The Findings of a Needed Ministry: Spiritual Motherhood

By: Rachel LeMelle, The Catholic University of America

 Half of our Sem. Squad
From left side of the table to right: Me, Fr. Marcin Syzmanski OP, Hiep Xuan Nguyen (friend from Prince of Peace Newman Center in Seattle, Washington).
 My Boys: Seminarian Oscar Marquina, Seminarian Andre Sicard, Seminarian Tristan Dillon, Seminarian Anthony Shumway

My Personal Experience

Most of my high school years were spent without the guidance of a Bishop for my Diocese of Salt Lake City, Utah. On March 7th, 2017, after spending two years without a shepherd, the Diocese finally had a new Bishop: the first Filipino Bishop assigned to the United States, coming from Los Angeles where he spent time with Bishop Robert Barron as an Auxiliary. This transition presented me with a momentous opportunity to grow in faith and learn more about my vocation. 

With some of my Ann Arbor Dominican Sisters of Mary of the Eucharist: Sr. Agnes Paulina OP, Sr. Karol Joseph OP, and Sr. Catherine Thomas OP.

The Beginning

At the Bishop’s Installation, I served as an usher through my Catholic high school’s Ambassador program. Coming from one of the three catholic high schools in Utah, I was honored to represent not only Juan Diego Catholic High School, but the Diocese, as well as myself. I helped at all the celebratory events and liturgies that came with in installing our new shepherd, Bishop Solis. Through helping with the liturgies I had the opportunity to meet many people from the Catholic world, most especially those who were among the episcopate or clergy, or who have played a part in the history of our Diocese. I will never forget listening to Bishop Solis’ homily for the first time, beaming from the back of the narthex. I finally had a new shepherd, one who genuinely cared for his Diocese and it’s people, continuing in the legacy of his predecessor, the now, Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe.

Among the many people I had the privilege of meeting at the Installation, I got the chance to meet four young men who were studying to be priests. I had never met anyone like them before; someone whose greatest desire was to love, to serve, and to give their lives to God. These men, and their desire to love God through the sacrifice of their lives fascinated me, and even to this day continues to do so. I saw, and still see, such beauty in their way of life. I could see the zeal in their eyes and smiles as we all talked, conversing about our faith. While we waited for the line to greet the new Bishop to die down, we conversed for what must have been close to two hours, all about how we loved Christ and how much we loved our Diocese. I didn’t know it yet, but I already had a desire and calling to serve alongside my seminarians and to serve our Diocese as well, however in my own unique way. After we finally greeted the Bishop, we exchanged emails to keep in touch and continue our conversations about faith and ideas on how to minister to the people in Salt Lake. I told them I would pray for them and we parted ways.

I emailed a few weeks later to the main seminarian email for the Diocese, getting a reply back the next day. I kept replying, talking about philosophy or spirituality, telling how I prayed for them. Being the intentional, intense person I am I actually started praying for them after we met, and made sure to remind them of my seriousness that I actually follow through in doing so every time I got a reply. One seminarian, who replied the most, already had a Licentiate in Philosophy and I was happy to have finally found another person to talk about philosophy with me. In Utah, I had become frustrated in the lack of intellectual resources for the faith or what I describe as intellectual tradition. I kept looking for ways to explain or describe what I was experiencing in my recently found, (a year or so before) relationship with God, relationship with mystery, and relationship with a person who is all three in one but also in the Son, both divine and human. How could I explain this? All I knew is I hungered for deeper and hungered for more as I had fallen in love with this personal God. I knew there had to be more…

Soon, whenever the seminarians would come into town, although only usually one or two from seminary up at Mt. Angel in St. Benedict, Oregon, we would email, making sure to get together to meet up, thus creating the tradition of seminarian lunches or meal gatherings began. As the boys would come to do pastoral year from time to time, I got to know more of them as well as get the chance to see their way of life more closely, being able to understand why people would choose and say yes to such a way of life, as well as seeing the beauty of such intimacy that comes in consecrating oneself to Him. 

Gaudete Saturday with my Shepherd, Most Rev. Bishop Oscar Solis of the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

By the time my senior year rolled around, the planning and anticipation of commencement exercises did as well. Being head sacristan and in charge of altar servers over the years, I was in charge of especially finding servers to serve the graduating class’ Baccalaureate Mass at the Cathedral. When the time came for my own class’s Baccalaureate Mass, and after I had trouble finding altar servers to serve, I asked two of our seminarians in town to serve. It made it all the more special, especially to me, having some of the guys there and sharing not only the ceremony but more importantly the liturgy with them. This experience also allowed me some insight to the excitement I would feel when I would get to see them celebrate the Mass themselves one day. To have them serve and be a part of the liturgy, I couldn’t think of a greater honor. 

