Pro-Life Sr. Joseph Andrew talks with Sr. Mary Magdalene and Sr. Teresa Benedicta

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 am here with Sr. Teresa Benedicta and Sr. Mary Magdalene. Many of us are high school teachers, so we’ve all experienced a lot of the things we will talk about today. The topic of today’s conversation is also a very timely discussion. 

I am going to ask both of these wonderful Sisters of mine to tell you a little bit about their life and their upbringing and how they found their vocation. I know you both are high school teachers, but Sr. Teresa Benedicta, can you share a little bit with us about your background and your decision to join the community?

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Sr. Teresa Benedicta

I grew up in New Mexico, and I am one of seven children. I have four brothers and two sisters. I pretty much always knew I was going to be a mom and have a large family. My senior year in high school I began getting really involved in my parish, helping out, teaching confirmation in seventh grade catechism, and going to daily Mass. The people of my parish kept saying to me, “You might have a vocation.” So it was very much on my mind. As a freshman in college, I came out to visit the community. I immediately knew it was home. So I entered just after I turned 19, and I’ve been here ever since. Both of my parents are converts to the faith. My mom converted from agnosticism, culturally Presbyterian, and my dad converted from Judaism. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Sr. Mary Magdalene, how about your family?

Sr. Mary Magdalene

I’m number six of eight in a big Irish Catholic family. Growing up, my parents were very faithful and prayed the Rosary daily. We went to Mass every day. Come high school and college, I rebelled and turned away from the faith. I just really started to think, “Is all of this really true? Because it’s interfering with my fun. So, I don’t know if it’s true or not.” For a while, I kept at least going to Mass on Sunday, even though I knew I couldn’t receive communion. But then I stopped doing that as well. What was the point? If I wasn’t able to receive communion, why even go? And again, the question was, “Do I even believe this?” 

Then I went to college in Spain, which was an amazing experience, but it was also where I left the faith. I spent three years there, and my parents could really tell that I was far from the faith. Upon noticing this, they made me an amazing deal. They said, ”We will pay for everything if you go to Franciscan University of Steubenville.” I spent two years there, and at first, I thought everybody there was crazy. I thought that once they left the University their little spiritual high would crumble. However, as time went by and as I saw them leave out into the world, I could see that they were the ones practicing their faith. It wasn’t being imposed on them; it was becoming who they were. 

I would walk by the chapel as it was full for Mass or evening prayer in the evening. The students there had an impact on me; the fact that they were going out was great to me. Several of them would go out and come back relatively early in the night and not be drunk; it was inspiring. 

The students themselves had an impact on me, and I would say my conversion was delayed. It didn’t happen until towards the end of my time there. But then I had this moment of thinking to myself, ”Is Jesus who he says he is? If he is, then I’m going to have to change my life.” After that I started slowly going back to Mass on Sunday, which then turned into going more than once a week, and then that turned into daily Mass, and eventually turned into going to spend time with the Lord in Adoration.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Sister, you have just beautifully outlined the major points of conversion. And I think it’s very important to remember because some of you reading this are parents of teens or young adults, and Sr. Mary Magdalene’s story might resonate with you. We never give up on people because God’s grace is stronger than our greatest weakness. He is God, and ultimately inside the human heart is always that desire for the completion of the “fun” and for the totality of the desire. 

So it’s a call to good parents to never stop praying for and to never give up on their children. Her parents are so proud of her today, and they, I’m sure, got many grey hairs over their daughter’s life. But God was always on top because Sister kept that heart open even though it had gone astray and came back.

Sr. Teresa Benedicta, you mentioned that you were beginning to open up. When others would say to you that they thought you might have a religious vocation, you really didn’t want it at the beginning. So at what point did something happen where you finally said, ”Maybe this is honestly it?” and you opened to it where you actually came and visited our community?

Sr. