June 21, 1961. Surely there are not too many among us now who would have personal reminiscences of what JUNE 21, 50 years ago, was all about. But at various stages, we came to know the unfolding of God’s design and providence for all of us, that can be traced to that original June 21! And today, as we look back and remember, we realize that our hearts and our whole being have become wellsprings of Praise and Thanksgiving to our loving God—for what he started 50 years ago and brought to this day of a golden jubilee with such tenderness and faithfulness!
Our remembering takes us back to our Good Shepherd community in Los Angeles, California with our then Mother Provincial, Mother John of the Cross Kroner. How lovingly and generously our sisters there must have prepared for the beginning of this novitiate in the Philippines. It took not only packing boxes and crates of their donations for us, but it meant saying goodbye to a loved Provincial who had to transfer to Quezon City for the newly established Province and Novitiate here. It was truly “loving without measure”, a loving that can only be inspired by an experience of a Shepherd’s love.
And the 50 years here – when the Good Shepherd blazed the trail for all who took their first steps in religious life as Good Shepherd sisters, and accompanied each one every step of the way. In remembering what the journey was life, we realize that our personal stories make up the “Novitiate story”. The journey of each novice, in the novitiate and on to professed life, was an authentic following of the Good Shepherd in his Paschal Mystery of passion, death and resurrection. There was no other way!
The times: “It was the best of time, the worst of times!” A little of pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and all it ushered in and brought to the Church: renewal and new life, confusion and polarization that made inroads into our congregation as well Martial law and People Power in our country. “Twin Peaks” and after a province reconciliation, “Shepherding together in Pasture and Peril.”
The setting: The first novitiate was on one-half of the second floor of the Sisters Magdalens’ “Bethany” (now the OMI Regional House nearby). After two years, the first three bands of novices and postulants moved to the new four-story building and occupied the first three floors. Fortunately many more have entered and made housekeeping of the three floors more possible! Then the call for contextualized formation came and the novices at the time moved to an apartment at St. John’s compound. Later the need for more conducive setting for study and formation brought the novices back to the third floor of the original Novitiate building. At present, our novices have one-half of the fourth floor of the same building.
The members: as of last count, 116 Good Shepherd Sisters made their novitiate in the Philippines. Now we live the Good Shepherd life and mission in all our local communities here. We have contributed to new missions and communities following the Shepherd in new ways and places of shepherding, and re-orienting our ‘traditional’ ministries to the news calls and ongoing challenges of the church and the country. Some have accepted the service of leadership in local and provincial communities, of formation on all levels… Since the beginning, 26 young sisters have gone as missionaries to our foreign missions: HongKong, Korea, Indonesia, Macau, Taiwan and Japan; Bolivia, Malta, Rome, Barcelona (Spain) Tahiti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Senegal; USA, Canada, Australia… Three have literally followed the Shepherd in his gentle and hard teaching “greater love than this no one has” when Concepcion, Virginia and Catherine gave up their life vests for the children and women in the 1983 Cassandra paschal mystery… We also remember our many companions in the novitiate who continue the Good Shepherd spirit and sharing themselves for others in lives of love and service in the world. They too are part of the Novitiate story, always our friends and sisters, and very much part of our remembering.
Our story of 50 years as a Novitiate is a collective experience of a little over one hundred young women who felt called by the Good Shepherd to share in his way of living and loving. For each one of us, it has been a journey with the Good Shepherd accompanied and inspired by our Mother Foundress, St. Mary Euphrasia. It has been an experience of God’s love and faithfulness. And so today, as we remember the first 50 years, we face the next 50 with confidence and trust! For as we proclaim with the psalmist in our liturgy of the hours: “The Lord keeps in our minds the wonderful things he has done. He is compassion and love; he is faithful and he always provides for his own!”
Two words flow from today’s readings. The first word is gratitude. The second word is mission.
The 14th century Dominican theologian, Meister Eckhart says: “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” This means that if there were one and only one good thing that one should learn in life, it would have to be gratitude. But there is more to gratitude than what we usually think.
Ronald Rolheiser OMI, in his excellent book, The Holy Longing, explains gratitude by re-telling a story.
