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Reflections for Profession of Vows

Note: This reflection was offered on Sunday, July 26, 2020, for Perpetual Profession of vows for Sister Corbin Hannah, and First Profession of Vows for Sister Teresa Kang.

The reign of heaven is like a treasure

hidden in a field,

which a person found and covered up;

who then in joy goes and sells all

and buys that field.

Sisters Corbin and Teresa, your presence here today tells all of us that you have found the treasure of which Jesus speaks in this passage from Matthew’s Gospel.

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski (left) with Sisters Teresa Kang and Corbin Hannah.

Our acceptance of you, our witnessing your public profession of vows today, should tell you that we have found a treasure in you.

So, it is with great joy that we come together today as the Providence Community. Some of us are gathered here in this church. Many of us are nestled in our own local communities, here, there, and everywhere from Louisville to Taiwan. But all of us are brought together by the abiding belief that working for the reign of God is worth selling all to buy that field.

Sharing in the reign of God is worth professing vows and joining your life’s energies to the many women who have gone before you as Sisters of Providence – the many women who, as Paul suggests in the second reading, have sought to conform themselves to the image of Christ Jesus.

This first profession of vows for you, Teresa, indicates to me that you are ready to embark on that very journey in new and perhaps more meaningful ways. In fact, in your request for vows, you wrote: “I would like to take the next step and fully commit myself to the life and mission of Providence.”

Sister Teresa Kang professed first vows

But it was the next sentence of your request that touched me deeply and I quote:

“I surrender to our Providence. I trust (that) God planted me in the garden of the Sisters of Providence, and (God) will transform my life. All that (God) needs is my ‘YES.’”

Teresa, thank you for your YES, for opening yourself to that invitation to sell all – to leave your family, your country – even a favorite job – to learn a new language, a new culture, a new way of living life in community.

Corbin, you have been living these vows for seven-plus years now. In seeking to profess these vows forever, you wrote, “I have no doubts that this is the right time to request full integration into the Sisters of Providence.”

In your reflection on the growth you have experienced during this time of initial transformation in the Congregation, you wrote “I continued to feel drawn to the vows and desired to have the rest of my life shaped by them.”

What a powerful way to talk about the role of the vows in the life of a religious – perhaps in the life of anyone who takes vows of any sort – to have our lives shaped by them.

What does it mean for the Sisters of Providence, for Sisters Corbin and Teresa, to have their lives shaped by the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience?

Certainly our Constitutions spell out some of those nuances, but as many writers have suggested religious vows today are not a list of specified obligations. Our vowed life is a way of being that embraces the values most needed to bring about the reign of God, right here, right now, in whatever fields present themselves to us for discovery or ownership.

In a world fraught with a global pandemic, with the overwhelming threat of global climate change and degradation of the planet, and the rampant use of violence caused by division and disdain, what do vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience proclaim?

I would like to think that a vow of poverty witnesses to the value of giving from the abundance of our lives – an offering of our time, gifts, talents and possessions. It is not a giving up, but a taking only that which we need. As Theologian Sally McFague has taught us, it is living out a sense of enoughness.

Sister Corbin Hannah after the vow ceremony

This vow reflects Gospel poverty that demands that we work to change those forces of oppression that frequently condemn the poor to poverty. Living this vow puts us face-to-face with the disproportionate number of poor who have died of COVID-19 because of their poverty.

Our Constitutions remind us that it is the poor and humble who see their need for ultimate dependence upon God. Our vow calls us to that same fundamental dependence on God. It is about saying, “God is enough.” Will we accept the challenge to be what God wishes us to be – the image of Christ Jesus?

As for chastity, the vow of chastity for a religious connotes total donation of self in love to God. Our Constitutions call it an ineffable gift – too awesome to even be expressed in words.

However, this single-hearted dedication to God is nothing if it does not release God’s energy of love into our world and thus lead us to right relationship at every level of creation.

And if we are to be formed in the image of Christ then this love we set free must be Christ-filled – gentle, inclusive, compassionate – enabling us to be vulnerable with one another, to accept that all are welcome: “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In a time when otherness is feared, will our oneness in Christ Jesus, will our vow of chastity, make us bold and daring?

And what of obedience?

