Friday, December 11, 2015

Vision: "Why being single and living as a sister aren’t the same"

As the semester comes to a close, I am trying to catch up the publications that have come out over the past few months. Below is one- an article in the most recent edition of Vision Vocation Guide about the difference between vowed religious life and life as a committed single person.  In some ways, because of the publication, the material deals more with ideas and ideals than experience; there is much gray in the midst of it all- not all communities are the same, but the reason for and state of religious life stand as a distinct and unique. Religious life is definitive, a unique expression of the Christian life lived out by grace in commitment. It is a radical calling, not better or worse than any other, yet certainly distinctive.  With all that said... I hope you enjoy the article. Blessings, Colleen

When I told people I was thinking about becoming a religious sister, they asked me the same questions: Why did I feel called? Why religious life? Or just plain, Why?

And once I told them about my desire to grow in my relationship with God, to serve others, and to live a radical life of intention in line with the gospel, the inevitable questions were: Why become a sister? Couldn’t you do all those things as a committed single woman?

Yes, I could have done all of those things as a committed single woman. I realized this as I discerned, so the bigger question for me was: What exactly is the difference between a committed single life and a vowed religious one?

The answer to that question is more complex than simple statements. It digs deep into the nature of call and vocation, uncovering who we are and what call truly means. Single life and religious life, after all, are both calls. Before we can look at how the two are different, it is helpful to understand what they have in common.

As Christians, we are called to live out our faith. The lives we lead reflect the love of Christ, and our vocations are the way in which we are most called to share that love with the world. Our true vocation enables us to be our most genuine selves as God created us to be.

The people who questioned me about why I was becoming a sister rather than staying single had my best interests in mind. I could do everything I sought to do as a committed single woman, but they missed one key point: discernment of a vocation is about more than you.

Vocation is about you and God—your deepest desires and God’s deepest desires for you. Discernment is about discovering those desires in relationship with God and naming what gives fullest life to that relationship. You don’t become a sister because of a lack of options, just as you ideally don’t remain single because nothing better has come along. You commit yourself to a way of life based on how your relationship with Christ calls you... Read the rest here

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Big Questions

The following is an update following the facilitation work that "The Next & the Now" preceded in Latham, NY for the CSSJ Federation Leadership Assembly. 

Religious life is the realm of big questions.

That’s part of what drew me to want to be a Sister of Saint Joseph. As I sit with the young people who I minister to on the college level, there are always questions. And whether they are big or small, each is important.   As I got ready to leave last week for the Federation Leadership Assembly in Latham, NY, one of my students turned to me and said, “Why can’t you just stay here?”

I assured the students I was with that I would be back after a day, but I needed to go. Big questions don’t restrict themselves to one realm or another and it seemed after months of planning with Kathleen Durkin, CSJ that Latham was where some serious questions needed to come into play.

The big question of this year’s leadership assembly was “What’s next?”  That’s not a question you can answer in just a few short days, but it is a starting point and it is a critical question to keep asking ourselves as women religious and Sisters of Saint Joseph. What’s next in a sense is what’s now.

As I recently wrote in my column for the Global Sisters Report, “Our world, our church and our congregations are at a critical point in time. We find ourselves in a liminal space, where change is pressing in and new life is imminent… Here in this liminal space, the next and the now are in coexistence. Each one is reliant on the other. Today is lived in hope of tomorrow, and tomorrow cannot be without faithful living today. Perhaps the real question at this moment is: What will we allow to be birthed in us?”

Standing in front of the Leadership Assembly this past week, sharing in conversation, engaging big questions, and pondering the next and the now, that question kept returning to me: What will we allow to be birthed in us?

Listening to the sharing of the Assembly, I could hear where the creative tension of the current moment lies. New membership, life long formation, shared governance, congregational boundaries, justice issues, corporate voice- these are where the hearts of the Assembly seemed to go.

For me, that seemed to be an indication of what might be next. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’ll take a step.  Asking big questions is one thing, taking the next step of not just asking but engaging big questions is quite another. That step  doesn’t guarantee answers; in fact, it almost certainly will draw forth more question than answers, but the act of engaging pushes us forward toward the future.

After having spent the day with the Leadership Assembly, I knew I’d been engaged in a process that was worthwhile. As a newer member, it is my hope that we, as Sisters of Saint Joseph, will have the courage to engage the questions that arose; that we might have the strength to be challenged, to respond to the call of our vowed life in a more authentic manner.  Leaving the Assembly, I wondered what shape it might take. Our future- whether personal, communal, congregational, or federationally- is going to be influenced by what we choose to do, to be, and to stand for today.

We need to have the courage to ask big questions …and to listen for answers. What we hear may surprise us, it may scare us, and it, no doubt, will challenge us. This is the work of the Spirit, influenced by grace, and put into practice in the daily living of genuine commitments and questions.  It won’t be easy, but who ever said it would be?  Religious life is the realm of big questions. We need to keep asking... and acting-- our future depends on it.

(See this article in full on the United States Federation of Sisters of Saint Joseph website, here.)

Sunday, November 22, 2015


-written at the 2015 Atlantic Region Under 62 Gathering-
Unfurrow your brow
my sweet soul
unfurrow your brow

That you might see with
the eyes of your heart
unfurrow your soul

There is no limit
to your dreaming
or your feeling
only that which you
allow to be

unfurrow your brow
give breath to the Spirit
that somewhere between
your head and your heart
There might be life.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Next & the Now

These are busy days. Last weekend, we took a large group of students on retreat; this coming weekend I head with another group of students to the Ignatian Family Teach-In in Washington, DC. In between, I found myself at the Annual CSSJ Federation Leadership Assembly in Albany, NY. There, the question that seemed to be at the forefront was: "What's next?"

If there isn't a more ambiguous or difficult to answer question, I don't know what is.  Yet, I and the other sister facilitating set out to speak on the topic and run a process exploring just that...what's next. Months of preparation went into the time we spent with the group, but to supplement  that and bring it to a head right before we began I offered a reflection on "The Next and the Now" for the Global Sisters Report. Here's a excerpt.... I hope you enjoy! 

Big questions matter.

