Friday, February 27, 2015

Dare to hope!

By Sr. Tracy Kemme

It feels like the “One Day More” song scene in the 2013 motion picture rendition of Les Miserables.  In the movie, it’s the day before the revolution comes to a particular neighborhood of France.  The camera pans to various key players as they give voice to the mounting anticipation through song.  It seems that everyone feels varying degrees of excitement, fear, hope, resistance, expectation, longing, anxiety, joy and more.

And so it has been around the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Motherhouse.  After months of preparations of all kinds, we will gather this evening to open Chapter 2015.  People are traveling from near and far for the momentous occasion.  Last minute details are being ironed out.  We are each filled with different emotions, and I’m sure each of us is pondering, “What will happen at this much-anticipated Chapter?”

For those not familiar, the General Chapter happens every four years and is the highest legislative body of our congregation.  Over nine days, we will discern together the direction we will take for the next four years, and we will elect a new Leadership Team.  The Sisters who are able fully participate as what we call delegates to the Chapter, and many other Sisters, Associates, and friends collaborate in other ways, especially offering prayerful support.

This is my first Chapter, and my heart is filled with that mixed bag of “one day more” anticipation.  Throughout the process leading up to today, I have marveled at the way it all happens (see this article by Sr. Janet for more insights).  How do a few hundred people come together like this to hear the voice of God and respond?  It is no small task and at the same time a remarkable gift.

Each Wednesday for a few weeks, we’ve held a Congregational Holy Hour to pray together for that which begins today.  As we sat together in that wondrous pregnant silence, we felt the prayers of so many sisters who have sat in that chapel through the years.  Their witness of reliance on God points us toward surrender.  The same generously loving God who carried them calls and carries us.

My housemate, Sister Carol, invited us to that trust when she shared a beautiful fable with our house community yesterday:  The Tale of Three Trees, as retold by Angela Elwell Hunt.  The story speaks of three trees on a hill that dream of how their wood will be used.  The first tree, for example, aspires to become a chest that will hold treasure. Eventually, it is chopped down and taken to a carpentry shop where, to the tree’s dismay, it is fashioned into a feeding trough for animals.  It seems that the tree’s dreams and hopes are dashed.

Then, we turn the page of the book, and – a magnificent twist!  The parable tells us that one night, a poor, traveling couple enters the stable where the trough is housed.  There is apparently no room for them anywhere else in the town, even though this woman is pregnant and going into labor.  That very night, she gives birth to a baby boy, and she lays him in the feeding-box made of the tree’s beautiful wood.

The tree realizes that it is holding a more wonderful treasure than it could possibly have imagined as it stood on the hillside, dreaming, so long ago.


I had never heard this story before, and I definitely did not see that coming!  A smile of delight crept across my face as I considered the infinite goodness of our God.  How often have our best laid plans crumbled only to make way for the Spirit’s best surprises?  As we move into Chapter, this story touches me deeply and calls me to something, calls me outside of myself into profound trust, radical hope, and willingness to let God be God.

Just as in Les Miserables and in the story of the three trees, we each will enter the Chapter room with our expectations and desires as well as our baggage and our blocks.  I’m not naïve to the challenge before us.  Even as we strive whole-heartedly to embody the charism of Charity, we are human.  When almost 140 people gather to consider that which is most dear to us, our very life together, of course opinions will differ and tensions will arise.  Honest, authentic, group discernment can be messy.

But I wonder if this Chapter could truly find our congregation at its best!

The other novices, Andrea, Annie, and I considered this, chatting after morning prayers yesterday.  As we shared our pondering about this Chapter to come, we expressed hope that, as a congregation, we will be who we say we are.  We owe that to our future, to the women in discernment, to the many wonderful women who are still to come.  Even in the difficult moments of this Chapter, can we demonstrate love, prayerful listening, trust, courage, openness to the spirit, and a single-hearted devotion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? 

With God’s grace, we can.

None of us knows exactly what is in store for our congregation over the next days, but we know Who calls us.  In this beautiful Lenten season, we can hear God’s beckoning:  “Return to me with your whole heart.”  In the words of scripture, we can sense the urgency of fidelity to the mission above all else: to release those bound unjustly, set free the oppressed, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and break every yoke (adapted from Isaiah 58).  In this springtime of the soul, we know that new life is bursting forth, nurtured by and rooted in the richness of our legacy.

I ask each of you reading this to pray for and with us over the days of our Chapter, from today until March 7th.  Fellow members of the Federation, fellow women religious, friends, family, collaborators, those who don’t even know us, please join us in prayer!

May we know that the One who calls us together is our God of Love who can transform a simple feeding trough into the cradle of the Savior.  May we be worthy of the gift of the call we have be given.  And may we dare to hope!  Like a clear, expectant sky awaiting the glorious sunrise, may we make room for the dawn of our God of light and love who will splash us with brilliant color we never dreamed possible.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Vocation Questions

By Sr. Alice Ann O'Neill

A senior from Bishop Alter High School in Dayton, Ohio, recently emailed me several questions regarding my vocation story. I thought I would share her questions and my responses in case anyone reading our Future of Charity blog has any of these same questions knocking around inside.

1.       When did you first feel and accept your vocational call?
2.       How did you choose your religious order of Sisters of Charity?

I first felt drawn to become a sister when I was 16 or 17 years old. I attended a teen encounter retreat and fell in love with God. I wrote a letter to the Sisters of Charity in my hometown in eastern Canada. These sisters taught me the rosary and how to pray and were very kind to me. When I was 18 and graduating high school, I told my parents I wanted to join their community and my parents said I could not join the Sisters of Charity because I had to go to university. My parents told me that once I grew up, I would see that I would be happier being married and having children. I did not agree with my parents and did not feel like I wanted to get married ever, however, I do like children a great deal so I wasn’t sure if my parents were correct. So I went to university and then travelled all over the world playing the cello and became a Suzuki cello teacher too. One morning during mass, when I was 30, I was praying and asked God to help me decide what specific subject I should study in graduate school at Ohio State in Columbus. I wanted so badly to know who I really should become and so I sincerely said to God that I promised I would follow what God wanted me to be and I suddenly heard a voice behind me say, “be a sister.” I became very afraid after I heard this but I promised God so I started discerning religious life. I have since come to understand that I really need to do things that make me afraid because when good things scare you, it means you should look into this more deeply and see what this means for you. Following your heart, even if it is scary, can lead you to beautiful, wonderful things that you could never have believed possible.

I attended a discernment retreat sponsored by the Catholic diocese of Columbus, Ohio, and found out about the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. I tried to look at joining the Sisters of Charity in my hometown in Canada because I thought that would make sense but God wanted me to be with the Sisters of Charity in Cincinnati and God made this very clear to me over a period of 2 years. I listened to what I felt God was saying to me even though it didn’t seem to make sense to me at the time and I have found my home and my family and so much joy with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. 

3.       What is the best and hardest thing about being in a religious order?

The best thing about being a sister is that I am surrounded by so many sisters and people with whom I minister that share my values. In a world where Catholic Gospel values and faith are not seemingly important, I am always free to share my faith with others and live by moral values that are important to me. Help with prayer is supported by where I live and how my priorities in life are organized. Having a community of like-minded and like-hearted people makes life easier and more joyful. Jesus surrounded himself with a community of friends and I feel like that is how I live my life too.

The worst thing about being a sister is how people judge me. People think because I am a sister I am holier than they are. We are all broken and on a journey toward wholeness in many different ways. I am human on a journey towards holiness just like people with other vocations in life. Another way I feel I am wrongly judged is that people think I am going to judge them because they are not Catholic etc. I try not to judge anyone because I don’t like to be wrongly judged. Also, Pope Francis said, “who I am to judge?” It is not for me to judge others either but simply to love others as I would want to be loved too. I try to be open and kind to everyone and usually kindness is returned to me.

4.       What is the process for becoming a holy religious?

For the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, this is the process of becoming a sister

Pre-Entrance - a period when you can come to visit with our sisters, ask lots of questions, and be with us but you are just looking into this and discerning whether our community could be your family where you belong. This section can last from 6 months to 2 years. I lived in my apartment in Columbus during this period and I visited the community often.

Affiliation or Entrance - a period when you think you belong to our family and you would like to make a commitment to praying and discerning your call to religious life and our community. This period can last 1 to 2 years. This is normally when people live in one of our houses to see how they like living our life and praying.

Novitiate - during this time, everyone studies full-time and does volunteer ministry. I studied church history, the history of religious life, prayer, Catholicism, and the history of my community. Also, a lot of time is spent studying the vows. This is what first year novices do but the second year of my novitiate, I got a full-time job teaching music at the University of Dayton. Praying is VERY important during any of these periods of formation.

Temporary Profession - I professed temporary vows in 2006 for a period of 2 years and then renewed my vows for 1 year. The final year of temporary vows, I studied the vows again and went on retreats and was discerning whether to profess my vows for life.