“There was a man who was part of a hunting expedition in Africa. One morning, this man left the camp early, by himself, and hiked several miles into the jungle where he surprised and eventually bagged two wild turkeys. Buckling his catch to his belt, he headed back for camp. At a point, however, he sensed he was being followed. With his senses sharpened by fright, he stopped, hands on his rifle, and looked around him. His fears were dispelled when he saw who it was. Following him at a distance was a naked and obviously starved adolescent boy. The boy’s objective was food, not threat. Seeing this, the man stopped, unbuckled his belt, and, letting the turkeys fall to the ground, backed off and gestured to the boy that he could come and take the birds. The boy ran up to the two birds but, inexplicably, refused to pick them up. He was, seemingly, still asking for something else. Perplexed, the man tried both by words and by gestures to indicate to the boy that he could have the birds. Still the boy refused to pick them up. Finally, in desperation, unable to explain what he still wanted, the boy backed off several meters from the dead birds and stood with outstretched and open hands … waiting, waiting until the man came and placed the birds in his hands. He had, despite hunger, fear, and intense need, refused to take the birds. He waited until they were given to him; he received them.”
That’s what gratitude is. On the one hand, it means saying thank you after gifts are received. But on the other hand, it also means recognizing that even before any gift is given, the grateful person recalls that nothing he will ever receive is something he can claim to be entitled to, that all is gift received yet undeserved, and that consequently we can only humbly wait to be given. It is this disposition that completes the picture of what gratitude truly is.
Today, we remember that fifty years ago the RGS novitiate was born in 1961, and we say thank you, as Isaiah bids us, for the great favors from the Lord, the kindness and mercy, the saving from affliction. And truly the favors have been plenty – the vocations that have come in, non multa sed multum, not many but much; the leadership of many wise novice mistresses; the space for reflection and discernment; the capacity to shift with the changing times, from pre-Vatican II, to the rough radical years, through martial law, through EDSA1 and the recovered democracy. Somehow, through the ebb and flow, and the push and pull of history, the great gift had to do with keeping the spirit of the Good Shepherd alive, solidly grounded in compassion.
But as grateful persons, we also look to the future, and humbly stretch out our hands, knowing that there is nothing in our lives that we did not receive, that we deserved, that is ours by right.
Mission is the reason this novitiate was built in the first place. It was established in order to prepare women who will commit to service in the spirit of the Good Shepherd. It was meant to be a house where hearts are formed, molded painfully through the crucible of compassion. It was started as a community where the sisters can be truly sister to the other, and listen, and give feedback, and strengthen and encourage each other, and share hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties.
The novitiate is a place for formation, not for its own sake, but for mission. In the Gospel today, the mission is stated in a straightforward way: love one another.
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord sends his apostles to go forth and baptize the world in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But we must remember that it is not only with water that one baptizes. More importantly, we baptize with our love, through the consolation that we give, through the wisdom that we share, through the challenge that we impart, through the kind words that we speak, through the acts of mercy and forgiveness, through the understanding that we are able to extend, even to the most difficult people in the world, through the hand outstretched to those who are least loved and least cared for, through the time we spend with others, even for the simplest things. Through all this, we make present once more, the same Lord that we all serve – the one who no longer calls us slaves, but friends, and who gave his life for us unconditionally.
This Lord reminds us that it was not we who chose him, but that it was he who chose us. And knowing this, we are asked to then choose him, and only him and to choose him in profound freedom. This novitiate was the space created so that our vows, our response, can be made in true freedom.
And where shall we go with our mission? The answer can be found in the story of the change of the Spanish motto. Long ago, when people believed that the earth was flat, the people of Spain believed that their land was at the very edge of the world, and that there was nothing more beyond. And that was their motto, ne plus ultra, nothing more beyond. But then, Columbus sailed west of Spain, and discovered new lands, and they began to see that the world was not flat but round. Since then, the Spaniards have changed their motto, no longer ne plus ultra, but now plus ultra, there is something beyond. There is always something beyond. There is always work to do. There are always new hearts to win. This is where we go with our mission, and there are no limits. There is always more and more beyond.
Gratitude and mission, our two gifts for today – and with them, we look forward to the next fifty years.