Talk to any Catholic. Everyone has a sister story, often profoundly affecting their life. The inspiration to become a priest or religious perhaps, nurtured by example and encouragement in those formative years. Or the accompaniment and TLC in moments of loneliness and anxiety amid the uncertainties of health, aging or life change.

To most youngsters growing up like me in the fifties, “the nuns” were omnipresent, virtual God-figures who taught us how to pray, learn and behave. “How good is the good God,” an acclamation taught to me by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur from their congregation’s Belgian founder, St. Julie Billiart, has never left my mind.

Decades later, after my appointment in Albany, I got a call from Sister Elaine Gentile (formerly Ellen John), SND, my 1B teacher, who not only remembered but had prayed for me over the years. We met shortly after, while I was in Baltimore at a USCCB meeting. Another good friend, living and working in the area, Sister Madeline, from the SSND’s — the wonderful School Sisters of Notre Dame — joined us for the evening. What a joy to catch up. Sister Elaine gifted my mom with a beautiful shawl, which she hand-knitted. She passed not long ago at a time, providentially, when I was back in the area for another USCCB event. What a privilege to preside at her Mass.

Memories of my paternal grandfather come to mind. He always spoke of a Dominican nun who had a great influence on his life. When he died at age 73, Sister Anicetis OP, well over 90, came to his wake. I had heard many stories about her, his first-grade teacher, how she and he exchanged letters over the years which must have brought him great comfort, especially during the turbulent war years with three sons overseas in harm’s way.

Throughout my life, I can hardly remember not being surrounded by the prayer, presence and courageous witness of sisters. Whether on some bishops’ committee, on the corporate board of a hospital or college, a nursing home visit, on retreat, at a food pantry or an inner-city mission, the genius and the loving touch of the sisters present has always blessed and sustained me.

Over the decades of my priestly ministry, the mission of religious has expanded well beyond the traditional fields of child and health care. As Judicial Vicar in Brooklyn, three sisters served our Tribunal as advocates for persons suffering from the experience of marital upheaval. Sisters serve today as diocesan chancellors and in many roles of parish life leadership.

I have friends in religious communities who are physicians, psychologists, attorneys, accountants, business managers and, believe it or not, automotive mechanics. In just about every profession or trade that serves the health and well-being of our communities one finds religious spreading love, know-how and Christian witness.

God calls compassionate, gifted and loving women from all walks of life in ways that continue to surprise both those called and those whom they serve. I know sisters who went from careers in acting, ballet, music, art, medicine, finance and military service into religious life, not always leaving those activities totally behind and always bringing such experience into their new lives of dedicated prayer and service. Some of them even become martyrs, like Sister Ita Ford, MM, a co-native of Brooklyn.

No one should assume that becoming a religious “cuts off” a woman from life, love and engagement in the “real” world. In fact, in many ways, even those who enter a monastic life, a cloister, typically dedicate their work and intercessory prayer toward those in the trenches. It is surprising to learn how much time the Sisters of Charity founded by Mother Teresa and renowned for their work in the slums and ghettos, among the poorest of the poor, spend praying. No one would have called Mother Teresa a slouch. Yet she, following the Benedictine rule of ora et labora (prayer and work), spent one-third of each day in prayer and contemplation. 

I never gave enough thought in my youth to the sacrifice, prayer and dedication of the sisters in my life. When as a seminarian, I revisited the convent of the SND sisters who had taught and formed me, I was amazed and humbled by the austerity of their living quarters, cells really, as tight as one might have expected on a submarine, though much cleaner and simpler.

No doubt it is just this model of simple lives lived large in prayer that is the essence of religious life, forged in community, sacrifice and loving service. For the love of sisters each of us is lifted up. We are surrounded by saints, and among the many living on both sides of God’s kingdom are those we call our sisters. As we celebrate National Catholic Sisters Week, we pray for those who pray for us. May God bless them always — and us through them.

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