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Go and Do Likewise

By Sister Mary Jo Curtsinger

Mid-July presented us with two kinds of scorching heat that made it hard to breathe; one reported by the weather channel and the other by political newscasts. At the same time, the lectionary presented us with the Gospel of the Good Samaritan from Luke:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and, love your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

We know this story pretty well, right? The scholar questioned Jesus, yet then answered his own question correctly in describing the heart of revelation as loving God with one’s whole self, and loving the neighbor as oneself. But the scholar couldn’t stop there and asked Jesus this follow-up:

And who is my neighbor?

Imagine a mixed crowd of people in the United States today, listening closely to Jesus’s response to try to catch a political spin. Would his answer to the question be:

 “Your neighbors are the migrant peoples desperately running for their lives from their violent homelands…”

Or, maybe they’d be listening for a lead-off reply like:

“Your neighbors are the innocent unborn children in this country, in mortal danger of ever drawing their first breath…”

With either answer, Jesus would lose half the crowd. Today we live in the land of sound bites and snap judgments, rarely waiting for what follows a comma.

But Jesus answered, as he often did, with a story or parable of people who found themselves traveling the same road. One of these people shows us what it looks like when someone lives wholly in love with God, whose nickname is Compassion.

I checked out what eminent scripture scholar Father Raymond Brown (d. 1998) had to say about this parable in his book An Introduction to the New Testament.

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Fr. Brown wrote that Jesus’s answer—that is, his telling the story of the Compassionate One on the road—illustrates Jesus’s point that, one can only define the subject of love, not the object.

That is, one can only define the lover, not the ones who are to be loved. Jesus chose a Samaritan to illustrate a person, a subject, whose range of loving is unlimited. So, Jesus is telling us that asking, “who is my neighbor?” is the wrong question. The better one is, “who am I, and who do I want to be?”

Thank you, Fr. Brown.

Let’s take a look at a few more people who have meditated on this story. Consider this artistic interpretation of the parable by 17th century Italian painter Domenico Fetti (d. 1623).

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Apparently, Domenico doesn’t want us to spend too much energy on the two figures receding in the lower left corner of the painting – the priest and MLK.jpgthe Levite who hurried past. Luke doesn’t actually tell us why, but as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, the ones who hurried away may have asked themselves, “If I help this person, what will happen to me?”

In Jesus’s parable, the compassionate Samaritan asked, “If I don’t help this person, what will happen to him?”

Clearly the Samaritan and the object of his mercy are front and center. Domenico seems to want us to look into the eyes of the one who has been saved from the ditch, because it is his eyes we can see. The face of the merciful helper is not revealed.

Dominic Fetti.crop.jpgWhere is the rescued person’s gaze at the moment he’s hoisted to safety? At first I thought he was looking straight at me, trying to catch my eye. But then I wasn’t sure…maybe his gaze is unfocused, sort of lost in utter amazement that he was suddenly given hope again,  and surprised that his life has been given back to him.

Can we dare to put ourselves in the place of this vulnerable one? To realize that we too are this vulnerable when alone, and to feel the wonder and gratitude of, “…I once was lost but now am found”?

What about the figure of the Samaritan, whose face we cannot see? We know that the hearers of Jesus parable looked down their noses at Samaritans; they were traitors,  hated foreigners, enemies.

But Jesus’s listeners didn’t really know any Samaritans personally. They would hardly let their eyes meet those of Samaritans, much less ask the 1st century equivalent of, “How’s it going?”

th-Amy-Jill-Levine-and-her-book-The-Short-Stories-of-Jesus.jpgLet’s hear from Dr. Amy Jill Levine, a Jewish scholar of the New Testament. She notes in her book, Short Stories by Jesus, that, not only does the Samaritan feel the pain of the wounded one in his gut (compassion), he allows himself to be inconvenienced by time-consuming, resource-depleting action. That is, he showed mercy.

I turn to a final interpreter of this Christian tradition, to the Jesuit priest who was living in neighboring France during part of Domenico’s day. He is none other than the one who co-founded the Sisters of St. Joseph (along with our first 6 sisters) in 1650, Fr. Jean Pierre Médaille.

Father-MedailleFr. Jean Pierre reiterated Jesus’ teaching that we are to love God and neighbor without distinction. If you’ve heard this before, what is your understanding of it? That when you’re loving your neighbor, you’re loving God?

Or,

That you are to love all neighbors as you love God without distinction? That every neighbor, every person, is to be loved as much as any other neighbor or person?

