Remarks by Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, Superior General, 10th Annual Gala of the Friends of the Sisters of Life, March 4, 2011
Friends of the Sisters, and to their guests—on behalf of all the Sisters I welcome you all, and thank you for being a part of the family of the Sisters of Life. Let me add a special welcome to Mrs. Mary Ward, the sister of our Father & Founder, Cardinal O’Connor.
This year, and tonight, the Sisters of Life celebrate a gift received 20 years ago—the grace of the charism of life and the foundation of the Sisters of Life. It all began as an act of Faith on the part of one man—a priest and the Archbishop of this great city—called by God to raise up a religious community of women dedicated and consecrated to the Lord with a mission to pray and fast that all might recognize the gift, the mystery, and the dignity of human life.
Through the years, other powerful graces were at work among young women who have come to the convents of the Sisters of Life in a steady, abundant stream, seeking to give all of their lives to the Lord of Life. How does this happen? What is the secret? The answer is simply, totally, in the hands of our incredible God. For only the compelling love of God moves bright, beautiful, mature, and competent young women to surrender all of their affections, possessions, and will for the glory of God, and through Him to His people, especially the most vulnerable among us. Behind each Sister is a story—a love story of universal dimension!
The missions, or the works of the community, flow from the prayer of the Sisters. What began in 1991—within months of the entrance of the first members—as a simple response to a young college student embroiled in the crisis ignited by an unexpected pregnancy has developed now two decades later into a manifold array of works supporting life where it is most vulnerable. These include:
• inviting pregnant women to live with us in our convent on 51st Street here in Manhattan and providing for all of their needs during the months of pregnancy and for six months, or more, after the birth of their child
• responding to more than 700 women, pregnant and in need, who approach us here and in Canada each year, with the help of our Co-Workers of Life; revealing the goodness and the capacity of the human person to enter into the joy of the Lord, and healing those who are wearied by the wounds brought on by lies and false assumptions about the human person which abound in the culture
• running a gracious retreat house called Villa Maria Guadalupe (purchased by the Knights of Columbus) in Stamford, Connecticut, that welcomes 50-60 people to “come aside and rest awhile” each week-end in the company of the Eucharistic Lord;
• accompanying women who suffer after abortion, by way of friendship and spiritual counsel, on a journey to find reconciliation and the mercy of God;
• serving the Church of New York and Bridgeport by directing and staffing the diocesan Family Life/Respect Life Offices
• taking the message of the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life throughout the country and beyond.
One of the most anticipated moments of evangelization this year will be the opportunity to co-sponsor with the Knights of Columbus the English-speaking site for young pilgrims at World Youth Day-Madrid. This experience will bring the charism of life to tens of thousands of English-speaking youth.
What began as a vision to express our missionary hearts as Sisters, now includes the extended family of thousands of friends, supporters, volunteers—all Co-Workers of Life. The Co-Workers of Life are an essential part of the spiritual family of the Sisters of Life.
The math of God—the Divine economy.
Our littleness and poverty were the instruments God used to help us see that He had much bigger plans. When the rooms at Sacred Heart of Jesus Convent were full we began “walking with” and supporting with love and friendship, and practical resources, the women, pregnant and vulnerable, who came to us. In order to respond adequately to the crisis we needed literally an “army” of Co-Workers who with lively faith could link arms with us in providing with practical compassion for the needs of women.
Slowly we could see that God used the relative littleness of the community and the enormity of the task to animate and activate the faith of the “people of God”—and you, the faithful, have responded. God wanted His love and His hope and His mercy to be shared with the one losing hope in her own goodness. Like Our Lady, your souls have magnified the Lord.
In an inspired poem, the French poet Charles Peguy speaks of the three great Christian virtues: faith, hope and love. Let me share with you a few lines from “The Portal of the Mystery of Hope.” (God is speaking in the first person.)
The faith that I love best, says God, is hope.
Faith doesn’t surprise me.
It’s not surprising.
I am so resplendent in my creation.
In the sun and the moon and in the stars.
In all of my creatures. . . .
That in order really not to see me these poor people would have to be blind.
Charity says God, that doesn’t surprise me.
It’s not surprising.
These poor creatures are so miserable that unless they had a heart of stone, how could they not have love for one another.
How could they not love their brothers.
How could they not take the bread from their own mouth, their daily bread, in order to give it to the unhappy children who pass by.
And my son had such love for them. . . .
But hope, says God, that is something that surprises me.
That is surprising.
That these poor children see how things are going and believe that tomorrow things will go better.
That they see how things are going today and believe that they will go better tomorrow morning.
