Let’s Start at The Beginning Sr. Catherine Thomas

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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Today, I have my dear friend Sr. Catherine Thomas Brenan with me. Sister, you are one of the few sisters in our community that is an only child. You have a very interesting background, can you tell us a little about your upbringing?

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Sr. Catherine Thomas:

Thank you, sister. Well, I grew up in Houston, Texas. My parents moved there when I was very young. My dad is a physician and my mother is a lawyer, so growing up we had a very rich intellectual life. The desire to learn and the love of learning was always a part of our life. Religiously, we were a divided house. My dad is not a believer, and he had self-identified as an atheist as I was growing up. My mom is very fervent and loves her Catholic faith.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

And they are still married?

Sr. Catherine Thomas

They are still married; they have been for 41 years. Praise God. Growing up, I always knew I was loved. That was never a doubt. I did struggle to find the truth about reality, about God, about the universe, about the meaning of all this. Both of my parents are very intelligent and very loving, so it’s not as if my dad has the brains and my mom has the heart. They both have a lot of brain and a lot of heart. But for me it always seemed as if my dad’s nonbelief was the reasonable, and my mom’s faith was about the relationship. So I felt torn growing up between that, feeling as if I had to choose between reason or love and relationship when there’s no divide in God at all, who is both reason and love.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Very interesting, Sister. You mentioned the fact that you knew you were always loved. Why don’t you talk about that a bit?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

In some ways it’s just as simple as that. I knew that either of my parents would not hesitate to do anything to make me happy, including laying down their own lives. And at one point in my childhood, we faced a really dangerous situation where my dad laid down his life for his family, but was spared. So there was no doubt or question. I never even had to wonder if I was loved. It was always obvious.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

As you grew up and began to wonder about the big things in life and saw the dichotomy between your mom’s religious beliefs and your dad’s lack of and yet the charity between both of them, at what point did it really become kind of a burden to you? Which of these two did you think was closer to the truth? You also are very bright, so I would imagine at some point with that dichotomy that you had to start making some decisions.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

Yes. In high school, I experienced a real draw towards my dad’s side of the equation. But when I was a sophomore, I had for the first time in my life a religion class where the teacher taught every Catholic doctrine from an apologetical standpoint. It was a class on Catholic doctrine, and on the very first day, the teacher said, “I am going to argue for, provide a rationale, logical defense for everything I ever claim about the Catholic faith. And starting from the very beginning. Is God real? Did Christ ever even live? Was he God?” And from there, it just astounded me that there would be reasons why Catholics believe what they believe. The class answered a lot of questions that I had, not all of them, but a lot of them. It answered enough of them to convince me that you could be a reasonable person who took the life of the mind seriously but also has faith. So a lot more doors had to come down, but that was the biggest one. It opened me up to the possibility that the Church might have something to speak to the intellect.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

At that point in your life, when you began receiving logical reasoning behind the faith that the church proclaims from your wonderful teacher, did it ever go through your mind that you would want to be a teacher?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

Never. Never. Never. No. Although, I think in the long run, as St. Catherine of Siena says, that we love with the same love that we see ourselves loved by. God has done so much to lead me to the truth about himself,  and he’s done that through the classroom and so many ways. When I went on to Saint Louis University, I studied philosophy which was one of the most tremendous blessings I’ve ever experienced in my life. A friend once said to me, “A lot of times, people study philosophy and lose their faith, so how have you found that to be?” I just had to tell her the truth which was, “It’s only because of philosophy that I have any faith at all.” It removed so many obstacles and so many contradictions that I thought I saw, so I have definitely received a lot of the love of God, who is truth, through teachers who were willing to listen to my questions and just speak the truth.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Sister, we first met 12 years ago. I flew into Saint Louis by the invitation of a mutual friend of ours. And as the vocation director, I was going to give some talks on vocations and everything. The very first young lady I met was you, and I found out later that this mutual friend knew that you were still deciding.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

He was trying to set me up, Sister.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Yes. Exactly. He set you up well. 

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

And it worked.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

It worked! We owe him a lot! But I realized that he was trying to gain your soul back to Christ because he knew you were still in the throes of some of the battle, internally, about what believe and how hard you would dive into the faith. And he, being a fervent Catholic who had that spiritual friendship with you, knew that if this fish could be brought to the boat of Peter, it would be a great fish. And I remember,  at that point in time, Sister, we went to a coffee shop, and we must have talked for about four hours. Do you remember some of that?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I remember that visit. I remember offering my car so that I would be the one who would drive you around the rest of that week. Two years went by between my sophomore year, when I returned to the faith, and my senior year, which was when we met. I really was a baby Catholic for those first two years, just falling in love with everything about the Church. And I am sure that we talked about how I’d begun already thinking about a vocation. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

But you also had a very serious boyfriend at the time.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

It is true. And we had picked out names for the first six of our future children, and they were all really good Catholic names. Looking back, that was a very confusing time trying to discern a religious vocation and a married vocation at the same time while you’re in a relationship with this great Catholic man. But looking back, I’m really grateful even for the confusion of that time because I was seeing so much of the Church with new eyes and for the first time. 