Fr. Médaille headed off the red herring-question of, “Who is my neighbor?” by his choice of words. In his original French, he referred to the neighbor as la prochaine, which means “the next one.” That is, the neighbor is the next one you encounter, or the one who is right next to you.

Consider one of Fr. Médaille’s maxims, one that reflects Jesus’s teaching on compassion: “Interpret another person’s actions in the best possible light.” Many of us sisters would tell you, it’s one of the most challenging to heed in everyday life.

Sisters and associates of St. Joseph have inherited the Ignatian spirituality of being “contemplatives in action.” The scholar in Luke’s gospel seemed to get it: that compassion (a feeling) and mercy (an action) are Jesus’s teaching. And so, that’s our call: to open ourselves to feel the gut-wrenching needs of the ones we encounter, and to act with mercy in response.

But where to start? With whom? How?

God revealed the answer in Deuteronomy (30:10-14) which tells us to fear not, the command is not too mysterious or remote for you. The Word of life is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts, you have only to carry it out.

When we need help, we look to God whose range of loving is unlimited. The Spirit gathers us at Eucharist and elsewhere to remember and know the One who lifts us up and pours the wine of compassion over our wounded hearts, and anoints us with the oil of mercy… so that we might go and do likewise.

 

About the Author

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Sister Mary Jo Curtsinger, CSJ, holds a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree from Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago where she later served as the director of the Biblical Study and Travel Program. She was received as a candidate for vowed membership with the Congregation of St. Joseph in 2002 and professed final vows in 2011. She taught theology courses at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park (a sponsored ministry of the Congregation), and now serves as Co-Director of Vocations Ministry for the Congregation.

 

 

 

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About Celibacy

By Sister Chris Schenk

My Mom had a very hard time accepting my desire to be a nun. We could not really talk about it. She had great dreams that I would have a nice career, marry a wealthy man (preferably a doctor or lawyer) settle down, have children, and live a happy life.

In retrospect, I think I fell in love with God somewhere around the eighth grade, although I did not realize it until much later.

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I have always loved things religious. Whether it was attending Mass, learning about the great philosophers, or reading the lives of the Saints, God seemed the ultimate of  “strange attractors’ to use the language of today’s science. I could not really explain my attraction to God, only that it was often more interesting to me than many other things in my life. I had boyfriends of course, sometimes more than I wanted.

While I liked men a lot, I often liked them better as friends than as romantic partners. I fell in love a couple of times but somehow the relationships never felt like quite enough.  Something inside was not real thrilled with settling down with just one person. Something inside was searching for “something more,” as I have now come to recognize.

God, on the other hand, was gradually becoming my most interesting and most long-lasting relationship. After a retreat in which I was blessed with a powerful experience of God’s unique sense of humor, unconditional love, and profound acceptance of me in all my quirkiness, I drove home filled with the knowledge that I would give my life over to this delightful Mystery.  But how? For me, it would have to be through Catholic nundom.

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While in one way it made no sense, in another way, it made the most sense of all. How better to express my longing to love God with my whole heart, soul, strength, and mind, than through my most precious gift, my body?

For me, vowed celibacy is an embodied response to Mystery. It springs from the profundity of a relationship, no less than the marriage commitment.

Needless to say, my Mother was not pleased. I have forgiven her though, because, why would she be pleased? Her deepest happiness had come from falling in love with my Father. Their 60-year marriage was filled with ups and downs, but also much, much love. Why wouldn’t she want this for her daughter?

I worked as  nurse midwife for nearly 20 years and know quite a bit about the awesome gift of our sexuality. I was afraid I must have some deep-seated psychological dysfunction that would make me want to choose celibacy as my desired mode of expressing love in our world. It seems pretty oxymoronic, after all. On the other hand, how could anything adequately express love for God? I wonder if this is the best deep down philosophical and psychological explanation for the attraction to religious celibacy. When no amount of loving could ever be enough to express such a big love, a commitment to love beyond the physical, may for some be the best response of all.

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The celibate mode of loving is not about giving up, but about witnessing to a love that fulfills and completes as deeply as the most passionate of sexual expressions. One thing I know from my midwifery career is that a big part of the pleasure of sex, is its ecstatic, almost mystical component.

Prayer can lead to a similar fulfillment. After all, doesn’t it make sense that the God who created us for ecstasy would also attract us in this most positive of human experiences?

