I've had the opportunity to visit many, many churches during my first semester serving Franciscan University in Gaming, Austria. Every time I walked in, my goal was to find the tabernacle and pay a visit to Jesus, if only for a moment. But on one visit, instead of a tabernacle, I found a stripped-down, empty room. Nothing but walls and windows, ceilings and floors. It was now just a museum for those interested in 13th-century architecture. It was one of the saddest moments of my semester.

Even when I was in magnificently-decorated Baroque cathedrals, they would have felt absolutely empty without the presence of Jesus. Today, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, it got me to thinking. Mary was the perfect tabernacle for the presence of the Lord, prepared at her conception for Jesus to come and dwell within.

Each of us, flesh and bone that we are, was also made for this purpose. And we are nothing without Him.

These walls will stretch 'till you abide
Vast, vaulted ceilings higher climb
Beams and bricks without you there
Beams and bricks without you living there

This dust was made with you in mind
These stones are but a waiting bride
Empty if not filled with you
Empty if not filled with all of you

Who am I, that my Lord should come to me?
Who am I, that my Lord should dwell inside of me?
Take my body, take my blood
Take these sticks and all this mud
And build a shelter where your heart can come to rest

Basilicas and sanctuaries
Cathedrals, shrines, are just so many
Empty shells without your presence, Lord
Marble, gold I don't possess,
But, Lord, it is my happiness
If you would make this humble heart Your home
Make me your home

So find a candle, strike a flame
And leave it here to light your name
Jesus walks along these halls
Jesus lives and loves between these walls

-Sr. Mary Gemma, T.O.R.

Today marks the ending of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. This year has been a very significant one in my life. This was the year that I came to understand the Lord's mercy as restoration and not condescension. This was the year that the Lord restored my sight to see who I truly am in the eyes of the Lord: a loved sinner, and a precious reflection of the image of God. This was the year that I became Sr. Josephine!

In my personal prayer last summer, as I prepared to enter novitiate, I experienced the Lord asking me to become an icon of His mercy. This was a very significant moment for me. I chose to take on a new name, a new identity, that reflects mercy. I chose the name Josephine in honor of St. Joseph, who is the only Saint who represents God the Father! He was the image of the Father's love for Jesus while He was a child growing up in Nazareth.

Before my retreat prior to entering novitiate, a sister passed along a quote to me from St. Gertrude, in which the saint spoke of the moment when she took the veil. She recalled the scripture passage from Isaiah 61:10:
"For He has clothed me with a robe of salvation,  
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,  
like a bride bedecked with her jewels. "
 As I prayed with this quote, I felt the very strong sense that the bridal veil that I was going to receive in a few days time was the Father's robe, his mantle of justice- a symbol of His mercy! It is the same robe that the Merciful Father extends to the prodigal son upon his return home (Luke 15:22).

That, my friends, is just what our habit is - a symbol of His mercy!

 St. Francis wanted his followers, above all, to be recognized as penitents. A group of his first followers asked him, "What should we say to people when they ask what we are?" Francis' response was, "Tell them you are penitents from Assisi."

In the middle ages, the Church asked many people who had committed serious sins, such as murder and adultery, to do penance in a public way before they could be fully received into the sacramental life of the Church again. These men and women, known as penitents, donned a gray tunic and lived simple and austere lives of chastity and poverty in reparation for their sins. Their penances would last several months or sometimes years.

In time, people who had not committed serious sins joined the penitential movement because they felt called to offer their lives and do penance in reparation for their own sins and for those of others. These new penitents dressed the same way and lived the same life as those who had committed more serious sins, and there were no distinctions between the two groups. St. Francis was one of these penitents, and his followers followed him in choosing to embrace a life of ongoing penance and conversion.

As a Franciscan Sister, I am choosing to live the life of a penitent. I am choosing to wear the veil and the gray jumper, not because I am holy but because I am a sinner. I am a sinner who knows that she is loved, and I want others to know the merciful love of God. I am choosing to be an icon of mercy for the Church and for the world.

