As my 50th jubilee approaches, I am reflecting upon the impact of the amazing novitiate and education provided to members of our Congregation all down the years, but especially during the Vatican II Council. Joining the Congregation was a life-changing experience for me in discovering God’s unconditional love revealed in the Person of Jesus – and of our invitation in baptism to love and serve. I carried this amazing formation into ministries in Michigan; Ohio; Ontario, Canada; North Carolina; Missouri and eventually KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – through teaching 5-12th grade; Visitation House of Prayer, theological study, pastoral ministry, migrant ministry, CSsR formation, publications and outreach to the poor.
A turning point for me was ministry as secretary of the Overseas Missions Province in mid-80’s. I was asked by Mary Jo Maher to study the life and spirituality of St. Alphonsus Liguori, which was definitely not one of my interests at the time. I wanted to work with the Overseas Missions – and I assumed that the study of St. Alphonsus and his works would be on the back burner!
With Mary Jo’s encouragement I began reading several ‘old time’ biographies (only ones available) and the old series of ‘green books’, published in 1932 by Eugene Grimm of many of the 111 books St Alphonsus wrote during his lifetime (1696-1787). Because I was being exposed to a variety of cultural differences through ministry with Sisters in Latin America and Africa and at the same time I was studying St. Alphonsus, I became aware that I needed to focus on the deep values of Alphonsus’ writings, not on the Neapolitan expression, style, examples, etc. that made his message so appealing way to his readers in the 1700’s. As my study continued, I fell in love with Alphonsian Spirituality,. with the vision of a God who is madly in love with us; with Jesus who was willing to live and to bleed for us; with Eucharist as the Divine with us as food and support; with commitment to God’s will as the only understandable response to such a loving God; with Mary as our advocate; with prayer making grace available to all people; with zeal for the mission and for the abandoned a priority; etc. I understood that Alphonsian Spirituality needed to be freed from its culturally unattractive presentation and offered as the gift that it truly is. Happily, young Redemptorists have begun to communicate a truer image of Alphonsian Spirituality for our time and place with new biographies, translations and expressions of his works.
Just as being influenced by overseas cultural differences helped me to see St. Alphonusus in a new light, being a student of Alphonsian Spirituality led me to minister with the Formation Team of CSsRs in St. Louis in late 80′s. Then, in 1992, I was invited to teach Alphonsian Spirituality in South Africa to novices and students. I had cried in the late 60’s when I was missioned so far away – to Akron, Ohio; but South Africa seemed closer and presented a new opportunity to learn and to share. I spent my first year in Africa in a rural area near Bergville. I lived with CSsRs in mud huts with a pump for water, fire for hot water bathing, washing clothes in buckets, breaking ice in winter to wash our hands in plastic bowls, etc. I learned a new way of slowing down while working hard to survive. I also taught Alphonsian Spirituality on the days when we were not hosting visitors or retreatants. I learned that rural Africa can operate on a different time and schedule – and not too many classes were actually taught.
In the years following Bergville, I have been blessed to minister with CSsRs among the poor who make up the majority of the population. I have experienced many emotions and feelings: joy, fear, encouragement, resentment, hope, despair, confidence, disapproval, abundance, poverty, energy, unconditional love. South Africa is deepening and challenging me in ways that I would never have expected. I do see animals and tall grass, but the daily life is more demanding than one could imagine and more wonderful than one could believe. My greatest hope is that a young IHM will continue the study of our treasure of heritage from St. Alphonsus and that others will continue ministry in South Africa in the next decades.