Called to transformation, called to transform
During my recent retreat at the Siena Center in Wisconsin, I took the beautiful readings that had been chosen and fashioned for this vow day down to the shore of Lake Michigan. And as I walked there, I tried to imagine Jeremiah and Jesus and Mother Theodore speaking to Sisters Joni and Jessica on one of the most important days of their lives. Three “T” words kept coming to me: turning point, transformation and treasure.
Today is certainly a turning point for each of you, Jessica and Joni. And I believe it is, in fact, a turning point for all of us gathered with you today here in the church and joining from various places on this campus and around our globe, thanks to technology.
I believe anytime persons choose the consecrated life and profess vows within a particular religious community, they give vital witness to the value of that life. As turning points do, your yes today does signal a significant change that affects your very future.
AND your commitment also affects the life of this entire Providence Community — your Sisters of Providence, our Providence Associates and all who share the charism of Providence, and perhaps most importantly, your families, who have been nurturing God’s love within you — Salamat, Mommy Sollie and Dad Nemie. Muchas gracias, Momma Luna.
For the world
I also would like to suggest that your YES affects the life of the world. You don’t belong just to us, you belong to all to whom God will send you — which takes me to the reading from Jeremiah. Jeremiah certainly gets his marching orders from the Holy One. “Whatever I command you, you shall speak. … you shall pluck up and break down, destroy and overthrow, build and plant.”
Yikes! Certainly, Jeremiah finds himself at a turning point.
But Jeremiah rebuffs God’s call. “Behold I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”
I must admit that when I read that passage, I remembered a line in Joni’s letter requesting tertianship. She wrote, “I am in profound and utter awe that this day has come for me at the ripe age of 51.” Joni, you cannot use your youth as an excuse.
We know Jeremiah’s story. How did our Provident God speak to Joni and Jessica’s hearts? Both of you were leading successful lives, by the world’s standards — good jobs, meaningful activities. Sister Joni, you were making a difference in young peoples’ lives as an educator, athletic director and coach. Sister Jessica, besides your work in the business world, you were having an impact on young adults in your parish community. Both of you come from strong, supportive families, and they count on your presence.
I suspect a turning point for you, Jessica, was meeting the Sisters of Providence at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. I’m not sure what prompting of the Holy Spirit led you there, but we are happy for it. I think it is rather providential that Sister Joni Luna was one of those you met who actually invited you to a Come and See weekend here at the Woods. Time there as well as subsequent time with Sisters Editha Ben and Jeanette Lucinio seemed to seal the deal.
What you have done with the time since then is a testimony to my second “T” word — transformation. Jessica, I loved the first line of your letter requesting first vows: “I know I am not the woman I was when I first knocked on the east door of Providence Hall asking for entrance to join the community. I have grown so much in the last few years.”
And I believe a Come and See weekend was part of your turning point story as well, Joni. If I have the story straight, you were duped — a word that Jeremiah uses in another place in speaking to God. I believe Sister Barbara Bluntzer, whom you had come to know and trust through your affiliation with St. Pius X Parish in Corpus Christi, Texas, invited you to a “retreat” at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. Little did you know it was a retreat to explore the possibility of religious life.
I think the rest of your story might be summed up in one of the quotes you two chose from Mother Theodore: “No longer was this for me the land of exile; it was the portion of my inheritance and in it I hope to dwell all the days of my life.” Today, in professing perpetual vows, Joni, you make that same promise to dwell here all the days of your life.
For both of you, whether first vows or perpetual vows, this call from God is not unlike the call to Jeremiah — it is a call to a prophetic vocation.
I love to quote Pope Francis’s words from the message he delivered in 2015 during the Year of Consecrated Life. He told religious that he is counting on us “to wake up the world,” since the distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy. Pope Francis said this is the priority that is needed right now: to be prophets who witness to how Jesus lived on this earth. He said, “A religious must never abandon prophecy.”
Scripture scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller, in commenting on the book of Jeremiah, explains what that prophecy might look like. He wrote, “We judge the prophets’ credibility by their wholesome, religious impact upon the people. In a prophet’s peace and goodness,” says Stuhlmueller, “people discover the mysterious presence of God once again.”
I find resonance with both Pope Francis and Stuhlmueller’s words in the lines from our Constitutions that speak of our vows as a mystery and gift that bring about in the sister a transformation in Jesus Christ, freeing her and enabling her to proclaim: Christ is living in me.
This is our prophetic call: To witness to how Jesus lived on this earth. To help people discover the mysterious presence of God once again. To surrender to the Christ living in me.
Today is a moment, Sisters Joni and Jessica, when you acknowledge before all of us that you are no longer the persons you used to be. When you accept that God is directing your heart. That God is working in your soul. That you are willing to surrender to the Christ living in you.
And what is the mission to which you are being directed? Mother Theodore says simply: “to have confidence in that Providence that so far has never failed us.” Early in my own religious life, Sister Barbara Doherty said these words to me: “The purposes of God are riding on our existence.”
Which brings me to the words of Jesus found in Matthew’s Gospel. They more than hint at what those purposes of God might be. “Seek first God’s righteousness.” What might that righteousness look like? Love, mercy, justice. A place at the table for everyone. Provision for everyone’s needs. Respect for the dignity of every person. This is the kind of treasure that transforms. And I believe it is the kind of treasure that we are called to share through the vowed life.
This section of Matthew’s Gospel is near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, certainly a turning point in the teaching and preaching career of Jesus. And for the very first time in my reading of this passage, it suddenly occurred to me that Jesus has provided a snapshot of the vowed life:
- Poverty: Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth.”
- Our Constitutions read, “Only those are truly free who confess a fundamental dependence on God, who attest to eternal values by detachment from material possessions and unreasonable adherence to personal opinions, and who are self-giving in their use of time and energy.”
- Chastity: Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
- Our Constitutions read, “Chastity is an ineffable gift which summons one to single-hearted dedication to God.”
- Obedience: Jesus says, “Look at the birds, consider the lilies of the field, seek God first.”
- Our Constitutions read, “Obedience expressed in a life of faith and responsible action is an unconditional surrender of one’s self to this God.”
The Sermon on the Mount, the vowed life — they are a whole new way of perceiving life, of distinguishing treasure. Both acknowledge the kingdom of God as kinship, of belonging to the whole, as life lived in community for the common good. The Christ living within us asks us to consider the lilies, to not be anxious, to be the light of the world.
We need your light, Sisters Joni and Jessica. It is no secret that the two of you have already had a spiritual awakening of sorts during your days and years with us as you have come to embrace your own cultural identities in new and deeper ways.
You have seen new lights and this knowledge has emboldened you to speak out for those on the margins, on behalf of those oppressed by the structures that fear otherness. Salamat, Jessica; Muchas gracias, Joni.
May your witness enable the rest of us to acknowledge our own complicity in matters of race that we can no longer dare to ignore. I believe this is one of those turning points for all of us in the Providence Community. May it lead to transformation.
Called to transform
That is what we celebrate today, after all, the witness of two vibrant women willing to keep turning to the God who calls, willing to be transformed in order to transform, willing to sow seeds that others may come to reap.
It is our God who calls you to your profession of perpetual vows, Sister Joni, and your profession of first vows, Sister Jessica. But God’s voice sounds much like Mother Theodore’s to me this day.
As you dwell in this house of Providence, “may you love God much, may you love one another, and may you never forget why you came here.”
Sisters Joni and Jessica, we are filled with joy that you have come.
Interested in religious life? Come and See if life as a Sister of Providence is for you! Come and See weekend retreat. Oct. 1-3 at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
View photos from the profession of the vows ceremony.