Sr. Josephine,  Novice

What is the message of Divine Mercy - what was this Year of Mercy all about?  In one word: trust.  The phrase "Jesus I trust in You", sums it all up.

Going forward, how do we live concretely this trust in Jesus, how do we live out trust in his mercy every day?  Fr. Michael Gaitley tells a story in a couple of his books that gives the answer to this question.  Fr. Gaitley was just coming to realize that consoling the heart of Jesus is all about trust.  Fr. Seraphim Michalenko asked him how one lives out trust.  When Fr. Gaitley couldn't answer him, Fr. Seraphim wisely said, "The way you live trust is by praise and thanksgiving, to praise and thank God in all things.  That's what the Lord said to St. Faustina."

St. Faustina is just one of countless Saints who have learned this lesson.  And it seems that each one of us must discover the path to trust in our own unique way.  I just finished reading an incredible book called One Thousand Gifts, in which Ann Voskamp writes about her journey to trust through a life of Thanksgiving.

"Trust is everything" - this sounds like a line from St. Faustina's Diary but it's actually from Voskamp's book.  She writes about her profound discovery that trust is fundamental to salvation. "Anything less than gratitude and trust is practical atheism."  When we live under the illusion that we are in control, we allow worry and anxiety to control us.  A lack of trust shows a lack of belief in God's goodness.

Recently a volunteer at Samaritan House lamented:  "The Year of Mercy is almost over and I haven't done anything!"

Perhaps many of you are feeling like this.  If so the sister's response is for you too: "It's not about doing anything, it's about receiving."

When we consciously practice gratitude and praise we are receiving God's gifts and acknowledging that everything is a gift from Him.  Gratitude helps us to see and remember all that God has done, the ways He has taken care of us.  By doing this, we see that He can be counted on, that we can trust in Him.  "Thanks is what builds trust."  And this, this is precisely why Jesus left us Himself in the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving.  This is why He told us: "Do this in remembrance of me."  The cross is the ultimate sign that we can trust in God - of His love for us that knows no limits.  Because, if He "did not spare his own Son - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32)

"What if I opened the clenched hands wide to receive all that is?  A life that receives all of God in this moment?"  What would that look like?

"I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (Jn 10:10)

Trust that God is Good.

-Sr. Magdala Marie, TOR
“Our dead are among the invisible, not among the absent.” ~Saint Pope John Paul II

Today we celebrate All Saints and tomorrow we celebrate All Souls. The whole month of November is dedicated specifically to remember, honor and pray for our beloved deceased. Lord, for your faithful people life is changed not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven (Preface 1 for Masses for the Dead).

We know our dead are not absent because of the love we felt for them when they were alive, and the love still in our hearts after they are gone – the tears, and grief we experience is because of the love that is still alive in our hearts. Though we cannot see them, we believe that they are with us. (CCC 962)

I remember the first time this communion of saints was realized for me personally. There were times I would sit in Church and look at all the empty seats (especially the one next to me where my late husband used to sit) and I would think "if only these seats were filled". Soon after that I was told a story about those “empty seats”. A priest once said at a funeral that those seats aren't truly empty for when we gather, we gather in communion with the angels and the saints. In our presence are the angels and the saints filling in the "empty seats", praying with us. “Our dead are among the invisible, not among the absent” (Saint Pope John Paul II). You never know who you might have sitting next to you in church! 

Their love and prayers are more perfect than they ever were on earth – purified of all selfishness and only desiring the will of God.  "Those in heaven have been purged of all selfishness, and their love has become the love of God Himself. They watch over us with eager care and pray that we shall come to a good end" (Bishop Patrick Ahern,
Maurice & Therese).

As the Saints can pray and intercede for us so can the poor souls, but can we pray for them? Yes! What prayers can we offer for the Holy Souls, those souls who are in need of further purification?  The greatest prayer is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. “Let the love and compassion for your neighbor lead you to the holy table; for nothing is so well calculated to obtain eternal rest for the holy souls” (St. Bonaventure). 

