty and gifts of darkness during this winter season.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


By S. Romina Sapinoso, SC Federation Apostolic Novice

Tuesday breakfast with Sister Flo
Every Tuesday morning during my novitiate, I meet Sister Flo for breakfast at the Mother House dining room at 7ish before we both head upstairs for morning mass. We didn’t really plan it this way but somehow, after we had our first Tuesday breakfast during my earliest months in Cincinnati, the idea of meeting again the following Tuesday came up and we’ve done it regularly ever since. Thus I started telling people that “On Tuesdays, I go with the Flo!”

Sister Flo turned 94 early this month. Her gentleness of spirit and calm demeanor disguise the religious life adventures she has lived. She was a school teacher, like many other sisters, during her earlier years of mission. Several weekends ago, I invited her to come to a dinner at Holy Family Church to welcome members of their sister parish, Good Shepherd. While helping bridge the gap between the Spanish and non-Spanish speakers at the table, she very humbly told them that 70 years ago, she was a young, 2nd grade teacher at this same parish school, her first ever mission as a Sister of Charity. In addition, Flo has also been a parish worker in Savannah, Georgia, a missionary out in the mountains of Peru, and lived in community with sisters ministering on the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. Whenever I am with Flo, a sense of gratitude is always present. She was and continues to be very grateful for the ministries she was a part of. Flo has a firm sense of the goodness of God in blessing her with a life far beyond what she could have imagined or planned for herself.

Almost a year and a half into my novitiate, I look back at what my breakfasts with Flo have brought me. There were challenging times in novitiate when I know I walked into that dining room to meet her and appeared more like a dark cloud than a ray of sunshine. Flo was always there to share those Tuesday mornings even when my outlook in life was as bleak as the dreary winter weather outside. Thankfully, I wasn’t always like that (I hope!). I look back with gratitude and blessing at her faithful presence and her continued ministry to me personally, even as she embraces her own slowing down and not being able to “do much.” Her willingness to be an instrument of God in every age and stage of her life is an important lesson in my own formation.

Celebrating Sister Flo's 94th birthday
During one of our usual Tuesday breakfasts, I recounted to Flo a weekend I participated in at Villa Maria in Pennsylvania for a formation workshop. She fondly recalled a couple of pictures she used to have of the sunflower fields at Villa where she herself did a couple of retreats. “I treasured those pictures,” she said. An image of this gentle woman looking fondly at a picture of a sunflower field gave me a sense of longing for what she has-- a deep connectedness with God and contentment for a life well-lived. Hearing Flo’s simple appreciation, a treasuring of the little and big things in her life, deepened my own appreciation of her and our time together. Treasured. That’s what she is in God’s eyes. That how she has always made me feel even though my attitude on some days could not be farther from what somebody would want to treasure. Treasured is how God sees me and every single one of us. More and more, I come to understand being “treasured” as not just a knowledge or a feeling. It is the wisdom that is gained over years of trust and openness in the embrace of a God who will always love us through the ups and downs of our lives, just like Flo has done for me in novitiate. Flo may never know the true extent of her contribution to my formation but my Tuesdays with her have strengthened my faith in a God that holds us so preciously and loves us deeply through all our continued growing and discovering of our gifts and challenges. Her ministry continues in her example and presence as she shares with me this vital lesson of treasuring and being treasured on the spiritual journey.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving, Part II: Moving from Thanks to Giving

By Sr. Tracy Kemme, SC Federation Initially Professed

      Click HERE to learn more about Tracy
      Click HERE to learn more about the SC Federation

On retreat in May, my director invited me to spend some time reflecting on gratitude, but there was a block in me.  Whenever I started to feel inklings of awe, my heart and mind became flooded with the injustice, poverty, and violence of the world.  I saw the faces of marginalized people that I meet through my ministry, and my heart winced.  How could I have the audacity to be grateful in the face of such pain and oppression?

I shared this with my director, and she smiled gently.  “Please, tell me: how is your guilt making life better for those struggling people?”

Now it was my turn to smile.  I looked down and then back up.  “I guess it’s not.”

“Exactly.  You neglecting to give thanks for the goodness in your life isn’t noble, and it doesn’t help anybody,” she continued.  “God rejoices in your gratitude just as God rejoices in your compassion.”

In his book Sacred Fire, Ronald Rohlheiser says that “gratitude is the basis of all holiness.”  Living in deep gratitude to the Creator is, for him, the first sign of a mature spirituality.  “The highest compliment we can give to a gift giver is to enjoy the gift thoroughly,” he says.  “Our level of maturity and generativity is synonymous with our level of gratitude – and mature people enjoy their lives.”

Our level of generativity is synonymous with our level of gratitude.  As I talked with my spiritual director, I realized that authentic gratitude keeps on giving.  When our heart falls to its knees in awe and thanksgiving to our God, we are opened up.  Just as real love is infinite, inherently desiring to widen and expand and encompass everyone, real gratitude compels us to giving.  If we deeply reverence all as gift, given to us by a God of love to no merit of our own, we want all to share in the gift.  And the relationship shifts from gifts as objects to love for subjects – an awareness of our oneness.

