The Son of God — God’s Holy Word — became one like us in order to become one WITH us for all eternity.
For Jefferson City native Sister Cathy Vetter of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word (CCVI), the essence of consecrated religious life is to reveal the reality of the Word Made Flesh, through relationships and one-on-one interactions.
“That’s what my life is all about, what the Incarnate Word is all about: being present, being the Word of God, present to others,” said Sr. Cathy, who recently came back to her hometown to pray and discern, nearly 55 years after entering religious life.
“I see this as a beautiful opportunity to spend time with my God and get to know my God, rather than know ABOUT my God or figure out ‘What do others want me to do?’ or ‘What will be most helpful?’” she stated.
“Rather,” said Sr. Cathy, “it’s simply, ‘Who are you, my God?’ and ‘Who am I, my God?’”
Most would find this approach quaint or exotic, if not completely foreign.
“In our society, we value people and reward them for what they do and not for who they are,” said Sr. Cathy.
She spoke of these things in anticipation of the World Day of Consecrated Life, which the Church in the United States will observe on Sunday, Feb. 4.
It is a day to pray for and honor the people who consecrate themselves to God as sisters, brothers and religious priests.
Sr. Cathy recalled striking up a conversation with a maintenance worker who was repairing the duplex she recently moved into.
“So, why are you here?” he asked her.
“All I know,” she responded, “is that I’m here just to be present to people.”
“That’s a good thing,” he replied.
Later, upon finding out that the man was having surgery, Sr. Cathy had a name, a face and a connection to go with her prayers for him.
“More and more, I’m thinking that’s the gift the Church needs, and that might be the gift of religious life,” she stated.
“It’s not doing stuff, necessarily,” she said. “Yes, you do things, but it all needs to come out of that gift of being present.”
An Irish rose
Sr. Cathy went to Immaculate Conception School in Jefferson City, where she “fell in love” with her first- and second-grade teacher, Incarnate Word Sister Margaret McCormack.
“She was a fun, outgoing woman who loved life and loved people,” Sr. Cathy recalled. “And I love life and I love people, too. I wanted to be like her.”
Sr. Cathy’s class was Sr. Margaret’s first class at her first assignment.
“She was from Ireland, very young, and she had a lot of Irish humor about her,” recalled Sr. Cathy.
She was in charge of 54 children in one room.
The classroom had a door at the front and another at the back, both leading into the hallway.
“She would leave through one door and then pop in through the other,” said Sr. Cathy. “Sometimes, one of the other younger sisters would come in and playfully pretend that they were lost from each other.
“It was a wonderful way to regroup with us little kids,” Sr. Cathy recalled.
Sr. Margaret taught traditional Irish dancing to the girls at recess, slightly lifting up the bottom of her black habit so the girls could see how her feet moved.
She would also join in the students’ dodgeball games on the playground.
“That’s how we all got to know that she was fun,” said Sr. Cathy.
Later on, Sr. Cathy got to know and work with Sr. Margaret as an adult and fellow CCVI.
“We became good friends,” Sr. Cathy recalled. “I was blessed to be with her over the years and in different ways.”
Sr. Cathy served for several years as the vocation director for the Jefferson City diocese, then as co-vicar for religious in the St. Louis archdiocese.
The chaplain at the CCVI provincial house in St. Louis County was Father (later Monsignor) James Telthorst, now deceased.
He was studying Liturgy over the summers at the University of Notre Dame and would discuss at length with Sr. Cathy what he was learning.
“He’d say, ‘Let’s try this!’ and I’d say, ‘I’m in!’” she recalled.
“It was wonderful!” she said. “You can’t overstate the power of good liturgy.”
She recalled when Fr. Telthorst lit the fire for the Easter Vigil outside the convent chapel and had all of the sisters light their candles from the new Easter candle.
“No lights were on,” she noted. “We gathered around him with our candles at the podium, and by the light of all those candles, he proclaimed the ‘Exultet.’
“It was visceral,” she said, “because that’s what good liturgy is.”
He helped her appreciate the power of the Church’s wealth of sacred rituals.
She found these to be especially effective in the 13 years she spent in parishes, coordinating the initiation of new Catholics into the Church.
“I loved using all the rituals to the best effect,” she said. “Like Fr. Telthorst would say, ‘You don’t have to say so many words if you do good ritual.’”
At a parish in St. Louis County, she worked with the pastor to implement the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults to its fullest.
The process took time and was filled with moments of engagement with the people of the parish.
“If people can see that it’s worth the effort, that they’re really experiencing something important, then they’ll be there for it,” Sr. Cathy asserted. “And they’ll be the ones who will stay connected with the parish.”
Those connections are invaluable.
“It’s not about how many bodies we have in the pews on Sunday,” she stated. “It’s how many people are being welcomed into our community of faith.”
Sr. Cathy laments the American impulse to shorten and expedite things simply because people are busy.
“We keep shortening everything, and we get the minimum,” she said. “But the minimum isn’t what Jesus offered. He offered everything!”
A parishioner in a parish where she had been serving for a long time marveled to her, “Sister, you really gave us something!”
“No,” she replied with a smile. “Jesus gave it to you. I just offered it and helped make it possible.”
What’s still needed
Sr. Cathy eluded to the tectonic changes that have taken place in religious orders and congregations all over the United States.
Being present is still eminently important, “but I’m not sure we have to do it through big institutions anymore,” she said.
“Religious communities in this country evolved the way they did because of the great need for healthcare and education,” she said. “We set it up, and other people eventually took it over. We don’t have to do it anymore.
“But, what’s still needed is relationships — one-on-one, personal relationships,” she said. “How to be with other people and listen to them and leave your cell phone in your pocket.”
She said people make it harder for Jesus to be present in the world today, “with all of the devices and distractions we’re carrying around with us.”
She cited something as simple as walking without counting the steps or listening to something distracting.
“I’ve taken many walks,” she said. “But, now that I’m not so busy, I can let the walk take me, and be present to nature all around me.”
“Nature complements us and we complement nature,” she said.
The best example
Sr. Cathy attributed much the harm and division that’s taking place in the world today to people’s lack of effort or ability to live in right relationship with God and each other.
“Jesus showed us how to do it,” she said. “He was so good at forming relationships, and he knew that the best way for us to relate to each other is to share a meal.
“He said, ‘Do what I do. That’s all you have to do,’” she stated. “He showed us, and it’s what we do.”
She’s convinced that by learning to be truly present to others, people are more likely to do things that matter.
“When we talk to people and listen to them and really get to know them, they might tell us a real, dire need that they have that they might not mention to anyone else,” she stated.
“Then, maybe we can give them what they need, rather than offering them what we think they need.”
She’s not counting on any of that happening virtually or over some device.
“I don’t remember how many times someone text-messaged me,” she said. “But I do remember if we sat down and had a cookie together.”
“I remember the encounters. I remember the presence with people. I remember the look on people’s faces,” she stated.