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Dear Lord, thank you for the gift of your Son Jesus. And thank you for the men and women who have made a gift of themselves by entering religious life. Holy Spirit, please share your Wisdom and Counsel with us during this novena. We ask you to speak to our hearts now in this time of quiet prayer.
Heavenly Father, we ask you to show us your personal, individual love today. We are told that you love us, but often we feel it isn’t true. We can easily be convinced that you don’t love us after all. Help us to boldly declare the truth that you love us. Please let this truth penetrate the core of our hearts and transform us so we may be conduits of your love. Amen.
Recently, I was invited to attend a Mass of Thanksgiving for Blessed Clelia Merloni, foundress of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I knew nothing about her, but who doesn’t like attending a special Mass with great pomp and circumstance? Besides, I work in Catholic education and thus have a connection to her community today. The program for Mass had a one page biography, which was nice. More importantly, there was a short book at the back of the Cathedral that I picked up afterwards and have since been reading, titled, “I Bless You with a Hundred Hearts.” I discovered that Blessed Clelia could certainly be another intercessor for Leonie’s Longing readers!
Even her biography on the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus webpage does not have the details that caught my eye. It merely states,
“After various experiences of religious life in different congregations, Clelia entered the Congregation of the Daughters of St. Mary of Divine Providence…Immersed in a life of self-giving and prayer, she sensed a strong calling to establish a new congregation dedicated to works of charity which would visibly express the love of Christ.”
“Various experiences” refers to short stints (usually less than a year) with 6 different congregations! SIX! For those of us who have entered and left one or two, I imagine Blessed Clelia may have had thoughts similar to our own along the way. In between some of those, she also opened and closed a couple of ministries of her own as a laywoman. The whole time from her first entrance to her founding of the community was about 10 years.
Her life was certainly guided by Divine Providence, because most of her leavings were due to illness. For example, her first attempt was at the Monastery of the Visitation, where she became so ill it seemed she was at the point of death but following a dream that upon reception of Holy Communion she would recover, that is what happened. She still returned home as all advised her to seek a less rigid congregation. Her stint with the Daughters of St. Mary of Divine Providence came to an end after an illness where the orphans prayed for her recovery as a sign that she was indeed called to follow her inspiration of founding a community herself.
Perhaps most of us have not had such unusual guidance in our vocational discernment, yet, her example of perseverance is worthy of emulation. No matter where our vocational journeys lead us (whether as a consecrated religious or into holy matrimony), her life can inspire us to continue to trust God, especially when the path seems unclear. I quote from the book:
It seems that Clelia’s life may have been purified above all by the suffering of obscurity. God tested her faith by immersing her in large part on a path of darkness. Doubt, “a hot-bed of purification,” existed for a long time in Clelia’s heart. As we often see in the lives of saints, she possessed gifts of light, of graces that enlightened the path for others; the ground on which she herself walked, however, was often poorly lit.
Who of us has not felt the same about our own lives? As I continue to seek my next steps, now several years after leaving my community, Blessed Clelia’s life reminds me that I don’t need to have it all figured out yet. In fact, my next steps seem to be taking me further from religious life. Nevertheless, this Blessed has encouraged me to keep moving forward.
After the founding of her community, Blessed Clelia’s trials did not come to an end. I haven’t finished reading the book, but the little I do know already is inspiring. Some of those details are found here. What her story says to all of us is, never give up hope as we trust God and strive to live His Mercy – while the path does not appear straight to us, we are guided by the Hand of our Loving Father.
Whether or not a person who leaves religious life discerned that on her own, it may feel like a disappointment on some level. Here you were, ready to give yourself away in the life of religious vows, and now you are no longer in the community you joined. You trek back to the secular world wondering, “What’s this all about?” You may feel like Eliza Doolittle who cried out, “What’s to become of me?” Perhaps for some it may feel that leaving religious life is simply an ending, with no new beginning in sight. But each of us is called to be a saint, and there are a number of holy people who left religious life or seminary (or were never permitted to enter), only to find their vocation elsewhere and become persons of exemplary holiness.
For the encouragement of all who are a part of Leonie’s Longing, I thought I would start a list of saints, blesseds, and other exemplary persons who at one time aspired to the religious life but were unable to enter, or were in seminary or religious life and left.
+St. Frances Xavier Cabrini – was turned away in her youth from entering religious life due to poor health; she later founded her own order.
+Bl. Margaret of Costello – expelled from a religious community, she became a 3rd order Dominican.
