believe and profess
by Bishop William Murphy
September in the Church:
Celebrations, anniversaries–and a visit from Pope Francis!
For many years the Hispanic families from the parishes of our diocese have come to our beautiful seminary at Huntington for a day of family fun and relaxation. This September 7, they arrive with food and drink to have a day together. It is especially wonderful to see the young people. They play soccer and volleyball. We have music and games. The parishes vie with one another, all in a fun and joyful spirit. Bishops Brennan and Peres join me in offering Mass that kicks off the day. Bueno Fiesta!
For 40 years the Montfort Fathers have conducted one of the most heart-raising and prayerful places in our diocese. Our Lady of the Island Shrine at Eastport has been a center of Marian devotion, days of recollection, retreats and youth and family gatherings. On Sunday, September 13 at 11:30 a.m., I will have the privilege of celebrating the Mass commemorating these 40 years. Please come and join us if you can. Another celebration on the horizon is the 100th anniversary of the founding of St. Ladislaus Polish Parish in Hempstead. On Saturday afternoon, September 19 at 5 p.m., parishioners and friends will come there for this great moment that I am privileged to lead as celebrant of the Mass. Another great moment in the history of our diocese.
Pope Francis is coming!
Of course the most momentous event of the year for us all is the visit of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. He arrives in Washington D.C. on September 22 and the next day visits the White House. Later he meets the bishops for midday prayer at St Matthew Cathedral and in the afternoon he will celebrate Mass on the lawn of Catholic University at which time he will declare the Franciscan Friar and Evangelizer of California, Fra Junipero Serra, a saint.
On Thursday, Sept. 24, he will speak to Congress, and that evening he arrives at JFK and goes to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for evening prayer. Friday morning, September 25 he will spend at the United Nations joining his predecessors, Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI addressing that body. Then there will be an interreligious gathering at Ground Zero, giving him the opportunity to meet religious leaders of New York as well as family members and others who will gather for a moment of prayer and recollection.
In the afternoon he will go to a parish in Harlem to meet with the poor served by the Church and see firsthand a Catholic school serving inner city families and children. In the late afternoon he will offer Mass at Madison Square Garden with the New York Bishops and others concelebrating.
Next morning he leaves early to go to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, which is the principal goal of his pastoral visit on Saturday and Sunday. He will return to Rome Sunday evening. Pray for our Holy Father and for the success of his pastoral visit to our country.
May I close with a plug for our new diocesan initiative, Vocation Awareness. Your pastors have already received material that we will be using throughout the year to encourage co- responsibility for vocations to priesthood and religious life in our diocese. We ALL must be one in praying for vocations and especially encouraging young men in our families and parishes to be open to a call from God to serve this local Church as a priest.
On Saturday, October 10 we will have a Family Fest for vocations at our Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington. Watch your bulletins for further information and remember, we are all co-responsible for praying and encouraging vocations so that our diocese will have the priests to serve the good faithful that live in the 133 parishes that make up the Church of Rockville Centre.
“Making my life something beautiful for God”
When Jennifer Illig was in high school, at Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Syosset, she recalls Sister Jackie Walsh — the iconic Sister of Mercy who, a graduate of OLMA herself, served generations of students there as a teacher and campus minister before her untimely death in a 2012 auto accident — telling her, “There’s a place for you in the Church, and we’re going to find it.”
Now, more than a decade after her 2002 graduation from OLMA — and through years of discernment amid a very successful academic career — Jennifer believes she has found that place, in the monastic life she believes Sister Jackie first pointed her to by introducing her to the writing of Thomas Merton. On July 11, the feast day of St. Benedict, Jennifer entered Mt. St. Mary’s Abbey, a Cistercian (Trappistine) community in Wrentham, Mass., that describes its “way of life” as “lived on the three principles of Liturgy, Lectio and Labor” — devoting themselves to community prayer, sacred reading, and manual labor — such as operating a candy factory and tending a small flock of sheep — that allows the community to be self-sustaining and to be in union with those who are poor.
Jennifer’s arrival at the abbey is the culmination of a lifelong journey of faith that began, and has continued, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Lindenhurst, where she grew up, received the sacraments, graduated from the parish school and later served in various ministries, including as a sacristan, catechist, and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.
“Faith was always very important to my family,” she said, and became even more so to her during her high school years.
“I worked with Sister Jackie Walsh very closely,” she said. “She was such a mentor. She encouraged me to get involved in ministry,” and often, when “I would ask Sister Jackie questions, she would answer, ‘here’s a book to read.’” Prophetically, Sister Jackie thus introduced Jennifer to the work of Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the most well-known Catholic writers of the 20th century.
“I would read those books on the long bus rides” between her home in Lindenhurst and OLMA in Syosset, Jennifer recalled. “I read Thomas Merton and thought, I really want to be a monk.”