“How do you believe that change is possible, when the present seems to be filled with the same old things?” An undergrad at Georgetown University asked me this as I came to the end of my remarks on the nature of vocation and the role of smart, Catholic women in the church.

“How do you find your place in the world?” another young woman asked the next day as I sat on a panel of women of different faiths.

“What do you do when the questions shift from should I do this with my life to will I do this with my life?” a student looked me square in the eye as we talked about her journey and call.

Looking at each one of these women, I took a deep breath and answered to the best of my ability.
There is something striking about these questions. Listening to them intently, I could hear the heart behind them. There are individuals on the other ends of them; people trying to figure out life. Or at least trying to get a grasp on what their lives might be.

 These questions are as big as they are deep. They deal in theory and theology, while also dealing with life. They straddle where the questioner is now and what holds promise for them next. Simple answers will not suffice to these questions; they, much like life, are far more complex.

This may be true, but I still tell the young adults I work with to learn to ask big questions. And perhaps more importantly, to let themselves fall in love with big questions. After all, whether you can answer these questions clearly or not is secondary to the fact that you are looking for Truth, and Truth is looking for you.

Big questions matter. That’s the point God keeps on underlining in my life these days. I’ve spent the last month answering such questions; from lectures and panels to conversations on discernment retreats and the everyday work of my life as a campus minister, the big questions keep on coming.

What’s next? I find myself being asked over and over.

To be honest, I am still discovering what is now — what our reality is . . . what my reality is as a woman religious. Our world, our church and our congregations are at a critical point in time. We find ourselves in a liminal space, where change is pressing in and new life is imminent. At least it feels that way.

Here in this liminal space, the next and the now are in coexistence. Each one is reliant on the other. Today is lived in hope of tomorrow, and tomorrow cannot be without faithful living today. Perhaps the real question at this moment is: What will we allow to be birthed in us?
In a public conversation a few weeks ago, I asked a question of the presenter, a sister who’s served in prominent leadership roles in religious life. The discussion, hosted in honor of the Year of Consecrated Life, focused on passion for and identity in religious life. I’d been invited as a younger voice to the conversation and yet, unlike other experiences, I didn’t feel like a token newer member.

The group of women religious gathered from various congregations seemed engaged in the question of how to better live into the future. Uninhibited and with genuine interest, I posed a question to the presenter, “Since I am part of a very small group in religious life, how do I/we get our voices heard?”
She paused to think for a moment and then replied: “I don’t know if there’s anything you can do. The issues of the majority are not yours, and so while they’re distracted by whatever they’re occupied with, you’re being given the opportunity to evolve.”

Distraction that allows for evolution — a novel idea, I thought to myself.

The truth is, part of the future lives in what we are doing or not doing right now. What are we talking about? What aren’t we talking about? Those are the things that the future will hold whether we want it to or not. The next steps in life reflect something of our present reality, whether we can conceive of that or not. The need then is to live intentionally now since we don’t know what will be called forth in us next. We can be assured that the experience of life we are engaging in today will contribute in some way to what comes next. Living with such intention (in community, in prayer, toward the charism and in relation to the world) increases the likelihood that whatever it is that is next, we will be grounded enough to grasp it.

Distraction may foster evolution for some, but it also poses the threat of diverting the energy of the whole system. If we are caught up in the pressing needs that the majority identifies, we can’t put in the energy needed for growth. And yet, we can’t forgo the now for the next. Ultimately, the two need to be held in balance.

This is a theme I return to continually with the college students I work with. The paper due this week plays into a much bigger picture; just as four years of education fits into the picture of a much bigger life. It’s easy to get hung up on the midterm to the point where you don’t see the long view.
I think back to that first question: How do you believe that change is possible, when the present seems to be filled with the same old things?

There are so many layers to that question.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


This is a day that was three hundred sixty-five years in the making. That's right....years not days. And yet those two things aren't too far off the mark of each other.

October 15th marks the Founders' Day of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. It is on this day that the international family of Joseph celebrates the foundation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1650 by six young women compelled by the Spirit and led by a charismatic Jesuit priest.  Three hundred and sixty-five years ago, this group came together- an amalgamation of differences, an experiment in diversity, and a courageous foray into unity with God and neighbor without distinction.

With all this in mind, I sat in the chapel of our mother house in Philadelphia this afternoon to celebrate with my community, both my sisters and the partners in mission and students I work with on a daily basis. In a certain strange way, you could say that courageous foray into unity continues to this very day.  Sitting in the chapel I marveled at the power of 365.  Three hundred and sixty-five years ago, a group came together that would change the course of countless lives. There's no way that those first six women could see what the year ahead held, let alone what the next 365 would.  I don't know if they thought anything would come of this Little Design beyond their own measure and good work and yet they believed and strove to live genuine lives of faith. And that, I reflected as I looked up at the star strewn ceiling of the chapel, made all the difference.

Those women couldn't have known what awaited them. They might not have even realized the way the commitments they were making would transform their lives. I'm almost certain that they didn't think the risk they took then would create change in my own life now.  How could they? And yet, they put one foot in front of the other and in time came to a place far beyond themselves.

In a way, they accomplished everything they gave themselves to in a manner a thousand times greater. All without recognition and without assumption, simply with faith, longing, and humility.  All these years later, I can't help but hope that I can offer myself in the same way; sitting in that chapel today beside the students I work with on a daily basis, I couldn't help but hope the same for them too.

In just a year's time, they will be different. I know that I am. A year ago, I sat in those pews overwhelmed by transition and staring at the spot in that chapel where I'd made vows just a few short months before.  I knew I didn't feel how I wanted to, but I also didn't know how to fix that.  That's a lonely place to be.

I left that space 365 days ago with more questions than answers.  The last 365 days have been about waking up each morning and trying to live the answers to those questions... the why's and how's and what's of life.  I don't know if I can say I have concrete responses to many of those queries but I do have 365 days of experience.

Listening to one of my sisters offer a reflection on scripture and the call to never settle, I recalled a line from our grounding documents: Each day we make a new beginning in this Little Institute.

