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Sister Denise Wilkinson’s Gospel reflection on the life of Sister Jeanne Knoerle

Sisters Jeanne Knoerle and Denise Wilkinson in 2009.

Sisters Jeanne Knoerle and Denise Wilkinson in 2009.

When I first glanced at the Scriptures of today’s liturgy, I expected I’d hone in on the Gospel, often called the “gospel of Providence.”

The ideas are enthusiastically hopeful and so reassuring in the promise of God’s love for us. God’s love isn’t theoretical – no. God’s care is concrete and real – clothes, food, drink. All will be given – as long as we strive to make real the kin-dom of God.

Perfect reading for today’s celebration of Sister Jeanne Knoerle’s life. She did indeed strive to bring about the realm of God. Besides, she loved those birds of the air and mirrored God’s generosity with the lilies in what she spun and wove.

But, I kept going back to the reading from the First Letter of John – a reading of four sentences.

“See what love the Mother/Father has given us that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.”

Perhaps, like me, you sometimes just want to be a beloved child again. I yearn to be gathered up into loving arms, reassured that everything is going to be all right. I want to be soothed and told that a distressing situation will fade away; life will feel hopeful again. I want someone to tell me I don’t need to do anything right now except sit in the lap of the one who loves me and let myself be loved.

John not only assures each of us that she or he is that beloved child of God, he assures us that together we are a community of God’s children in this time, this moment.

This is very comforting to me. How amazing to be so intimately linked with everyone in this Church as sisters and brothers in Christ, as beloved children of God! How reassuring it is that I don’t have to slog through this current grief alone, but rather as one among many in a community of caring, a community of faith, a community of Providence?

Then John holds out to us an intriguing hint of the mystery and the challenge of life and death.

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” We are God’s children now – albeit, most of us in this Church are God’s adult children. We have been and are working our way through whatever blessings and challenges life has presented to us.

We’ve lived and learned and hopefully – as Jesus did – grown in wisdom and grace and so come to know ourselves – who we are and whose we are.

But – in the future? In the future, who will we be? In that future we live into only by dying into it? Who will we be then? Who is Jeanne now? This unknowing, this sense of a new and definitive separation from the one we love is the pain of death. If we love others – any others – we will not escape this pain. Who and how we will be “has not yet been revealed.”

So, in the face of this inevitable separation and unknowing, we adult children of God believe as we grieve. We grieve as we believe. Belief and grief simultaneously entwine themselves around our minds and hearts. We rely on God’s care known through the community of God’s children – our friends, our families and our sisters – to pull us through times of grief like today into the joy of the mystery of God’s life.

Then, in the final sentence of the reading from John, we hear the most remarkable promise: “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Here’s how I understand this: for a Christian person whose life includes actions on behalf of all creation and attentiveness to prayer – prayer of all kinds or any kind – it is more than likely she will recognize the many revelations of Jesus within the context of her life.

She will become more and more like Jesus – for she will recognize his presence, his call to her in the circumstances of her life. She will become like him in the quality of her love.

Such a prayerful, faithful adult child of God was our Sister Jeanne Knoerle. Our Jeanne was many things – student, teacher, administrator, life-long learner, artist in paint and pastels and alpaca fiber, an ardent “birder” and a great cook of stir fry delicacies.

She loved ideas, enjoyed good conversation, liked to write and to read. She served as a minister of Eucharist and lector during our liturgies; and we could always count on her to be one of the best readers of anything, anywhere, for any occasion.

She performed her most recent ministry of driving our sisters to their appointments in town with the same energy and enthusiasm as she demonstrated as president of the College. Jeanne took on huge projects such as initiating what has become Our Green Valley – a coalition of partners in the Wabash Valley interested in sustaining the health of this local, precious biosphere. And she took on smaller projects – like cleaning up St. Joe’s Lake so it would be ready for the sisters to enjoy this summer. No matter what she did, she did it with enthusiasm and conviction.

In everything and anything Jeanne did, she did it as a Sister of Providence. At her core, in her deepest essence, Jeanne was first and foremost a Sister of Providence. She loved the Congregation and believed passionately in its future. Like so many of you Sisters of Providence of her age, she turned her life upside down when Vatican Council II asked women religious to return to our founders and the study our charisms in order to reform and renew ourselves for service in the church in the modern world.

This reform and renewal came at the price of great personal pain and a patient working through of profound differences in spirituality, theology, and an understanding of the nature of religious life and the meaning of the vows we profess.

I carry a memory of Jeanne Knoerle that is an icon for me of how honestly she lived her life as a Sister of Providence.

The Congregation had finished a General Chapter session – painful conversations, significant differences in beliefs and values among us had been fiercely debated. Emotions were very high, very raw.

We were outside –in the area in front of this church. We had a prayer of some kind or another and were all standing in a large semi-circle. One sister took the hand of the sister beside her – and slowly hands became linked. But we were still in a semi-circle. At one “end” of the semi-circle stood Jeanne Knoerle. On the other “end” stood the sister who had spoken against everything Jeanne proposed, or spoke in favor of, or advocated. And Jeanne had just as firmly expressed her opinions and beliefs that contradicted this sister.

The physical gap separating these two Sisters of Providence perfectly symbolized the huge ideological, theological and spiritual separation between them, and present among all of us.

With all other Sisters of Providence present, I saw Jeanne notice the separation and start to walk – pulling the rest of the group with her – to close the gap, to mend the break, to complete the circle, to take our sister’s hand.

For me, that’s Jeanne Knoerle’s legacy to us – to encourage us to use all our gifts of intellect and wit and love to close the gaps, mend the breaks and to complete the broken circles that mark our lives.

Thank you, Jeanne; continue to be with each of us and all of us as, together, we continue to witness and respond to the revelations of God in our lives as you so faithfully witnessed God’s providence through yours.

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Sister Denise Wilkinson

Sister Denise was the general superior of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods from 2006-2016. She previously served as a high school teacher, college administrator, postulant/novice director and director of advancement and communications for the Congregation. Currently, Sister Denise serves the Congregation in various volunteer positions.

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