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As the Season Turns

By Sister Christine Parks

I learned something new this year—really many things—but this is the one I’ve been pondering since September began. Maybe you already know this, maybe I’ve heard it before and forgotten, but there’s about a two-week difference between the astronomical beginning of Autumn (Sept. 22 this year) and the meteorological beginning (Sept. 1); at least according to our local meteorologists. And perhaps that explains, in part why we experience this shift of season so immediately in conjunction with the Labor Day weekend.

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This year with the turning over of the calendar page from August to September, it felt like a switch had been flipped, or a doorway stepped through. August 31st hot and muggy, September 1st cooler with a dramatic drop in humidity (at least here in Southwest Michigan). And while I don’t miss the 90+ degree days (which seem to be on the increase year-to-year) there is a brief moment of melancholy knowing the days are growing shorter as another summer falls into Autumn in the northern hemisphere.

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The melancholy doesn’t last though, as the increasing slant of light highlights the beginnings of trees letting go of their green gown, exchanging it for the vibrancy of fall colors; as crops mature and are harvested, the last tomatoes hesitate to turn red. It’s also one of my two favorite seasons for woods walks, with the decrease in mosquitoes, ticks and, dare I say excessive sweat.

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In recent years, for people of faith, September 1st has also invited us to enter the Season of Creation (Sept. 1—Oct. 4) and celebrate our Oneness with Earth and all the beings with whom we share our common home-planet. (You can join the congregation in our journey through the Season of Creation here.)

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As we entered into this year’s celebration, I had the sense of it being even more intimately connected to our congregations promises: to recognize the reality that Earth is dying, to claim our oneness with Earth and to take steps now to strengthen, heal and renew the face of Earth; and: impelled by the emerging worldview of integral ecology…we commit to exercise our credibility and moral authority as sisters and associates of the Congregation by standing in solidarity with Earth and with all who are oppressed and marginalized, taking the risks entailed in giving public voice when addressing systemic injustice.

These prior commitments have led us toward our congregational decision to join with other Religious Congregations, Catholic institutions/organizations, Dioceses, across the globe, and sign-on to the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, a unique collaboration between the Vatican and “all men and women of good will,” empowering all to take “decisive action, here and now” as we journey towards a better future together. In doing this, we begin our planning to take whatever actions we can to slow, if not reverse, the current climate change crisis. It is truly a challenging next step in our movement to expand and deepen our mission of unioning love, which includes more than just human beings, but is a celebration of being One in an integral communion with all of creation.

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All of these thoughts and ruminations are with me these early fall days as I walk in the many amazing nature preserves in our part of Michigan; as I watch the sun journey south, followed by many of our migrating feathered friends; as I enjoyed the rising of the harvest moon. We continue to be in the throes of the COVID pandemic, and yet, even in the midst of that, we are surrounded by the beauty of this season. If I were a musician I’d write a symphony for it, but even though I’m not, I still catch the occasional strains of a paean of praise, rooted in deep gratitude, singing in my heart.

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About the Author

Sister Christine Parks, CSJ, serves as a Spiritual Director, and occasional retreat and program presenter online and in Kalamazoo. She also works with the Congregation’s Protect & Heal Earth initiative and sustainability efforts. Leisure activities include gardening, long walks in nature, reading, writing and poetry.

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Heroes of the Classroom

By Sister Jean McGrath

Stopped at a traffic light last week, I noticed the bumper sticker on the van in front of me: “If you can read this, thank a teacher.”

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Late August and early September days have for most of my life, been like New Year’s Eve. I treasure fond memories of my own days as a student when I marched into school wearing a crisp plaid uniform and carrying a backpack with a brand-new box of 48 crayons, (can you identify “burnt umber” today?) a nifty pencil sharpener, and a pink pearl eraser. Later, more sophisticated high school supplies included gel pens in every color, a multi-function calculator, and an American Literature Book the size of a large telephone directory. (Who remembers the white and yellow pages of telephone directories?)

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I entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in LaGrange, aware that with few exceptions, most in the community were teachers working in multiple schools throughout Chicago and the suburbs. Like my predecessors, as a teacher, September meant new groups of students, empty lesson plan books, full size pieces of chalk and trying to find a creative idea for bulletin board displays.

That was then and this is now.