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Not that being a nun is always ecstatic! Any more than being in a married relationship is always ecstatic. My choice of religious celibacy, while not always easy, has been deeply fulfilling, healthy, and what brings me the deepest happiness.

Which is not to say that I don’t need deep down soul friends and companions as much as the next person. These anchor me in the sure knowledge of being loved and valued. Some of my deepest down soul friends are married couples who have on occasion blessed me with some pretty profound conversations. They tell me their married intimacy both expresses and deepens their relationship to God as well as to each other. Their spirituality, growth, and capacity for intimacy are of a piece with their married commitment in, through, and with this God of wondrous Mystery.

Deep waters these, and very beautiful.

Another thing I love about the celibate way of loving is that it really does free me to take risks and be available to the needs of others. More so for me than if I had family obligations which must enter the decision-making equation. This is a good choice for my adventurous spirit.

When all is said and done, I guess my celibate commitment is the best response I can give to Mary of Magdala’s plaintive refrain in Jesus Christ Superstar:  “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”  I don’t really know how to love the God of Love either, but this feels right, and it makes me happy.

Deep waters these, and very beautiful.

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About the Author

Schenk head shot2Sister Chris 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 recent 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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The Gift of Faith

By Sister Ann Letourneau

Faith. The belief there is a being greater than I can imagine. The conviction that if I lead a good life on earth, I will go to a place of unconditional love and peace when I die. Most days I take this gift for granted. Lately, however, I find myself filled with gratitude for the gift that faith is to me. In the last year and a half my family has suffered from three untimely deaths. One of my brothers died at the age of 60 after living with a rare form of dementia for seven years. One grand-nephew and one grand-niece died within months of their birth. I just can’t imagine the grief without leaning into my God and holding onto the belief that these precious little ones and my brother are enjoying full knowledge of God with my parents, and one day we will all be reunited.

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Don’t get me wrong. This grace of faith does not take away the sting of death and the indescribable heaviness of my heart.  “Life is not supposed to be this way!” I find myself yelling at God. “You could have done something about this!” God holds all my anger and pain. God listens and offers me comfort even when I am not open yet to receiving it.  God lets me be human at the same time I am a person of faith. Losing those we love is like having one’s heart ripped out. I think God gets that. God made us for relationship, how could we not feel as though a part of us has died when our loved ones die?

The image that keeps returning to me in my prayer is of holding my faith in one hand and the gravity of my human emotions in the other. They are both important. Denying one for the sake of the other is harmful. If I denied my belief system and allowed the complex emotions of grief to take over, I would be overwhelmed and might be perpetually angry with this Being that is so much bigger than me. I would play the “blame game,” accusing God of causing, or at least not stepping in to save, my family from this pain. In my best self, I don’t think God works this way. God does not cause awful events. In the course of nature, painful things happen, but that is not on God. God can bring good out of the pain if I choose to pay attention.

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Denying my raw emotions is just as damaging. Stuffing emotions and thinking my faith takes them away is called spiritual bypass. We bypass the human need to feel the loss of those we love. I contend that when we deny such emotions they come out in ways that are not helpful to ourselves or our relationships. We may find ourselves reacting to other minor events with strong emotion or being more irritable than usual. Or, the built up emotion may cause us to be physically sick.

In one hand I hold the grief that I have never before experienced. In the other, I hold the greatest gift I have been given, faith. I need both. I need to express the depth of my anguish and lean into my God for comfort. This is the only way I can navigate this human journey called life.

About the Author

Ann CroppedSister Ann Letourneau, PsyD has been a Sister of St. Joseph for 29 years. She is a staff psychologist at Central Dupage Pastoral Counseling Center in Carol Stream, IL where she sees individual clients and offers educational presentations on various psychological and spiritual topics. Sister Ann is fascinated by nighttime dreams and runs a monthly dream group at The Well Spirituality Center, a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of St. Joseph in La Grange, IL.

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The Circle of Love

By Sister Carol Crepeau

Come out of the circle of time
And into the circle of love
-Rumi

These days in the Christian calendar are the octave of Pentecost. The Church celebrates the coming of God’s spirit, God’s energy to the apostles and disciples who up until Pentecost were cowering in a safe room. Just in case …

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This Blog isn’t a theological treatise on the meaning of Pentecost but rather a real life example of God’s spirit, energy, infused into a group of Sisters living in the Chicago area.

God’s energy is transmitted in many ways – through word, through nature, through song through ideas, through connection.

