During this Year of Consecrated Life, religious throughout Canada have shared their reflections on their call to serve. The following questions were formulated by the Diocese of Saint John, N.B., and some religious were asked to respond briefly to these questions which have since been adapted. Sister Roma De Robertis, SCIC, a former diocesan editor and columnist for the Prairie Messenger, shares her reflections in the following feature.
Early in life, I experienced God’s presence and friendship. Our immigrant parents taught us about simplicity, compassion, dedication and integrity. Having experienced war and poverty, they emphasized attentiveness to those who are sick, suffering and lacking life’s basic necessities. Our father took us to church and raised my brother and me Catholic. He often emphasized the universality of God’s love and mercy amid the world’s diversity.
The call I began to experience more clearly in my 20s was gentle, loving and persistent. I tried to evade it because I had other plans. I did not go to Catholic schools and there are no religious or clergy in my extended family.
While my family taught us about personal freedom and responsibility, my parents also made clear that my purpose as an only daughter was to marry and have children. As anticipated, my vocational response came as a major disappointment to them. However, I was strengthened and accompanied by many faithful mentors — women and men of various ages, cultures, Christian denominations and other faith traditions. Amid sadness and loneliness, God’s Spirit sent me gifts of deep peace and joy that allowed me to listen, grow and respond in freedom.
In the west, I was drawn to the sisters’ generous, down-to-earth style and sense of liturgical music, ministry and fun. I also learned from and was inspired by those who were missioned in Peru. Earlier, in Western Canada, lay women encouraged me to join them in exploring active responses to Catholic social teaching as part of a parish social justice committee. I found that challenging, but God’s desire for justice overtook me!
With much good mentoring, I belonged to a young adults group and also participated in parish music ministry and adult Christian initiation. Lay women leaders suggested I explore the possibility of religious life. After much avoidance, I contacted the SCIC, whose spirit seemed a good fit.
Later, I learned the SCIC style to which I was drawn is part of our Vincentian charism, or founding and evolving gift of God’s Spirit for community life and mission. For Sisters of Charity, it flows from the spirituality of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac in 17th-century France, as adapted in 19th-century North America by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. In Saint John, it was adopted and brought to life by SCIC foundress Honoria Conway and companions.
Our community charism is shared with women and men associates, focusing especially on God’s love, compassion and justice for suffering humanity and the rest of creation. The Charity charism compels us to learn from and accompany others from diverse backgrounds seeking to grow personally and spiritually. It includes advocacy with others for positive transformation in church and society, as well as communal thanksgiving and celebration.
We cherish the charism we share with Sisters and Daughters of Charity globally. Our charism and mission also resonate within the worldwide Vincentian Family of lay leaders, Sisters and Daughters of Charity and Vincentian brothers and priests of many generations and cultures.
I am grateful our charism was lived and nurtured by many Sisters of Charity and associates past and present. I honour sisters and associates who directly accompany persons who are sick, distressed and/or living in poverty.
Earlier, I accompanied and learned from young adults in campus ministry in Western and Eastern Canada. Today, I seek to express our charism through writing, photography and communications ministries, through participation on our leadership circle (team) and co-ordination of our congregational ministry for social and ecological justice. In community, I also celebrate with liturgical music and song.
We are richly blessed with opportunities for ongoing formation, as well as educational, community and ministry experiences and relationships. These gifts beckon us to seek and welcome new ways to celebrate, receive, learn and share.
As we Sisters of Charity grow older and fewer, we are sometimes less visible today. Yet our rich heritage, influence and legacy continue to water many gardens in ways both known and unknown.
As sisters and others who are faithfully committed, we understand that each person uniquely embodies God’s Spirit and presence. We share God’s good news by upholding human dignity and rights, especially where these are neglected or violated. We gather with and accompany others to discover and honour all the ways they express God’s suffering, goodness and beauty.
Locally and globally, we are attentive to the signs of the times. Engaging in diverse networks, we participate in co-creating God’s desire for greater compassion, justice and peace for humanity, Earth and cosmos.
We also seek to recognize and express God’s Word through creative liturgies and participation in wisdom circles of sisters, associates and others. Together, we enter into silence and reflective conversation, recognizing that all are leaders, blessed with God’s Wisdom.
I would highlight the importance of nourishing friendships, as well as spiritual accompaniment or direction with people of integrity who are experienced and well prepared in this ministry. My sense is that we need both women and men along our paths of discernment. Scripture, liturgy, sacraments and community continue to be vital throughout our lives.
Because there are fewer younger or newer members in consecrated life in this part of the world, the demands and pace can become frenetic. Life-giving support networks and outside activities seem essential to achieve some semblance of balance.
On occasion, saying “no” to others regarding time, travel and ministry can be difficult. While avoiding selfishness, we recall that Jesus regularly sought solitude, private prayer, restful periods and friendships with both women and men.
Sometimes family members and others may have plans for our lives which seem good, but may not harmonize with our gifts and God’s desires. This can be painful, so we need to listen deeply within, to choose in freedom and be true to ourselves. Our peace lies in recognizing we are alive to do what God desires, leading always to greater freedom, justice, life and love for ourselves, the church and world.
De Robertis is a member of the leadership circle (team) of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception (SCIC) in Saint John, N.B. Originally from Scarborough, Ont., she entered her community in 1984 in Edmonton. She became a Saskatoon diocesan editor for the Prairie Messenger after serving as a reporter for the Western Catholic Reporter in Edmonton. She was also a campus minister at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, and later at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John. She has been co-ordinator for justice, peace and integrity of creation ministry with SCIC and Associates since 2004.