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Students beginning school in 2021 face a very different school experience than I did those many years ago. IPads and the internet have opened immense opportunities for contemporary scholars of every age.  However, the role of the teacher is more important than ever and as the new school year begins, I think it is important to applaud what teachers do each and every day, especially in these COVID-19 times.

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The shift to remote or “e-learning” that most teachers had to master in a relatively short period of time was remarkable.  “Zooming” with students challenged them to re-design their curriculum and establish a cyber-space relationship with students that was very different from the usual daily encounters of the traditional classroom. Stories of the clever and creative ways teachers responded to the demands of the COVID-19 classroom are awesome and inspiring. Teachers often delivered assignments directly to the homes of their students, were available for countless after hour meetings, and communicated effectively with parents, many working from home themselves. An internet glitch could pause daily instruction for a single student or an entire class. Yet, because of their professionalism, dedication, and ability to respond to any crisis, students continued to learn, despite a very different environment. Kudos to our teachers!

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Last week as I watched a group of first graders wait to enter our parish school building, I thought about the teachers who had a profound effect on my own life. I thought about Sister Jesse who ended each school day by reading Little House on the Prairie or other stories to our fifth-grade class.  I marveled at the patience of my geometry teacher, Miss Gladstone, who promised that math phobia was a curable disease. I thought about Sister Noreen who dismissed a friend and me during glee club practice because something or someone had sparked that kind of uncontrollable laughter that usually only happens in Church. We waited sheepishly after class for what we thought would surely be the end of our acapella high school careers. Instead, Sister graciously forgave us admitting that she too sometimes caught the giggles. I learned much about the power of forgiveness that day.  Later, college teachers would help me to think more critically and strive to be a life-long learner.  

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Our lives are shaped by so many persons, experiences and events. With the exception of parents and siblings, our teachers from pre-school through post college years have the most profound influence on our formative years and help shape the persons we become.

 I recently tried to remember the names of the many teachers I had and the things I remembered about each. Some were just a name; others I realized taught me so much more than their specific subject matter. I invite you to take the time to reflect on the women and men who were your teachers, your mentors, your role models, and yes, even your challengers. I think you will find the experience a wonderful opportunity to realize the blessings each was in your life. And, perhaps as you can read this, you will thank a teacher.

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About the Author

JeanMcGrathAfter years as a Catholic School Principal, Sister Jean McGrath is looking forward to volunteer service now that she has retired. She loves a good book, a good conversation and a good bargain!

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The Gift of Community

By Sister Marcella Clancy

As a religious woman I often use the word community. Given the context, it has different shades of meaning: who we are as a whole, e.g. “Our community supports immigrants at the border.” Or our physically living together, e.g. “I live in community with another sister.” Or creating an experience of coming together in prayer, sharing, and/or celebration, e.g. “Our St. Joseph Day celebration was a good experience of community.”

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COVID placed limits on our physical experience of community. Celebrations were cancelled. Our bi-annual or monthly gatherings were all by Zoom. All get-togethers ceased. We could not even gather to grieve and celebrate the lives of our sisters who died. No warm hugs, catching-up conversations over a meal or coffee break, no personal sharing around a table. I realize that we are not the only ones who have experienced the loss of physical presence and tangible expressions of love during COVID and that for many loneliness has been much more poignant. Though limited I have been blessed in the opportunities I had for interaction and physical presence during this pandemic and for the most part was not consciously aware of what I had lost until….

During the last week of July, I was invited to give a retreat to our sisters at our Nazareth Center. I was categorized as a “volunteer” and was thus able to give talks in our chapel and during the day stay in one of the guest rooms where I met individually with retreatants. Because of COVID precautions overnight stays or meals in the dining room with our resident sisters were prohibited. Yet I could peer into the beautifully graced faces of our sisters as I gave my talks and listen to the sacred stories of those who shared with me. Quiet, heroic stories of suffering, loss, fidelity, and love.