For me and for some others, one of the most tangible Pentecost experiences happens on the last Saturday of each month at 9:30 in the morning…

In the Archdiocese of Chicago there are many communities of Women Religious. We come from many different cultures, have different missions, different occupations and, yes, wear different clothing – some of us wearing distinctive dress and some dressing American.

Just as on the first Pentecost differences in speech and culture disappeared, so too on these Saturday mornings we are all simply Chicago Catholic Nuns.

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We stand in a circle on a street corner in a neighborhood in Chicago, pray, and hopefully witness peace and unity. We go to a different neighborhood and a different corner each month. A particular corner is chosen because a “sister” or “brother” was murdered on that corner during the month.

Sometimes cars pass by and inquire what we are doing. Sometimes neighbors join us or just walk by. Sometimes we are the complete circle. We pray, naming each person who has been murdered in our dear city during the month, and we bless the neighborhood with our presence and our prayer to our healing God.

This circle of Sisters calls us each month to

Come out of the circle of time
And into the circle of love

Won’t you join us in your own circle of love?

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About the Author

Sr. Carol photo editedSister Carol Crepeau, CSJ, ministers as a facilitator and leader of group dynamics for non-profits. Guiding the annual Congregation of St Joseph Pilgrimage to LePuy and Lyon, France is one of the most wonderful activities of her life. She also enjoys a good book and gathering with friends for prayer and conversation.

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Baby Love

My three month old baby was crying. I had just gone back to work. And a sister was on the phone, wanting to talk about her upcoming blog post.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, the baby’s cries clearly coming through the phone. “I’m still figuring out this working with a baby thing.”

“It’s perfectly ok!” Sister Ann said. “I love to hear it! She’s telling you she needs something. Isn’t it wonderful, babies just tell it like it is. When do we lose our ability to vocalize what we need?”

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Not my baby, but an accurate representation of her communicating.

The baby calmed down, Sister Ann and I finished our phone call, and she wrote a lovely blog post about finding what you’re looking for (you can read it here.) But what she said got me thinking: what can paying close attention to babies teach us?

So, here are three things my baby has taught me (so far) about life, love, and faith.

1. It’s important to communicate needs.

That first comment from Sister Ann rings true to me. When do we, as people, learn that we need to keep our needs to ourselves? While I don’t think my daughters vehicle of communication would work for all of us (I can see it now…people bursting into fits of tears in the middle of business meetings, the grocery store, a dinner with friends…) it’s true that we often don’t talk openly with others about our needs. Sisters of St. Joseph are very much concerned with being in relationship with others. Open communication is often the first step in a full, open, and meaningful relationship, whether that be a friendship, mentorship, or collaborative relationship. By expressing our needs to others, and being open with them, we can build more meaningful relationships with each other and our world.

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Babies love to communicate, even when we’re not sure what they’re saying!

2. You can love a person you’ve just met – or never met.

The love one has for a child may be different from the love we have for a partner or friend, but it is love that comes about all on its own. A baby doesn’t do anything specific to make us love them: we love them simply because they exist. Not only our own babies, but the infants of others make many of us coo and smile when we see them out in our neighborhoods. Why, then, do we sometimes find it difficult to extend this love to all of our neighbors? Aren’t we all called to love our neighbors, whether they are the person next door or a continent away? And when do we lose our ability to do this willingly? My little girl doesn’t seem to make a distinction between her great aunt or the cashier at the grocery store, so long as they both make funny faces at her, she offers them a smile!

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This baby gets it. 

3. Love is unconditional.

It does not matter if it is 3am, and my daughter has been crying for the last hour. It doesn’t matter if I have only gotten 2 hours of sleep, and am exhausted. I love her the same, no matter what. It’s not surprising, then, that we often refer to God as a Father or Mother figure. God loves us always, unconditionally.

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Tired, but full of love.

Having a new baby has taught me many things: how little sleep I can get and still function; how much coffee I can drink in one day; how many diapers a baby can go through. As she grows, I know I’ll help her learn new things, but I think she’ll keep teaching me too.

About the Author

me and sophie original 2Elizabeth 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, and Harry Potter. She is a new mom, and working to figure it out!