On Christmas Eve during my first year in Ecuador, the Uguña family invited me to their family celebration.  After late Mass in the simple chapel across the street, we shuffled into their cement block home.  A lovely folding table was set with plastic ware, and Christmas music wafted through the air.  The three boys taught me dance moves while chicken and rice emerged from the kitchen in Mamá Jenny’s loving hands.  At midnight, we ate, and we sat around the table for a long time.  Then, almost as an afterthought, Oscar, the father of the family, arose and said, “Los regalos!”

Jenny and her three boys, a few years after
that first memorable Christmas Eve. 
Each child opened one small gift, and they were exuberant.  Jenny and Oscar beamed to watch the delight of their children.  My heart burst as I took in the scene; I know how even three gifts were a financial sacrifice for the couple.  Then, Oscar motioned to the boys, and they ran excitedly to the bedroom to retrieve a small box.  The oldest thrust it into Jenny’s hands.

Her eyes met Oscar’s in soft surprise, and he winked.  She smiled deep motherly love at her three boys and opened the gift.  It was a small piece of cardboard pierced by two sets of tiny earrings.  She took them in with sweet gratitude, and then she set them aside, engulfing her children in a warm embrace.

Releasing them from the hug, she removed the earrings from the cardboard.  Then, seamlessly, she turned to me and handed me one of the pairs.  I must have looked perplexed, because she nodded toward her extended palm and said, “Para tí!  Feliz Navidad.”

I had probably thirty pairs of earrings in my bedroom at the house.  Jenny had almost nothing for herself.  I resisted.  But no amount of protesting would keep Jenny from sharing her gift with me.

I walked home that night with a pair of earrings in my pocket and a lesson in my heart.

It was never about the earrings.  It was about being a family and sharing love, a love that says, “All are invited.”  Jenny is deeply grateful and uncomfortably generous.  Jenny is one of the holiest people I know.

Sometimes, after an encounter with people like Jenny and Oscar, “the poor,” people from privileged U.S. classes say things like, “It just reminded me how blessed I am.  I’m going to be so much more grateful.”  And that’s it.  Like somehow God chose to bless me and not the other people, and that’s okay.  Whew, thank God I’m one of the fortunate ones!  That’s not mature, generative gratitude.

True gratitude plunges us into deeper relationship with God and all that God created.  We are free to relish the goodness of our lives, and we are urged to create more goodness in the world around us.  True gratitude compels us to service of the Reign of God.

This Thanksgiving, let us give thanks, deep, rooted, awe-filled thanks to our Creator.  But let’s not stop there, trapped in our personal table of bounty, in our private circle of loved ones.  Let’s open ourselves to the urging of gratitude:  we give thanks, and then we give ourselves fully to striving for justice and peace for all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving, Part I: Getting a Gr-attitude Adjustment

By Sr. Tracy Kemme, SC Federation Initially Professed

      Click HERE to learn more about Tracy
      Click HERE to learn more about the SC Federation

“Primero, quiero dar gracias a Dios por otro día más de vida…”

First, I want to thank God for one more day of life.  Working with women’s empowerment groups on the dusty, poor outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador, I heard these words more times than I can count.  Our meetings began with prayer led by one of the participants, and, without fail, their prayers began with praising God.  After thanking God for being alive, the women often continued on to thank God for the sun, the sky, their children, their homes, and for their “daily bread.”  And these were not rote words.  Their eyes were shut lovingly, and their faces were strong with devotion as they prayed them.

Sitting in plastic chairs outside two room houses whose cane walls and dirt floors held heart-wrenching stories of poverty, hunger, alcoholism, and abuse, the words of thanksgiving that opened each prayer were particularly striking.  In the midst of all these women carried, their basic posture to God was fierce, deep gratitude for the gift of life.  Interesting how “the poor,” who at first glance had very little to be grateful for, taught me more about gratitude than anybody else.


Last week, I wasn’t feeling very grateful.  Ministry was draining me.  Along with the usual demands, I was walking with some parishioners in a particularly painful situation that required lots of time and emotion.  Overwhelmed and under-slept, I was cranky as could be.

On one of those cranky mornings, I flipped mindlessly through my Facebook feed.  A friend, Mark, who is a cancer survivor, had posted this, “Overwhelmed today with gratitude. I get to be busy. There was a time when I had to stop. I just keep trying to move forward and upward.”  I get to be busy.  It hit me.  Most mornings, I look over my schedule at all the things I have to do.  How different would it be if I started the day looking ahead at all the things I get to do?  I knew I needed an attitude adjustment, or more accurately, a gr-attitude adjustment.