We can pray the Rosary for the poor souls, and for those who are in the dying process consider praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Jesus said to St. Faustina "My daughter, encourage souls to say the chaplet which I have given to you. It pleases Me to grant everything they ask of Me by saying the chaplet. ... Write that when they say this chaplet in the presence of the dying, I will stand between My Father and the dying person, not as the just Judge but as the merciful Savior” (Diary, 1541). 

No prayers will be wasted; there are many souls who are forgotten, lost, or who have no one to pray for them.

May we all be renewed in our devotion to prayer for our beloved deceased, not only during this month of November, but every day. May we pray for those who loved us when we knew them here on earth and to those who still love us in heaven – even more perfectly.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let the perpetual light shine upon them. And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

I walk in and find myself immediately flooded with many tasks to do.

While people come over to say hello and give hugs, I'm given instructions for the day. Before I can start any of these tasks, I have an unhappy customer complaining about this or that and two people waiting to receive food and clothing assistance. This might seem like a mad house, but it's really just another day at Samaritan House, a thrift store and emergency food bank our sisters assist at in Downtown Steubenville.

After meeting with a client in need of food and clothing, I soon find out they can't find much of what they are looking for in the way of clothes. I make up a list of their needs and decide to run downstairs where we have a bit of an "overflow" supply. As soon as I step our of the door, another client is awaiting clothing assistance. Asking him to please wait, I ask one of our volunteers to fill out the food order for the first client while I run downstairs to find clothing. It's been a few years since she's done an order, so we decide to do it together. When I come back upstairs, there are more people asking for food and clothing assistance and people wanting to know if we help with this, that or the other. The other sister I'm working with comes to the rescue and helps some of the people needing assistance. I hear glass shatter behind me. The first client says none of the clothes I brought up would work and they will come back another day. I desperately seek out the shattered glass being told by 3 people they heard it shatter from 3 different spots. As I was searching for the glass, I realized the clothing I brought up needed to go back downstairs. Once finding the glass nestled between some boxes on the floor, I begin to do clean up. As soon as I begin, I receive a phone call. When 3:00 hit (the time we usually pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet), I found myself in the middle of a clothing order, needing to take clients downstairs for their needs, finding no rest even at that time. I was starting to wonder -- is this what a mother of many young children feels like?

With so many tasks to be done and not enough time to do it. Never have I wanted to receive the gift of bilocation so badly. Being overwhelmed on days like this is an understatement.

The rest of my day continued in a similar fashion with many people needing assistance and only two of us to meet the many demands of the day. Before I knew it, my 2 1/2 hour shift was over and it was time to clean up and go home. Our usual clean-up crew however went home early, leaving Sr. Maria Clare and me to fend for ourselves, taking us twice as long as normal.

On days like this I can't help but wonder, "Lord, did I really make a difference today? Did I really build up Your kingdom today, feeling very overwhelmed and running around like a mad woman attempting to give everyone the love and attention they need while still getting my work done? Is sweeping up shattered glass and sorting through clothes really sanctifying myself and others?" 

The Lord gave me a very beautiful word for the beginning of this year -- that faithfulness to the little things we do in life is our path to sanctification.

When we change diapers, hold our tongue with the co-worker who rubs us the wrong way, love our spouse and children in the midst of a hectic day, study for an exam, or do dishes for our parents, we are showing the love of Christ.

I realized on this day that being with the clients who come in won't solve their problems. They will still be poor, still be hungry, still be sick. Mopping the floor isn't exactly bringing about world peace, but little acts done with great love does build up the body of  Christ in a mystical fashion we will never fully grasp on this side of Heaven. The smile from the high-schooler who had been living in a bad situation for months; the relief of a mother to have food for a few weeks for her children; the love and attention received when answering a question for someone; the grandmother whose eyes fill with tears because she knows her granddaughter will have adequate clothing; none of these are earth shattering! They are all the product of simple acts done with love.

At the end of this very hard and trying day, I read a letter from one of the clients at Samaritan House ensuring us of her love for us and calling us "angels sent from God". I don't know about being angelic, but we can all be saints when we live a life of faithfulness to our vocation. No matter how monotonous, trying or difficult our daily tasks may be, we are all called to sainthood. We are all called to love.