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During this week, a profound awareness grew in me of the cumulative nature of community. I came to understand in a new way how much my life, my being has become intertwined, interwoven with these women. We have shaped and formed each other over our long years together. We have created community out of our shared hopes, desires, longings, our service to the dear neighbor, our fidelity through disappointments and suffering and our celebrations in joy and gladness. We have accompanied one another in our losses and sorrow and in our triumphs and successes and blessed each other with forgiveness over and over again. Our coming together of several communities as one congregation 14 years ago only expanded and enriched my experience of community as I discovered women who were eager to enfold other sisters from other founding congregations in the livingness of community and build together a new future. I became clearer eyed this July week that “community” is not a “thing”, an “entity” but a living physical reality. Gathering via Zoom was a gift during the pandemic yet the retreat week underscored for me the need to be in each other’s physical presence, to feel the blessedness radiating from the other, to experience the profound grace that binds us together, to encounter community and to know that we belong to each other.

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I was amazed to find myself so excited when our Congregational Leadership Team announced a possible gathering in December when we can come together as sisters. I have never been so enthusiastic about a congregational meeting. COVID has made me conscious of how much I miss the physicality community requires, being in each other’s presence, experiencing each other’s kindness, challenging one another by our differences, inspiring each other by our on-going story of grace, building together a future full of hope.

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Ministry flows from community. It is what we do. Community is the essence of who we are. I do not want to romanticize community. It can always disappoint, cause hurt, fail us. Forgiveness is constant requisite. We do not form community because we like one another, are like-minded or because we have a common charism/spirit or mission. The call to religious community is intimately personal. Each woman has her vocation story, a call, a lure, a drawing by God. The foundation of “community” is the intermingling over time of our unique faith journeys, of our individual interior movements toward God and our dear neighbor shared with each other. Through the Spirit’s urgings a living community is formed and has the extraordinary power to witness to God who is Love. “By this will all know that you are my disciples, by your love for one another.” (John 13:35)

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I describe what I understand to be the journey toward community in the context of my life as a religious woman yet I recognize faith communities are present in several different forms; church communities, neighborhood communities, work communities, educational communities, and most importantly family communities where all of us are first formed in community. In our culture of individualism, may each of us discover anew our community or communities and commit to building together a future full of hope and be the living witness of God’s great love tangibly among us.

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About the Author

marcella for blogSister Marcella Clancy, CSJ, is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph and has degrees in theology and nursing.  She has served in parish ministry, accompanied others in spiritual direction, and served as retreat director for many years. She has taught theology as an adjunct faculty. Currently she does some writing, spiritual direction, and gives presentations. She believes that the core of our life is moving toward love of God and love of our dear neighbor without distinction.

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Praying and Learning Through Film

By Sister Mary Jo Curtsinger

A few weeks ago, I was gearing up to speak with some young adults about racism and white privilege in the United States. I decided to do an inspection on myself, particularly of what shows and movies I had recorded on my DVR in recent months, to see how many featured stories of people of color. I’ll admit, there were not as many as I would have liked. But I set out to watch those I had saved, to see what I would see.

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First, I re-watched the film Harriet from 2019 with Cynthia Erivo in the role of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who led some 70 slaves to freedom in thirteen terror-fraught missions from antebellum America. It occurred to me that Harriet Tubman was a living icon of love of God and neighbor without distinction.

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As I watched the frightful scenes in which slave owners were in angry-hot pursuit of those chasing freedom, I was reminded that this ancestral raw fear continues to be experienced by many Black Americans in the form of intergenerational or inherited trauma, as well as in the aggressions, both micro and macro, that they experience today. The story of my latest Uber driver, William, came to mind. He told me how he had given up delivering Amazon packages partly out of the stress in approaching white homeowners. Despite seeing his Amazon-emblazoned van and uniform, white people repeatedly reacted defensively and even aggressively to his approach by speaking rudely, darting back behind their closed doors, and even siccing their dogs on him.

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Another night, I watched an episode of Finding Your Roots on PBS with Harvard historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In each episode, celebrities learn more about their ancestral histories, sometimes learning of unknown connections, discovering secrets, or debunking long held beliefs about their families’ past. In this episode, all three of the interviewees were Black; author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote Between the World and Me, a book which talks about the state of racism in our country; Janet Mock, who is a writer, director, television host, and transgender rights activist; and filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

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The stories of the three of them were fascinating, but of most interest to me was Ava DuVernay. I felt the sobering tension when Dr. Gates revealed to her that one of her great-grandfathers was a white slaveowner in Haiti. And I rejoiced with here when she learned that her genetic makeup was a majority African. She herself has made history as the first African American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival for her film Middle of Nowhere and nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for Selma.