That's as much as I can do, as far as I am able. That is perhaps the greatest lesson of the past year- that everyday is a new beginning.

I may not know what tomorrow brings but I didn't know what today held until I lived it.  More important than knowing is choosing. This life after all is a choice. Every moment of every day.  I chose to let gratitude overcome grief at some point in the last 365 days; I tried to let go of my ego to let me be myself in the freest way possible. Some days have been better than others. Every day though is an option for grace and gift.

That's what those women opted into 365 years ago and it's what I chose to live and give myself to today... in the hope that the next 365 days will bring as much growth and grace as I can handle and I can chose to engage for the betterment of my self, my God, and the world.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Mission of Love

My day job (i.e. primary ministry) leads me places far and wide as a campus minister at Chestnut Hill College.  Recently, I was asked to reflect on the Pope's visit to Philadelphia.  The following is what came forth- a reflection on Pope Francis' message and the mission of active inclusive love set forth by the Sisters of Saint Joseph.  Perhaps loving God and neighbor without distinction is all about the everyday moments... whether the Pope is there or not. Enjoy!

In the weeks leading up to Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, a hashtag began to surface on social media: #PopeIsHope.

I’ve been a fan of Pope Francis since the day he was elected; seeing him emerge on the balcony in St. Peter’s Square and ask for prayers struck my heart as a deeply humble and holy act.  Following his actions and words over the years, I didn’t think I could like the Pope any more than I already did. Then Pope Francis came to Philadelphia.
Watching him with the College community on a big screen in the East Parlor as he spoke to Congress, I nodded in agreement. Helping students take pictures with his cardboard cutout as they filled out letters to legislators and wrote down their burdens on pieces of cloth to be displayed downtown as part of the Mary, Undoer of Knots shrine, I marveled at the energy and excitement in the air. Then, Francis arrived in Philadelphia.
Saturday morning, I stood with 1,200 other people at Villanova University at 4 a.m. waiting for a bus to go to Mass at the Cathedral.  Arriving downtown by 8 a.m., I marveled at the way the area had been transformed.  Then I saw the intentions of our students and so many others woven together on the Cathedral’s fa├žade.  In the midst of TV cameras and a crowd screaming from behind the barriers, I took in the scene.  These prayers would be blessed by Pope Francis, and soon enough, I would be too.
As the motorcade approached, a hush fell over the congregation. Soon the Pope would be here. People began to pray and as I silenced myself with the crowd, I moved to the back of the church. There, as Pope Francis entered the Cathedral, I stood to welcome him. I began to cry. This man whom I didn’t think I could like any more called forth something more – not just from me, but from Philadelphia.
To be honest, the weekend, for me, was a blessed blur.  From the Cathedral and Independence Hall to the Festival of Families and Mass on the Parkway, I was there. Me – and all of Philadelphia.  
“Faith opens the ‘window’ to the active presence of the Spirit and shows that, like happiness, holiness is always linked to small gestures,” Pope Francis said as he looked over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at the closing Mass of his visit to the United States on Sunday, September 27. 
I heard those words from the cell phone of the man standing next to me on 21st Street as we watched side by side. We’d been standing there for four hours and still had a half hour before we would get onto the Parkway. Yet in a sea of people, we were together.  Small gestures populated the weekend. Babies being kissed. Prisoners being hugged.  Strangers sharing conversations and becoming friends.  Knots of indifference, suspicion and judgment being untied by love. 
“Faith grows with practice and is shaped by love,” Pope Francis said as he ended his homily on Sunday.
Love stands at the center of our being. Love is our Mission.  That’s what we teach at Chestnut Hill College. It’s the spirit Pope Francis embodies that draws so many to him. It’s what I love about both Francis and CHC– A mission of love, set in our hearts and calling us always out into the world.  

Monday, October 5, 2015

Pope Ascending.

There's a spirit in the air since Pope Francis' departure from the United States. i set out in my latest column at the Global Sisters Report to capture what exactly that spirit is and how Francis is conveying a creative vision of the Holy Spirit. Take a look below and continue reading on the GSR website.

Francis' creative Spirit

“I feel like the apostles at Jesus' Ascension,” a friend wrote to me this past Monday morning. “When I was watching Pope Francis fly into the night, I just wanted to cling to him and hold on.” I knew what she meant. In a way, I think all of us do.

As I sat and reflected on the few days the pope spent in the United States, with all that he did and shared, and the two days, in particular, that we were treated to his presence in Philadelphia, I couldn’t believe how significant the time had been. Seeing him go was like the Ascension; I was sad, but I also knew that what I’d experienced wasn’t over. Francis left a spirit that needs to be kept alive.

This spirit is one that challenges. It’s the force that from day one simultaneously drew Congressmen to their feet and kept them glued to their seats. How do we emulate the models of faith courage, and dialogue in our history not only in word but in our very being? Lincoln, King, Day and Merton all had that spirit. It drove them, and the invitation offered by Francis is to live lives of consequence like them, with a spirit of creativity that brings life even in struggle, dialogue even in silence, justice even in turmoil.

This spirit is the Golden Rule lived out. It isn’t easy, just like love and families and relationships. Francis readily admits that and still he offers a vision of the Holy Spirit to the world that acts with creativity and compassion. “Faith opens a ‘window’ to the presence and working of the Spirit.” He shared in his homily at the closing papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, “It shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures.”

That faith, of course, “grows when it is lived and shaped by love,” Francis continued. We can’t tolerate divisions among us; the Spirit, if truly followed, won’t allow for that. Over and over, Francis underscored this fact. The human family isn’t meant to be divided. Unity is born of love, a love rooted in faith which respects differences and makes space for a new creation. That creation is all about relationships.

If Francis’ creative spirit propagated nothing else, it built relationships. I watched as time and time again, Francis lit up in the presence of others. With those hurting, those outcast and those overjoyed, the Spirit appeared in the bond between them: a knowing glance, a tender hug, a whisper, a pat on the head. In these little gestures, Francis modeled something far greater than any words. He gave shape and form to love, and he gave the Spirit a means of entering the world. We must never forget that each of us has that opportunity.