Final Profession - I professed my final vows in 2009. This profession is a lifetime commitment. I have never been happier than after I professed my final vows. I could only have professed my final vows knowing that I am a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati and I want to be for the rest of my life.

5.       What advice do you have for young people concerning vocational calls?

PRAY. Praying is the answer to any question about who you are and where you should go and what you should be doing. If you get in the habit of praying, then prayer can help you through anything and everything in life. Attending Mass is praying too. God is always there for us…waiting for us to turn and listen. God speaks very clearly if you listen and are sincerely open and pray. Also, I would say to young women…I wish I had become a sister even sooner. It is a wonderful life - very fulfilling and blessed. I have never been happier than my 12 years as a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. I would say to young men, please consider becoming a priest because God and God’s people need you.

Peace and Blessings on your journey!
Alice Ann ONeill, SC

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ash Wednesday - The Good of the Whole

By: Sr. Marie Flowers, SCN

I can’t seem to shake the tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo killings in France.  The actions leading up to and following the massacre have me questioning my values, our values and wondering how it all got so ugly.  I’m sensing a societal push toward the individual – (what I want, need, think or have to say) as more important than the good of the whole.  The message seems to be that individualism supersedes respect, tolerance and ultimately undermines the human dignity of all. 

As I reflect on God’s invitation for these 40 days of Lent, I keep coming back to the idea of looking out for the good of the whole – not just my needs, the needs of my local community and my family, but the needs of the whole church, the whole world the whole earth. Our world is crying out from every continent for peace and reconciliation, for compassion and justice, for Hope. 

Sunday’s readings were filled with wisdom for building up and protecting the whole.  “If you bear the sore of leprosy, shout unclean, unclean so as not to infect the whole of the community”  “Do everything for the glory of God…avoid giving offense whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God”
My prayer this Lent is for a deeper awareness of The Good of the Whole and how God’s love desires to permeate every part of the whole.

Image result for picture of earth

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mardi Gras: Building up community, one parade at a time

By Kara Davis

Sisters across the Federation gathered outside the St. Vincent de Paul Adult Learning Center on Canal Street in New Orleans for the Krewe of Endymion Parade.  Several Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of Charity at the House of Charity, from Cincinatti, Leavenworth, and New York came together to catch some beads and Let the good times roll!
If I were to share only ONE thing about Mardi Gras in New Orleans, it would be this:  Mardi Gras is NOT, I repeat NOT, what you might hear about in the movies.  The promiscuous tales of Bourbon Street where women do crazy things for beads is NOT the norm, but only a small, isolated reality for those who wish to travel down that road, because the parades do not even roll in the French Quarter.  During my seven days of Mardi Gras celebration, I attended 20 parades, and never experienced any of the events most people, who are not from New Orleans, associate with Mardi Gras.  So please, if this is all you read on the blog, PLEASE remember that Mardi Gras is not about taking off your clothes for beads.  In my opinion, Mardi Gras is about building up community, one parade at a time.

I experienced community with the people of New Orleans gathered together on the streets for the parades.  It didn't matter if you were young or old, "rich" or "poor," black, white, yellow, or purple.  All people gathered on the streets to share in this festival of comedy and tragedy.  It was kind of like a glimpse of a New Orleans version of the Kingdom of God.  During each parade, I immediately became friends with the strangers around me as we all stretched our arms out and screamed, "Hey, hey, hey!  Throw me something mister!"  Seldom did anyone fight over throws dispersed from the floats, and most of the time, there was sharing of items.  Adults shared with children and children shared with each other.  I was amazed by the generosity, kindness, and pure joy expressed between strangers who became friends as 20+ floats rolled by the crowd.

I also experienced community with the Krewes who produced the parades and rode on the floats, sharing their unique traditions associated with Mardi Gras.  Each Krewe and each parade had their own mission, values, purpose, and theme, and there was a place for just about anyone.  There were women’s Krewes like Nyx, Muse, and Iris.  There were super Krewes like Endymion with 3,100 members and elaborately decorated light-up floats.  There was the humorous Krewe of Tucks, originally started by college students and known for throwing toilet paper.  There was Thoth, known for parading past the Poor Clare Monastery, Children’s Hospital, and Home for Disabled Adults, ensuring that all people, even those unable to make it out to the streets, were able to experience a taste of Mardi Gras.  And there were also the traditional Krewes of Zulu and Rex, who take over the city on Mardi Gras Day.  Each Krewe put on a show for the city in their own unique ways, and I appreciated diversity that each Krewe contributed to the Carnival Season.