Then, for the first time, I was looking on marriage as a vocation I called the holiness, which was not part of anyone’s vocabulary as I was growing up and going to Catholic school. It was confusing, but I also had some clarity in that I would conscientiously ask myself the question, “Is this it? Could this be enough?” And the answer that just seemed so obvious was that there could be more and that’s what my heart was asking for. I don’t know if you remember this, Sister, but by the end of that first week, you had given me a religious name. You were calling me Sr. Mary Sofia, and I was secretly loving it.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Now, Sister, so tell us what you did after your graduation from St. Louis University.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

During that last year of college, I had also been accepted to law school, and I realized, by the time I graduated, that God was calling me to religious life. I realized that, in your own words, Sister, I needed to get real and living in reality meant discerning my religious life full time. I didn’t know where, but I was sure that Jesus wanted me for himself, and I was sure that that was the only thing that was going to make me happy. So I didn’t go to law school. I’m glad I didn’t because it would have taken me years to pay off the debt. I spent that year between finishing college and entering our community volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Houston, which was an amazing experience. I think it was nothing like having a pre-novitiate. That spirit of learning how to do everything just because it’s for Jesus. We have very different spiritualities, but that’s the same. That was a beautiful gift. 

I also spent that time visiting different religious communities, but I always came back to ours. A friend once asked me to describe my perfect life. I basically described the Dominican life. I said, “Oh, it’s so great to be able to have that daily prayer life. And to live side by side with people who love each other and who enjoy each other. And who love the truth and who study the truth. And who then go out and bring the truth. And who….” and then I said out loud, “Wow. That sounds like the Dominican life.” And another time, somebody asked me to describe my perfect man, and I realized I described Jesus. So these things kept coming back, the Dominicans and our community and being a bride of Christ. It was 11 years ago that I entered.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

How did your parents respond to your decision to enter?

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

Shocking and yet not shocking. They had known that I’d been playing with the idea of religious life for a couple of years. They knew that I had been visiting religious communities and going on discernment retreats. Whatever that meant, I’d been doing that. They knew that I’d broken up with a great Catholic guy that I had seriously considered marrying. My mom said it was then that she realized that I might be serious about this religious life thing. 

I told them towards the end of my senior year of college. My dad said that he wanted to drive me back to Texas just the two of us so that we could talk. And that was big. My dad and I are very close, but I’d never gotten the, “I need 13 hours with you so that we can talk.”

We’d made it all the way down to around Dallas when I thought, “He hasn’t raised the question yet.” So that was a good 10 hours of the way. But he eventually said, “So let’s talk about this.” And so we talked about it. The two things he said were really interesting. He said, “You know, I have all these coworkers who are Catholic. And I had been telling them what you’re thinking of doing when they asked me what you’re going to be doing after college. And they say, ‘Why is she doing that?And then I find myself in the position of having to explain what you’re doing to all these Catholic people, and I’m an atheist. Don’t you think that’s weird?” And I said, “Yes, Dad, I do.” 

And then he also said something that I’ll never forget. And this was something that harkens back to something that he always told me, which was, “When you leave home, do what you are passionate about.” So that was his advice for choosing classes and for choosing a major. Do what you’re passionate about. Driving back down south around Dallas, he said, “I always told you to do what you were passionate about. I never thought it would be this, but I have to stick by what I said.”

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Oh, how beautiful. So a man of great principles. 

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

Yes he is. Sometimes when I would go to Adoration late at night I would say, “Bye. I need to go see my fiancé,” and my dad would say, “Well, tell him hi for us.”

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Oh, how beautiful.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I could tell that giving his only daughter to the Sisters was a source of great pain. I mean, I could see it. I could see it in him. But there was never any trying to change my mind; he wanted to understand. He asked me questions in order to try to understand what I was doing and what I wanted, but never to try to dissuade or manipulate me. And my mom has also been incredibly generous. She would be the first to say, “I tried to talk her out of it,” or at least the timing of it. She encouraged me to try law school first, but then she and my dad were fully supportive of my decision. The first few years after I’d entered they would say, “It’s just so good to see you happy. You’re just so happy.” I mean, it actually kind of took them saying it for me to realize, wow, I am really happy. They would come and visit and see the Sisters, and they would be loved by the Sisters. They would see how we love each other, and they could see that this is a happy life. My mom cried a lot the day of my first vows. I didn’t even realize this, but she told me five years later, after my final vow, she said, “I spent half of that day in the bathroom just crying.” The day of my final vow, she said, “Today it’s all joy.” 

I’ve experienced the love of God through my parents and through the community so powerfully. But I’ve also experienced God’s love for my parents in my vocation. I mean, my mom will write me these beautiful notes saying, “I went to Adoration today, and I was praying for you and for your students.” She’s adopted all of my students as her spiritual grandchildren. And sometimes she’ll write them letters and ask me to give them to the students in class. And they love it. They love having a spiritual grandma out there. So I have been just so tremendously blessed to see how my parents have been blessed by the community. They will say how now they have so many daughters; before they had just one and now they have over 100.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Well, that brings me to a closing question. As an only child and seeing the change in your parents through the years through your religious vocation, what would be your words to both the parents and the young women who are reading, listening or watching this who may be an only child? 

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

I’m not bold enough to say this myself, but I am bold enough to quote my mother. She says, “Get out of God’s way. If God wants your daughter, this is what’s going to make her happy. And so get out of the way if you want your daughter to be happy.” And speaking now as a daughter, I know that my parents are surrounded by so much more love than I could give them because they’re surrounded by 100 more daughters than they ever had.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Well, Sister. Thank you so very much. It’s very obvious that Sister is a blend of both her parents. I love your quote from your father, “Do what your passion really is” and your mom, “Get out of God’s way, Let God be God.” Sister, thank you so very much.

Sr. Catherine Thomas:

Thank you, Sister.

About:

Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, OP is a Foundress and Vocations Director for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Her podcast “And The Truth Shall Set You Free” can be downloaded every Friday at 1:00 p.m. EST from iTunes. The podcast can be seen on YouTube at Go_LEDigital


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