Thursday, March 28, 2013

Heaven Is Not Far From Earth

On the Feast of St. Joseph, which was Tuesday, March 19th, I had the opportunity to travel into Pittsburgh and visit one of its treasured sites.  I visited the Shrine of St. Anthony which is home to almost 5,000 relics -- the second largest collection in the world outside of the Vatican.

Not assuming that all readers would know what a relic is, it is a piece of an object that was either owned by or a part of someone who was deeply connected to God.  For example, there are relics of Saints which hold threads that come from a part of their clothing.  Other relics might include strands of hair, or a cloth that simply touched the person.  We do not worship relics, only hold them sacred because they connect us to someone who was so connected to God, therefore bringing us the feeling that we ourselves are a bit closer to Him through the good example of their lives and their faith.  Even in Jesus's day people didn't have to touch His person to be healed, as we recall from the story of the woman with the hemorrhage.  All she did was touch His cloak and her ailments of twelve years disappeared forever (Mk 5:25-34).

On my way to the Shrine, I didn't really think much about what I might find there.  I hardly knew the number of relics they had, assuming it was merely in the hundreds.  The first half of the small Chapel held the Stations of the Cross, reminding visitors of God-made-man who came to be with us and eventually died for us.  The second half of the Chapel was full of the relics, but even as I walked in I didn't fully understand what I had just become a part of.

The tour guide was a young Seminarian studying to become a Priest.  He spoke about the history of the place and the man who started it all, Father Suitbert Godfrey Mollinger of Germany.  He went on to talk about the relics in the Chapel -- how they got there, how many there were, their authenticity, etc. -- and then began to tell us about the specific ones we might be interested in.  Even when I heard him say there were almost 5,000 relics in the Chapel, it never really occurred to me as to what sort of relics I would encounter.  He led us to a case which was neatly displayed and had small images inside.  "As you might know," he began, "today is the Feast of St. Joseph.  Inside here, we have a relic which is a piece of his cloak."  My eyes widened, "St. Joseph?!" I thought to myself, "The man who raised Jesus?!"  But the tour guide continued, "And up here, where you see the image of Our Lady, is a relic which holds a piece of her veil."  I almost fell to my knees!  And yet, I was not done being overwhelmed, because then he said, "And in the middle here is a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified."  I had to sit down.  I went away to a pew in the first part of the Chapel and just put my face in my hands.  My mind was so full I could hardly think!

"Calm down," I finally scolded myself, "Be quiet and breathe a little already!"  I let my heart pound it out for a few more minutes and then was reminded of a book I had recently finished.  The book had placed Jesus in our times, forming words and actions He might produce based on the words and actions of His life from Scripture.  In this book, the figure who represented Jesus was explaining to His friends that "heaven is where God is, and God is everywhere, so heaven is everywhere, all around you.  [It] is in a world... just on the other side of a thin veil of time.  If you could close your eyes and walk through that veil, you could be there.  It is that close."  I realized then, that I had come up to the edge of that veil.  I was now standing before pieces of the life of our Savior, in the midst of the holy prayers and sacrifices of others who had come before me: and they were not dead.  They are alive and fully experiencing God on the other side of that veil, and here I was, being drawn into that life!  A life where God's love is unmasked and without end.  Yes, I was overwhelmed.

I think some people in our lives can sometimes be like living relics, bringing us closer to God through their kindness and good examples of faith, hope and love.  Entering into this Holy Week, Jesus shared a bit of His cross with me and I began to feel its weight pressing down upon me.  As I reached out to new friends and seasoned role models, I received a wealth of wisdom.  More than being comforting, the words these saints had to offer were words that spoke of God's commitment to me and mine to Him.  "JUMP, Sister!  Jump in with both feet!" said one of these great women, reminding me that commitment involves wholehearted sacrifice.  Another said to me, "If God is asking this of you, then He must trust you can handle it."  In the midst of everything, I received much affirmation, but I also received insights as to how I could grow through this in order to become more of the woman God is calling me to be.

"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; He who finds one finds a treasure."
This Holy Week has been a very unique experience, and though like Simon I was reluctant to help Jesus carry His cross, I now know what it means for God's love to be eternal.  His love flows forth from the lives of people who jumped in with both feet and from the lives of those who continue to do so every day.  It is this unending love of past and present that ignores time and brings a piece of our heavenly home to earth.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sister Desire's Apostolic Experience in Coraopolis, PA

I arrived in Coraopolis, PA, on Friday, February 15, and will be here until Monday, April 1. I am spending my days at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH) High School, walking up and down the halls and in and out of classrooms as a new addition with some experiences to share.

