Father Roger J. Landry
Relevant Radio Christ Brings Hope Award Dinner
Introduction of Mother Agnes Donovan, SV, and the Sisters of Life
Liberty State Park’s Liberty House Restaurant
Jersey City, NJ
October 5, 2016
Reverend Clergy and Sisters,
Fellow Listeners and Lovers of Relevant Radio,
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
What a joy it is to be with you tonight as we thank God for the gift and growth of Relevant Radio, for the fruitful life and abundant spiritual legacy of Fr. Benedict Groeschel, and for the inspiring, Christ-like work of the Sisters of Life led from the beginning by tonight’s Christ Brings Hope Award Honoree, Mother Agnes Mary Donovan.
I have known the Sisters of Life since I was a newly ordained priest in Rome during the Great Jubilee of 2000 and guided 15 of them to visit St. Peter’s Tomb. Over the years I have had the privilege to give retreats and workshops to and for the Sisters, speak at various conferences they have organized, walk alongside them at the March for Life and co-conspire with them in other ways. Since I arrived in New York 19 months ago to work for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations, however, I have had the blessing to begin almost every day hearing Confessions and celebrating Mass for the Sisters at one or the other of their two convents in Manhattan, sharing up close in their prayer and work, their joys and struggles, their discipleship and apostolates. This has given me a privileged perch to observe not only how much hope they bring to so many people in seemingly hopeless situations but where they get that hope.
The Sisters of Life, simply put, are Witnesses and Missionaries of Hope and Mother Agnes exemplifies that charism and that witness. In every age God raises up religious institutes to respond to the crises of the time, and the Sisters of Life are part of God’s plan to respond to the fear and despair that characterizes the modern throwaway culture of death. Hopelessness, St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians, is “living without God in the world” (Eph 2:12), and true hope, therefore, means living with Christ in the world. Mother Agnes and the Sisters of Life seek to perpetuate in the life of the Church today the Mystery of the Annunciation, in which they first receive within them Christ as their hope and then seek to announce to each person they meet, “The Lord is with you!” in the midst of everything you’re experiencing, loving you and seeking to bring good out of whatever you’re enduring. They invite them to welcome Jesus into their lives, into their wombs, into their most difficult experiences. By their words and witness they announce to all those they serve, “You’re made in the image and likeness of God!,” reminding them that their life is precious, that God can redeem everything, that every person has dignity and that every life is worth saving.
God planted the seed of the foundation of the Sisters of Life in the heart of the future Cardinal John O’Connor when he visited one of the most notorious places of death and despair in history, the concentration camp in Dachau. He placed his hands in the red brick crematoria and felt the ashes of incinerated Jews and Christians, men and women, young and old. In asking God how human beings could do such things to each other, he perceived within a call within a call, to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life in a more focused way from that moment forward. Recognizing that some demons can only be expunged by prayer and fasting, he discerned that God was calling him to found a new religious community of sisters who could pray, fast and labor for life. He wrote an article in his weekly newspaper column, “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life,” and began to magnify that urgent advertisement from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s. One of the women in the pews one day was, Dr. Agnes Donovan, a clinical and research psychologist in the child development department at the Columbia University Teachers College. She responded to the Cardinal’s appeal, made discernment retreats with him and others interested, and twenty-five years ago, on June 1, 1991, became one of eight founding sisters in the new religious community. Once she made vows she became its first and only Superior General.
For the last 25 years, the Sisters have carried out with zeal their mission of announcing Christ our Hope to the world. They do so first by their religious consecration, uniting themselves to Christ in his poverty, chastity, obedience and passion that we might have life and have it more abundantly (Jn 10:10). They show by their vows that true wealth, true love, true freedom and true life come from communion with God.
They renew their hope each day in their living relationship with Christ in prayer, so that united with him in praise, thanks, petition and reparation, they may share the fruits of their contemplative gaze of the incarnate Lord with others and bring Christ’s hope-filled glance into every situation. It’s there they learn the source of the supernatural hope they need to bring to those gut-wrenching situations where natural hope isn’t easy.
In their Visitation Missions in New York, Toronto and beginning next year Philadelphia, they minister to women tempted toward ending the life of their children, helping them to overcome their anxieties and discouragement and to recognize that they’re not alone even when they feel abandoned by husbands or boyfriends, family and friends. Many women hang on each day to the thread of hope they find in the sisters until they can make that hope their own. The Sisters help women to see that even though they may not be able to get out of sticky situations immediately, in loving the child growing within, they will be allowing the love and light of Christ to enter their situation, and when Christ enters darkness miracles can and do happen. Women have told me about the Sisters, “They saw something in me before I saw something in myself. They knew I could do it before I knew I could do it.”
In their Sacred Heart Mission, called “Holy Respite,” they welcome as members of their family pregnant women and those who have just given birth, entering lovingly into the lives of each of the residents as they are pondering the direction of their lives and showing them not only that happiness is possible but where, how and with Whom it is to be found.
In their Hope and Healing Mission, they minister to those women and men who have suffered abortion and are dealing with immense grief and pain, helping them to find forgiveness and healing and be reconciled to God. Abortion is the most corrosive of secrets. God’s mercy is veiled for them and the sisters slowly peel away the veil, allowing those who have had or shared in an abortion to begin to breathe again and helping them to walk forward in the little bit of light they have until they themselves can become lighthouses for others in similar darkness.
In their retreat work at the Villa Maria Guadalupe in Connecticut and at the Camp St. Joseph in upstate New York, they help so many, from so many backgrounds, to encounter Christ and find the hope that only he can give and no one can rob.
In their work in Diocesan pro-life offices they promote, celebrate and defend the sacredness of human life in all its dimensions and help catalyze and lead the Church’s pro-life efforts.
In their evangelization work, they continue to announce the good news about life and love to all, especially to those whose femininity, maternity or sexuality has been wounded and who need to find the way to healing, purity and genuine love again. They remind everyone that God has entered into our world, and for that reason, as Redemptorist Father John Duffy wrote in a poem Cardinal O’Connor loved to cite, nothing again will be “casual and small, but everything with light invested, overspilled with … divinity.”
The Mother of this spiritual family of 107 spiritual moms is our honoree tonight. So much depression and despair comes from broken relationships and families and she is the one more than any other who creates, by her special gifts and charism, the familial spirit that is evident to anyone who meets this sisters. Her maternity spiritually breastfeeds their own so that they can in turn nourish so many others. The maternal love they receive from her they seek to pass on to each person who approaches them.
I’d like to finish with one story some of the sisters told me about the way Mother Agnes fills them with hope so that they can bring Christ’s hope to the world. When the Sisters were given for one of their apostolates an old Convent that had not been used for quite some time, they entered to find it full of trash, with darkened walls and an unwelcoming odor. One of the sisters, a New Yorker without guile, blurted to another sister, “This is a dump!” A few seconds later, Mother Agnes entered, looked at the same things they had seen and said, “This is a gem.” She saw beyond the trash, the dirt, soot and everything else to see something others couldn’t yet see: that it could be beautiful, a place of hope. With her contagious excitement, she got those sisters and everyone else whipped up. And the Sisters say that that’s exactly what she does with them and all those persons the sisters serve. Those whom others regard as garbage or useless, she sees as a gem because she sees with the eyes of God, with the glance of Christ our Hope.
And to this Witness and Missionary of Christian Hope, Mother Agnes Mary Donovan of the Sisters of Life, now Fr. Rocky Hoffman, Executive Director of Relevant Radio, will present the Christ Brings Hope Award.