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If you’ve ever questioned that U.S. incarceration of people of color is reflective of systemic racism, you should also watch her documentary 13th. Ava has said that she has found success in part because of her mother’s advice to “say something through the arts.” Has she ever done that! For me, Ava’s collaborative “saying something” is an example of the Congregation of St. Joseph’s promise to network with others across the world to bring about a shift in the global culture from institutionalized power and privilege to a culture of inclusivity and mutuality.

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Third, I watched an episode of American Experience, a history series on PBS, featuring singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993), “the world’s greatest contralto.” Denied concerts because she was Black, Anderson toured Europe with great acclaim in the 1930s. In 1939, she attempted to rent Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., but was thwarted by the proprietary Daughters of the American Revolution. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped convert that snub to a triumph: on Easter Sunday 1939 Marian Anderson roused a mixed audience of 75,000 in front of the Lincoln Memorial! (It was no mere coincidence that Dr. King chose the same backdrop in 1963 for the “I have a Dream” speech.)

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But here’s my favorite story: Marian Anderson was being pressured by activists to resist racial injustice by refusing to perform to segregated audiences. She chose to resist in another way. Anderson walked onto the stage of a packed concert hall, poised and elegant. She paused, turned slightly toward the white audience on her right, and gave them a respectful nod. Then she turned toward the Black audience to her left, and slowly, slowly lowered herself to them in a profound bow. Marian Anderson used her embodied voice in commitment to what we try to do through our work, exercising our credibility and moral authority by standing in solidarity with Earth and all who are oppressed and marginalized.

I love learning and praying through the arts. It doesn’t always involve such serious content of course. But I think that if I always set aside stories such as these because they’re “upsetting,” I’m invoking my white privilege. Awareness is key:  what am I watching and why. Since I have lived in predominantly white contexts most of my life, I believe that it’s important to intentionally choose the art of and stories of people of color. I hope that the self-awareness, and the awareness of others, it brings is transformative unto a more just living.

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So, what have you been watching? Have you been paying attention to who is making your media, and what writer, actors, and filmmakers are coming across your screen? I challenge you, as I do myself, to keep that in mind in the coming weeks. What you find may challenge you and even be uncomfortable at times to watch, but it will also broaden your mind and worldview. 

About the Author

Mary Jo's new photo for bio. add that she's on the antiracism committeeSister Mary Jo Curtsinger, CSJ, D.Min., completed her doctoral thesis-project at Catholic Theological Union (2018), entitled Truly Sisters: Catholic and Muslim Women Walking in Solidarity on the Path to Interfaith Leadership. She is also a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph Antiracism Committee. 

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Going for Gold, Even When No One is Watching

Recently, I was having a conversation with my father about the Olympics. He has always been a big fan of them, especially the summer games. I remember, as a child, watching a variety of Olympic sports with intensity, as several members of my family had different favorites. My great aunt, who lived in Florida and who we sometimes visited over the summer, loved gymnastics. My mother preferred the winter sports, particularly ice skating. But my father loved to watch swimming. Having been a swimmer in high school, he had an understanding for the sport that went far beyond my limited knowledge. As we watched the athletes compete with their best butterfly or backstroke, he would tell us stories about his own time in the pool. How he’d have to get up for 6:30am practices in freezing, outdoor pools, how tough the competition was and, sometimes, how being an athlete kept him out of trouble.

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This year, our conversation around the Olympics was a bit different. We talked about the realities of a pandemic Olympics. How resilient these athletes had to be, how hard it must have been to wait an entire year to compete, and how surreal it must be to finally get to Tokyo and know that the eyes of the world are on you. And then what it must feel like to be in the biggest competition of your life, with no one, not even your family, in the stands to cheer you on.

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Compared to all of the changes we’ve seen in the past year and a half due to the pandemic, the lack of spectators at the Olympics is certainly minor for those of us watching it on TV. But for the athletes, many of whom are miles away from their homes and families, the lack of support and validation must be huge. I couldn’t help but compare their Olympic experience to the lives of our sisters. Both have sacrificed much and worked hard their entire lives, dedicated to something larger than themselves, and in the case of our sisters and this year’s Olympic athletes, quietly and without anyone cheering them on.

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Of course, under normal circumstances, there would be spectators in the stands, nervously watching and waiting to cheer for their country, favorite athlete, or for that next record to be broken. And the sisters don’t, and never have, gotten quite that kind of applause and accolades. They have always went about the work of God quietly, faithfully and without fanfare, going to wherever they were called and meeting whatever needs they saw. And they changed the lives of so many people in the process.

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As we continued to speak about the Olympics, my father also asked me if I had seen the commercial about the Paralympic swimmer, Jessica Long. Being a millennial, I don’t have cable and rarely see television ads anymore, so I looked the ad he described up on YouTube. In it, Jessica’s story is told – a child, born with a rare condition that meant her legs would have to be amputated, given up for adoption. But it’s also the story of her parents, who got the call that this young girl needed a family, and who offered her all their love. (You can watch the commercial here.) My heart swelled as I watched this young woman, who was faced with such adversity all her life, but went on to win gold, her parents supporting her along the way. These are the stories that I love seeing most during the games, whether it be the Olympics or Paralympics. They remind me that with perseverance, hard work, and the ever-important element of faith, we are all capable of things that may have once seemed impossible.

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After this pandemic year, the Olympics are different. Our lives are all different. And I worry that there are still difficult times ahead. But the sisters have taught me that with a lot of work, we can all do great things. Besides, the Olympics are nothing if not a time for people around the world to come together and find commonality. Even though each athlete is playing for their home country, each person can be part of something bigger than themselves.  Much like the sisters, who work “that all may be one,” the Olympics remind us that we are all sharing a common home, that we have the ability to all come together for a common purpose. Like the Olympic rings are all connected, so too is the work that we each do. And maybe, if we cheer each other on however we can, our hard work can change the world.

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About the Author

Elizabeth-Powers,-WebElizabeth Powers is the Electronic Communications Manager for the Congregation of St. Joseph and manages the blog, Beyond the Habit. She sometimes acts as a contributing writer. She loves reading, writing, Harry Potter, and PBS. She is a first time mom, and working to figure it out!

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Learning to Love Summer Again

By Sister Jeanne Cmolik

The weeds are out of control in the garden. The lawn needs mowing again! The birdbath is always empty and the nozzle on the hose is broken. The air conditioner in the kitchen is working way too hard to cool the first floor; why didn’t we get whole house air conditioning when we talked about it in the spring?

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Wait! Sit down in a lawn chair with a glass of lemonade for a few minutes and consider this: summer is passing you by, and you’re being crabby about a time you just LOVED when you were a kid. Think about what you loved and re-claim it again. If you feel foolish about doing this as an adult, find a child to take with you! If you don’t have one of suitable age, grab a grandchild or a niece—or grandniece–or a neighbor’s child and have her take you back to the joys of summer, and maybe you can even introduce her to a joy she doesn’t know. Parents and grandparents know that being with children makes it perfectly respectable to act like one (to keep them company, of course).

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Let’s get started. Go to a park with swings and a wading pool. When your (borrowed) child is on a swing, stand behind him and push him hard until he is yelping with delight. Then, because you are tired, sit on a swing yourself and show the child how you pump with your legs until you, too, are high in the sky. It’s an important lesson to teach him, isn’t it—and you’re having fun!

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Don’t stay on the swings too long. Go to the wading pool and watch your child splash around with the other kids. When she splashes YOU, complain a little and splash her back. Doesn’t that feel wonderful? And it’s quite acceptable to continue the splashing game because she started it!

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Sit on the porch in the evening and catch fireflies in a jar. Remember to show your child how to poke holes in the lid so the fireflies will live. Sit quietly in the darkness and admire their beauty. (It’s all coming back to you, isn’t it?)

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Be sure to have money in your pocket because when you hear the music from the ice cream truck on your street, you may not have time to get your wallet. Of course, you must accompany your child to the truck for safety’s sake, and when the driver asks if you would like something and you start to decline, your child cries out “Go on—get some ice cream!” What can you do but go along with it? You want to be a good sport.

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Do you live near a river or a lake or maybe even the ocean? Plan a trip there soon. Take bathing suits and pails and shovels and a picnic lunch and make a day of it. Show your child how to skip stones across the water. Soak in the sun, cool off in the water, and enjoy picnic food that always tastes better than lunch usually does. If you can, plan a special dessert like big chocolate chip cookies or cupcakes with lots of icing.

