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Where a sister’s gaze can reach

· The thousand faces of spiritual motherhood ·

We sisters often find ourselves plunged into the most dramatic situations in which we are called to give our lives, either the life of the body or that of the soul. It is not a trade or profession, it is a mystical approach that is part of God’s mystery and creates collaborators, men and women, to offer that life in abundance which he wants to give us.

Among many experiences one of the most significant is the story of little Maria of the Dubbo Mission in Ethiopia. The Mission was in its early days, the religious were intent on organizing themselves, on cleaning, on visiting the neighbourhood, and suddenly Sr Francesca saw a little girl hanging about near the mission. The child was half-starved, dirty, wretched and ill. They took her to hospital. The doctors said she would die but the sisters had hope and – soon, with treatment and love – the small girl rallied and recovered.

The sisters called her Maria. They knew she was an orphan but they couldn’t keep her, the little one needed a family. They entrusted her to a local Catholic family supported by the Mission. After a few weeks the family told them that the little girl was ill. They went to visit her, it was nothing serious, she was only undernourished, unkempt, and in terrible conditions of hygiene. They took her back and enabled her to thrive once again. She was a strong child, she grew healthy and was entrusted to another family. Here she developed well, she went to school and became a beautiful young girl. But one day Maria disappeared and nothing more was heard of her.

Ten years passed. The mission had developed and had various institutions: a school, a hospital, an orphanage, a vegetable garden and a farm. Then one day a young woman arrived, badly dressed, undernourished and clasping a baby girl in her arms who was in just as bad a condition. After a few hours the sisters recognized that she was Maria. They were surprised but they asked no questions for the answers were there, before their eyes. Maria was lovingly taken in, her baby girl was fed and cared for with her and months passed. Work was found for Maria and it really seemed as though the woman would become a member of the mission. Instead one day Maria vanished again, leaving her little girl behind. They went on looking for her but in vain. The little one flourished and would have a future: she was to be adopted by an excellent Italian family.

Perhaps a form of spiritual motherhood that women religious exercise for young women is less well known. Many of them present themselves at convent doors, expressing their wish to become religious. They are women of every social class, every cultural class and every race, who frequently lack a real human and spiritual formation. They are taken in and helped to grow up as women with dignity, autonomy and human Christian and professional culture, women who can think for themselves, know themselves and make free decisions. Much time, energy and effort is spent on them and they are invested with many hopes. However, only a very small group of these young women arrive at religious life. This is especially true in the poorest countries, when they return to their family or home environment they are prepared for life as few other women. Few people are able to have such a complete training, desired by the Church and necessary in order to face a life of sacrifices, such as the religious life, but which then serves to face any kind of life.

One day an elderly lady in a very poor state was brought to our rest home. Her son no longer knew what to do and took her there to end her days. The lady did not speak, did not eat and was confined to her bed. In the opinion of our medical staff her condition was not so serious as to justify her state of such great renunciation. The sisters and nurses dedicated themselves to her. They talked to her, they helped her get up and showed her the garden full of flowers; they washed her, combed her hair and dressed her nicely with her necklaces. They took her to chapel to pray and for walks in the garden. At last the lady started to eat again. A few weeks later she was walking, holding on to something to support her, smiling and speaking.

When her son saw her again he was deeply shocked and came out with an infelicitous remark that we hope his mother didn’t hear: “So”, he said, “it really wasn’t right to have brought her here!”. I don’t know how the sister answered him, but this is a frequent experience in rest homes for the elderly. The ladies we take in suffer from terrible loneliness, they experience being cast out by their own family that considers them a burden.

If the elderly women are religious, it seems that they are no longer in need of spiritual direction nor do good priests feel the need “to waste time” with them. In one of our houses for elderly sisters one of them answered my question, “how are you?” saying “thank you, I’m better now than I was when Mother Camilla was there. You visit us every week and give us good spiritual direction. Believe me, I am much better now, I so longed for it”. This Mother Camilla was an excellent missionary, also sent to the rest home, who had found a new role or, rather, the role she had always played in her life, a role of “mother” that helps growth in faith and in hope.

I remember Sr Leocadia. She was assistant to the orphan girls at the same house in which I was living. The little girls often had near or distant relatives who would come to see them on Saturday evenings. One of these children, Cesarina, came from Calabria: her widower father, had been left homeless after a flood with other older children and Cesarina had been sent north, to us, together with others. This little girl had no one to come and see her on Saturdays, even though certain kind ladies occasionally brought her a small present, but they were not her father. On Saturday evenings the little girls would show what they had been given. Sr Leocadia invented a remedy. Every Saturday she would prepare a lovely parcel containing garments, underwear and sweets… as if it had arrived by post, and would give it to the little girl. “Here”, she would say. Something has come for you!”.

