What attracted me to religious life

What attracted me to religious life

By Nate Tinner-Williams, Sister Clara Johnson, Tucker Redding S.J., and Sister Jessica Vitente S.P.


Nate Tinner-Williams found himself drawn into the Catholic Church, and along the way, women and men he met in consecrated life inspired him to consider it for himself. Pictured here are members of the Josephites, the community he is in the process of entering. Photo courtesy of the Josephites.

Journey into Black Catholic identity, consecrated life

by Nate Tinner-Williams

BACK WHEN I WAS PROTESTANT I understood the term “religious” to primarily indicate devoutness, a marker of genuine faith. A “religious” person, such as myself, practices religion intentionally. On the flip side, I understood the term to have a secondary (and opposite) meaning, denoting a commitment to the externals of religion with little or none of the internal necessities. That type of “religious” person, which I would never want to be, was all talk and no walk.  

Silent witness

When I consider my attraction to life as a religious priest, my thoughts turn to the person who unwittingly exposed me to this way of life. One of the first “nuns” I ever met was at an Eastern-rite Catholic parish in San Francisco. I had grown up around countless Catholics. I had heard stories of women religious and had seen them in movies (Sister Act, in particular), but this was my first close-up encounter with religious life.

I should note that this sister was not an Eastern-rite Catholic. Like me, she was simply drawn to the beauty of Byzantine liturgy. At the time I was not yet Catholic and was still trying to make sense of the faith. Though I would not realize it until later, the witness of that sister in that unique parish—an anomaly within an anomaly—had a profound impact on my conversion and vocation.

One reason I was at an Eastern-rite parish was because of a lingering discomfort with Western Catholicism. As a diehard Calvinist for most of my adult life, I had viewed Roman Catholicism (and, by proxy, consecrated life) with a negative edge. Even after becoming more amenable to Catholicism, it remained hard to shake my disdain for the traditions I had criticized for so long. But seeing that sister in that Eastern-rite parish (along with a pastor who was a former Carmelite monk) eventually helped convince me that Catholic truly meant “catholic,” the glorious interplay of tradition and presence, as needs and desires dictate. If this sister and Carmelite monk could be bi-ritual, so could I.

I would come to understand that in Catholicism, this was to be my new normal—East, West, smells, bells, feasts, novenas, sisters, nuns, monks, brothers, and all the rest, co-existing and collaborating in God’s work. With each new word and experience came a new dimension of grace.

Embracing Black Catholic tradition

Eventually I would also discover that beyond the dichotomy of East and West existed various other layers of Catholic tradition, even ones within my own African-American culture. I would soon go from attending Divine Liturgy with measured trepidation to attending Gospel Mass with immeasurable joy (with a Black Augustinian priest presiding).

Deeper still was the history behind Black Catholicism, the witness of pioneers like Servant of God Mary Lange and Venerable Henriette Delille, the fortitude of Josephite priests such as Charles Uncles and John Henry Dorsey, and the fierce dedication of the National Black Sisters Conference to champion Black Catholic education amid horrifying opposition.

These were heroes of the Black Catholic story, and they were not just spiritual—they were religious!

I was received into the Catholic Church in December 2019, and as I began to discern my own vocation and consider the priesthood, God led me away from San Francisco and back to my starting place, where my radical ecclesial shift first began: New Orleans, a cradle of Black Catholicism.

I was to live in the city as a Catholic for the first time. There I began attending a Josephite parish for the first time, my first interaction with the only society of priests specifically serving African Americans. Naturally, a pair of Mother Henriette’s Holy Family sisters also lived in the convent across the street.

I joined the Josephites and the Holy Family sisters for daily Mass on occasion, and through one of them I received a supernatural message making clear that the Josephites’ mission was to be my own as well. I began the application the same day.

Within a week or two, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, plunging the world into a deep dysfunction just as I had begun to experience the sacraments and proximity to religious life. However, God does not make mistakes.

Growing sense of excitement

I’ve had a year and a half now to ponder what it means to live as a religious, to consider what I will give up, what I will gain, and what it will take to reach my goal. The past six months of that journey I have spent living with the Josephites themselves, giving me a clearer picture of their life pattern and ministry. I have learned of the trials faced by Black religious, as well as their triumphs and their hopes for the future.

The more I hear of the difficulties and struggle of religious life, the greater need I see for young men and women—especially African Americans—to take them up, helping to shoulder a burden that cannot be borne alone. I’m not devoid of fear, but I’m confident that I was called to a religious life, not to a rosy, easy life.

