Teaching by expertise and example
'STER, STER, STER!'
By Bishop David Zubik
One of the genuine blessings in my life has been the opportunity to have the benefit of a formal Catholic education that spanned a period of over 22 years. My parents, both of whom
attended Catholic Schools, thought it was important that I be given the same opportunity. I attended Catholic elementary school, Catholic high school and Catholic university.
In addition, my years of formation in the seminary, and two additional years in graduate school in a Catholic university, were cherished times when I not only learned about the beauty of God's world but, more importantly, came to know much more about God Himself.
Sister Estelle was my first grade teacher. She is still alive. I try to use every opportunity I can to let her know how grateful I am for all that she did for me. While Sister Estelle stands about five foot, one inch tall - in my eyes, she is a giant! Now in her
nineties, Sister is enjoying the benefits of well deserved retirement.
Among the many lessons which Sister taught my class and myself, was the courtesy of not speaking out in class without being recognized. She nicely let us know that, if we wanted to speak, it was important to raise our hands.
As I look back on our time together in 1955, we did learn that lesson well. Whenever she asked questions of the class, in response and as is so typical of first-graders, our hands not only shot in the air but began to wave with the enthusiasm of six-year-olds. The wave was accompanied by the rapid repetition of what should have been "Sister, Sister, Sister," save that the enthusiasm slurred her name so it came out "Ster, Ster, Ster!"
My guess is that many of you have had similar and wonderful experiences of religious women whom we so fondly call "Sister," or "Ster." In a classroom, in a counseling situation, in a hospital, at a retreat center, as a pastoral associate, as a parish director and in so many and varied ways, you and I have met these wonderful women - women religious - whom we call "Sister."
Several weeks ago, we as a Diocese had an official opportunity to thank, collectively, 47 Sisters who celebrate their jubilees this year, ranging from 25 years of service to 80 years of service through and to the Church.
Often behind the scenes
These women who work so tirelessly for the Church often work behind the scenes. They teach us much by their expertise, but even more so by their example. The dedication of these
women is clearly born out of love for Jesus and His Church, which each of them does with the "charism" of their religious community. A charism is a distinct spirit, enthusiasm or attitude with which religious carry out their work, modeled after their founder. For example, Sisters of St. Francis will seek to capture and relive the spirit of that great Saint from Assisi. Sisters of St. Joseph seek to embody the hospitality of Joseph, the foster father of Jesus. Carmelites try to emulate the life of St. Theresa of Avila.
Some Sisters belong to communities that are "apostolic." These communities are very much involved in the various outreaches of the Church: education, health care, parish ministry and social service work. Other Sisters belong to communities that are "contemplative." They literally spend their daily lives in prayer, enveloped in a monastic lifestyle that gives them the space to focus their attention on praying for the Church and all of its people. Their lives of prayer focus on people whose lives are busy with the hectic pace of life.
By their promises
Whatever charism a Sister lives, and whether her service to the Church is "apostolic" or "contemplative," every Sister professes her life to God by the promise of three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience.
With the vow of poverty, a Sister forgoes any personal wealth and freely shares whatever wealth is hers (salary, stipend, possessions) for the good of the Community to which she belongs. Her vow of poverty calls the rest of us to see that the greatest treasure in life is, in fact, union with Jesus.
Through the vow of chastity, a Sister commits herself to celibacy, sharing her love exclusively, not with one person but with all those people whom she serves in and through the Church. Once again, as with poverty, the focus of her heart is Jesus Himself. Chastity becomes a visible reminder to the rest of us that our own love must be directed to Jesus in whatever vocation is ours - married, single, religious or ordained.
Finally, obedience - perhaps the most difficult of all the vows to live - is the one where a Sister takes the ultimate cue of what she does in her life at the direction of those who are the leaders of her Community. That vow is built on the belief that the Holy Spirit works through the Church's leaders, who are responsible for providing for the careful and caring service of all the faithful in the Church. Obedience challenges the rest of us to see that the world is far bigger than any one of us or our wishes, dreams and desires.
As I look back on my life, I am grateful for:
Sister Estelle, who taught me so many important lessons in first grade;
Sister Esperentia, who encouraged me to think about priesthood;
Sister Marie Aubert, who was the very first religious person who showed me the way to holiness while still being human;
Sister Anna Marie, who taught me how to work collaboratively as part of a high school administration team;
Sister Annie, who taught me the profound example of what it means to be hospitable;
Sister Mary Richard, who taught me what it means to pray and fast for the needs of others;
Sister Margaret, who taught me that loyalty is a great virtue.
It is sad that Sisters are not often given the credit they deserve. Moreover, the secular world, and particularly the Hollywood scene, more often than not cast religious women either as objects of jokes or as targets of dismissal.
These wonderful women deserve better. It is my hope that we, as Church, can, with enthusiasm, afford religious women - these Sisters, our Sisters - the gratitude, respect and
admiration which they deserve.
Just as my first grade classmates and I recognized how important Sister Estelle was by the waving of our raised hands accompanied by our enthusiastic exclamation, "Ster, Ster, Ster," maybe you and I can take a minute to drop a note, place a call or say a prayer for some special Sister who not only taught us much about life but, more importantly, brought us closer to God.