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If you are feeling brave, pitch a tent in your yard and sleep out overnight with your child. Here are some basic rules to follow for a successful campout: roast hot dogs and marshmallows, walk barefoot in the wet grass, and tell ghost stories. Oh, and don’t forget to lie on the ground and look at the stars!

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About the Author

Cmolik.Jeanne.webSister Jeanne Cmolik, CSJ, has served in various leadership positions including being a member of the Congregation Leadership Team from 2007-2013. She has also ministered in elementary schools, high schools, and parishes in the Cleveland area, and worked with new members in the Congregation. She enjoys reading, travel, music and writing blog posts! Currently she offers spiritual direction and works with RCIA in a local parish.

 

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Faces of the Children

This spring, I was privileged to travel to McAllen, Texas with four other sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph, where we served asylum seekers at the Humanitarian Respite Center of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

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Sisters Mary Jo Curtsinger, Marianne Race, Mary Pung,
Jackie Schmitz and Rita Ann Teichman when they arrived in Texas

This facility serves parents with minor children approved to enter the U.S. to await asylum hearings, but who haven’t yet acquired their air or bus tickets to travel to their families or sponsors. We were a small part of a team of women religious and lay volunteers who have responded to the call to come and help with a wide range of hospitality needs. The five of us spent most of our time either outfitting each family with a clean set of donated clothing, or supplying them toiletries, cough drops, diapers and formula. Along the way we used our minimal Spanish and our increasingly creative sign language to communicate a bit back and forth.

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I think I can speak for all of us sisters in saying that we are still unpacking the experience. In many ways we have more questions than answers. What we do know is that these families went to a lot of trouble to get to McAllen from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and other countries. Sometimes we actually learned details of the hardship or terror that forced them to flee their homes, with children in arms, and some with babes about to be born.

Sister Erin McDonald, CSJ also served at the border in El Paso, just returning in the past week. We all hope to share more of our experience in coming months. Some of us are now in the process of working with grassroots organizers at places like NETWORK, the Catholic Social Justice Lobby, in preparing to testify to members of our congressional delegations.

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Sister Erin McDonald during her time in El Paso.

Truth be told, one of my favorite moments was when I presented this little guy with a pair of spider socks to go with the new Spiderman shirt he had just put on. His parents looked exhausted but we three laughed with delight at the speed with which he discarded his old socks and put on the spiders.

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For me and I believe the rest, what sticks with me are the faces of the children.

Isn’t it true that connecting with children is often connecting with joy, hope, simplicity, ingenuity…magic? But it’s more, right?

I keep thinking of lyrics of a song by Sister Kathy Sherman, CSJ, especially these:

Why do we bless the children?

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Why are we concerned about the future?

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Why do we protect Earth and all her creatures?

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Why is our vision so wide?

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The answer is in the refrain:

Because we love God.
Because we love God and all that belongs to God.
Because we love God, we are who we are, and we do what we do.

What might we find if we dare to take a long, loving gaze into the faces of children? Would we see ourselves reflected back? Would we be reminded that the future is theirs, but ours to protect? Would we see the face of God? If you would like to sit with and reflect on this awhile longer, consider watching this video, inspired by one of Sister Kathy’s songs. Maybe it will help you, as it does me, to keep who we are as human beings and what we do in service of God and each other, in the forefront of our minds.

About the Author

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Sister Mary Jo Curtsinger, CSJ, D.Min., completed her doctoral thesis-project at Catholic Theological Union (2018), entitled Truly Sisters: Catholic and Muslim Women Walking in Solidarity on the Path to Interfaith Leadership. She is pictured here sorting clothes at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.

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Light For the World

By Sister Paula Terese Pilon

In November 2020, at a virtual gathering for the National Religious Vocation Conference, Father David Kelly, Executive Director of Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation based in Chicago, gave a presentation entitled A Ministry of Hope. Part of his presentation focused on the importance of “changing the narrative” and its correlation to moving beyond past injuries. However, his three-pronged approach also aptly applies to the current reality of religious life today:

1) Come together to tell your stories.

2) Commit to doing what’s hard.

3) Remain hopeful.

This is the blueprint of our existence.

