Honored by Knights, Sisters of Life founding superior shares ‘secret of loving’ behind a culture of life

Supreme Knight Patrick Kelly and wife Vanessa (center), New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan (second from left) and Knights Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E Lori of Baltimore (right) gather Aug. 1, 2023, with Mother Agnes Mary Donovan and other members of the Sisters of Life after the annual States Dinner of the Knights of Columbus 141st Supreme Convention in Orlando, Fla. During the dinner, Mother Agnes received the Gaudium et Spes Award — the Knights’ highest honor — for her leadership of the Sisters of Life as founding superior over the past 30 years. (OSV News photo/Matt Barrick, via Knights of Columbus)

By Peter Jesserer Smith, OSV News

ORLANDO, Fla. (OSV News) — It was one of the most important advertisements ever published in a Catholic newspaper: “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” The five simple words led a 1989 column penned by New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor — and within two years, eight women took up the call to be emissaries of Jesus Christ’s life-giving love as the first ever “Sisters of Life.”

At the Aug. 1 States Dinner for the 141st Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus, the fraternal order chose to honor the Sisters of Life’s founding superior, Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, with its Gaudium et Spes Award that recognizes those who have made “outstanding contributions to both the Catholic Church and to society.” The award first was given to St. Teresa of Kolkata in 1992 and then Cardinal O’Connor himself in 1994.

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, the Knights’ supreme chaplain, introduced Mother Agnes as “a true disciple of the Lord working in a profoundly difficult apostolate.”

“Cardinal O’Connor’s column, with its unique appeal, was the catalyst for what she has called the best decision of her life,” Archbishop Lori told the 2,300 Knights of Columbus, spouses and family members gathered in the ballroom of the Orlando Marriott World Center Aug. 1 for the annual convention’s States Dinner.

Archbishop Lori shared how under Mother Agnes’ leadership, the once-fledgling diocesan order of well-educated, professional women dedicated to pro-life work that Cardinal O’Connor called “my cathedral” and a “great gift of God” had blossomed into one of the most defining Catholic features for building a culture of life through genuine love for each and every human person.

“Through all the community’s manifold works, and hours, days, weeks, months and years of prayer and contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament, Mother has led by example and guided them with wisdom,” he said.

He explained that “Sister of Life” summed up not only her vocation but her interior life.

“She is dedicated in the depths of her being ‘to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life’,” the archbishop said, referring to the fourth vow the Sisters of Life take in addition to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Since that small band of women’s leap of faith responding to Cardinal O’Connor’s “Help Wanted” call, nearly 130 women are now Sisters of Life, fielding calls on their crisis pregnancy hotline, welcoming pregnant women into their homes, caring for them and their babies after birth, evangelizing people on the dignity of human life, and providing “hope and healing” retreats to mothers who have had abortions. Their presence has expanded from New York to Washington, Philadelphia, Denver, Phoenix, Toronto and Stamford, Connecticut — with a ministry sustained by prayer and contemplation before Jesus in the Eucharist. And in June, the order marked a major milestone as Mother Agnes passed the Sisters of Life’s leadership to its newly elected superior, Mother Mary Concepta.

Addressing the Knights’ assembly, Mother Agnes told them, “You bring God’s mercy and hope to so many.” She said the Sisters of Life have had great esteem for the Knights “who early on, with intelligence and conviction, took up the defense of every human life and gave pride of place to this human rights issue in its charitable works.”

Mother Agnes invited the assembly to take “a look into the heart of the Sisters of Life, that you might see the love that fuels our works.”

She noted that their services “begin with an invitation to community.”

“The human need to belong, to have a place in a community, in a family, is literally written into our spiritual DNA,” she said, adding the Knights also “know the power of the experiences of authentic Catholic community, of belonging to the family of faith, as a most effective context for evangelization.”

Mother Agnes shared the story of a young woman whom she said she would call “Karen.” This young woman, “beautiful, full of life,” took a seat next to her on a plane — and as Mother Agnes reached for her prayer books, Karen asked a most unusual question: “It’s funny that you are here. I’ve always wanted to know about the Trinity.”

“I stared at her, stunned. Whoever asks about the Trinity?” Mother Agnes told the room.

But the conversation that followed at 30,000 feet cruising altitude involved Mother Agnes sharing the love in the Trinity, how the “total, fruitful giving and receiving of love between spouses” is an analogy for that love shared in one God who is three persons — and that by sending his only son Jesus, “God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.”

It was then, Mother Agnes said, that Karen confided with her that she had just about decided to leave her marriage. As they flew halfway across the country, they both discussed “a way of loving that would allow her to remain committed to her marriage, even in present difficulties.”

Mother Agnes said the contemporary attack on human marriage is as old as Genesis, referencing the Evil One’s attack on the original unity of Adam and Eve, because destroying human beings’ “faith in the gift of human love” is ultimately about destroying their faith in a God who is love.

“Because marriage is the closest human image we have to the love and the life of God,” she said. “As Christians, human relationships possess a sacred character, for we encounter in the other an icon of the living God.”

“To live in communion with others requires God’s grace,” Mother Agnes said.

Turning to the theme of discipleship, Mother Agnes pointed out Jesus’ parting words to his followers were “love one another as I have loved you.”

“How do we love as God loves? What does such love look like?” Mother Agnes asked the audience to ponder the question.

“Within the Sisters of Life, we call it the secret of loving,” she said. “This way of love has three parts: receptivity, discovery and delight.”

Explaining receptivity, she said, “Love demands an openness of mind and heart to receive the other. It’s an attitude which expresses to the other that I have nothing more important to do than to be with you at this moment.”

With discovery, she said, love begins by “allowing myself to be moved by the beauty, strength, the vulnerability, or the sheer goodness of the other.”

“Even in the one who is difficult to love, our challenge is to allow ourselves to discover that something within the person that can move our hearts,” Mother Agnes said. “I promise you: it’s possible to find that something, if we allow our hearts to search for the good, for that which is delightful within the other. Because we know that over each person, God has said, ‘You are very good and I love you.'”

This effort of discovery, she said, allows a person to move to the third part of love: delighting in the other.

“We then can mirror, reflecting back to the person, that which we have found within them that delights us,” she said. “Then, not only are we changed by her goodness, but so is she. The person before us experiences herself as affirmed, precisely in the realization that it is a goodness within her which is caused by delight.”

Mother Agnes said this affirmation of love can bring about a new birth for a person and is “the emotional food needed for growth as a human person.”

This way of love, she said, “is the way of God’s love.”

“Often, such love requires courage to look beyond the distressing disguises of the sinful, the weak, or the vulnerable one before me,” she said, “and to love them with consistency, perseverance, fortitude, and delight.”

“To love in this way is to grow in virtue,” she said, adding that it is “a privilege … to encounter in another person the unique goodness and gifts of God. And with it, lives are awakened, relationships change.”

Mother Agnes shared she saw this transformation in “Carol,” a woman the sisters served, who shared with them her “many new accomplishments” several years later: a professional degree in nursing, a good first job and her newly decorated apartment that was “an expression of her own new sense of self-worth.” Carol then told the sisters, “You know, it’s funny; I’m just beginning to experience myself as the person you always knew me to be.”

As she concluded her remarks, Mother Agnes said, “true love is possible in our families, in our charitable works, in our parishes, and in your Knights of Columbus councils.”

“The world is searching for it, and it is Jesus whom they seek,” she said. “Let us receive the gift of God’s love, that we may be emissaries of Jesus who made such love possible.”

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