Moreover every time I read stories of pioneering and bold consecrated men and women, both past and present, I gain a new excitement, a new normal that says we need not cease being ourselves in order to be consecrated religious. I dream of a day when young African Americans will think it normal and obvious to answer the call of religious life, to serve as priests, doctors, nurses, scientists, teachers, scholars, activists, artists, writers, organizers, and innovators.

Do you dream with me? May God make it so.

Nate Tinner-Williams is a seminarian with the Josephite Priests and Brothers. He also edits the Black Catholic Messenger, blackcatholicmessenger.com.

 

Sister Clara Johnson, second from left, with  A.S.C.J. community members, Sisters  Ann Maria Sforza (left) Patricia Elaine Young (center right)and Rita Marie Milano (right). Photo courtesy of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Pulled toward community and charism

By Sister Clara Johnson

I NEVER EXPECTED to join a religious community. It was a vocation I never considered because it was not a reality in my life. The only Catholic sisters I knew growing up were two retired Irish sisters who lived at our parish and who returned to Ireland before I finished grade school. How could I be attracted to something that didn’t seem like a viable option?

It was not until after college that the thought of religious life began to form. I was living in an intentional faith community while teaching in Magis Catholic Teacher Corps. I flourished in community life through this service program, and the experience sparked my initial attraction to religious life. God called me in this simple way. I had no idea what I was doing. I still did not know any women’s religious orders, and I was sure I was the only young woman around with this idea and attraction. Yet, through my spiritual director, I began contacting various communities and was joyfully surprised to find that I was not alone in my discernment.

I immediately set conditions on my discernment. I wanted to teach, I wanted to live near my family in California, and I could not imagine joining a community that wore a habit. But with God, there are no conditions. I was called to the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a community on the opposite side of the United States, with a habit, and no guarantee of teaching.

I entered in 2019 because I was attracted to community life, and I felt drawn to this way of living. But why have I stayed? The longer I live with the sisters, the more I realize how upside-down this life might seem. In a culture where autonomy is glorified and celebrated, I have chosen a life where my schedule, my ministry, and even those with whom I live—after dialogue and discernment—are ultimately chosen for me. These acts of obedience might seem stifling in a world where being in control has such great value. I find it difficult at different times to let go of these freedoms and choices and to place them into  God’s control, trusting that God works through the community and those who are responsible for my formation in this life.

Redefining my dreams

In the beginning, letting go of my identity and work as a teacher was incredibly difficult. Since college, my plan had been to teach for the rest of my life, yet I had to offer this plan to God. I grew up being told to follow my dreams and to pursue whatever I wanted, and this is a mindset that is not easy to change. Being a part of a religious order, I had to redefine my dreams. After teaching for several years, it was difficult to move into various part-time ministries as a postulant, none of which included teaching. Yet, the grace of this sacrifice was realizing that I was more than just a teacher. Through this sacrifice, I began to understand the deeper meaning of the Jesuit motto, Ad majórem Dei glóriam (For the greater glory of God). I realized that all of my works, great and small, could be offered for God’s glory. All these small acts, from cleaning, to prayer, to sacristy work, gained greater meaning in my life as I learned to orient them to God’s glory and not my own. Therefore something that was initially unattractive and difficult has become something that surprisingly draws me more to this life.

Before I entered the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I knew the most unattractive part to religious life would be the separation from my family. Being from a close-knit family in California, it is constantly difficult to be so far away. This reality became acutely challenging when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. Although I desired very much to return home and support my mother and family, through prayer and discernment, I knew that that was not where God was calling me. God’s desire for me was to remain and to pray. This was not easy to accept. In my mind, I wanted to take control of the situation and to “fix it.” Yet, God was asking me for submission and trust. There were many tearful phone calls and prayers during this time, but through it I discovered an important role within myself. God taught me that I do not need to take control but rather to trust in God through my prayers, which drew me deeper into this life.

Community blessings

Community life had been my initial attraction to religious life, and it continues to be life-giving for me. Being a part of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I am able to see and experience the joys and challenges of intergenerational community life. While it is not always easy, these women are continually bringing me to greater holiness through their example and life. We are blessed to live on the same property as the retirement home for our sisters, and the relationships with these sisters have been some of the most important to me. Their example has taught me the importance of the centrality of prayer in our lives and that holiness is not achieved in a day or even over years. It is a lifetime journey.