The creative Spirit Francis speaks of and shares is a spirit that has the power to create far beyond what we can see or imagine. It’s a love that reaches across bounds — that welcomes the child that runs from the sidelines, that embraces the felon as friend, and that dines side-by-side with the homeless and hungry. Francis’ speeches throughout his visit were peppered with words about the Spirit, but it was his actions that gave witness to the creative power of Love.

I watched as that Love transformed my city. I felt it as it changed my heart. I cried as I stood feet from Francis, and I smiled wider than I have in a long time as I witnessed the Spirit in my midst. In a security line for four hours, I came to know my fellow pilgrims. On the lawn of Independence Hall, I felt the tough work of reconciliation continue. Beneath the gaze of the Philadelphia Art Museum, I listened as Pope Francis spoke from the heart about a love and beauty that crosses all boundaries and unites all people, about how before God did anything else, God loved.

That love is the root of creation. It embraces young and old and points us to the future.
Creativity is the force of the future we need to harness today.

I believe that is what Pope Francis is doing. He is allowing space for creativity. If we give the Spirit space, creation is inevitable; that is what the Spirit does. This creativity, though, is not what we might initially think of it as. It’s not solely a new way of thinking or a new design or inspiration. Creativity is none of these things alone. Creativity is conversion. It is a call we embrace to never be the same. To be changed by Christ so as to be and bring a new creation — to think, see, act, inspire and love radically.

In our church and world today, the Spirit calls us to creativity spawned by conversion. We must see the signs of the times without disparaging them with stories of the past.“This will require creativity in adapting to changed situations,” Francis declared speaking to Religious at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul Saturday morning in Philadelphia. Creativity in “carrying forward the legacy of the past not primarily by maintaining our structures and institutions, which have served us well, but above all by being open to the possibilities which the Spirit opens up to us and communicating the joy of the Gospel, daily and in every season of our life.” This requires making space for who and what is new. It means developing talents and recognizing that together we accomplish the work of the Spirit.

“¿Y tu?”

Pope Francis repeated that phrase five times in his homily at the Mass for Religious at thePhiladelphia Basilica Saturday morning: “¿Y tu?”

What about you?
Read the rest here...

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Busy Weekend

With Pope Francis in Philadelphia this weekend, you can imagine how busy the last few days have been.  From taking students to serve at the World Meeting of Families and presenting at the 2Philly4Francis Pilgrimage earlier in the week to all of this weekend's Papal events, the time was full- full of energy, full of emotion, and, most certainly, full of grace.  I'm sure I will have more to write later, but for now I wanted to share two things. First is an article that I was interviewed for for the New York Times "Women in The World" online feature. The piece is entitled "The Comeback of the American Nun" and it looks at the upswing in vocations and the general sense of what's happening in new vocations to religious life today. 

The second piece I'm going to share is a type of post I haven't shared in a while, but this weekend certainly warrants it- a photo blog.  Enjoy some of the pictures I captured this weekend; it's my prayer that they may capture your mind and your heart and lead you where you're meant to go. Peace.

Friday, September 18, 2015


These days are a bit crazy and very full. Between the Pope's impending visit to Philadelphia and the presentations, events, and reflections that come with such a visit and the beginning of the school year, I am trying to balance all that life holds.  I leave later today with nearly two dozen first year students for a retreat weekend.  In many ways this is an exciting and an overwhelming time for them; I can relate.  

I hope in the week ahead to be able to share my reflections about going into my second year of ministry, as well as my encounters with papal pandemonium.  In the meantime, I offer a poem that has come in these first few weeks of school as I reflect on the idea of being at home and discovering where exactly or what exactly home is.

Go to a place you call
they said

And my mind ran
to the top of the stairs
to the closet
with the window inside

And like a little child
it climbed upon the piles
of blankets within
to peer out on the world below

That is where I go
when they say go.
lodged in my brain somehow
where I long for
where my heart is
the home that I carry
from place to place.

A single piece of lace
hanging in the window frame
a geometric star
as if to say
here is where to come
here is where to stay

here is home.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Dear Francis

A few weeks ago, my latest column for the Global Sisters Report was published. In it, I talk about what seems to be the preeminent topic here in Philadelphia these days: Pope Francis' Visit in a few weeks.  My column sorts through the process of deciding whether to write and all the considerations of what one might write to the Pope.  As I say towards the end of the column, who knows if I will write... that's between me and Francis. What I do know is that I have great love and admiration for this man and what he is doing for our world and our church. (Just look at last night's 20/20 Audience.)

And so with that out of the way... here's the beginning of my column:

The first call came after five days. Pope Francis called the newsstand where he would buy his daily paper in Buenos Aires to cancel his subscription. It seemed he was going to be away longer than expected. 

I remember reading that first news report in March 2013; it was almost as surreal as the turn of events that had taken place over the preceding weeks. For the first time in six hundred years, a pope resigned and for the first time ever, a Jesuit was elected to the papacy.  Now it is history, tempered by time, but still no less remarkable.
The world has sat intrigued with each phone call- with the pope who would call and the people who have written. There was the young student who shared his hopes, the single mother who was trying to make it on her own, the newspaper editor and atheist. They all wrote and Francis called. 

I remember as a student reading about the great people of faith who had written to popes. They were distant figures of faith. They were people the likes of whom time holds sparingly- the saints and rulers, reformers and rabble-rousers, the Catherine’s of Siena and not the Jane Doe’s of this world. And yet, in a world where popes resign and successors make follow-up phone calls, the thought of writing a pope doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
So, how do you write to a pope? Or more importantly, what do you write to the pope?

With Pope Francis headed to the United States, and in particular to my own city of Philadelphia, in a few short weeks, I found myself asking that exact question.

If watching Francis has taught me anything, though, the answer to that first question is clear. The only way you could possibly write is from the heart.  Any other way would be a sham. A letter from me would be different from your letter just as my life is different from yours. And yet, to write from the heart is to mirror the deeper call within and beyond us to live from the heart too. To live lives of such authenticity, we have to align ourselves with the heart of Gospel, beginning with the way we relate to one another and to God. Any other way would be a deception.