Sister Desire tutoring a student in Spanish
I have spoken with all of the students by going to each religion class and telling my vocation story. During each visit, I left time for the students to make comments or ask questions, and I had a lot of fun responding to them. I received questions such as, "What's your favorite color?" or, "If you could be any animal, what would you be?", but also encountered some very carefully thought-out questions such as, "What do you think of the military?" or "What do you think about other religions?" At the end of the discussion, I would ask the students to put their heads down so I could ask them a question. "Keep your eyes closed," I instructed, and then I would ask, "Have any of you ever thought about religious life? Just raise your hand." In each class, I always had at least two students raise their hands. Sometimes I had about four or five hands go up in a class. So keep the prayers coming! After speaking with the students, they felt more comfortable having me around, so we began an extracurricular activity after school.

About 15 students showed up on the first day, Monday, March 4, to make knotted cord rosaries. I began with a single-decade rosary. When they returned the next day, I gave them each enough cord to make a full rosary while the newcomers began on their own single decades. It has been great so far! I plan to continue next week as well, since the students are interested in continuing the activity after I leave.

Another one of my roles in the school is as a tutor, mostly for students struggling in Spanish or Religion. I work with about four students on a weekly basis and am really enjoying getting to know them. Two of them are seniors, so I get to listen to them talk about their future plans for school and employment. One young man tells me that I look like his little sister, so I guess they are becoming like family to me now!

Teaching rosary making to the students after school
On Wednesday, March 13, I had the chance to speak in one of the Spanish classes about immigration. I created a power point presentation entitled, Immigración: Antes de, Durante de, Después de (Immigration: Before, During, After).  It included educational videos as well as photographs that I had taken of children and adults both in Mexico and the United States who have had to endure the difficulties of immigration. We discussed some true/false statements that I had composed and then talked about the difficulties many migrants face when they finally arrive. We also had a chance to talk about how our country can benefit from their presence and I brought up an example that I figured would be relevant-- Pizza! Tomorrow the students will gather in groups to further discuss the topic and I am scheduled to give this same presentation for the remaining Spanish classes.

Other than school, I have had the opportunity to attend several young adult gatherings in the Pittsburgh area. Sarah Beedle, who is discerning a vocation to the religious life, often picks me up and we attend the events together. The religion teacher and campus minister here, Erin Stuvek, hosts a young adult gathering with her husband called "Taco Tuesday." We attend Mass in the evening and then gather just to visit for a while. After visiting, we read a reflection or excerpt from Scripture, and then get into small groups to go over some discussion questions. It is a wonderful experience, so I am trying to get some of our other young educators on board. Sarah also came to the OLSH Legacy Gala where our sisters were recognized for their ministry at OLSH High School. The evening was very enjoyable and Sarah noted how well-loved and supported the sisters are by the community here.

I look forward to my remaining two weeks with the OLSH community and ask for your continued prayers as I discern my future ministry! Thank you for all the support you have shown thus far and may God bless each and every one of you.

Your sister, Desiré

P.S. My niece, Grace Apodaca (pictured at right), was born on Saturday, March 9! She was four weeks early, but is doing very well and was discharged from the hospital with my sister 48 hours after delivery. Now my nephew has a little sister!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sister Angelise's Apostolic Experience in Philadelphia, PA

My time here at St. Ignatius in Philadelphia, PA, has been nothing short of a blessing.

This last week especially, has been filled with one-on-one visits with the residents: spending time with them in their rooms, meeting with them in the hallways, praying with them when they request a prayer. In these discussions, a few have shared that they live with chronic pain and some have conveyed a desire to return to their home but can't due to failing health. Regardless of individual circumstances, the perceived lesson that comes through these remarkable encounters is the residents' desire to be heard, affirmed and validated.

On reflection, I believe this need is a universal need and is a facet of who we are as spiritual human beings. When we reflect on life and its accomplishments and its joys as well as its sufferings, we want to know that our lives had, and continue to have, meaning and purpose. Asking an elder to talk about their friends and family, even about their careers, faith and hobby interests can convey a message of affirmation and dignity to our senior population and I believe the need for that affirmation becomes even more vital as one's health and ability to verbally and effectively communicate decline.

So, where do I go with this lesson and what do I do with it?

I guess the biggest takeaways from this week's lesson are the words patience, presence and purpose. Patience, in giving elders the opportunity to share their stories as many times as possible and as often as possible. Presence, to meet our elders wherever they are. If they are happy, I will rejoice with them. If they are sad, I will weep with them. And should they be lost in a moment of confusion, I will meet them in that reality and journey with them through that experience. Purpose, that regardless of their circumstances, affirm that their lives have meaning and purpose and whether verbally or through a gentle touch, I will let them know that they are loved.

I still cannot believe my time with St. Ignatius has come to an end. I shall miss this place dearly but I shall also take away many positive experiences and spiritual lessons.

To the residents of St. Ignatius: You have shared so much of who you are with me and have helped me to learn even more about who I am through your gentle wisdom. I am indebted to you all and take with me a thousand happy memories of our time together.