That is surprising and it’s by far the greatest marvel of our grace.
And I’m surprised by it myself.
And my grace must indeed be an incredible force.
(Trans. David L. Schindler, Jr.)
Tonight we honor Co-Workers of Life.
Who are the Co-Workers of Life?
EVERY ONE OF YOU! Literally thousands of the faithful laity, like you, who have become a source of not just practical assistance, but of hope in the goodness of life to hundreds of women in their moment of need. Taking as their own St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians—
With such affection for you,
we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God,
but our very selves as well,
so dear had you become.
Co-Workers of Life share their time, talents, and their very selves with a young woman in need—sharing what God has given them in faith. Pope Benedict’s words in his inaugural homily nearly six years ago reflect the spirit and motivation of the Co-Workers of Life: “There is nothing more beautiful than to know Jesus (Him) and to speak to another of our friendship with Him. It is beautiful and wonderful because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.”
The Co-Workers of Life are:
• women who open their hearts in friendship;
• families or single women who open their homes in order to support and nurture a woman in need during her pregnancy;
• priests, deacons and religious who can guide a woman at a critical juncture in her relationship with God,
• men who approach the father of the baby with the heart of a brother, or who will deliver needed furniture, or move a woman and her infant into an apartment;
• doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who assist a woman during pregnancy and her infant following birth;
• business professionals who can provide employment;
• counselors who can provide essential supportive resources in dealing with personal, emotional, and cognitive challenges that arise during pregnancy;
• lawyers willing to offer legal counsel and services in the areas of adoption or child custody;
• prayer guardians who lift a woman up in daily intercessory prayer;
• all good things providers—all of you and so many others who give material support and resources to the community for its missions.
In a gift of self made from one heart to another there is a spiritual power which breaks down walls and renews hope, strengthens faith and links lives in a web of grace.
What do Co-Workers of Life do?
The activities of the Co-Workers are as varied as the talents and gifts God has given to each, but it is the faith which underlies these gifts which is common among them.
The orchestrated nationwide legal and legislative attacks upon the activities of pregnancy resource centers (of which you are no doubt aware) are in essence an attack upon hope and joy. Such an attack says that it is useless to believe in the possible nobility of man, in the greatness so often hidden in the heart of a woman. It implies that our young should accommodate themselves to live in little worlds of human invention which make no room for the mystery of God. Rather we say: Let them be encouraged to attempt true love. Every life is a gift; and nothing less than being a gift for another can fulfill one’s identity. It is ours to live true to our deepest identity as gift: Each human person is—a trace of God’s glory. So let us encourage the young, and let each one of us recommit ourselves, to the great life’s work of attempting true love.
I am reminded of the words spoken by Pope John Paul II to the youth of the world gathered in Toronto at Downsview Park in 2002; words with meaning for disciples of any age: “Do not let hope die! Stake your lives on it! We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
The women who come through our doors and the doors of local pregnancy centers are not confused about the kind of help they might expect to find. They will be received in truth: We look upon each woman and her little one as icons of the living God. They will not be pressured, they will not be deceived. We will ask a woman to speak of her heart’s desires—hearts, which when given room for expression, often speak of a boundless capacity for love. She longs for a word of hope. She longs to be encouraged and to know that with support it is reasonable to make an act of faith in herself; to believe that there is a “future full of hope.”
Who are the women the Sisters and the Co-Workers serve?
Let us return to Charles Peguy to find an apt description of the inner world of this woman. Again we hear the voice of God:
What must my grace, and the strength of my grace, be so that this little
hope, vacillating at the breath of sin, trembling with every wind,
anxious at the slightest breath,
Be as constant, remain as faithful, as righteous, as pure; and invincible, and
immortal, and impossible to extinguish; as that little flame in the sanctuary.
It is the unsolicited love of a Co-Worker which helps keep the flame of hope alive. Love is the only agent powerful enough to wash away our fears, and allow us to hope. “Love never fails.”
Again, we return to the poet:
Faith is a loyal Wife.
Charity is a Mother.
An ardent mother, noble-hearted.
Or an older sister who is like a mother.
Hope is a little girl, nothing at all.
Who came into the world on Christmas day just this past year.
It is our Co-Workers of Life, who themselves led by the small hands of hope, allow the Love and the Presence of God to be known by others—one heart at a time. Standing in for all of our Co-Workers of Life, here and in Canada, we are honored to present to the Co-Workers of Life of St. John the Evangelist Basilica Parish in Stamford, Connecticut—Gene D’Agustino, Maria Marchetti and Tom Kohlenberg—the John Cardinal O’Connor Award.