This is the foundation of our being.  And beyond the boundaries of language or religion, Francis has made this point poignantly in the witness he bears.  This is not always perfect but it is honest and for that, I give thanks.  If nothing else, that way of living and being-from the heart- gives us the example of how to far beyond letter-writing.

From the heart come words of gratitude, statements of truth, and deep sharing of hopes and dreams.  Putting any one of those things into writing is a task and yet, when I consider what, if anything, I would want to write to the Pope, it is those deeply-held beliefs, deeply-transformed visions, and deeply-fostered emotions and dreams that rise to the surface.

Somehow, even though I have never met the man, there is a desire within me to share from the depths of my being with him. That compulsion, at times, seems to me to be foolish. Why write? What difference could it make? Would the letter even be read? And if it was, is there a risk to such honest sharing? 

I wonder all these things and yet, the desire to write still remains.

Part of that desire is to say thank you... Read the rest here.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Embrace the Good

A year ago plus one day I began my ministry as a campus minister at Chestnut Hill College. In lots of ways the last year was about learning. I learned what I didn't know. I learned more about who I want to be. I discovered what is authentic in this ministry and what isn't.

I'm still learning the balance of time and the distribution of energy. Campus ministry could easily take up my whole life. There is always a need; there is always more to do and yet, I have to give myself permission to recognize what is necessary and what isn't. Relationships take priority.  And for all the energy that the ministry of presence and especially being "on" all the time take from me, I have to give myself permission to recoup what I've lost.

I am determined to keep writing... to keep going to speak in places... to grow in this ministry and outside of it. After all, my truest vocation is to be who I am and that is a multi-faceted individual offering herself in the pursuit of and service of God.  That mission pulls me in numerous directions and I pray I can embrace all it calls forth and that God will bless what is meant to be.

As I reflect on the year that has been and all that lies ahead, I recognize another need. I need to embrace the good this year. I need to celebrate what is good in my life and find the joy and gratitude that each situation presents to me.

Today, I gave hours worth of presentations on our charism and heritage to students.  Going into it I was nervous- another round of the new... the story of the last year for me. And yet, as I spoke and led groups in conversation and learning, I felt the world within me opening up.  This is where I've been called and to pass it on is a blessing in and of itself.  Maybe some of these students won't retain everything. Actually, most of them won't but if I can help to provide an experience that gives them just a little bit to grow with and into I have done my job and in the process of realizing that I am embracing the good. The good of my gifts, the good of life, the good of learning, and the good of being united in a mission far beyond myself.

That sounds like a pretty good life. As year two begins at the college, I hope I can embrace the goodness in my midst and even if I fall short sometimes, hopefully the goodness will embrace me.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Like a Rainbow

I laughed like a rainbow
and all the colors came out
from the corners of my eyes
from the belly of my soul

It rolled off my tongue
and the car swerved as I drove
and like ultraviolet 
the laugh went silent
imperceptible but present

the car swerved back
nothing lost
nothing stopped
and it shot out in a squeal
making room so I could breathe
in beautiful technicolor majesty.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Re-entry & Two Voices

Sorry for a bit of radio silence there folks! For the last four weeks I have been away on retreat in Cape May and then was studying at Boston College, but have no fear- I have returned and hopefully new reflections on my time away will be up here soon. Suffice it to say, for now, that the time was refreshing and rejuvenating.

In the meantime, you can read my latest column on the Global Sisters Report: "Speaking with two voices, listening to one." In it I deal with the tenuous role of the voices you come to speak with and have to possess as a vowed religious. Not an easy space to navigate but hopefully I've been able to put words to my experience and my many and varied feeling around this all.  Here's a sneak peak:

Being a young religious sister means you represent a lot of things to a lot of people. You are an anomaly; you are the image of a teacher/counselor/nurse/confidant/relative from the past; you are a beacon of hope or a bearer of harsh realities. You come to embody the church. And, whether you like it or not, you will be called upon, time and time again, to represent issues and viewpoints much larger than yourself.

In many ways, you can get lost behind the title and qualifier of “sister.” Before they know you, people will read their opinions on to you. And even after they’ve engaged with you, many will make assumptions about where you stand on subjects. Marriage Equality. Women’s Ordination. Pope Francis. No matter the topic, there are presumptions of how I feel and think.

I don’t know if it’s a reality that I will ever get used to, yet I know that this is my reality: I am in the unique possession of two voices – my own and that of an authority far greater than just me.
I speak for myself, but I also speak on behalf of my congregation, my church and my faith. The responsibility is as tremendous as it is ridiculous. It is a position that requires prudence and humility, as well as a healthy dose of humor.

How can one person embody a whole system, its values and its truth? How can she be held accountable for the actions of an institution she finds herself a faithful member of? How does one reconcile the two voices they hold in tandem? These are the questions I find myself beholden to.

The answers to these questions aren’t easy, first and foremost, because our world isn’t so starkly binary. We operate in a world of in-betweens, a world of grey. Anyone who ministers, be they a committed lay person, a religious brother, a priest or a woman religious, knows this reality. We have to uphold our obligations and commitments to those we serve, both the organizations we belong to and those who place their trust in us as representatives. That trust gives us a distinct authority and responsibility in our interactions with others. It (whether rightfully or not) makes us agents of truth.

As a result, we must respond and act with compassion. A pastoral response is the only response.

The nature of such a response can be complicated. To be pastoral does not mean dismissing doctrine. It does, however, mean vowing to do no harm. That is the trust others place in us, that we will act responsibly, love fully, embrace vulnerability, and embody compassion. And that’s where having two voices takes on another dimension.

Recently, while I was away taking theology classes for the summer, a fellow student and friend pulled me aside before class. “Did you hear the news?” she asked looking at me wide eyed, “About the teacher in Philadelphia?”

I nodded. I knew the story; the head of the religious education department at an academy run by a group of women religious hadn’t had her contract renewed after a complaint was filed by a parent about her same-sex marriage. The school had cited the upholding of its Catholic identity in its letter to the community, a defense applauded by the bishop and supported by the congregation. My friend spoke vehemently about what she saw as the injustice of it all. How could this happen? What could be done? Why stay in the church? Is there any hope?

