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Vocation Stories

Vocation Story: Sr. Gianna Maria

By January 15, 2022No Comments

I grew up in a Catholic family in Delaware, the fifth of seven kids…

With two brothers directly preceding me, childhood was a happy mayhem, scrambling for seconds at the dinner table was a daily occurrence, as was a healthy dose of innocent rough housing. Yes, I do remember being sat upon quite often! In the midst of such a lively setting, my parents passed on the Catholic faith. We tried to pray the Rosary nightly, even if it sometimes consisted more of a comedy show, dad snoring between his Hail Mary’s, accidental “Holy Mary’s…” prayed into the phone when it would inevitably ring. My parents introduced us to the lives of the saints and the virgin martyrs, from Agnes to Cecilia, captured my heart. I was inspired by their courageous love for Jesus that led to the joyful surrender of their lives. Reading also the lives of more current saints who were Religious, I assumed this is what “virgin martyrdom” looked like in modern times. This fire-love of the martyrs began to provoke, not only admiration but the question, could this life be for me? I did what any sensible nine-year-old would do to foster a religious vocation: I ate soup for lunch and began to sleep on my hard wood floor. The soup escapades lasted perhaps as long as we had Campbell’s in the house. The floor, well, the floor did me in. When I lasted the first night but a measly ten minutes, I realized I was not made for a life of sacrifice, but one of comfort. I could never survive as a Religious Sister, let alone a virgin martyr.

With that sobering experience of my humanity, childhood continued per usual, yet that pesky question of Religious Life would not go away. I remember later in school and retreats when the inevitable question would be popped, “Who here has thought of Religious Life?”, I would slink into my chair as my right hand spontaneously rose, my left hand pretending nothing at all was happening. And so the years of grade school and high school passed. I still loved my Faith and was busy planning a gorgeous life for myself—a wonderful husband and marriage, like what I witnessed in my parents; a big family with lots of joy and chaos abounding through our house; nursing school; be good; etc, etc. Still my heart was restless and my plans, even when they seemed to be succeeding, did not bring me the calculated happiness. And at little moments, here and there, in the quiet of my heart, that lingering question would return. Though I would often wrestle with the thought of Religious Life, thinking it incompatible with all my plans for happiness, sometimes I would think of it with a secret joy and a peace would return to my heart.

One such moment of grace breaking through my internal I-have-my-own-plans litany occurred just prior to my entering college. I had happened upon a trip to World Youth Day and I was thrilled to be seeing the world. Rome, Assisi, Naples, then on to Germany! It would be my first time abroad and my preparations looked more like the readying of a vacation than the makings of a vocation. I was awakened to the reality of pilgrimage when we arrived in our sleeping quarters: a big, open room with some thirty other pilgrims and instead of running water, our “showers” were former 2 liter bottles of Pepsi now filled with water. The shock, however, quickly wore away as I was steeped in World Youth Day grace. I found myself drawn to the young Religious Sisters with whom I traveled. They were joyful, full of life, laying down their lives for something beautiful. For Someone Beautiful. As I lived those three weeks of pilgrimage, I found in myself a freedom and a joy that I had desired for many years. During our closing group Mass in Italy, just before returning home, the group leader, a priest from Argentina with a kind heart and gentle voice, addressed our two hundred pilgrims. “Some of you may feel the Lord is calling you to this kind of life… do not be afraid.” They were simple words, reminiscent of Pope St. John Paul and Jesus. They were words weighty with the Holy Spirit and they pierced me to the core of my being. I remember hearing them and knowing finally the answer to that lingering childhood question. I knew in that moment, not all the where, what, when’s of how I would live this out, but that I was to seek to respond to a call to consecration and in doing this, it would be an invitation to a life of joy and peace, a life living in the freedom and love of Jesus as His bride.

In the years following that experience, though finally convicted of the need to seriously discern Religious Life, the old childhood fears of my weakness began to resurface and haunt me. Life without a featherbed? How could I survive? Surrendering my plans each day? That seemed like too much! The fears sometimes felt overwhelmingly, but with the encouragement of friends and through their example, I consecrated myself to Mary. Major game changer! I was shocked to see how those fears, when given to Blessed Mother, dissipated and I felt myself being led by her. So, following graduation from college, on a sort of leap-of-faith-obedience from a faithful priest, I visited a religious community that I greatly admired for their courageous zeal and witness of selfless love. I was visiting during the time of preparation for Pentecost and we diligently prayed this ancient novena. “Come, Holy Spirit…” I was in the tiny upstairs oratory late on Pentecost, when I felt in my heart an echo of what the  Lord said to Abraham when he willingly offered Isaac…I knew he was saying to me, “I wanted to see if you were willing to come here so that I can provide everything for you.” In that same moment of prayer, in a clarity that I can only acknowledge as a gift from God, He placed on my heart the Sisters of Life.

I returned home and began to discern with our community, in whom I found deeply a reflection of all I held in my own heart. I saw women living a radical gift of self, laying down their lives that each person she encounters and serves may know she is loved, he is loved. I was incredibly moved by the experience of community life that I stepped into when visiting, the tangible love between the sisters that spilled over onto me. The charism to protect the most vulnerable and to radiate to each person that he, she is an icon of the living God resonated deeply with me, and became an affirmation of my own life and identity as a daughter of the Father. I entered the Sisters of Life in September 2010 and found here a total welcome of all that I am. It is radical, but I have realized in living my poverty and recognizing my own weakness, that to be poor in spirit is to be open to receive more of the Lord’s love. The weakness I realized even as a child would be transformed when offered in joy to the Lord.

I am filled with joy and confidence and Jesus continues to be the most faithful, the most loving Spouse, who teaches me to trust Him in all things, that united to Him, He will do great things even in my littleness. I can only respond with gratitude,

What shall I render to the Lord
    for all his bounty to me?
 I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people. 

– Ps. 116: 12-14