"Jesus said love one another. He didn't say love the whole world. If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one... Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person... Intense love does not measure; it just gives. If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."  -St. Teresa of Calcutta

                                                                                                                       -Sr. Chiara Joan, novice

A relief of Jesus and St. Faustina at the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Krakow
"Jesus loves you!"

The room, filled with more than 100 college students, was absolutely still. All listened with rapt attention as the sister with her Polish accent told us of the greatness of the Lord's mercy and love. Our pilgrimage group from Franciscan University's study abroad campus in Austria was visiting the Shrine of Divine Mercy in Krakow, Poland on Saturday, the second day of our trip.

We weren't listening to St. Faustina herself, but Sr. Marie Vianney was close enough, keeping the message of mercy alive with her simple and joyful words. She shared about Faustina's diary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and the sacraments of mercy: Confession and the Eucharist.

Sister wanted each of us to return home with a word of love from Jesus, so she printed slips of paper for each one of us with a line from St. Faustina's diary. Mine said: "Tell me about everything, be sincere in dealing with Me, reveal all the wounds of your heart. I will heal them, and your suffering will become a source of your sanctification" (#1487). I was comforted by Jesus' compassionate invitation. I knew I could entrust myself to Him, because "all things work for good for those who love God" (Romans 8:28).

Perhaps our ears and hearts were all the more ready for such a message because of what we had already experienced together. 24 hours earlier, we had walked silently through one of the most infamous places of evil and suffering in Poland and in the world: Auschwitz.

I had read stories of what took place there and at other concentration and death camps, but nothing compared to walking through Auschwitz myself. As our guide spoke of the sufferings of the victims and the cruelty of the guards, I felt as though Jesus had suffered His Passion again and again in each person there. Jesus was stripped, beaten, starved, tortured, and killed there. Such rejection of love; such untold evil. What good could come from this?

And yet, even before all of this happened, Jesus was already appearing to little Sr. Faustina Kowalska at her convent. He was already telling her of His mercy for Poland and for the world. Precisely in this place, this place of suffering, Jesus chose to reveal His heart. He told St. Faustina: "Because you are such great misery, I have revealed to you the whole ocean of My mercy" (#718).

From the misery of Auschwitz came the sacrificial love of St. Maximilian Kolbe and perhaps many other unknown saints. From the terror and losses of the war blossomed the vocation of Karol Wojtyla, our beloved St. John Paul II. From the hardships, large and small, of our own lives, come the knowledge of our need and of the Lord's mercy.

Friday afternoon, we walked down the railroad tracks to the ruins of the Birkenau gas chambers. On our right, we saw only chimneys left from the death camp buildings. The tour guide told us the wood from the barracks had been carefully dismantled after the war and used in the restoration of Warsaw, which had been mostly destroyed by Nazi bombs. It was as if Jesus was silently telling us that the wood of the cross must be the means of redemption and the road to resurrection.

At the memorial at the end of the tracks, we stopped to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together. It was a golden afternoon, and the light made the grass on either side of the tracks more green and alive. I wondered that there could be beauty in such a place, but then, isn't that what God always does?

-Sr. Mary Gemma, T.O.R.
"Silk" (Samuel Hayes Johnson)
October 20, 1946- September 14, 2016
Silk died, early on the morning of the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. I appreciate that to most people that sentence probably seems funny, like a typo or a strange grammatical error. It isn’t. Silk was my friend, and more than that – he was Christ for me, in a very unique way. For over a year, I had the privilege of caring for him by shopping for him each week. The last year or so, this also meant I brought his groceries to his apartment, as he had become too weak to carry anything of any weight. I was not there when he died, though I was quietly awake, wondering why I was awake at 4:30 in the morning. But my sister was there, was able to be present to him at the end. She, like the wise virgins of the Gospel, kept vigil for the bridegroom as he came to bring Silk to the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Who was Silk? This question has plagued me for my whole time in community, but extends even further, to my time as a student at Franciscan University. I used to see him at St. Peter’s Church, where he attended 8:00 Mass every day for more than three years without an interruption (he was quite proud of the statistic, and actually knew the exact number of Masses in his “streak”). In those days, I knew him without knowing him – he was the shabby, skinny guy with a wispy gray ponytail who wore cutoff jean shorts and a blue sweatshirt every day and always waited until the end of the line to receive communion. He was a mystery to me then, but not a personal mystery – more like a curiosity. I think I would have been afraid of him, had he ever come up to me to speak.