 To Sister Maureen Lowry, RSM, St. Ignatius' Pastoral Care Director: Thank you for your wisdom, knowledge and guidance regarding pastoral care of the elderly.

To Michelle Garrison, director of activities, and her staff, Fran, Nicole, Lily and Ginny: Each of you exemplifies the core values of St. Ignatius in your activities with the residents: Dignity of All Persons, Excellence through Compassion, Community through Transformation, Stewardship through Justice and Peace, and Concern for the Poor, and also Love.

To John Meacham, administrator of St. Ignatius: Thank you for saying "Yes" to my apostolic experience and for making me feel so welcomed.

And finally, a heart-felt "Thank You" to SM Annelle Velivis, local minister, and SM Agatha Cebula, director of mission integration at St. Ignatius: For your wonderful Felician hospitality, excursions around the Philadelphia area, visits to the Shrine of St. John Neumann, and excellent discussions and literature on elder care. Your care, compassion and concern for the elderly is boundless. Mother Angela would be well-pleased with your commitment and efforts.

Next stop - Felician Village, Manitowoc, WI. Cheese curds and string cheese - I need my cheese!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sister Bridget's Apostolic Experience in San Antonio, TX

I am staying at Blessed Mary Angela Convent with S Dorothy Ann Mary Moczygemba, SM Irene Krysinski and SM Ellen Sturm.  

My apostolic experience with Sister Dorothy, director of faith formation for St. Brigid's Parish in San Antonio, has been a great experience.  

St. Brigid's is a large parish, with about 2500 registered families, in Northwest San Antonio. The parish website describes itself as having "a pastor and pastoral team who are able to share leadership of the parish and willing to delegate responsibility in such a manner as to continue the development of a committed lay leadership that will assist in carrying out the message of the Gospel," and I have witnessed this firsthand. It is beautiful to see so many committed parishioners, young and old, who are a vibrant part of the parish life outside of Sunday Mass attendance. At the opening of the Parish Mission, the parishioners were asked to commit to one hour per week for Eucharistic Adoration as St. Brigid's prepares to start perpetual adoration.  More than 400 parishioners responded "Yes" to the call. The visiting priest, Father Sean Davidson, a member of the clerical association Missionaries of the Most Holy Eucharist, said he had never seen such a response.

Vocation panel discussion at St. Joseph's in Honey Creek

While I have been here at St. Brigid's, I have been assisting Sister Dorothy and Lourdes Machado, her assistant, in the office as well as participating with various faith-forming ministries. I helped to research and choose a Vacation Bible School theme, facilitated a First Eucharist Gathering with the children (one of many highlights), attended one of two bible studies going on at the parish, and participated in a "Writing with Angels" meeting where the participants read scripture, pray together, faith share and journal together. I also joined in a few RCIA classes and accompanied Sister Dorothy to the Rite of Election. 

Youth Ministry Coordinator Nora Ruiz allowed me to accompany the youth group to the Natalie Grant concert, a Christian singer, at the University of the Incarnate Word. I also attended a few of the Youth Group meetings. One of the beautiful instances of collaboration of the community here at St. Brigid's was exemplified at a high school retreat planning meeting I attended. Headed by Nora, who had to leave soon after it started, the team, a mix of young adults (former youth group members) and adult parishioners, proceeded to present ideas for activities, skits and overall flow of the weekend event. Each idea was discussed and most were accepted and adapted to the need of the event. Input came from a majority of the participants. It was beautiful and exciting to see leaders of today forming leaders of tomorrow!

Vocation Events

Youth group at St. Brigid's

The first Saturday I was in San Antonio, S Jane Mary Gawlik took me to the San Antonio Super Youth Spectacular. Jesse Manibusan was the keynote speaker and Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller presided at Mass. More than 500 young people attended the event. I participated in a skit and Q&A panel with several seminarians and a Salesian Sister, Sister Jaden. The youth group led by Nora Ruiz from St. Brigid's was also there and this was their first sighting of me. On Sunday,  back at the parish, many came and introduced themselves to me and gave me great feedback on the skit, which focused on making good decisions in the face of temptation. This past Sunday I was involved in two more vocation panel discussions, one at St. Brigid's and the other in "Hill Country," at St. Joseph's in Honey Creek. I talked with many of the teens from St. Brigid's one-on-one as they were interviewing seminarians and religious for their Confirmation classes. At St. Joseph's, we were part of the Life Teen event after Mass. I was amazed by the amount and quality of questions this group of high schoolers had for us. Many came and asked more questions following the event.

Sadly, my time here in San Antonio is coming to a close. I have been truly blessed to have experienced so much in such a short time and to have met so many faith-filled people who have welcomed me with open arms and plenty of hugs!