After forty years in religious life I ask how did I get to this day? I feel joy and I am blessed that I am able to spend time in personal prayer before Morning Prayer with my community of nine after which I attend Mass in a local church. I recently prepared for the annual Dominican Youth Forum, which takes place in November. The focus of the Forum this year was the encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si, on care of the earth, our common home, which of course also includes the care of our brothers and sisters who are seeking refuge in foreign lands. Teenagers from Dominican Schools all over Ireland, with some of their teachers, attend this annual event. At the end of the day each school took with them a plant, which they potted, reminding them of their hope to grow in the understanding of ecological issues.
I was born in the beautiful tree-lined village of Killough in County Down and have always felt a little different from others. My mother was born and raised High Church of England. She began her life in Wales, then moved to England; finally settling in Ireland. World War II began when she was a teenager and the family made their home in Ardglass, a place to which they had come for the summers. As well as being high church, she was devout. My father was a conservative Catholic from Downpatrick and equally devout. However, they were different in their attitudes: my mother questioned everything and my father questioned nothing. So we grew up wondering with my mother why priests could not marry, as my mother’s cousin had done, and have a family as well as ministering to their flock. We were told in no uncertain terms by my father that that was not the way it worked. The questions continued: Why were we controlled by so many rules and regulations in the church? Why send the children to Mass on a cold, rainy day? Heresy!
My father had a sprinkling of priests and nuns in the family but my mother had never met a nun until the day she brought me up to see the Dominican Sr Jacqueline before starting my secondary education in Fortwilliam Park. Now there were more questions. My mother was baffled by it all. I honestly think she never completely understood what it meant to be a Sister until the day she died. When I gently broke the news to her, at age sixteen, that I was thinking about becoming a nun, she was stunned. More questions followed. What was the point? Why would I do that with my life? The problem was that I could not really answer her. I was not a bit sure myself but knew that it was a way of life I needed to try.
After my years of formation in Dublin, I went to teach in Galway. But five years later, I went to South America, first to Bolivia to learn Spanish and then to Argentina. There I encountered a model of church my mother would have understood. It was the people’s church. I lived in a rural town, which had six small communities. We lived and prayed together. Even though some of the people could not read, they understood the message of Jesus, which was read to them sometimes by their children. The Bible had pride of place in their home and it did not gather dust. At the weekend Mass, having reflected on the scripture readings in community during the week, they understood what they were all about. We walked together through joys and sorrows. Though a bout of typhoid fever brought me back to Ireland after twelve years I still appreciate that model of church and hold my mother’s questionings close to my heart.
One day in the future I may wake up to the cocks crowing in South America and after some personal prayer join my community (townspeople and sisters) for Morning Prayer. Who knows how that day may evolve?
Sr. Kathleen Fitzsimons OP