I got to know Silk the summer of my first year in community, when I first spent some time at Samaritan House, our thrift store. He was a regular volunteer at Samaritan House, where he was a perpetual nuisance – arguing with and occasionally frightening other volunteers, insisting that he ran the place, and often keeping us late at the end of the day as he would insist on praying for the dead (especially dead celebrities! I have a sharp memory of praying for Shirley Temple when she died a few years ago). Actually, we all thought that we were doing him a favor, letting him come in to close the store. We realized when he first got sick and didn’t come in for a few weeks that we actually relied on him to remind us of many of the little tasks involved in closing up: every day something would be forgotten, whether it was cleaning some area or emptying the till or cleaning out the coffee carafe. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure we still forget the coffee sometimes.

I’m not really sure how I started shopping for him, but that’s the way it was with Silk – only after he’d talked you into doing something did you realize that you’d been roped into it. And the fact is that he just didn’t seem to have anyone else he could rely on. He had great charm beneath his rough demeanor and vague, cryptic language, and a way of bringing you into his world. After time with Silk, I would find myself referring to things in his special lingo, where sisters all had nicknames, St. Peter’s was “the basilica” (it’s not a basilica!), and any activity – however mundane – was a “run” (as in, “we need to run on this one!). Shopping for Silk was totally mortifying for me. If that seems like a funny statement, allow me to paint a picture for you: imagine a lone religious sister, shopping at Walmart. In her first order, she has typical “nunnish things” – frozen vegetables, generic cereal, and discount meat. She quietly pays with her debit card. In her second order, she has chocolate donuts and milk, a variety of candy bars, Hostess cupcakes, and two or three large containers of Haagen-Dazs ice cream. She pays with a hundred-dollar bill. Do you see now why it was an awkward experience? Afterward, I would bring Silk his things and chat with him for a few minutes about whatever was on his mind: usually something related to his car (he always had a car that was on death’s door); to the sisters and their assignments (he truly believed that his opinion about these things carried great weight with Mother Mary Ann and the council and was deeply grieved when sisters were moved away or when he felt they weren’t in jobs they liked); or the Blessed Mother, who was the great love of his life. We would sometimes pray for the dead, but Silk did not think I was an especially good pray-er, so he usually omitted prayer time if I was the only one there, sometimes adding commentary about the excellence of Sr. Carrie Ann and Sr. Magdala Marie’s prayers.

My time with Silk was usually exasperating, frustrating, and totally heart-warming. He was intractable and impossible to reason with: I’ve often modified Paschal’s quip to refer to him, “Silk has reasons of which reason knows nothing”. He was like that to the end, scheming about how he could get a new car the last time I saw him, a week before his death. I guess he was his usually querulous self even in the hours before he died. When the sisters saw when they stopped to see him that he was dying, one stayed with him. Apparently, he kept telling her to leave. But she stayed, waiting like the wise virgins for the coming of the Bridegroom. In a sense, though, she was also waiting with him. Silk was Christ for us all in so many ways, so as Sister sat by his side, she kept watch not only with a lonely old man, but with Jesus himself. There is no way to explain this mystery, but it is the truth: Silk was Christ’s presence for us, and Jesus gave us so many opportunities to love him in Silk that I am overwhelmed by the privilege I had in knowing him.

And I can’t believe he is actually gone, now the object of my (apparently mediocre) prayers for the dead. Perhaps, then, I will borrow Silk’s prayers. Please join me in praying for my friend with the prayers he used each time he prayed for the dead:

Mary’s gonna take him for a ride.

Gone but not forgotten, forever in our heart.
-Sr. Agnes Therese Davis, T.O.R.
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