Novices Speak: The Sisters We Want to Be
The process of discerning the vocation to the religious life is long. Four novices speak about their vocation journey, and what kind of Sisters they hope to become.
She ran a thriving business when she heard God’s call to the vocation as an Assumption Sister. Against the wishes of her family, even her beloved grandfather, Judith Katukenu entered the religious life.
Now in her second year of novitiate, the 34-year-old from Kikwit in the Democratic Republic of Congo recalls: “My family didn’t want me to go to the convent. It upset their plans for me, and they were not happy about that. I had a successful shop at home which I looked after well, selling sweets, sugar and milk, as well as small things like glasses, earrings and even watches. I had two phones which people could use to make calls. It was at that time a source of income for the family.”
Though she heard God’s call, it took Sr Judith a long time to discern her vocation. “I was very dependent on my beloved grandfather, and I hated to disappoint him. He had done everything for me. But I went to talk to our parish priest. He listened to me and he was willing to speak to my family, especially to my grandfather. But still, it was not easy for them. Then I went to talk again to my spiritual mother, who is a religious Sister, so that she could also talk to them.”
For others, the call comes early and clearly. Sifundo Siphelele Mabaso, 22, a first-year novice with the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, heard the call to her vocation as a teenager in KwaMakhutha, near Durban. “I felt God was calling me to religious life and that was where he wanted me to serve him.” It wasn’t easy to come to the point of “leaving home and most of the things I loved, because in religious life these attachments are not required. I had to choose detachment in most of my material possessions in order to follow Christ in religious life. With love and by listening to the voice of God deep within me, I was happy to do the will of God in my life. I have such great belief that in God I find such great happiness more than I would in any other way.”
Sr Sifundo cites the help and support of her parish priest at Our Lady of Sorrows church in KwaMakhutha and of her family in encouraging her “to follow what I felt and desired for my life”.
But she knows that the discernment process is still ongoing. “Yes, I have joined the religious life, but I still have a long way to discern whether or not God is calling me to this particular way of life. The discernment process is not a one-night process; it can be lengthy, even with the ups and downs of life,” she says. Nonetheless, she adds, although she is still on her journey of discernment, “my desire is to love and serve God’s people as a Dominican Sister and together continue the mission of Christ that he started while he was on Earth”.
Time of uncertainty
For many novices, the discernment process is accompanied by uncertainties. Thi Thuy Ngan Nguyen, a 25-year-old from Lo Duc, Vietnam, says that this hasn’t been easy. “I started with uncertainty and doubt. I just wished that God would appear and tell me directly what he wanted of me. Of course, he didn’t. Nevertheless, in trying to discern God’s will for me, I have discovered a part of me that I did not know before, which, I believe, is what God has prepared for me according to his plan.”
The first-year novice with the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena had hoped that in the novitiate she might prove to herself “that I did not belong to the life of sisterhood”. The opposite happened. “I gradually realised that God could possibly be calling me to this way of life. In fact, I found myself feeling a closeness to God that I had not previously experienced. And the sweetness of this relationship with God made me want to immerse myself in the love of Jesus and commit my life to my beloved as a Dominican Sister.”
Mary Jael Wemesa, a 28-year-old second-year novice with the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption, put herself in God’s hands. “In the beginning, the discernment process was not easy. I was not sure whether my call to be a religious Sister was really from God. I was open to God and I surrendered all my fears and my doubts to him. I promised him that I would do whatever he asked of me: ‘Show me your will.’”
At the time, she was 23 and a primary school teacher in Uganda. “I reflected on the call of Abraham who had been told by God to leave his own country and go to a place that God would show him. I asked myself if I was really willing to do God’s will, whatever he asked. I made a commitment and gave my whole life to live totally open to God’s guidance. I also reflected on Mary’s openness to God’s will when she was called to become the mother of Jesus. I was honest with myself and, conscious that I was in the presence of God, I prayed with humility to the Holy Spirit for guidance.”
The sacraments helped, Sr Mary Jael notes. “I tried to live a sacramental life by going frequently to the sacrament of penance, attending daily Holy Mass and receiving Holy Communion. I lived out my confirmation pledge of reading and praying with the Scriptures. I had quiet times each day and listened to my heart. I was able to go for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as we have a perpetual adoration chapel in our parish. I sought advice from the spiritual director whom I trusted. In this way I gradually became confident that it was God who was speaking in my heart, and I followed him.”