On the day of Baccalaureate, as sacristan, I had spent the day at the Cathedral getting ready for the Mass that evening, steaming the altar cloth, and I thought I might as well throw in steaming my own gown since I had access to the tools. I had run into another seminarian friend I had only heard legends of. He used to teach at “the other catholic High School,” Judge Memorial downtown before he entered the seminary, although for the Archdiocese of Portland, as well as would sing with the choir school during his time in Utah. He was in town to see the last of the students he ever taught at Judge, graduate. I invited him to our Mass that night as I had an extra ticket, and told him that a few of us were planning to go out and celebrate probably afterward. He said he’d think about it, especially as he had wanted to sing with the kids that evening at Mass. Let’s just say he ended up going to two Masses that night because in the order our class was seated in, I ended up being on the end and to my surprise, got to shake his hand on his way back from communion. We got all the pictures with everyone afterward and ended up going to grab dinner that night. My new seminarian friend, (who we used to share citizenship with the Archdiocese of Portland in ways), remarked how he loved that everyone else was going out with family, whereas there I was with what he called my “seminarian entourage.” What he didn’t know, at least yet, was that I was with family. 

My eight Franciscan Conventual Brothers: Br. Alejandro Maria Arias, Br. Israel Sebastian Arauz-Rosiles, Br. Richard Rome, Br. Chris Garcia, Br. Jason Martinez, Br. Timothy Blanchard, Br. Franck Lino, Br. Bede Thigpen

Learning How to Be a Spiritual Mother

Soon my affiliation with them became usual. The “Sem Squad” as it became known to us. Time soon came for me to go on to college. We cherished summers, as it was the time of year when we would always see the most of each other, if not everyone, although rare. Being back now currently as I write this, for summer after my first year of college, I can tell you this is true even more so. When I left for University, I had already spent three months before leaving being preemptively homesick and missing people. Especially time with the guys, whoever would be in town. Praying for them became a bigger deal in my daily life routine and so did checking in on them, calls, and seeing how life was going. During the time when we didn’t have a Bishop, the boys didn’t have much support from anyone, let alone their one day, God willing, future brother priests. Even priests, especially being in what is still very mission-like territory Diocese with missions and parishes spread out especially down south, from my time in high school I saw a need to help to support priests, to pray for them, and to care for them. Rarely do you hear people ask their priest how he’s is doing, really stopping to listen to him and wanting to genuinely know the answer. I think it similar to how sometimes a child while growing up has a perfect vision of who their parents are, doesn’t usually think to ask how they’re parents are doing. It’s usually only in growing up, seeing our parents’ imperfections, their humanity, do we then start asking more and investing how our parents are handling life, for usually at that point we’ve had some taste ourselves to know that life isn’t easy. Or at least as easy as our parents always made it seem. (Props parents!) 

Especially in my Diocese where stability lacked in the transition between Bishops and where loneliness can be a common factor amongst our priests because of how spread out everything is, I have found my heart to go out to these priests and men. Since experiencing and witnessing this personally, I have felt a calling and desire to be there for our priests, our clergy, the Episcopate, and those who will be clergy, offering healthy support to those who I notice go unseen. To go unseen is the job of a priest, but all things within a balance. I have wished to support these priests and men who I pray, and when authentically lived out, can be seen, loving God, loving us the flock, and praying for us. Wishing to support those who don’t receive it as we the laity do in each other, in a sense of community.  Even when politics in our church all over the world and through its history can cause rivalries among priests, I have seen priests trouble as they find a lack of reliability in their brother priests. I wish to share in healthy ways in this suffering that few see and feel I have been granted grace from God that it’s part of my calling to do so. This reminds me of the great work Catherine Doubtery has done for our priests in the church and I match her deep love as well as an appreciation for our priests. Since she was twelve, she would pray for the priests in our church, supporting them and asking God to share in their loneliness. She stands as a role model to me in my ministry but also as a friend. She is someone who understands my intentions, my reasons, and this ministry, as well as all the grace that can come from. Like myself, she sees and understands the role of a priest without being one and understands, as well as thrives in her place to support from the sidelines cheering our Fathers on!

