Back to the Faith: Sister Catherine Thomas’ Vocation Journey. Episode 28

The article below is an excerpt taken from “And The Truth Shall Set You Free,” a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Sister Catherine Thomas fell away from the faith in high school and came back to it in college. As she was coming back to the sacraments, she felt God calling her to Himself. She chose the Dominican Order because it embodied everything she sought in her life – contemplation and an active apostolate with a heavy focus on study and drawing closer to God each day. Her path to the religious life reminds us that if we are open and listen, we will hear God’s call for His plan in our life.

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Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I receive so many questions concerning religious life and invitations asking if the sisters can come to so many places. We run as ruggedly as possible for the Kingdom of God while keeping our contemplative life sacred because without that, we wouldn’t be [able to fulfill our apostolate]. It’s a delicate balance, but we are aware of the need to get into many homes, parishes, and youth groups with the message of truth and charity. That’s the impetus behind what we’re doing on GoLEDigital. Today, we welcome back Sister Catherine Thomas. Sister, tell us about your life, your upbringing, and your family.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I grew up in Houston, Texas, an only child of two great parents. I grew up raised Catholic by mum, which was permitted by my dad, who is an atheist. Growing up, I fell away from the faith in high school, came back to my faith in college, and at the same time that I was coming back to the sacraments, this desire to be all for God in every way awakened in my heart. I started praying about a religious vocation and felt my heart drawn to the Dominican Order because of the love for the life of the mind and study.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

You said you fell away from the faith and came back. That’s not incredibly uncommon today. It’s always an immense grace to revert, so to speak, back to the faith especially when it wasn’t a 100% at home. Being an only child, I presume you were doted on by both parents. I think it’s beautiful, and I love them for that. They truly know that you’re a gift from God. What college or university did you go to and what happened to bring you back to the faith?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I went to Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. As part of the intellectual formation, every undergraduate takes philosophy and theology. I was introduced to Saint Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, and the great life of the Catholic intellectual tradition through my study of philosophy. They were these dead, old white guys from centuries ago, but they knew me. They understood the human person. I felt known and understood and called to happiness. It was through them that I saw the Catholic life of holiness is a life of happiness and fullness. One by one, my intellectual objections to the faith were taken care of. This is a joyful life, and the truth came through so clearly, especially through Saint Thomas, who is now my patron.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Would you explain your name, Sister Catherine Thomas, and how you got two big hitters in the Dominican Order?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

Clearly, I need all the help I can get. In case [my name] wasn’t enough, I was born on the feast day of Saint Albert the Great, our other Dominican Doctor of the Church. Saint Catherine of Siena was one that I met in the context of an ethics class at St. Louis University taught by a now Dominican priest, Father James Brent, who was then just a graduate student. He introduced me to Saint Catherine through her dialogue, and I began to read it while I was a student at SLU. I read her life, written by Raymond of Capua, when I was a senior at SLU, and I wanted a love like hers. One scene from her life that struck me was Blessed Raymond said that the two of them would pray the divine office, side by side, and she would say she could see Christ almost all the time. She would say, “Glory be to the Father and to You and to the Holy Spirit.” Raymond said that there were no two friends that more frequently enjoyed each other’s company than Jesus and Catherine. Who wouldn’t want an intimacy with Christ like that?

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Raymond of Capua’s a Dominican priest. Many of these podcasts point out the necessity of good priests to inspire young people to find God’s will in their life. You mentioned him and the beautiful role that he played in the life of a Doctor of the Church, our Dominican, Saint Catherine of Siena. In your life, I know that you visited other orders. How did you decide that God was calling you to the Dominicans?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

Although I shopped around in the candy store, I hit the Dominican aisle first, and it never left me. When I was first asked what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and started thinking about my life in terms of knowing God and being close to him, and how could I do that more, what came out of my mouth was, “I could never study all the philosophy that I could in just my time here in college.” We had these great Catholic friendships, and we would get together and pray and talk about the Church. I thought, “There’s all this prayer, study, and community, and that sounds a lot like the Dominican life.” That was what started me thinking about religious life, and everywhere I went more often than not vocation directors in different communities would say, “Have you thought about the Dominicans?” I would ask them about their libraries and about studying, because studying for us isn’t something that you do just to know things to become professional. It’s loving God with your mind. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