She looked deep into my eyes as I listened to the pain and struggle she shared. Suddenly, she took a step back. “I’m sorry,” she said breaking eye contact, shaking her head to loosen her focus. “I know you deal with this all the time . . . it’s your life . . . I just needed to say something to someone.”

I thanked her for trusting me and offered what I could: compassion, hope and understanding.

I could hear my voice speaking – a mix of my own desires for the church, my deep belief in God’s love, and an active attentiveness to and acknowledgement of her feelings. The two voices within me intertwining in response.

“I don’t know what more I can say,” I uttered softly, focusing with empathy on her eyes. This is my life. I thought to myself.
No matter what we say, in whatever voice, speaking with reverence is pivotal. In that moment (like so many other moments), I had the opportunity to give voice to the love of God for all people.

That love knows no bounds.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Changing Call

Over the last year, I've come to the realization that my call to religious life has changed. It isn't gone, but it is distinctly different. In my latest column for the Global Sisters Report, I try to explain the nature of this change. I don't think it's just me's the nature of call.  For our church, our society, and each one of us, our call is changing. Recognizing that is the first step in more consciously living out our call. Below is the first part of the column with a link to it in its entirety. Enjoy!

There’s a tightness in my chest that is hard to explain. I can’t remember when it first started or on what occasion it became noticeable. In a way, it feels like it has always been there, loosening and tightening over time. Like a band wrapped tightly around my chest, it binds up my heart; not in a painful way but as a steadfast reminder of a presence deeper than myself. In simplest terms, it’s the feeling I get when I find myself deep in prayer. And for good or for ill, it’s also what I’ve come to associate with call.

A friend once told me, she’d considered religious life and could see herself becoming a sister except for one small thing: the call.  “I can do the apostolic works, the study, the community, but I don’t know if I know what it means to be called” she said, “is it a voice or a feeling or what?”

That’s a hard question to answer. God speaks differently to different people. (My friend would also take issue, I’m sure, with what it means to “hear God’s call” on grounds that call is something far beyond a momentary utterance.)  For me, though, there’s a deep sense of serenity, a steadfast groundedness that signifies that sense of being called.

For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. In prayer, in writing, in service, in reflection, and in conversations, it would surface. It came and went freely; yet it stayed present enough in my muscle memory that I could never forget it.  I recall times as I was discerning religious life that I actively ran from that feeling and yet each time it came, I knew I was in the right place.


Sitting across from my formation director a few weeks ago, I panicked: that feeling was missing.  It had been for months and as I looked back at my first year as a professed woman religious, I wondered what might be happening.

At the end of a year heavy in transition, I knew that feeling wasn’t gone, yet in the moment I couldn’t exactly feel it.  God has had a firm hold on me, but the tightness I cherish has been intermittent.  “My call has changed.” I stammered out to my director. 

What I thought this year might be, it wasn’t. My call to religious life felt different than I thought it would. And to my dismay and delight, I’ve discovered this is a changing call.

And that’s the thing about call: you answer the call awesomely unaware of where it will lead you and all it will drag you through.  This almost always guarantees that life and call will feel different than you thought they would.  The answer isn’t to run, though, it’s to keep discerning.

My sense of God’s call has shifted. The white hot lightning of initial fervor has cooled, making way for a tempered tension, reliant on prayer, reflection, and balance. Passion percolates with nuance in a way that’s become more apparent in the months and years since I first answered the call to religious life. I’ve come to realize that what I feel called to hasn’t changed, how I feel called, though, has. 

In time, part of this call has become more apparent: being called is about recognizing a need and filling it.  That need is not just in the world, it’s also in yourself.  I need to be here. Not because my religious congregation needs me, but because in order to live the life I am called to- a life dedicated to Jesus- I need to live my life for now as a religious sister.  This need is one that has been underscored over time.  If I hadn’t met God in a very real and tangible way in my life would I still be here?  If this way of life didn’t allow me to foster and focus on that relationship, would I remain? Probably not.  I need to be bound up in love; in a tightness that frees me by holding me close in a world of risk, uncertainty, and instability.

In the day-to-day, holding firm and staying focused explicitly on call can be difficult. What we are called to is embodied in how we live and who we are. Day-to-day life tempers idealism, draws us into relationship with the world and others, and changes the way we understand call. If call means living, it is the life we live that influences the way we hear the call, melding together the theoretical and the actual in what we hope is harmony.

In that way, we come to realize that the call is not something that is answered once and for all. The call requires living. And such a requirement is sure to be messy.  Living the call presents surprising changes to our lives. We are changed in the process of answering.  “What you want me to do”; “who you want me to be”; and “what I actually know” become questions relative to a call that leads ultimately and primarily to Christ.

So, how do I know this call is the same despite its new feel? I know it because I feel it in the same place even if in a different way.  Like a foreign touch that produces a familiar sensation, it is a changing call that tightens the heart as an act of constriction, not restriction.  Thus the heart beats, bringing life, growth, and strength to the body as it is stretched in new ways of listening to and living out the call every day.

Such growth comes from openness to the Spirit.  We change in the act of answering the call, becoming, in the process, more authentically who God has called us to be.  This process is one of renewal and reawakening. With intention and the Spirit, we come to hear in a new way, live in a new way, and love God in new ways. 

And I can’t help but think that this changing call is not just on an individual level.  As a church, as religious communities, and as the People of God, our call is changing too.  We are called to love and to live the Gospel. And so, the same question proceeds- not what are we called to do, that’s constant, but- how we are being called to do so...  

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Be Generous.

I have been away these past few days at the national conference for the Association of Colleges of the Sisters of Saint Joseph (ACSSJ) at Elms College in Chicopee, MA. Yet today as I sat in sessions about how we might refocus our mission, how we can learn from the Second Vatican Council, and how we work with dysfunction and allow the Spirit to flow in all things, I am struck by a sentiment that rings true in the midst of all that this day has held.  From the release of the Pope's latest encyclical to the tragic shooting in Charleston, one imperative strikes me: Be generous.