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Pondering “Moral Authority”

By Sister Sallie Latkovich

In the mid 1980’s, the founding Congregation of Cleveland entered into a serious discernment about declaring public sanctuary for refugees from El Salvador. We created an educational video for all of the members of the Congregation, and then came together to hear from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and from the local FBI. We knew that to transport and harbor those without documentation was against civil law.

hammer-719066_1920.jpgAt that meeting, one of the Sisters who had been an educator her whole life spoke about having taught students to be law abiding; she just couldn’t agree to “break the law.” In response, I questioned whether God’s law didn’t take priority. It was a conundrum, and we face the same conundrum when we seek to exercise our moral authority in other matters. I’d like to pose the following question to each of you: What do you consider to be your moral authority and responsibility?legal-1143114_1920For some, one’s moral responsibility is simply keeping the civil law. The assumption is that civil law is right and just. Sadly, that is not always the case. The group of people who are most concerned with keeping the civil law might also be concerned with the consequences of breaking it—having to pay a fine or to spend time in jail.prison-553836_1920 (1)Those who believe that Church teaching is always right and just seek to keep canon law as a way of being loyal to God. And yet, the Church is a human institution, and has been wrong in its teaching in a number of cases: agreeing to slavery, only recently speaking out about capital punishment, the judgment and rejection of LGBTQ men and women.church-3413155_1920.jpgThen there is God’s law as it is revealed in the Gospels. Jesus taught us to love, only love. This includes feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and those in prison, welcoming the stranger, burying the dead. He taught and modeled non-violence as stones were dropped and swords put away. He taught forgiveness, seventy times seven times. If these laws of the Gospel are not being followed, we are called to, and we simply must, exercise our moral authority: to speak out, to stand up, to shine a light into the night of injustice and immorality.love one anotherWe exercise moral authority in three ways: in educating others regarding the Gospel message; in doing direct service to those treated unjustly or who are in need; and in changing systems that sustain immoral treatment of our brothers and sisters, the dear neighbor. Living the “status quo,” to simply keep the peace, does not indeed keep peace, and is often irresponsible. To act on our moral authority, let us always and everywhere choose to follow God’s law of love, peace, and justice.board-1815982_1920

About the Author

sallie-sized-for-useAfter 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.

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St. Joseph the Father

Afternoon tea time, and my thoughts are wandering around in circles between the loveliness of the continued unfolding of spring, in this season of resurrection between Easter and Pentecost, and our May 1st feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

As I walk through our neighborhood each morning, I try to stay present to, and aware of, all the sights and sounds, and occasionally scents, that abound on these warming days. Everywhere I turn trees are budding, leafing; flowers are bursting through the earth, awakening from their winter sleep—which could look like death, if we didn’t believe in the unfailing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth which carries us though each year.bluebell-3248080_1920Birds are back, filling the air with spring song, both the permanent residents, and the migrants who come only for the season, to procreate and raise their young before packing up and heading south again. Listening to their daily songs, I can’t help pondering how curious it is that they are unconcerned about, and oblivious to, the artificial borders and boundaries we draw on our maps. They are not stopped for border checks, put in detention centers, or required to prove their “right” to flock across every kind of “border” from south to north and back again. If only all humans had the freedom of birds.birds-351174_1920Sadly we don’t. Instead we label those who are seeking freedom, asylum, safety, and just a taste of the abundance we have, as illegal and unwelcome. We detain them (relieving them of shoelaces and belts), sometimes imprison them—we degrade their humanity in our attempt to ensure our own safety.

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Shoes at the border – Photo taken by Sister Erin McDonald

It’s not that I don’t want to be “safe”, but as I hear stories on the news, and from our sisters and associates who have given of their time and energy volunteering at our southern border in El Paso, I’m reminded of Jesus telling us that whatever we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we are doing to him. I am reminded of him surrounded by children, cherishing and loving them when I see pictures of immigrant/refugee children suffering and separated from parents.jesus-1045267_1920And this brings me back to my, now cooling, tea, and to our patron, Joseph—Joseph the worker. The loving parent, who provided safety for his son, both as an infant refugee, and throughout his youth in Nazareth. I have to believe that this is what all children of God deserve, and what we have to work for, as we celebrate resurrection and move toward growing in the gifts of the Spirit given at Pentecost. Safety, new life, renewal whatever the season or circumstances of our lives—I want to remember all of this as I celebrate and rejoice in this season.St. Joseph the Worker Prayer, Instagram 2

About the Author

Christine Parks
Sister Christine Parks formerly served as a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph Leadership Team. Her leisure activities include gardening, long walks in nature, reading, writing, attending plays and concerts, as well as museums.