But that decision didn’t come without conflict. While Sr Mary Jael was teaching, a friend offered to pay for her studies towards diploma and even degree level. “Quite suddenly, during this time of questioning, I felt a burning desire within my heart to dedicate my life wholly to the service of God’s people as a religious Sister. I prayed over this, and I shared my desire with the friend who had offered to pay for my studies. She was very disappointed with me and told me that I would have to choose between her offer to pay for my studies and the call I felt to religious life. I told her that I had already made up my mind to seriously consider the call I felt to religious life. I knew that I needed to listen to God’s call and not be distracted by going on to do further studies.”
The Gospel of Matthew helped her at the time. In it, Jesus says to the rich young man: “If you really wish to be perfect…come and follow me!” (cf Mt 19:16–30). “These words really made me long to be among those who would leave everything and follow Jesus in a religious life. As a religious, I would have greater focus on prayer and would love him with an undivided heart.”
At the time, the enthusiastic reader sought out books on the lives of saints who had been religious Sisters, such as Ss Paula, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Angela Merici. “I was struck by St Paula’s letter to her father, who was very keen that his beautiful daughter would find a worthy husband. Paula was becoming a religious Sister and so wrote back to her father that she had indeed found a very worthy and rich husband who would now become her father’s son-in law: Jesus of Nazareth!”
All novices interviewed recall role-models who influenced them. Two cite family members. “My late grandfather was a wise and very prayerful man who helped many widows and poor people at church. Everybody loved him. He was a man who was close to God and he loved me a lot,” says Sr Judith. And Sr Mary Jael credits her aunt Alice for being a role model. “She is a God-fearing person, and a wise and motherly woman whose way of life drew me nearer to Christ. She would never make my decisions or my choices for me, but she would always advise me to pray to God to guide my desires.”
Those already in religious life also serve as role models. Sr Mary Jael recalls “a very old Sister” in her home parish of St Teresa of Avila in Mbale, Uganda. “She loved the young people, and liked them to just call her ‘Granny’.”
Sr Sifundo was inspired by the Dominican Sisters she would encounter especially during her initial visits to the convent at “Come-and-See” workshops. “The way I saw the Sisters, with all they were doing — even their teaching with care and compassion — made me feel welcome and be part of their way of life. I felt such passion in my heart to be part of the congregation that I said to myself deeply: ‘This is the way God wants me to serve him.’ I felt God’s presence was at work to burn within my heart in realising to a point, that I belong in the convent.”
Sr Ngan feels fortunate, because it was not only one person “but many Dominican friars and Sisters who influenced my vocation. They came along during my earliest stages in discernment of my vocation and each one of them showed me different aspects of a true Dominican whom I want to become.”
All four were involved in their parishes as children and young adults, taking on various roles. The three who had professional careers believe their experience helps them today. Working as a primary schoolteacher “influenced my life in seeing Christ in the little ones, and in all the people I meet, thus sharing in the redemptive mission of Christ, the Great Teacher and Healer”, says Sr Mary Jael. Sr Ngan worked in a laboratory. “The whole process of studying and working shaped a part of the person I am now. I am grateful for that.”
Hopes for the future
Sr Ngan hopes to live up to the ideal of “a true Dominican Sister…who speaks the Truth and lives life to its fullness, one who is humble and fervent in preaching the Gospel by words and actions, who is close to God and approachable to people”.
Sr Mary Jael hopes to be “a Sister who will live what she professes: to love God with a generous heart in the congregation in which God has called me to serve him; one who observes the vows according to the rule and constitutions of the Missionary Sisters of the Assumption”. Her fellow Assumption Sisters’ novice Sr Judith wants to be “a kind person, especially to the old people and the sick, as well as to children and the poor. I want to be obedient to God; to listen to others and be humble and loving.”
Sr Sifundo hopes to be “a good, faithful and active Sister who will be ready for any mission God asks of me. I want to be myself and be allowed to be an instrument of God in preaching, like St Dominic, in the footsteps of Christ, and reaching out to the poor and needy as did St Catherine of Siena,” who was also a Dominican.
Sr Sifundo quotes St Catherine, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” The novice adds: “With my faith, I want to make this world on fire with a zeal for spreading Christianity.”
With thanks to Sr Thao Phi FMM for facilitating this focus on religious life.
This article was published in the October 2021 issue of the Southern Cross magazine
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