Finally, I experienced community with the Sisters gathered with me at the parades.  Whether you were a local Sister, born and raised in New Orleans, or a Sister newly missioned to the "Big Easy," all appreciated Mardi Gras in their own ways. Some Sisters danced the “Cupid Shuffle” in the street, and others laughed over finding the plastic baby in the King Cake.  Some Sisters attended the parade with their coifs (veils), and others were in full Mardi Gras attire.  Some people might be surprised to hear that Sisters celebrate Mardi Gras, but once you have a proper understanding of what Mardi Gras actually is, it makes sense for Sisters to be right there in the streets with the people.

So my friends, this was my attempt to write a brief reflection on my Mardi Gras experience in New Orleans, but really, words cannot adequately express how I encountered Christ in community with the people gathered in the streets, the Krewes in the parades, and the Sisters who celebrated the season with me.  I will leave you with the unofficial Mardi Gras theme song, so grab your parasol and your beads, and let’s Second Line to Ash Wednesday!

After my first Mardi Gras Parade...

…and during the last parades of the Mardi Gras Season.  

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Where's the Luv?

by Sister Laura Coughlin

I recently bought a paper shredder so that I might securely dispose of a giant bag of documents that I’d been collecting for over a year.  I’ve signed up on the “do not send” list, but it seems to have had no effect on the amount of junk mail delivered particularly by Southwest Airlines – less well known as Luv Airlines.  
So I confess, I had to shred the Luv because it had my identity stamped all over it.

Was this a deeply thought provoking theological question, or a key line in a country western song still to be written?  We’ll go with the former thesis.  Where love comes from, and what we do with it is a human question. 

Luv’s offer was for two roundtrip tickets; not a bad deal although it required additional expenditure and payment of a recurring $70 annual fee.  Southwest Airlines is a favorite among many sisters from my congregation.  Much like the sisters themselves, the airline is efficient, egalitarian, light-hearted, and reasonable.  Having been delayed by one Boston snowpocalypse this year I am grateful that they offer no-penalty ticket changes.  Their bags-fly-free policy is a winner, and I’m pretty sure Southwest pilots have superpowers based on the number of times my flights have left late and arrived early.  It’s just magical.

God is not magical.  God is mystery.

Theologian, Karl Rahner, suggests that God also offers a type of round-trip ticket.  In Rahner’s view, God gives humankind, in its very origins, an anticipation of Holy Mystery that predisposes us to discern God’s presence in the world, and to transcend ourselves when we gratefully receive the divine self-communication.  In our transcendence, we are made into a person not different from ourselves, but “more” than we were before such communication.  This type of transcendence does not happen by magic, but in the grace of God that enables our contemplation of the Lord in our ordinary experiences – “we and our everydayness belongs to him”.[1]  The round trip of such communication with God is known in our “return to the world” (Rahner’s phrasing) as women and men better equipped to be the kind of more for others that Christ is for all of us.  In the last analysis, however, Rahner’s round trip is really a one-way ticket in which profound and ongoing personal formation leads to union.

How does this apply to religious life?

For me, the contemplation of the round trip one-way is fascinating for what I see in the glance back.  I was scared, even at final vows, that I would not have the fortitude necessary for the lifelong commitment I was making.  Now, almost eight years later, I see that God shared in this risk of a “yes,” and shared it earlier in the risk of postulancy, novitiate, and temporary profession.  How different this perspective is than one that understands God as simply blessing our risks in a sovereign capacity – as if He sneaks in with a booming voice and rubber stamp on our big occasions and proclaims, “I APPROVE.”  The risk is not ours alone, but one that is shouldered, not only “in the end,” but all the way, and all the time, by a God much stronger than ourselves. 

How powerful it is to think about Mary’s fiat – her “let this be” – in this way.  Mary’s fiat is rightfully held up by the Church because without it there would be no Incarnation, no understanding of “God with us.”  In holding up a particular event as special, however, we should not lose sight that Mary’s “let this be” was a first risk.

Between the Annunciation and the crucifixion, many more surrenders would be required of Mary.  None of these stood alone, but were, rather, striking moments in which the Blessed Mother would have been able to acknowledge her ongoing experience of God’s carriage of her from “strength to strength” (Psalm 84).  Although Mary’s decision-making flowed from a disposition of total receptivity to the Divine Will, perhaps she still wondered about God’s “success rate.”  After all, if Southwest Airlines can load passengers efficiently every time, isn’t it reasonable to expect some consistency from He who holds the universe together?  Perhaps she thought, as many of us do when we face the unknown, “I trusted Him the last time and I see the fruits in my own life of that decision, so I can trust Him again this time.” 