After graduating from OLMA, Jennifer went to Molloy College in Rockville Centre, where she majored in theology, got involved in campus ministry and first started teaching religious education. It was after completing her first year in college that she first visited Mt. St. Mary’s Abbey.
A monastic weekend
She had heard about a community of Trappistine nuns in Massachusetts, “and I wrote to them and said I would really like to come and visit. They invited me to one of their monastic weekends,” which the community holds twice a year for women ages 20-40 who are discerning a possible religious vocation.
“I had never been away from home before,” Jennifer said, “and I came home from the weekend and said this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
But she was encouraged to continue her education, and while she kept in touch with the sisters for awhile, eventually she stopped. “I figured I wasn’t going to go back, and I didn’t for nine years.” She graduated from Molloy with a degree in theology in 2006, and went on to Fordham University, where she obtained her master’s in theology in 2008 and continued on toward a Ph.D.
But the pull to the monastic life “always came back,” she said, and during a research trip to England she decided to write to the Cistercian community again.
“I never got a response,” she said. “In England, I was lonely, and thinking, ‘not even the nuns want me.’” So she decided to write once more, and if she again did not hear back she would “put it in a box and move on.”
This time, however, she did hear back. Sister Katie McNamara, who works on vocations for the community, invited her to visit again, and two weeks later Jennifer did so.
“I realized this is what I want to do with my life,” she said. “I told them I wanted to finish my degree first, and they said of course, you shouldn’t just drop everything, please finish your degree.” She spent two summer months living in community at the abbey, and that, she said, solidified her feeling that “this is the place I wanted to be, this is the life I wanted to live.” She returned home with the intention of finishing her dissertation and then entering the community. But it wasn’t going to be that easy.
“I thought I should have a contingency plan,” she said, so she applied for a post-doctoral fellowship at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
“The odds were pretty slim, I figured I wouldn’t get it and that would make my decision once and for all,” she said. Then she was notified she had made the short list for the fellowship. “I went out there, not sure I wanted to do this, and figured they will surely choose someone else.” They chose her.
“I literally cried for two weeks, praying, deciding what to do. Up to the last minute I sat in church, asking God, ‘What do You want me to do?’ Everyone was convinced I was going into the monastery,” but instead, she decided to accept the fellowship.
“I got in my car, drove to the monastery and told the nuns I was not coming.” She was “very, very ambivalent” as she went on to Valparaiso, she said. “Somehow, I knew that was where I needed to be before becoming a nun, but not for the rest of my life.” Two months into her two-year teaching fellowship, she was sure she was not called to an academic career. She again asked the sisters if she could join the monastery, and was told yes. She informed her director at Valparaiso that she would not be coming back for the second year of her fellowship.
Holding the world before God
Fully aware of what she was giving up — the possibilities presented by “all my degrees, all my credentials” — she knew, finally, that she was called instead to be part of a community that incorporated the kind of prayer and spirituality that had long been central to her own faith life. She is the 45th sister in the community at Wrentham, with a 46th set to enter in October.
St. Mary’s Abbey is the first monastery of Cistercian nuns in the United States. The first sisters arrived in 1949 from St. Mary’s Abbey in Glencairn, Ireland. The community grew rapidly and today includes Our Lady of the Mississippi in Dubuque, Iowa, Santa Rita Abbey in Sonoita, Ariz., and Our Lady of the Angels in Crozet, Va.
“We live in community, allowing ourselves to be ‘alone together,’” Jennifer said. For example, “praying of the Liturgy of the Hours has been part of my prayer life since high school,” and “praying it as a community is a very important part” of the Cistercians’ “spirituality of community.
“Probably the thing that lured me most” to the community, she said, “was the silent parts of the day. As a quiet person, silence helps me focus on my relationship with God.
“Our ministries are prayer,” along with the commitment to self-sustaining manual labor in solidarity with the poor, Jennifer said. “That is what we offer the world.
“As a community, I think what we are doing is a constant offering of ourselves for the sake of the world, and for those who have asked for our prayers,” she said. “We are constantly holding the world before God,” praying, “Out of your love for me and my love for you, help this world that needs your help.
“We strive to live deeply in God’s heart,” she added, knowing that “God’s heart is the heart of the world. And in our prayers we ask God to heal the world.”
In choosing this life — in finding at St. Mary’s Abbey the “place in the Church” that Sister Jackie Walsh had foreseen for her so many years ago — “the gift I see myself offering,” Jennifer said, “is the gift of my own life. I’ve come to a point, after many years of prayer, of being able to see that everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve done — my travels, my education — are merely gifts of God. And what I can do,” for God and for the world, “is to turn this back to God — make my life something beautiful for God. I’ve gotten to a point,” she said, of realizing that “God will make things more beautiful than I could.”