The first thing she noticed about the nuns at church was their joy. It was pure. It was easy. And it was contagious.
“I said to myself: ‘I want to be like them,'” recalls Sister Maria Elena Mariani.
At the time, Sister Mariani was just a child. Her family was actively involved in Rochester’s Most Precious Blood Parish and frequently stepped in when the Sisters of St. Joseph serving there needed a helping hand with tasks such as raking leaves or cleaning the church.
“We had fun doing it. I remember they were very happy,” Sister Mariani said of the sisters.
Later, it was the sisters’ kindness and strength of faith that marked Sister Mariani, who met the nuns again when she studied at the School of the Holy Rosary and at the Academy of Nazareth. Her interactions with these women inspired her own vocation, noted Sister Mariani, who this year will celebrate her 60th anniversary as a Sister of St. Joseph.
“They were deeply spiritual women. They were wonderful role models. And later when I came (into the congregation) they were wonderful mentors,” said Sister Mariani, communications and development associate for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester.
Interaction with the Sisters Plants Seeds of Vocations
Sister Mariani’s first models inspired her vocation by living theirs. Today, nuns remain well aware that their daily interactions with others provide similar opportunities to sow the seeds of future vocations, according to Mercy Sister Laurie Orman.
“We always say that we are all vocations ministers in one way or another, whether we are officially in vocations work or not,” said Sister Orman, who teaches religion and social studies at the college. at St. Mary’s School in Canandaigua.
Sister Orman is also an active parishioner at St. Pius Tenth Parish in Chile. Its presence in school and parish communities provides informal opportunities to educate people in religious life. Although she doesn’t go around lecturing on religious life, she also doesn’t hide the fact that she is a Sister of Mercy. Seeing nuns living and working among them lets people know that religious life is alive and well and a vocation they can consider, she said.
“Even though I’m working with college kids right now, that doesn’t mean I’m not planting a seed. They have a connection with a sister every day, and who knows where that leads?” she said. “It might take a few years and someone might feel called to this life and think, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember when Sister Laurie talked about it” or “Oh, yes, Sister Laurie is someone I could talk to. ‘”
Sisters are ‘just ordinary people’ called to follow God
The students are sometimes curious to know what it is to be a Sister of Mercy or to live in community with other nuns. Sister Orman said she welcomes such questions and answers them honestly.
Nuns are not as visible or numerous in parish life as they were decades ago, making it even more important for them to share and answer questions about their vocation, Mercy Sister Sheila Stevenson agreed. , pastoral administrator at St. Marianne Cope Parish in Henrietta and Rush.
“It is important for me to identify myself as a Sister of Mercy, to talk about my life and to show in a way that I am only a normal and average person, but my calling in life has been the Sisters of Mercy for about 50 years,” Sister Stevenson said. “It’s important for young people to see what (nuns) are doing today, that spirituality and prayer are important in your life, and also to see that we are just ordinary people following our path.”
The prospect of entering religious life can be daunting or seem out of reach for some people, especially if the only image they have of nuns is “mean sisters with the leader,” Sister Stevenson noted, noting that ‘she’s never met anyone like that. during her years as a student at St. Charles School in Greece. It helps for a woman who sees a potential calling to have someone she trusts enough to ask questions, she added.
Recognizing this opportunity, Mercy Sister Mary Veronica Casey tried to provide safe spaces for students who had questions, first at Cardinal Mooney High School in Greece and later at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Brighton. Sister Casey, who this year celebrates her 70th anniversary as a Sister of Mercy, said she always lets students engage in conversations and never tries to force them to consider religious vocations. Instead, she said she made sure to provide honest information to anyone who asked to help them on their professional journey.
Sisters’ online tools help women find their way to God
Helping women on their journeys is the sole purpose of a group of 12 Sisters of St. Joseph who meet every few weeks, according to Sister Donna Del Santo, vocations director for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester.
The group’s goal is to help people — especially young people — find their way in the world and find their way to God and God’s people, Sister Del Santo explained.
She said a new way for the congregation to do this is through online retreats. During the months when the pandemic was at its peak and in-person gatherings were prohibited, the sisters were able to expand their retreat offerings as well as their reach, through online video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Sister Del Santo said. .
Sister Del Santo has long traveled to Ithaca to lead a busy people’s retreat at Cornell University in Ithaca, but thanks to Zoom she is now able to offer the retreat to students on campuses outside of the Diocese of Rochester, including St. Bonaventure University at Olean and Canisius College in Buffalo.
Some offerings, including an online series on St. Joseph, have drawn attendees from across the United States, as well as Canada and Indonesia. These programs provide Sister Del Santo with new ways to make meaningful connections with young women who may one day come back to her with questions about religious life.
Forming such bonds also helps nuns hear the voices of young women and understand what they are looking for. Pope Francis recognized the importance of this kind of listening in 2018, when he convened the Synod on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment, Sister Del Santo said.
“We need to be a listening church. We must recognize the gift of young people to the church in the world, recognize the mystery of each person’s vocation, mentor young people in the art of discernment and walk together in daily life,” she said.