What often surprised me in missionary life was seeing how the sisters protected the children. During the Sino-Japanese War, in Kashing, where our mission was located, in 1937 there was widespread destruction. The orphanage was bombed and the sister who had sought shelter with the smallest children in the basement gathered them all around her. She made them lie down on the ground and lay over them, covering them with her body and her clothes, in the hope of saving them. They found her there dead when they came to remove the rubble, stretched out on the ground, her arms wide open, together with the children. That sister truly died a “mother’s” death.

But where the maternal sense of protection is practised in an extraordinary way is in relations with migrants, people who live “suspended”, always waiting for someone or something.

In Chicago thousands of immigrants were unable to go to hospital since this was dangerous for those who did not have their documents in order. The sisters then invented a system of local surgeries, which they called out stations. They were small help centres in the districts where immigrants lived and were run by doctors and nurses, possibly of the same ethnic group. These surgeries were very well kept but had the appearance of small, semi-clandestine houses. To do such things demanded great courage. It was the only way to save the lives of hundreds of people waiting for a stay permit. The drama is repeated today in Mexico, on the frontier with the United States. The sisters there must take in people exhausted by the journey, medicate the sores on their feet, hide them and inform them, for they often don’t know that the desert is strewn with crosses. Sr Xo recently had her 30th birthday. She is not very tall. She was there for an experience that was part of her formation, before taking her final vows. After a good breakfast, a bath and a rest, there was a brief encounter to gather data. She found herself facing a somewhat robust man, tall, still rather dirty and with a sad face. The man didn’t want to talk. He trusted no one; every time he had trusted someone he had been deceived. Then however, he put his trust in the young sister and began talking: he had lost everything he’d made by selling his house, his possessions and his small piece of land. He’d had to leave his family and had then fallen into the usual network of traffickers who promised him conveyance to the United States, but only if he took several backpacks full of drugs for them. He was loath to accept but was obliged to. When he saw that his hopes were continuously dashed, he refused to continue and they sent him away roughly and with threats.

All of a sudden in the middle of his tale the man burst into desperate tears. Sr Xo concluded; “the question I felt within me as a consecrated person was ‘what can I do?’. What could I do listening to that man who, destroyed by his misfortune, was telling me of his suffering, his anxiety, his desperation and his doubts about what he could have done to face this situation? It’s hard to give an answer to someone who has lost everything. What can one do in a place where there’s no one to turn to and one has absolutely nothing to go on with except the offer of a wretched backpack stuffed with drugs, in order to have a slim chance of passing the frontier. There are times when all that remains is Love. At that moment I was driven by a strong impulse, I came close to him and gave him a hug, he rested his head on my shoulder shaking with sobs and embracing me… he was letting his great tears fall on me… I felt his heart beating and no words were possible. But all I heard was a whisper: “He is here”. Then a smile, a farewell and my feeble: “I am praying for you”.

It is impossible to explain how far a woman who can see the suffering of others can go. I remember Sr Loretta’s experience in the New York Hospice. Many residents of that centre were young AIDS sufferers. Many of these young men were passing through the dark night of their terminal illness alone and they were dying alone. Sr Loretta would talk to them, trying to put them in touch with their relatives, abandoned for years. She would listen to them. They also had many things in their hearts to understand, many wounds to heal. The encounter with God was not easy, but when the last moment was approaching Sr Loretta would make them realize that God was waiting to embrace them and to usher them into a different life: the true life. She did not say this in words but, aware of the loneliness of the sick, she would lovingly give put her arms around them and hold them tight, whispering words of affection and hope to them; and she often felt that the young man she had embraced was calm and had departed serenely.

Sr Loretta – who has written a book about these experiences – was invited by a New York university to speak about it. At the end of the presentation, in the impressive silence that filled the great hall packed with hundreds of students, the moderator asked whether there were any questions. There was total silence. Suddenly a young student stood up and said: “I have no questions to ask but I would like to say something: if I happened to be dying for whatever the reason, I would really like someone like Sr Loretta to hold me tight as she does her boys”.

I believe that spiritual motherhood cannot really be described but only experienced.

Maria Barbagallo




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 16, 2020