Living in community has its challenges since all of us are human. We have moments of conflict, misunderstanding, and loneliness. Yet, there are also powerful moments where what it means to be a part of this community becomes clear. Last year, one of our sisters was hired at a new school as principal. Very quickly, it became apparent that the school needed a deep clean and reorganization. She asked for help from our sisters, and the next day I was amazed to see over 30 sisters from all over the area present to support her at her new school, cleaning every classroom and closet. To me, this is the blessing of community. In spite of our mistakes, disagreements, and challenges, our work for God unites us and allows us to build each other up.

While all these aspects of religious life are an important part of my attraction to it, the most vital parts for me are my prayer life and the spirituality and charism of my congregation. Pope Francis, on the World Day of Consecrated Life in 2016, stated, “The ‘marrow’ of consecrated life is prayer.” The longer I live this life, the more I understand this statement. Without prayer, I do not think I would be able to sustain living this life. It is my nourishment.

The charism of the Apostles is, above all, the most attractive part of this life. The charism is what moves me and motivates me. It is seen and felt in all of the sisters. The Apostle charism is rooted in devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In 2021, for the feast of the Sacred Heart, the Responsorial Psalm was, “You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). For me, this is what attracts me and draws me deeper into this life: the water poured out from the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Through this life, Jesus invites me to approach him joyfully and draw life and graces from his heart and then to go out and share that love with others. Even with this truth and understanding, there are days when I feel disheartened, lonely, or misunderstood. There are days when I feel alone and distant from God. Yet God asks me to offer every moment, the good and the bad, to God’s Heart, and I’m learning this is what sustains me.

True freedom

I am learning that my true freedom and ultimate happiness lies in uniting my will to God’s will. But this is, understandably, no easy task. Our foundress, Blessed Clelia, writes, “A vocation is a flower which is nurtured and made increasingly beautiful with the powerful sap of sacrifice.” The beauty of religious life comes from sacrifices we make every day: from ministry, to community, to family, to prayer. These sacrifices are made because we realize there is a greater longing in our hearts, a longing to unite ourselves completely to God.  

Sister Clara Johnson belongs to the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She is a canonical novice and lives in Hamden, Connecticut.

Tucker Redding, S.J., left, with Father Curt Lanzrath, O.F.M. before Lanzrath’s 2015 death at age 90. It was during a road trip with Lanzrath that Redding first began to consider religious life for himself. Photo courtesy of the author.

A road trip with a retired Franciscan led me into the Jesuits

by Tucker Redding, S.J.

SHORTLY AFTER MY GRADUATION from Texas A&M University in 2006, I joined a group from St. Mary’s Catholic Center in bringing an elderly Franciscan friar to his new home. Father Curt ministered in the Catholic Center and was beloved by students. When we heard that he was retiring, we decided that it would be better to send a group of students to help him move so that he wouldn’t have to make the long drive alone. Little did I know how much of an impact this road trip would have on my life.

I always had this idea that guys who become priests know their vocation from a young age. I swear some priests were born wearing a Roman collar. Well, I didn’t grow up with that desire. Far from it! And because of that, I never considered the possibility of becoming a priest.

I grew up in a Catholic family but really took ownership of my faith when I was in college. Still, I never considered a vocation to the priesthood. Until, of all things, a cross-country road trip with an elderly Franciscan friar.

Along the way, we stayed at different churches and schools and met with members of different religious orders. I had avoided vocations events, but had God finally tricked me into attending one? Our first destination was New Orleans, and we went to visit the Jesuits. When I heard that at the end of a long day of driving we would have to listen to a presentation by a group of priests, I was annoyed. This is not what I was expecting! But much to my surprise, I was captivated by the talk. One of the Jesuit speakers had also graduated from Texas A&M, and his work abroad had motivated a deep desire to work with the poor and marginalized. He talked at length about the Jesuits: their community life, the variety of ministries that they engaged in, and how they seek to help those in need wherever they are. All of a sudden, I felt a spark in me. It never went away.

My accidental vocation-promotion road trip continued. The very next day we visited a group of religious sisters. Their vocation promoter talked about how discerning the religious life is like dating: you don’t just choose to marry the first person you see. You have to “date” different religious orders because they have different qualities, charisms, and personalities.

“What does that mean?” I wondered. I just assumed that all priests were the same. The fact is that I mostly only knew diocesan priests, who are the typical priests working in parishes and remaining in the same geographic area or diocese. And I didn’t feel called to that life. Other priests belong to religious orders, which each have their unique characteristics. When I learned that the Jesuits engage in ministries like teaching and social projects and move around a lot, that expanded my idea of the priesthood.