There are many barriers to gratitude, and some are legitimate.  I don’t want to minimize the reality of life. Last week, I found out that a dear friend is sick, and it is heavy on my heart.  Stress and strained relationships are real.  We’re humans, and some days we’re just cranky.  I’ve been through depression, and I know it’s not something you can just throw off like bedcovers.  It doesn’t help to beat ourselves up when we struggle to be grateful.  And it doesn’t help to walk around in superficial optimism, either.

 Still, sometimes, we can make a shift.  There is a difference between sitting in the muck of life and wallowing in it.  Sitting in it, we are honest: we acknowledge it’s there, but we don’t have to writhe around in it like a dog in a mud puddle.  There’s a difference between a healthy vulnerability that allows us to share our struggles with others and being consumed with complaining.  There is some kind of warped pleasure I can get from clinging to the negative, from replaying scenes in my mind and repeating them to others.  It’s almost addictive.  Mark’s Facebook post reminded me that we have some choice in this cycle.
On the grumpy morning that I read his words, I dropped the phone and went to my journal.  I started writing:  I am alive.  The sun is shining.  I can breathe, and walk, and read, and write…and on and on.  Once I got started, the list took on a life of its own.  I was no longer overwhelmed with surface negativity but with awe.

It’s amazing what happens to us spiritually, psychologically, and physiologically when we begin to name what we’re grateful for.  It forces us to zoom out and view the big picture of our lives.  It doesn’t erase the reality of pain and struggle, but it puts it in perspective.  I should’ve known this; my Ecuadorian friends showed me.  Living authentic gratitude is a both-and.

Thank you, God, for another day of life.

...Go to next blog entry for Thanksgiving Part II!...

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Sr. Judy Donohue, SCN, Professes First Vows

By Sr. Annie Klapheke, SC Federation Temporary Professed

      Click HERE to learn more about Annie

      Click HERE to learn more about the SC Federation

Congratulations to Sr. Judy Donohue, SCN, who professed her first vows as a Sister of Charity of Nazareth on August 26, 2017.  Sisters, Associates, family and friends joined Judy for the liturgical celebration, which gave witness to God’s infinite love, in and around us.  We are grateful for Judy’s ‘yes’ to the call to religious life.  May she continue to be ‘impelled by the love of Christ’ as she continues her journey as a Sisters of Charity.  Congratulations Sr. Judy, SCN!  

Sr. Judy signs her vows along with SCN President Susan Gatz and Judy's witness Susann Gobber

Off to celebrate after a beautiful Mass!

Future of Charity members joined Judy for the celebration.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Seeds of Hope

By Sr. Paris Slapikas, SC Federation Perpetually Professed

      Click HERE to learn more about Paris

      Click HERE to learn more about the SC Federation

Working with men and women who have experienced intimate partner violence and sexual assault is never easy.  Day in and day out our staff is entrusted with the responsibility of being present to people at a time in their lives when they are most vulnerable, emotionally and physically.  Our responsibility to build trusting relationships, model love, offer support, share information and resources, explore coping strategies and develop safety plans is a great responsibility and it is indeed a great privilege.  But being present to another’s deep suffering comes at a cost.  Engaging authentically with each person and their situation and at the same time realizing that the needs of our community far outweigh our capacity is a burden that is deeply felt.  Our staff routinely fears for the safety of those we serve and have to cope with the unknown of what happened to the person after completing the call or transitioning out of our emergency shelter.  And yet, our staff keep on keeping on because the phones continue to ring and the shelter remains filled to capacity.
On August 4th a woman in our community was killed by her partner and one day later another woman killed her husband in order to survive a violent attack and extensive history of domestic violence.  I won’t disclose whether or not these women were served by our agency.  Either way, they are ours.  Every day we field calls and provide shelter to people just like them; men and women at risk for being killed by their partner, the person who is supposed to love, cherish and care for them.  
It is in these times especially that we must recognize seeds of hope even in the midst of extreme suffering and tragedy.  Perhaps it is simply acknowledging the courage it takes for a person to call and share their story, in the woman who thanks you for believing them, the one who can acknowledge it isn’t her fault, perhaps it is in the person who says they feel stronger and more confident in their plan or the one who feels safe in shelter.
I believe it is no coincidence that a former client chose this week, in the midst of our grieving for those whose lives are lost to intimate partner violence, to stop in and let us know she is doing well.  That she is safe, still working, has an apartment and has regained custody of her children.  In spite of the heartache and tears that sometimes accompany this work, it is the seeds of hope and the knowledge and belief that what we do makes a difference in the lives of so many people.  This hope is what brings our amazing Advocates back day in and day out.

This week marks the one year anniversary that our dear Sr. Paula and her great friend, Sr. Margaret were killed.   Many are devastated and outraged by the atrocity in Charlottesville that cost Heather her life and injured many others.  As we go forward wading through the tragedy and heartache that surround us may we be the seeds of hope for others and always be instruments of love and peace.