Beyond all else, let us be generous to one another. Let us lavish love upon those who deserve it and those we might not think do. Why? Because that isn't our call. For all that frustrates us, let there be a spirit of generosity that lives within us.  Let us give to others, for in giving generously, we receive generously.  Where you doubt others or yourself, have faith... give freely... try to find hope where all else points to hopelessness.

That can be hard and still we try.

Sitting in a workshop this morning, the presenter said something that struck me. He quoted part of Pope John XXIII's first encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, which falsely attributes this quote to Augustine: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity." 

And reading this quote he stated simply- the worst thing we can do in creating dialogue and relationship is to sin against charity.  We must give fully to the one in front of us.  This doesn't mean ignoring what is but instead it means offering a openness and sincerity in consideration and love for the one you are in relationship with.  We share the essentials of our being and life; we allow others to be in what is not essential; and in coming to discover all that is in between we offer charity of Spirit and being. 

Be Generous; Love Freely; Practice Charity; and sanctity will flourish.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

To Love and to let go

I don't think I have a story to go with this post. I just have the simple insight gained: that to learn to love is also to learn to let go.

I imagine the disciples watching as Christ ascended into heaven. They needed to let go, just as I'm sure Jesus was learning to let go too.  The relationship between them was not ending; it was changing.  He wouldn't be here with them in the same way, but still he wasn't gone. They need not stand and wait for his return. No, his return would be in their love, made manifest in their living and discovered in the eyes and arms of others.  That is where they would find him. I can say that because for anyone who has found God- who has fallen in love with the Divine- that is how we've done it... in others, in prayer, in some way other than explicit, literal, actual face-to-face contact.

The last week has been full of goodbyes.  As I come to the end of my first year of full time ministry as a Sister of St. Joseph, I realize the intense nature of the relationships we maintain. We are relational people.  We live and work so that all people may be in union with God and with one another. That's who we are; that's who I am. At times, I'm not very good at that. At other times, by grace, it comes easily. Either way though, hard or easy, relationships come and with/in them there is love.  It's a love beyond bounds of being. It means being vulnerable. Opening yourself to the love of another and discovering what happens in the process.

A friend posted earlier in the week on Facebook about how life turns out. She wondered aloud- Does anyone's life turn out how they expected? Is being flexible with one's expectations make for a happier life? Can one be too open to what happens next in life?

Reading those questions, I wondered. Has my life turned out how I expected? Have my expectations changed?  How am I still discovering who I am? and in what ways, am I striving to most perfectly (and thus imperfectly) be myself?

Talking to another friend later in the week, we drew the conclusion that life is complicated.  And despite what we might hope, life is just going to keep being complicated. 

In the end, I guess, we just have to learn to live in the complications. Live in, not with. To "live with" is to passively acquiesce to it all; to "live in" is to say yeah this is complicated, but it's also life and I'm going to live and love in it no matter what.

Sometimes that requires letting go. It means being a little less serious so you can just be  and so, ultimately, love can do its work in you and through you.  You're changed.  The hope is that that change is for the better (and if you let go a little, lean in to God and trust, it probably is). Then you can most fully be yourself and you can allow those around you to be themselves- the very person you love them most for being.

And there's something freeing in that... something complicated... something called Life. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Poem behind the Post: Tiny Resurrections

My latest column for the Global Sisters Report is entitled "Tiny Resurrections". In it, I reflect on the grace that we can find when things don't turn out how we'd like or expect.  It comes from my own experience of this year's Easter Triduum. Before the column came this poem, so take a minute and read the two. Easter blessings and happy wandering!


To each his own
hidden moments of Resurrection

There among the tatters
of the everyday

Grace freely given
if I am free enough to receive

like the working mother
who makes change from the collection basket

The light of a star
above a path
that though in darkness
promises direction always

We journey these days in faith
believing there is more
and finding apart from what is expected
moments of resurrection
fragments of grace giving new life
everyday, always.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Sister

As I've done before, I've written a post for my religious community's blog, Sharing the Joy of Vocation.  The piece is entitled "The Sister"; below is a copy of the piece and a link to the episode of Everybody Loves Raymond I reference. Be sure to check the blog out and enjoy!
"The Sister"

One night at the end of January, I got a text from my father who was away visiting family in Louisiana.  He’s not one to text often, so I perked up when I saw the notification on my phone. “Watching the 'Everybody Loves Raymond' episode where Debra’s sister announces she’s becoming a nun,” he wrote, “Hilarious (with some serious sides of self-reflection).

 I paused for a moment when I read those words.  I had never seen that episode, but the fact that he indicated that it had prompted some self-reflection on his part made me want to pry more deeply.  “Hahaha,” I wrote back “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that one; you’ll have to tell me about it.”

"Go to YouTube,” he responded, giving me the episode number and title. No luck getting an explanation. Dads can be tough nuts to crack. So, I did the next best thing - I watched the episode and pondered what might have prompted his reflection.

 Right off the bat, there’s a lot to love about the episode. It’s funny whether you are a sister or not. As every episode of Raymond does, “The Sister” looks at family dynamics and how we function in the midst of the stuff of life- offering many laughs and oftentimes a lesson all rolled into one. While not correct on some details, the episode struck at the heart of the matter. Even before the first commercial break, I knew why my dad had sent it to me.

You see the process of telling the people in your life that you are becoming a sister isn’t always easy.  At times, you have to insert your own laugh track where awkward silences and misunderstanding pervade.  But that’s the thing about a call… sometimes you hear it more clearly than those around you.

Now, looking back on it, I laugh all the harder. It wasn’t always so easy and, to be honest, I still hit rough patches; but watching my family take on this choice in my life- this part of me- has been a joy and a challenge.  That story is one much longer than these types of blog posts allow, but let me just say the dinner scene in the episode rings true (“Excuse me, Sister, but is there a special blessing for dessert?”)  And the thing about family is that they’re always with you.

My family cares deeply about who I am and who I am becoming. They want the best for me. They support me but as my father has reflected in recent months, “Don’t say we were against the idea…it’s just that we were cautious.” That’s true and probably for good reason. A call is something that is lived out in stereo; you learn the rhythm from the life you live, the faith you foster, and the people who accompany you.  Family is a key part. They can help to clarify lots of things and teach you things about yourself that you never realized you didn’t take the time to know.