The Latin root of this word means to listen, to pay attention. We are to pay attention to God of course, but like the other vows, the vow of obedience also has a community character. We are invited to a shared search for the will of God not only in our own lives, but in the life of the community. My discernment, my listening, must be influenced by those on the journey with me. Obedience is about mutuality not subordination. It is about communal discernment and decision-making, not coercion.

General Superior Sister Dawn Tomaszewski offers a reflection

This understanding of obedience has led to participative structures and collaborative leadership models within religious communities. These are seen as empowering and life-giving AND counterculture to power models currently employed in our church and in our world. Will our vow of obedience enable us to confront the systemic injustices of power? Will we be conformed to the image of Christ and speak to the misuse and abuse of power?

We do not give up our own power in obedience. Together, we decide how we will use the power that is ours, the power of our particular charism to serve the contemporary needs of the world. Will we create Providence circles of Gospel living?

A challenging task – living these vows. What will sustain you/us in living them?

Let me share a story from the sacred treasure of this Congregation. I hope this story will help you, Corbin and Teresa, and will provide all of us the courage we need to carry out the mission entrusted to us by Providence.

It is the story of Sister Mary Elise Reneault, one of the six Sisters of Providence chosen to establish the SP mission in China 100 years ago this year. I rediscovered her in our community rereading of Against All Odds, the history of our mission in China. And recently, Sister Janice Smith wrote a blog about her that offered me new light.

Mary Elise celebrated her 61st birthday on the very day the sisters departed for China in 1920, making her the oldest of the group. According to the records in Archives, she was not nearly as well educated as many of her sisters. Others were much more suited for this mission of establishing and running an academic institution. In other words, she was an unlikely character to be going to China. What were they thinking in choosing her?

The records also said, “She was in many ways a genius and could put her hand to anything.” In fact, what she could do best became a great gift to the China mission. She was the infirmarian, and, within four months of the sisters’ arrival in Kaifeng, an epidemic of small pox broke out.

The history says that because there was no public health system, people with contagious diseases roamed the streets. Sister Mary Elise’s dispensary had already become well known, and thus during that epidemic, her loving care was experienced daily by many of the city’s poor. She even demanded that those to whom she applied bandages should return daily to have the bandages changed.

Sister Jenny Howard, center, poses with Sisters Teresa and Corbin after the ceremony

Sister Mary Elise eventually succumbed to the disease herself. However, I believe that her ultimate gift was not her death, but her acceptance of desperately poor and infirmed people crying out for help. She wrote, “Your heart would bleed for these poor people.”

Her heart did bleed for those poor people, a heart which had sold all for the treasure of being part of that mission. We have a lot to live up to in following Sister Mary Elise.

However, I have to say that just before Janice’s blog came out, so had a story in the National Catholic Reporter about Corbin’s ministry to the homeless youth in Louisville.

In speaking about her work as the youth director of YMCA Safe Place Services, Corbin explained that those made homeless lose something just as critical as shelter, food and hygiene opportunities. They lose community. She said and I quote: “The power of community to transform and heal someone is astounding. That’s what they need. Sure, they could use a job, but they need love and connectedness.”

Thank you, Corbin, for offering love and connectedness – like Mary Elise and so many others before you.

And Teresa, you would not even be here today if those six women, including Sister Mary Elise, had never gone to China.

I know that you, too, have learned the importance of dipping into our sacred treasure trove for inspiration and courage. These sentences from your request letter speak to that and I quote:

“When I opened Saint Mother Theodore’s biography, I felt better … I am not alone … she understands. Suddenly, I understood all the challenges that will help me to be a good pastor and to serve God’s people.”

As the larger Providence Community, we are daughters and sons of Saint Mother Theodore, called to participate in bringing about the reign of God right here, right now, in whatever fields present themselves to us for discovery or ownership. We are called to conform ourselves to the image of Christ Jesus.

Mother Theodore always seems to say it best:

“If … you are quite determined to belong entirely to God, to work with all your strength … I say to you with assurance, Come.”

Corbin and Teresa, we are happy you have come.

And now it is my privilege, on behalf of the Providence community, to call you forth.

Click here to see photos from the ceremony.

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Sister Dawn Tomaszewski

Sister Dawn Tomaszewski was elected General Superior of the Sisters of Providence in 2016. She has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. Previously she ministered as a teacher, as communication and development director for the sisters and their ministries and as a member of elected leadership on the general council of the Sisters of Providence.

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