When I entered religious life with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Nazareth in Kalamazoo, MI in 2003, we were in conversation with six other communities of Sister of St Joseph about uniting to form one congregation. This pivotal decision to come together was born out of our desire to share our resources so that we could continue to live out and further our mission of unifying love, and was forward looking and deeply rooted in our belief that religious life is alive and vital in today’s world. We officially became the Congregation of Saint Joseph in 2007.

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Bringing together seven, formerly independent, communities was no small task. We were from seven different states and had seven different and unique cultures. However, we were committed to our mission and remained hopeful that our union would bring about good. Indeed, it has opened and broadened us in ways we could not have predicted.

While some believe that religious life is dying due to the declining number of vowed sisters, we know that numbers do not tell the whole story. Even though it might look different, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t experiencing God’s call to vowed religious life. And others are being called to service in other ways, such as associates. Together, we all work to unite, heal and to be light to one another.

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Amanda Gorman, in her poem read at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, encouraged us to be light to the world. She stated,

‘We will rebuild, reconcile and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.’

Her words speak so eloquently of the call of many men and women religious. As sisters of the Congregation of Saint Joseph, our call is to animate these words. By joining together, we knew we could be a brighter light to the world around us. We did this through discovering new ways to serve our dear neighbors, without distinction, ways that were not possible when we were seven individual congregations. We found others; lay colleagues and partners, equally committed to this mission of reconciling, unifying love, with whom we now collaborate. We are a visible witness of the Gospel values and we devote ourselves to creating opportunities that help to heal the wounds inflicted on both humanity and the world.

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One of the most important parts of our journey to join together was relationship building. We invested a lot of time and resources into meeting with and getting to know one another. Relationships are, after all, at the heart of who we are and one of our greatest assets. We are still a work in progress, but coming together all those years ago gave us renewed energy and hope. We have challenges, but we work through them together. We are a family. 

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Other congregations have since asked us to tell our story because they felt that the way we came together was very successful and life-giving. This was and is one way that we are a light to others, as Amanda Gorman invited us to be.

I am inspired daily by so many of our sisters who teach me that whatever our age we can contribute to furthering and living out our mission. Our light shines no matter the age, no matter how big or little our actions seem. I see the women in my congregation daily living from an inner light that shines through the actions they do – whether it be prayer, kindness to others, writing letters to or calling public officials, to protesting or working towards systemic change and unity of a divided nation and many other ways. They have taught me that trust in God’s divine Providence is so important. That although religious life is changing God is still working in us and still calling others to this life. When I hear people saying that religious life is dying, I remember my congregation’s foundation. In 1650, LePuy France, six women felt called to go out into the city and meet the needs of their dear neighbors. Just as those women were a light for the people of their time so also we strive to be a light for the people of our time. I believe God is still calling women and men to holiness — and I am filled with abundant hope.

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About the Author

Paula-TereseSister Paula Terese Pilon lives in Cleveland, Ohio and works as a chaplain at Cleveland Clinic Hospice. Originally from Michigan, Paula Terese is very found of her home town of Ann Arbor. She enjoys spending time with her friends and family and listening to audiobooks. She loves her life as a sister! 

Learn more about becoming a Sister or Associate of St. Joseph today! 

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God-not-in-a-box

By Sister Christine Schenk

I have always loved the Holy Spirit.

As a young child,  this was the first image of God to which I felt a real connection. The images of God-the-father and God-the-son seemed so settled and so definite. Both were male: one Yahweh-thunderbolt creator; one sympathetic, crucified savior. Aside from being hard for a young girl to identify with, they were sort of scary.

And then there’s the Spirit. Not defined. Not exclusively male. My girl-child self was already enthralled with the natural world’s spectacular beauty. The Holy Spirit is the God-name I recognized as that mysterious loving Presence I had already sensed through nature. God-not-in-a-box who is tenderly near.

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As I trudge along my pilgrim journey today, I find I need each person of the Trinity in different ways at different times. But there is something special about the Holy Spirit.

Look at the witness of the early church. The disciples are always saying things like, “then the Spirit told us to go here, so we went” and “the Spirit told him not to go there, so he stayed away.” See this passage in the book of Acts: “[Paul and Timothy] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (Acts 16: 6-7).

Did you ever wonder how Paul and Timothy knew it was the Spirit talking to them? Maybe they acted on a subtle but definite inner prompting and only in retrospect did they realize it was the Jesus-Spirit.

