By Deacon Tom Cuskey | Editor-in-chief
As Catholics and Christians, we all should be familiar with the sound of joy. If you’re not, close your eyes for a moment and imagine the infectious laughter of three young women who have dedicated their lives to Christ as Sisters of Life. Sisters Maria Annunciata, Maria Frassati and Mary Catherine (a native of Brewerton) brought their message of joy to the Diocese of Syracuse this past week as part of the Family/Respect Life Ministry’s observance of October as Respect Life Month.
The Sisters of Life is a relatively new religious order, founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O’Connor for the “protection and sacredness of human life” according to Sister Maria Frassati. She explained that the order takes a fourth vow of protection to complement those of poverty, chastity and obedience that most religious orders ascribe to. “We believe that every person is a unique and unrepeatable reflection of God, His beauty and His glory, worthy of awe and wonder and also protection.” This charism drives the mission of the sisters who devote time to serving those who are pregnant and vulnerable to abortion. This effort of the order includes a few crisis missions located in the U.S. and Canada that serve hundreds of women annually. “Loving them back to life” is how Sister describes the process of aid, as well as connecting those in need with resources that are available to them through “all of our friends.” Additionally, the Sisters operate a retreat house where Sister Annunciata is based, and a living space for pregnant women in another residence where Sister Mary Catherine is present.
Their mission of protecting life also extends to those who may be recovering emotionally from abortions. Sister Frassati said the Hope and Healing Ministry is where they “serve women and men who have suffered after an abortion, to help them find God’s mercy and healing.” The services are offered to anyone in need regardless of their religious background.
The relatively new order has seen its numbers grow from eight women who comprised the first group to take their vows to about 120 currently active sisters including eight new postulates who entered this past September.
As an order, the sisters travel worldwide to speak and evangelize, helping people to “know the dignity of their own life and others’ lives,” said Sister Mary Catherine. While in Syracuse, the sisters visited area Catholic schools–a unique vocational opportunity for Sister to talk about her Onondaga County roots. “I’m from here,” she told the students, “this isn’t as separated from your own life, this isn’t totally out of the realm of what your life might be.”
Measuring the impact of their presence and message is one of the challenges the sisters face when visiting schools. “I think the reality is that we don’t know the value of human life in the world when we don’t yet know our own value,” according to Sister Frassati. “It’s actually more of a way of being and thinking about human life.” Sister explains to her young audience that having a healthy, growing respect for our own lives and what one can achieve helps in “grounding the high schoolers in their own dignity and worth, in the love of the Father and how they are seen in God’s eyes because once one’s heart is transformed in that first, then their respecting of human life will come naturally.” Sister adds that “where you have been loved, you will love in this way.”
When asked what success for their efforts might look like, Sister Marie
Annunciata quoted St. Mother Teresa: “God does not ask us to be successful, but to be faithful.” She added that in our humanity, we will, by nature, place limits on our capabilities when we try to measure success as opposed to giving all to Jesus who will bring success “through our powerlessness.”
During our interview, diocesan school students and staff who had met the sisters during this trip streamed into the Cathedral space and couldn’t resist coming over to say hello. Every brief, yet focused exchange featured smiles and laughter. Sister Frassati mentioned that not long after the founding of the order, Cardinal O’Connor expressed surprise that so many people who had encountered the sisters were amazed by the joy projected by the young women.
“It’s this life that He pours into our hearts; it just radiates in us,” explained Sister Annunciata, giving all the credit to Christ’s presence in their lives. In every room that the sisters live in, there is a sign that quotes the Cardinal: “There can be no Sisters of Life without joy.”
Based on the reactions of students, school staff and guests that filled the Cathedral this week, the Cardinal could not be more correct. As Sister Frassati explained, “Whenever you give the Lord everything, there will be joy … true joy greater than what the world can offer. … it’s very real.”