As I reflect on my life I look with gratitude at the gradual unfolding of my missionary vocation and my calling to express that as a Sister of Our Lady of the Missions.
At school I knew our Sisters as ‘Sacred Heart Sisters’. What I experienced then, and was drawn to through them, was a calling to share the love of Jesus through reaching out to others, especially those in need.
As a young Sister I was impressed by Euphrasie Barbier’s life, but it was hearing the story of an Australian RNDM, Sr Mary Catherine Harris, who had just died on a sampan in IndoChina(1954), that was a moment of awakening to the missionary vocation; knowing that this was the life to which I had been called by God.
In that moment of awakening I was overcome by this woman’s life of generous loving service far from her own country and I realized that I was being called to ‘go beyond’ as well.
There have been many experiences in my life since then that have deepened and enlivened that missionary calling to ‘ have a heart for the world’ , but I think the most significant one for me was the 9 years in the 1980s that I spent in Italy as the director/animator of our RNDM Renewal Programme that took place in our house in Marino in the Castelli Romani , about 25 kms out of Rome.
I had previously studied for three years in Rome, so had some sense of the Italian culture and a limited experience of its diversity. However, in my 9 years at via dei Laghi my heart and mind were opened and enriched by a great diversity of cultures as I engaged with our Sisters from many countries: France, north, south and centre of India, Bangladesh, England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, Samoa, Kenya, Senegal, Papua New Guinea. Sadly, at that time, only one Sister was able to come from Myanmar and none from Vietnam because of the political situation in those countries. However, added to our own cultural richness was our interaction with the participants of the Divine Word missionary priests’ program whose renewal house was nearby. They came from an even wider diversity of cultures and experiences.
To deepen my understanding of the Sisters who came to participate in the renewal programme, I was able to visit briefly some of our missions in Myanmar (still under its first military rule), India, and Bangladesh.
Three months in Senegal gave me the chance to be involved in our dispensary in MBoro, in vaccination programs in remote villages and in women’s groups in NDondol. I felt drawn into the daily lives of the people, their struggles and their simple joys and I loved their singing, its rhythm and exuberance!…. and I also learnt that I wasn’t called to be a nurse!
Over those 9 years I had the immense privilege of listening to hundreds of stories of these missionaries from diverse backgrounds – stories of great joy and satisfaction in their missionary endeavours, of pain in failure, of struggle and misunderstanding, of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles; times of inner darkness and struggle with faith, of debilitating physical and/or psychological illness, and of friendships that were a source of understanding and growth.
It was a gift of grace for me to be entrusted with these deep stories of the lives of so many wonderful people and to feel that in some small but real way I have shared in their very diverse missions, and that through our programmes and the relationships formed there, I had helped them to be renewed and return to their mission – or begin a new one- refreshed, enthused and with a deeper sense of God’s love for them and working with them wherever they were.
Another more individual experience I had at this time that enriched my sense of mission was a deep encounter I had with Euphrasie Barbier, our Foundress.
Our Congregation’s Leader at the time, Sr Marie Benedicte Ollivier, was in the process of writing the biography of Euphrasie Barbier. Our house, in the Castelli overlooking Lago Albano, was definitely more conducive to research and writing than the bustling, congested atmosphere of Rome! As we were both ‘night owls’, we often met in the kitchen in the evening and Marie Benedicte would share with me the fruit of her day’s work, plentifully laced with anecdotes, insights and previously untold stories. My appreciation and understanding of Euphrasie, of the depth of her thought and Trinitarian spirituality, of her profound sense of mission, certainly grew within me through these nightly conversations.
After nine years back in Australia, where I was involved mainly in adult faith formation and spiritual direction, I once again found myself in Rome, this time as a member of our General Leadership Team. My earlier years of cross-cultural interaction really provided me with a good starting point as I spent time in different Provinces endeavouring to understand the social, economical, political and religious milieu in which our mission was being carried out and the challenges these presented to our Sisters.
Many times I was deeply moved by the faith, courage, ingenuity and generosity of our Sisters as they worked to provide value education in multi faith or secular societies; or basic education and a home environment for street children; micro-credit programmes for struggling women, hostels for village or ethnic children, basic health care for the poor; or walked miles to visit isolated villages and share faith with the villagers there.
The call of mission, to ‘go beyond’ is obviously diverse….. In my own life I believe it is to be a ‘compassionate presence’, an enabling listener whose mission is to help others live their mission to the fullest. For me that mission is expressed most succinctly in a verse I love from our Constitutions:
“To participate in the Divine Missions is to be held
in the communion of love at the heart of the Trinity “ (8)
It is this love that gives me the meaning of, and energy for, my mission wherever I am.
Marie Therese Ryder