Alternatively, as my Quaker friends would say, the “way would open.” Or not. And that’s often how the Spirit guides us still.

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I love that the Spirit seems so very practical and yet so powerful.

How about this passage preceding Peter’s church-changing encounter with Cornelius: “While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them’ ” (Acts 10: 19-20).

After that, we read of Peter’s conversion, welcoming Gentiles without first requiring circumcision: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. … Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10: 34-35; 47).

That one encounter changed everything.  For the first time, the infant Church began to recognize the breadth and depth of God’s love—a love meant for all peoples, not only for the people of Israel. 

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The Spirit loves to shake up our stereotypes.  If we are open, the Spirit will break open our vision and allow us to see the gentle, powerful ways of God’s unfathomable love.

Leonard Bernstein once wrote in his “Mass,” “God loves all simple things. For God is the simplest of all.” There is a simplicity about God-in-the-person-of-the-Spirit that is both disarming and attractive.

Have you ever heard the Spirit’s still, simple voice?

How did you respond?

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About the Author

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Sister Christine Schenk has worked as a nurse midwife to low-income families, a community organizer, a writer, and the founding director of an international church reform organization, FutureChurch. Currently she writes an award-winning column “Simply Spirit” for the National Catholic Reporter.

Her book Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity (Fortress, 2017) was awarded first place in History by the Catholic Press Association.

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Recovering the Laughter

By Sister Sallie Latkovich

Recently, while visiting sisters in Cleveland, I had the opportunity to join some of them for a simple supper. While we were all together, we told each other stories and joined in laughter around the table. That laughter was just wonderful, refreshing and energizing.

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In reflecting on that experience with joy, I realized that we have all been so very serious over the last year of the pandemic. As we begin to recover and return to life, it is important that we recover laughter. It really is the “best medicine.”

A little research shows that there are both physical and mental health benefits to laughter and humor.

Some physical health benefits include: boosting immunity, lowering stress hormones, decreasing pain, relaxing muscles, and preventing heart disease.

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Some mental health benefits include: adding joy and zest to life, easing anxiety and tension, relieving stress, improving mood, and strengthening resilience.

Although life has been very serious over this last year, laughter is very natural to us. Infants begin smiling during the first weeks of life and laugh out loud within months of being born.

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Even if a person did not grow up in a household where laughter was a common sound, one can still learn to laugh at any stage of life!

Here are some ways to start:

  • Smile: Smiling is the beginning of laughter, and like laughter is contagious. When you look at someone or see something even mildly pleasing, practice smiling.

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  • Count Your Blessings: The simple act of noticing what is positive in your life will distance you from negative thoughts and feelings that block humor and laughter.
  • When You Hear Laughter, Move Toward It: When you hear laughter, seek it out and ask: “What are you laughing about?”  Be quick to respond by joining in the laughter.pexels-keira-burton-6147175
  • Spend Time with Fun, Playful People: The playful point of view and easy laughter are actually contagious. I went out to lunch with friends who were fairly new. There were puddles in the parking lot, and so I jumped in a puddle on our way out. They were caught off guard and responded with laughter and jumping in puddles themselves!pexels-luna-lovegood-1104014
  • Bring Good Humor into Conversations: Ask others: “What’s the funniest thing that happened to you today? This week? In your life?” I recently cracked an egg into a bowl, covered it with a coffee filter and put it in the microwave to cook. I had forgotten to pierce the egg! You guessed it, it exploded all over inside the microwave. I could only laugh at myself and at the exploded egg!pexels-roman-odintsov-6898858
  • Do Something Silly: If nothing comes to mind, ask others for advice or to join in the silliness.pexels-alena-darmel-7322370
  • Be Aware of What Media You’re Consuming: Do not watch TV or movies that are overly serious or even violent. At least, do not make a habit of taking in frightening, dark entertainment or reading. This input does indeed block lightheartedness.
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If you remember the movie Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, there is a scene with Ed Wynne who sings the song: “I love to laugh, loud and long and clear. . .”  The world would be a better place with more humor, laughter and joy.  May we be instigators of these virtues for the good health of all.

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About the Author

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After nine years at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Sister Sallie Latkovich was elected to and currently serves on the Leadership Team of the Congregation of St. Joseph.