As we observe Vocation Awareness Week, I want to share this essay I wrote while on retreat in 1995 about my sister, Rose, and her influence on my priestly vocation.
Rose was a few days shy of 61 when she entered into eternal life on All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, 1990. Almost 17 years separated our births — she was the oldest and I, the youngest.
So, how could she have had such a profound influence on me? I was three years old when she moved out of our house and I barely remember her. My only image from that time was her and her new husband, Charlie, leaving our house after the wedding.
My next connection with Rose and my vocation is her Christmas gift to me in 1958 of a book entitled “St. Dominic and the Rosary.” My reading this book was the earliest event I can recall that evoked an attraction to priestly service. I was fascinated by Dominic, maybe because the story made very concrete the words I was hearing about religion in school and in Church.
While it was not until 10th grade that I first remember thinking God was calling me to the priesthood, a priest who served at St. Canicus during my grade school years remarked to me after ordination: “I figured you had a priestly vocation, even back then.” So maybe St. Dominic and his devotion to the rosary brought forth that spark. My sister Rose’s interest in things spiritual surely did not hurt.
I’d see this love for things spiritual in Rose after I entered the seminary. A major portion of orientation for the “new man” was the required reading of a two-volume Life of Christ by Daniel Ropes. Like anything required, it was dreaded by all, including myself.
At Easter, Rose told me about the fascinating book she had been reading on the life of Jesus — none other than the one I spent the previous 10 months dreading. I was amazed. First, how would anyone have heard of something going on in a closed seminary and second, what was the attraction? The conversation left me with a deeper sense of Rose’s spirituality, even as I was only slowly uncovering what the word meant. These remarks on Easter of ’64 coincided with Vatican II, after which lay spirituality became a buzzword, but right then it was not. Yet Rose had the attraction to Jesus.
This active spiritual life also came through in Rose’s occasional letters over the next 25 years. Visits were times of dialogue, but too frequently, it was a crowd of 20 dialoguing and did not foster much depth. Her occasional letters were my window to her world and her spiritual life. Never showy, the letters nonetheless showed a deep spirituality. Here is what she conveyed that had a strong impact:
- She took an interest in me, not simply “how are you?” but some specific question related to something Mom had told her. It conveyed a concern for me and for my world.
- She’d often mention some spiritual book or her times at morning Mass and how she liked when the priest prayed for specific people (hint?) or how she got up enough nerve to tell the pastor that the modern Church deserves a crucifix in a prominent place. Her faith was active and meant something to her.
- Her love of God’s creation came through … whether it was herbs and flowers or Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman.” I still remember her fascination with Wagner’s ability to recreate the sound and motion of the high seas through his music. She shared this after she found I had discovered a love of opera. Before she died, she gave me “The Flying Dutchman,” and I think of her as I listen to it.
- She ended her letters with words of “God’s love” that I sensed were more than perfunctory.
Some missionaries sail the seas to convey God’s love for others; Rose simply used her writing skills and spiritual sense to help her little brother.
As cancer began to claim Rose’s life on earth, it seemed to move quickly. We visited, but again it was in the midst of a crowd, and even when we were alone at her bedside, words failed me.
However, I think of Rose every day that I am at St. Mary’s Rectory. On my dresser is a photo of Georgie and me under the Christmas tree, touching a basketball one or both of us got for a present. I guess I was nine or 10. The photo has a double significance. It reminds me of the interweaving of my vocation with that of my brother George. Even more deeply, it reminds me of Rose, who in her illness took the time to get a photo enlarged, framed and wrapped as a Christmas gift.
On Christmas day, eight weeks after Rose’s death, we unwrapped the gift. For me, it is a reminder each morning of Rose’s long interest in me and an encouragement in my priestly dedication.
In the Book of Revelation, 14:13, John, writes:
“I heard a voice from heaven say to me: ‘Write this down: Happy are the dead who died in the Lord!’ The Spirit added, ‘Yes, they shall find rest from their labors, for their good works accompany them.’ ”
This verse accompanied Rose at her Mass of Christian Burial. She’d be the first to admit that “her good works” were the stirrings of God’s grace and love in her life, and I’d be the first in line to witness to the reality of those “good works.”
Thank God our Lord used Rose and her good works generously in calling me to become one of his priests, and I will be eternally grateful to Rose and to the One who inspired her.