Whenever we make such a decision in favor of our community, and in light of God’s power in shouldering the risk, we are formed into persons who live in a state of trust.  Sisters told me this would be true when I entered, but now I can claim their answer as my own through experience.  I am grateful for this growth in trust – of Christ, and of my sisters in Christ.  Such trust helps us to become communities whose identity proclaims – “the love can be found here among people who are trusted, and who travel in a common direction with God to God.”

[1] (Karl Rahner, The Need and the Blessing of Prayer, 42)

Name: Sr. Laura Coughlin
Congregation: Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill
Stage in vows: Made final vows 7 years ago
Hometown: Shelby Twp., Michigan
Current Study: Working on an MDiv (Master of Divinity) at Boston College

Thursday, February 5, 2015

It Must Be Love!

by Andrea Koverman

Vow preparation is the central focus of this year, and my fellow Apostolic Novice, Tracy and I have spent the last several months intensely studying, deepening understanding, and discerning our readiness and willingness to make vows. I would like to share some of what I’ve learned, but also the inner shift that I experienced over the course of these months, which is a lot harder to put into words.

I must admit that I approached the topic of the vows with reserve and a little apprehension. Though my understanding of the vows had broadened a little during the canonical year, they still seemed more like a list of “don’ts” than an avenue for spiritual growth. Stories of how power and authority were wielded over Sisters in the past are still told, and I wondered how I would handle it if shades of that culture lingered on into the present. I have proceeded from one stage of formation to the next with the thought that until I bumped up against something that made me say, “No,” I would keep saying, “Yes.” What if one or all of the vows were the wall I would hit? What if it felt like they would drain the life out of me instead of filling me with joy and enthusiasm? Like each aspect of formation that had come before, I wouldn’t know the answers to my questions until I faced them. I committed myself to a wholehearted exploration of the vows, hoping I wouldn’t encounter something that would stop me in my tracks. I knew it would break my heart if I couldn’t go on, but I also knew I could not make solemn promises that I didn’t believe in. My constant prayer was that I would have the grace to be open and to let my desire to want what God wants to guide me.

We were provided with a set of articles and discussion questions to use as we investigated each vow in turn. We also had two excellent resources from last year: notes from Simone Campbell’s presentation of the vows as seen through the lens of social justice, and Elaine Prevallet’s publication, In the Service of Life: Widening and Deepening Religious Commitment. My Novitiate house community and another group of personally selected Sisters formed my two discussion groups. After reading, reflecting and praying with the articles given, we met for sharing and discussion. The wisdom gained through decades of living the vows as the world around them changed was generously shared. I paid close attention to what resonated with me and what did not. Writing a prayerful reflection to conclude helped define and clarify my own understanding. Here is a seriously condensed version!

I came to see that poverty is not about self-deprivation and miserly scrupulosity, but about recognizing that all is an unearned and undeserved gift given to us by a God of unconditional love. It is about being in right-relationship with God, relaxing into the truth of our human limitations and dependence. Poverty means creating space for God to dwell and work through us. It is a source of deep joy and peace, not the cause of discontent.

Celibacy is not simply the obvious sacrifices: no husband, no sex, no children. Celibacy is the natural and logical result of a passionate quest for God who never fails to intrigue me, to hold my attention and fascinate me. God has a primary claim on me, and what I choose to commit my time and life-energy to. Celibacy is not about living without intimacy, but loving the way that God loves: openly, inclusively, but without exclusive possessiveness. It is not about turning my feelings off, but making myself available to an increasingly wider circle of people. As my Affiliate director once told me, if you practice celibacy authentically, you are going to fall in love over and over again. 

And what about obedience? What contemporary empowered woman of integrity would forego the right to make her own decisions? Fortunately, that is not what is at the heart of evangelical obedience! Rather, it is a promise of intentional discernment as to whether or not our decisions are in keeping with the mission of Christ. We are really promising to remain attentive and responsive to facilitating the coming of the Kingdom by doing God’s will, to prefer God’s will to our own.

More remarkable to me than any particular thing I’ve learned is the transformation in the way I feel about the vows. Though I know there will be challenging times ahead, all the apprehension and hesitation I felt at the beginning of the year have been usurped by an absolute conviction that not only can I make vows, but that I want to more than I’ve ever wanted anything before. How did that happen? What’s got a hold on me? There is only one explanation: it must be Love! I have fallen deeply in love with God in response to being deeply loved by God to begin with.

Follow the link below, but be warned: you won't be able to sit still!