As we navigate this call together, I am constantly reminded that God is the one in control. If I balked every time someone stopped to ask if they could ask me a question and followed up with a wildly personal query, I wouldn’t make it very far. My family and friends, though, are just trying to understand so that they can support me. After all, a religious community is not a family. You only get one of those.

Knowing that they (and I) can look back now and laugh is a blessing in and of itself.  We laugh together. And in that laughter is something pure… something surely of God: Love.  That is the love that is at the root of who we are as Sisters of Saint Joseph. It's a love that speaks truth and brings joy in all that we are and strive to be; love that draws people together, love that seeks union, and love that, in facing the unknown knowingly, with faith and hope, loves all the same.

Here's the episode for your viewing pleasure:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Poem: The Ocean of a Soul

This past weekend, we took a group of students to St. Mary's-by-the-Sea for a Silent Retreat. As I reflected on their prayer and this sacred silence by the sea, the following poem came to light:

Cast out
into the ocean of your soul
they said

Cast out
into the deep
Beyond your bounds
Beyond your knowing

To catch
you know not what

And waves shoot out in the sand
like the ocean of a soul

And you realize
You cast out
not to catch
but to be

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Another Joseph

Every year, no matter where I find myself, St. Joseph seems to find his way to the pages of this blog in time for his feast on March 19th. Over the years, I've shared images, reflections, poems, and much more.  This year though as I reflect on the eve of St. Joseph's Day, I find myself remembering another Joseph.

I met Joe my first year in Philly. He called the community center and parish where I worked one day looking for the person in charge of social services.  He wanted to donate food.  Joe lived about a mile from the church I was working at, meaning he was in another parish's jurisdiction, but, he explained, they had come to visit once and told him there wasn't any need for his donation.  Appalled at this comment, he was looking for somewhere that would accept his donation.

Knowing the deep need in our neighborhood, I told him I would come out on a house visit and see how we might be able to work together. The next day, I found myself on his doorstep. Medically home-bound, Joe was confined to his first floor.  He received meals from a local organization but wasn't ever able to eat all the bread and juice they sent him. These things, along with some other food, were what he wanted to give.  "I know there's a need," he said to me in that first meeting, "I just want to help meet it."

Little did I know that my visit would soon become routine.  Each week by Wednesday I got a call. It was Joe letting me know he had a donation. Sometimes I had a family in mind that could use the food; other times, I would take what was offered knowing that someone in need would come to our door soon enough. Nothing would go to waste and I didn't dare miss my weekly "appointment" with Joe.

Our visits were often brief- a quick catch up and some sharing- he'd slip a $20 bill into my hand for the center and send me on my way. I came to know the sound of his voice that I would hear each week on my phone. It's your good friend. He would say. His voice carried with it joy and happiness that had felt the weight of illness and the passage of time. No matter when he called, I could hear that phrase and know who it was.

Over the course of two years, I came to know him better. A former Oblate priest, he'd share about his experiences of Philadelphia and wisdom from life.  He never kept me long (and to be honest, I think he didn't know why I insisted on coming in each week) but I cherished being able to see his smile and check in on him week in and week out. It was never guaranteed he'd be there- "Jefferson (hospital) is my second home" he would joke, a sentiment too close to the truth to ring fully of humor. The fact was I never really knew if he'd be there the next week.

When I finally broke the news to him that I wouldn't be able to come visit any more because I was entering the Sisters of Saint Joseph, he listened attentively.  A few days later, I got call. "Colleen, it's your good friend.." I knew exactly who it was. "I need you to come over," he said, "I have some things I want to give you."

A few days later, I found myself in his living room once again. He handed me a brown paper grocery bag and told me to open it. Inside were books he thought I should read. Taking them out, I discovered at the very bottom, two things wrapped up in more brown paper.  The first was a cross.

"To remember me by," he smiled.   

The second package was heftier. Pulling back the paper I found four different colored books. "I don't know if you'll need these, but I want you to have them." He said.  They were his Office books, the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours. I could hardly believe it; I had never prayed the Office but I told him I'd learn and thanked him for the heartfelt gift.

Before I left, he gave me one last piece of advice: Do it because you love it. If your vocation loses it's life then you shouldn't be there. You're meant to be happy... be happy, whatever you do.

Leaving the house, I wasn't sure if I'd ever see Joe again.  I knew his address by heart and promised to write from novitiate. "Pray for me," he said as I got in my car to leave. 
 For the next two years, I found myself all over the place. But I always knew I had a home in Kensington and any time I would go to visit, I'd make sure to drive by Joe's house.  I wrote and on breaks, I would try to visit. No matter where I went, Joe stayed in my heart and in my prayers. Even in my vow liturgy this past summer (though not physically), Joe was there.

I've remembered his words often- Be happy.  That can be a struggle in the everyday, when struggles and stresses bombard you, when things seem not to be turning out alright, when graces are disguised as burdens, and change comes more suddenly than you would like.  Be happy and know where your heart is echoes.

I have to imagine that that other Joseph (you know the saint) must have said those words to himself at some point.  Know where your heart is...where your love dwells.. and in that will be happiness and glory and grace. In the face of the unknown he kept at it; not knowing what might come next, he stuck to what faith called forth. Vocation does that. Call goes deep to the place God calls us most deeply.

This past August, while I was in the process of moving things into my newest community/convent the house phone rang.  I kept going about my business (since I didn't even technically live there yet) until a sister called my name. The call was for me.  "That's weird," I told her wondering who was on the line.  I picked up the receiver.

"Sister Colleen! It's your good friend, J---" before he could even finish his sentence, I knew who it was- Joe. 

Through mutual connections, he'd found me. He wanted to welcome me to my new house and check in after my vows.  "Remember," he said, "be happy, that's what this life is all about."

Those were the last words I would hear from his mouth. Last Wednesday, after long suffering, Joe went home to God. I imagine now that he's with Saint Joseph celebrating and doing just what he said you should- being happy in a life that will last forever... just two regular Joes, two holy men, guiding the way and reminding me about what really matters.