Jesuits popping up

My surprising moments of grace didn’t stop with that road trip, despite the fact that I continued to avoid pursuing a vocation to the priesthood for years. Jesuits kept popping up in my life. Months later, a Jesuit priest came to the parish where I was working in Houston to give a Lenten mission. During his visit, I was reflecting on the vow of obedience that religious profess. It did not sit well with me. I didn’t like the idea of giving up control over what I did with my life. Well, without any prompting, this visiting priest made a passing remark to me: “You know what I love about the Jesuits? They really listen to your passions and let you do what you want.” Huh? That did not sound like the image that I had of a lifetime of rigid obedience. While I could now add a few caveats to his comment, it was a surprising moment of grace and insight. And it was exactly what I needed to hear.

Time to take action

With all these moments of unexpected grace piling up, I finally caved in. I told my pastor that I was thinking about the Jesuits, but I was still plagued by doubts. He asked me what I was actively doing to aid my discernment. I told him that I prayed about it often. He told me that prayer was key, but that I needed to aid my prayer by actively doing something, like meeting with Jesuits or going on a discernment retreat. He made me realize that God might send me all the signals in the world, but God wasn’t going to pick me up and take me to the Jesuits. God would never move me. I had to move.

I finally attended my first discernment retreat. (Well, I guess it was my second depending on how you count my cross-country road trip with Fr. Curt.) On the way to the retreat, I had a frank talk with God. “God, I’ve been on the fence for a few years now. I feel this desire, but I just don’t know what to do. Please, I have to know. I want to leave this retreat with an answer. Please let me leave with an answer.” I laughed to myself as I thought that it probably wasn’t going to work out that way. “Now that I’ve asked for certitude,” I thought to myself, “I’m definitely not going to get it.”

I was wrong.

The retreat lasted five days, with two days to meet Jesuits and learn about their life, followed by a three-day silent retreat. One of the best experiences for me was interacting with Jesuits and seeing the community that they shared. The brotherhood between Jesuits, the community life that I love so much now, was something that I had not experienced or expected.

The Ignatian retreat introduced me to praying through my imagination, and it was in those prayers that God helped to ease my mind. My doubts and fears transformed into peace and confidence. My final hang-up was the thought of giving up control. Who could dream bigger for my life than me? Why would I surrender that control?

How fortunate for me that this retreat was during Advent. In reading the stories of Mary and Joseph, God was telling me how wrong I was. Mary and Joseph surely had their own plans for how their lives would go, but God invited them to something more. God literally entered the world in the Incarnation because of their willingness to let go of control. As it turns out, someone just might have bigger dreams for me than I do for myself.

Overwhelmed by grace, I left that retreat with the certitude that I asked for. I entered the Jesuit novitiate six months later.

I have now been a Jesuit for almost 10 years. I have been to more places than I had ever been before. I have had the opportunity to meet some of the most amazing people. And I went from being an only child to having more brothers than I can count.

Have I experienced any doubts since the certainty I felt on that retreat? Absolutely. I continue to wonder if I can do this and if I’m worthy of it.

As I continue to seek those answers, I keep going back to what I learned throughout my discernment process. God is everywhere and speaks through those around me. I have to be honest with God and ask for what I want. But ultimately, God will never force me to move. I have to move.

Are any experiences in our life truly random? I used to be the kind of person to say, “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t believe that anymore. Instead, I believe that God can give reason to all that happens. Including a cross country road trip.

Reprinted with permission from thejesuitpost.org.

Tucker Redding, S.J., is a Jesuit scholastic, originally from Texas. He is currently studying theology at Boston College. 

Sister Jessica Vitente, S.P., right, shows her cross, the symbol of her first vows as a Sister of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. She is with Sister Joni Luna, S.P. who is showing her ring, symbol of her perpetual vows. Photo courtesy of the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Lake.

Drawn to a life of purpose and meaning  

By Sister Jessica Vitente, S.P.

I WAS DRIVING ON HIGHWAY 1 along the California coast. I saw a sign directing coastal access and decided to pull over and check out the coastline. That day I was wearing sandals because I did not anticipate going on a hike. But I grabbed a cold drink from the ice chest and followed a family walking ahead of me. The trail started with a set of stairs leading to a photo view access. To the left was a bridge. There I saw a couple who had just gotten engaged posing for a photographer. I felt butterflies for them. I could relate to the nervous excitement I imagined them to be feeling. Earlier in the day, I had been approved by our leadership team to profess first vows within a few months.