Being in University, I have gained a bigger family than I ever thought was possible or beyond anything I could ever imagine. Living in “little Rome” I have a much broader exposure to this way of life that is rarely seen or lived out in Utah. I have so many Brothers and Sisters that I have gained. I now know I always have a place for Thanksgiving with some of my religious siblings, instead of missing that I can’t be home with my seminarians and biological family. I have communities to pray with and to pray for, I am honored to see how they live and the time I spend with them as they share their lives with me. Most of my prayer time is now taken up by praying for others. I suppose this is as it should be, as I try to keep all the names in my mind as well as keeping straight the different communities or for instance, my two Dominican Provinces I now affiliate with. My Dominican Brothers call me a “bridge between the East and the West,” and I try to represent both proudly. I had never seen so much religious life in the whole of my existence, and among all the problems that exist among them or even in our Church, there is still much beauty and goodness to be shared and lived. I see this as a necessity in our world; a genuine love of Christ, one that is lived out in everyday life. This love that we are called to, to become holy, to one day, love perfectly, not worry about hurting others, it is radical. For Catholics it is a radical way of life, a commitment we make every day. Belonging to a relationship the secularity of our world doesn’t understand and so in support, I look to my brother and sister laity, but also to our religious and clergy, seeing their humanity, loving them for it, but supporting them and challenging them to live out the life of love to which they have been called and made by God to live. 

With some friends, Fr. Cassidy Stinson, and the Pauline Sisters in Alexandria, VA.

Sister and Mother

I will admit, sometimes it is and can be a hard line to walk, especially as a spiritual sister and mother, I am always thinking of what is best for the other and not myself. Love does not want for itself. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not easily angered.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) However, I also know, especially as seen in our recent times, I must protect myself too, putting safety above ministry, especially if I wish the ministry to truly be ministry, rooted in His love. I am always thinking in terms of boundaries, which are best set at the beginning. I am always thinking to not put them in a situation where it could or would make anyone feel uncomfortable and I remind them if they do the same to me. For me, in loving these precious, selected, preserved hearts, I couldn’t bear anything for anything to ever hurt them, myself included. When they hurt, cry out in their own way of suffering, I too, then hurt. I am there to listen, to support, and to encourage. I feel with them. This creates some of the deepest, sacred, spiritual bonds, and only when healthy and rooted towards Christ are they so, helping one another to holiness as we are called to do. The reason for community. The reason for relationship. 

Especially in my own missionary Diocese, there’s not the blessing of community as there is in a religious order, and their way of life which the Diocese also has little exposure to. At least, definitely not support from a community in the way of having as many peers, (such as in the laity), living together to help one another navigate, supporting each other, and to love. Diocesan priests have brother priests, but priests who have no vow to the community or to one another, only to their Diocese. I see this in other Dioceses as well. Priests should rely on one another, their brother priests, and be able to be a support for one another. No one can truly understand the life of a priest, other than a man who is himself already a priest. What a blessing and what support can come when such healthy fraternity is fostered! I try to help with this in my own Diocese and this quality is one of the main things I appreciate, admire, and love about my own Bishop as he cares for our priests as a Father should, trying to encourage such fraternity and support. “My boys” at home, as I call them, have been such a blessing to me. Where this ministry to the clergy and religious all started. I feel so honored and with a full heart, I have so much and more always to give thanks to the Lord. I’m grateful to my boys, for giving me a taste at spiritual motherhood and what it will look like, (however, in different ways of course), if I am to possibly be a biological mother one day. In having my main boys back home, some of the seminarians and I were discussing the differences between my relationships with them and with my religious Brothers and Sisters, we concluded it was more of a motherhood. I would show their picture around proudly, feeling honored that I knew them and in the way I did; a familial-like way. I call them my boys and they are and always will be a priority in my life, or so I pray. I have told them when I come back, those who don’t have family here in Utah will have a place for Thanksgiving, other holidays, and after Christmas ministry if they wish it. That I will be here if they ever need something. That they are welcome and will be a part of my family, just as we have been a part of each other’s and have had the blessing to be in one another’s life. Thus, a mother loves her child, and her brothers and sisters, looking to them for support, sharing in their suffering, encouraging them, following in fiat to love as Mary does her son and as Christ loves us and loved the apostles.

Edited by Jenna Drummond

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