What a beautiful definition of study – loving God with your mind.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

Or if we’re spiritual mothers, it’s eating for two. Since we teach in the classroom, you’ve got to be filled up, and we fill ourselves up in as many ways as we can, and study is such a big way for us. I loved that how I loved God back was like a Dominican already.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

How does the prayer life of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eurcharist influence the intellectual life?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

It’s so much more than an influence. They’re together. They’re not compartments. It’s all pursuing God, because He loved us first. If I can know Him more by opening up a book, great, but He also comes to me in the Blessed Sacrament and fuses Himself with me in Holy Communion. The most important part of our prayer life is before the Blessed Sacrament. I have had the privilege to go on different missions in our community as a student in various universities and as a teacher in various grades, levels, and disciplines, and the Tabernacle is where our real home has to be because we are spread out. That struck me so much when I began to visit our community, and then living and growing in our life. Each sister would say that when you’re with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, that’s home. It doesn’t matter which state, or which walls are surrounding you, or if you’re at a university campus, that’s the heart of our life.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Sister, I happen to know that you have influenced some young women who are now final professed in our community. How would you explain the appeal of religious life that you’ve experienced to young women today? I think young people are not simply drawn to a religious vocation but are encountering Christ by sisters who are trying to live in union with Him.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

It’s been a really exciting gift and grace to [influence someone] without realizing it. Sometimes you know, and sometimes you don’t that this is a young woman who’s discerning religious life and is maybe calling to this community. What’s been humbling for me is seeing sisters, who I’ve known as young, on fire laywomen, entering our community, and knowing that I’ve been able to share in that by praying with them, knowing them, and trying to share whatever graces God has given to me with them. There’s nothing more attractive than the witness of a life that’s authentic and saying yes to the Lord. When you’re trying to be who you’re supposed to be, you’ll set the world on fire.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

You made some of our vocational discernment retreats.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I made a few because I just couldn’t stay away. God is very present. I think I came on three before I entered our community. It’s been so beautiful to be on the other side as a sister going back to the retreat, trying to accompany these young women. Every retreat experience I had was different. I think God moves in a unique way in each young woman, but so powerfully in that all-night Eucharistic adoration. I spent a lot of time talking to Him; I spent a lot of time talking to the blessed Mother. I had the grace to listen. I’m always struck by the young women who come and their desire to hear Him, whatever He’s going to say. I’ve been amazed at how uniquely He speaks to each one. She’s able to say these were the graces this week; they were so powerful and tangible for them.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Beautiful. To those listening, if you are trying to discern God’s will for you in your life, remember, you don’t make it up yourself. He gives it to you and invites you to it. How was your heart made to complete itself? That’s the whole purpose of what Sister is referring to. We offer our vocation discernment retreats every November, February, and April. Try to set aside one little dinky weekend.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

It’s tiny; it’s nothing, and the graces are huge.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

It’s only 24 hours to give to God and say, “I don’t want to mess this up; this is my eternal salvation. This is my joy, my fulfillment, my completion. This is why from all eternity, You loved me, Lord, and You need to send me to this earth at this particular time, and to do this particular matter of loving and of giving myself to others and of receiving love from others.” Thank you, Sister, for mentioning that. You entered our order. What has your education been after that point?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I’ve had immense gifts since making vows and being sent out. I have the great gift of being formed in theology at Ave Maria University where I received a master’s degree. I just finished a master’s degree in secondary education with a major in social studies at Catholic University of America. I guess I’m supposed to be a master in teaching now.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

I think you are. What papers have you written for these degrees?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