As I basked in that feeling, I wondered how long this hiking trail was and what else I might discover. I was curious about what was on the other side of the mountain. As I continued walking my thoughts wandered to how my own journey into religious life had started. I met the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in 2015. I became attracted to religious life because I found myself wanting more out of life. I wanted a deeper purpose. I wanted to contribute to making the world a better place. What I didn’t know was in what capacity I could find these things. My education and work were in business. I think at first I strongly resisted responding to my call because I felt I was part of the “nones” circle and did not want to be among the “nuns.” I had never met a nun in my life. The idea of fully committing myself scared me.

After meeting the Sisters of Providence at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, I went to my first Come and See weekend retreat at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana. I met many wonderful and beautiful retired sisters, and I had a chance to meet other sisters who were around my own age. I remember going home and reflecting on the experience. I realized I wanted to follow in their footsteps, living life to its fullness in whatever shape, path, or form.

Recognizing my own spirituality

I was attracted to religious life, especially the Sisters of Providence and their way of living Providence spirituality. It was already how I had been living all my life. Their charism of love, mercy, and justice reflected how I had always wished the whole church would move forward. I had been searching for a circle of people matching my system of beliefs, and finally, I found them!

Because of my last three years in formation with the Sisters of Providence, I have been able to live life to the fullest. I have been given the opportunity to learn how to pause and live in a contemplative way. I have been able to do unimaginable things, such as travel in between states in the Midwest to get to know beautiful parts of Mother Earth, to teach ESL to men in jail, and to discuss social justice issues connected to the church. I also got to meet other young women in religious life through a group called Giving Voice.

Through my time with the sisters, I have been given the chance to deeply listen to God’s invitations and be responsive in mind, heart, body, and soul. This connection to the Divine allows me to bring the reign of God anywhere and everywhere—to the grocery store, gas station, jail, community college, university, or airport. The reign of God can come to a hiking trail, beach, or museum, for God speaks in mysterious ways!

During this period of my vocation discernment and formation, I also learned to negotiate with my “false self,” and uncover my “true self,” who is wonderfully and fearfully made by God. Through my formation as a Sister of Providence,  I have learned to accept that my imperfections are perfect through my Provident God’s lens. Deepening my relationship with God has been a total gift. Prayer, grace, and pain have led me to freedom. It is convoluted. It is messy. And it is rewarding.

God-given hope

I thought I knew freedom before I started considering life as a Catholic sister, but I have had more spiritual and emotional freedom in these past three years with the sisters than I could have ever imagined. As our foundress Saint Mother Theodore Guerin said, “Have confidence in the Providence that so far has never failed us.” I have found that confidence.

I have hope for the future, both my future and future generations. I have hope that we can achieve gender equality and racial equality. I have hope that migrants will find safety and the imprisoned will find justice and mercy. I have hope that we will one day abolish the death penalty and that there will be better education for people in need. I believe that we can find ways to minimize the physical, emotional, and mental violence in our world. I am striving to be the best version of myself. Living a more contemplative life as a Catholic sister allows me to take a long and loving gaze in the mirror. As Saint Mother Theodore Guerin said, “If you lean with all your weight on Providence, you find yourself well supported.”

This lifestyle allows me to create space for people I meet along the journey who are searching for companionship as they struggle. I can be present for people who are stuck, whether from fear of the unknown or from a lack of opportunity. I can provide for people in deep need of faith, hope, and Christ’s loving light. Sister Jean Hinderer, C.S.A. once said about religious life, “I belong to everyone, and I belong to no one.”

My quest for God has lured me and led me to a life of fullness, the life I am meant to live. Yes, God speaks in mysterious ways! I decided to walk into the unknown around a mountain just off Highway 1 in California. And there, hidden behind the mountain, was a treasure. It was a deeper view of my heart. I saw the beautiful coast with rough and smooth edges, and I explored both my own intelligence and fragility. I found the treasure. I found the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary of-the-Woods, Indiana, and they found me. I pray to our Provident God that we will never let go of each other.

Sister Jessica Vitente, S.P.  is a campus minister at the University of Evansville. She took her first vows in August, 2021.



Published on: 2021-11-02

Edition: 2021 HORIZON No. 4 Fall, Volume 46


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