+St. Zelie Martin – she had been rejected by a religious order and became a holy wife, and mother to St. Therese of Lisieux.
+St. Louis Martin – could not join a monastery because he could not master Latin and became a saintly husband, and father to St. Therese of Lisieux.
+St. Anthony Mary Claret – sickness kept him from remaining in the Jesuit novitiate; he later became a bishop and founded a religious order.
+Fr. Isaac Thomas Hecker – had been expelled from the Redemptorists, then was asked by Rome to form a new community, which became known as the Paulists.
+Judge William P. Clark – had entered seminary then left and became a top advisor to President Reagan
+Elizabeth – a friend of mine who could not become a religious due to a chronic health condition…now she is a consecrated virgin with the Blessed Sacrament in her home.
+Sister Luitgard Kussman, OSB – member of Benedictine nuns in Colorado who died a few years ago; health problems led to her being released from her religious vows as a Missionary in 1945. Some years later she entered the contemplative Benedictines.
+Pope St. John Paul II—wanted to enter the Discalced Carmelites, but due to the war in Poland, they were not accepting novices at the time of his inquiry. Looks like God had other plans!
If anyone knows of others, PLEASE share so that we all can be encouraged and inspired even more!
I was sitting at a table happily conversing with a group of girlfriends when I saw her walk in. She had made some attempt to look put-together, though her puffy eyes and downcast demeanor implied otherwise. I knew she struggled emotionally and had a lot of marital drama, so I wasn’t surprised. I watched her walk past my table and choose a seat at a distance from everyone else. Apart from the bride-to-be, whose shower had brought us together that day, I’m pretty sure I was her only other friend in the room.
“Friend” was a challenging term to use here. Only a few years my senior, she had been my boss for three years. Our strong personalities often clashed. I felt stifled by her, and I think she felt threatened by me. Our rocky relationship eventually drove me to leave that job.
Both of us had become close with another coworker—a kind and deeply compassionate young woman who was preparing to marry the love of her life. This woman and I had spent a lot of time together, even outside of work, and our friend circles intertwined. I knew half of the people in the room that day, but I was well aware that my former boss, who normally feigned confidence, was like a fish out of water here. As I continued my comfortable conversations, I felt a nudge to go over and speak to the lonely one. I ignored it. I continued to catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye but continued to suppress the inspiration to do the kind and uncomfortable thing. In a little while, I thought. But before I ever had the courage to respond to a simple prompting, she had left the party.
Thankfully, I had a more pleasant encounter with her at the wedding a month later and some positive text exchanges in the weeks that followed. At that point, the three of us who had once worked together a part of a tight-knit (albeit dysfunctional) team had all moved on and were on the verge of new chapters in life. The former boss expressed in a group text one day how much she missed our team, and in a genuine gesture, I texted back suggesting that we meet for lunch soon at her favorite Italian restaurant. Maybe I could make up for my neglect of charity a few months earlier. She responded affirmatively.
But the shared meal of bread sticks and gnocchi soup never happened. Three days after that text conversation, she took her life. She left behind a husband and five children whom she decided would be better off without her.
As I tried to process the news, memories rolled through my head. I spent the first three years after leaving my community with this person, day in and day out. She hired me for my first-ever career-type job and allowed me to gain experience in a field that I came to love. We had more than our fair share of challenges, but we both made some attempt to bond over those things we had in common—like an appreciation of unique foods and a love for cinematic music. While the memories and tears flowed, one phrase echoed through my head: I wish I had loved her more.
I had planned to work that secular job for a year or so while I searched for a new ministry to pour myself into. What I had failed to realize was that God placed ministry opportunities right in front of me. He gave me people who needed to be loved. He gave me moments to sanctify and challenges to offer. I was no less called to be His disciple in this job than I was in my community or in any other full-time ministry. I shed some tears as I thought back over those years and recalled the day of the bridal shower. I prayed for God’s mercy on this woman’s soul and for her family. For myself, I asked that I not be so blind in the future. Sure, I may not have been able to change the course of this person’s life, but I know I could have made some small attempt to love her more.
Recently I was attending another bridal shower. As I walked back to my table after refilling my iced tea, I noticed a woman sitting alone, as everyone from her table was helping the bride-to-be with gifts. I felt a gentle prompting and walked over to her. I introduced myself and invited her to come sit at my table. She smiled and accepted the invitation. I recognized the God moment, and I praised Him in my heart for another chance to love.