A lot. A great love of mine in theology is the study of the human person. My master’s thesis at Ave Maria was on woman as the image of God in Saint Thomas Aquinas. At the Catholic University of America, being trained as a social studies educator, I studied and wrote in many different disciplines including psychology and history. I did a research project on forming eighth-grade boys into thinking like historians. It’s been a varied trip through the world of study as a sister.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Along with the intellectual gifts you received from God and used well through the community’s guidance and these wonderful universities, you’ve also had some experience in the apostolate of teaching. Tell us about some of that.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I knew God was calling me to a community that was contemplative and actively apostolic, but even knowing that, I could never have foreseen how much teaching young people calls you out of yourself to love. I know that this is how God’s going to make me a saint. Not just through the difficulties in teaching, but more so in seeing God at work in [the students]. I mentioned that I had lost my faith and came back to it, and so I went through high school in the dark spiritually. It is humbling to be called back to high school students to teach them the faith. So many times, I’ve been humbled by how much more advanced my students are than me. I keep measuring myself against them and coming up short, and it’s beautiful. For example, I decided to try Lectio Divina with them, and to be honest, my faith in God and what He was able to do in young people was pitiful because my thinking was, “I’ll try this and hope it works. I hope the word of God can speak to them and that these young people formed in His image can hear Him.” How pitiful my faith was. He loved them first, and He’s already prepared their hearts to hear Him, and I’m not the one really teaching them in the first place — it’s Him. When I actually get out of the way and just give them a couple of pointers and the Gospels, they’re going to hear Him. At the end of the first couple weeks of trying out Lectio Divina, they were asking for it. “Sister, can we please do more of this? This is the only time that we have peace. This is the only time that we have silence. I could hear God speaking to me. I really needed this, Sister. I was having a really hard day, and there was this Gospel, and that was exactly what I needed.”

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Oh, how beautiful Sister! You’re teaching them interior prayer.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

In so many ways, God is showing me that young people are so much greater than I gave them credit for when I was measuring them by my own pitiful standards. He has called them to greatness and is giving it to them, and they’re saying yes.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Sister, you’ve taught several different levels of students. Do you have a preference?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I think I’m the kind of person where my favorites are the ones right in front of me. I hope that’s the case. I’ve loved teaching high school theology. I loved my experience in middle school. This past year, when I was completing my education studies in Washington, D.C., I taught history at an all-boys middle school called San Miguel School, started by the Christian Brothers less than 10 years ago. It was a small school, 93 students. It’s trying to set them up for success for holiness and virtue. I had the best time with them. They acted like [they did too]. There was a real openness. I think because they were all boys, it allowed them to have a lot of freedom. What I love about boys is they could be fist fighting one second, and then five minutes later be best friends again. They were so open and curious about everything. They were a joy.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Did you walk into them being a joy already or did you see some transformation while you had them?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I had one semester of teaching and one semester of observing. My semester observing was love at first sight. I liked them right away. They had all kinds of questions about what I was wearing and what I was doing and do you know Brother So and So at my Parish. It was hard to leave them. I cried. I also have so much joy in remembering them and praying for them. Every day on the way to school, there was a lot of traffic in DC. I wanted to tell them their names and love them rightly, so I printed off a sheet of paper that had their pictures with their names. At every red light, I pray my Divine Mercy Chaplet for each one. I wanted to be more than a history teacher to them. Even though I wasn’t teaching the faith, I still wanted to bring Christ and our spiritual motherhood. That’s something I’ll take with me — a really concrete way of praying and loving each student individually every day.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

Sister, you have taught in Illinois, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Are children the same everywhere?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

No, and yes. In Texas, they don’t look at you funny when you say y’all. I grew up in Houston, so it was nice to go back to somewhere they talk like that. There are differences. There’s different slang in different parts of the country, but more profoundly young people want to know that their faith is real. They want to know that it’s true. They want to know that there’s something beyond what they can see and hear and touch, and more than what the culture offers them, which can sometimes be great but can sometimes be nothing. They want somebody to see them and love them. They want to have a spiritual mother.

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz:

That’s beautiful, Sister, and you truly are. Thank you for it. Being a Dominican and having the names of two great Doctors of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Thomas Aquinas, I think that you are a well-named sister. Thank you for being with us today. Stay tuned for more interviews with sisters and more podcasts about our life, our teaching apostolate, and the way the Church teaches about the good, the true, and the beautiful. You’ll notice our sisters are using many common terms because as Dominicans they’re central to our hearts and spirits and the way we pray regarding contemplation and certainly for the apostolate for the salvation of souls in our own spiritual motherhood. God bless you.


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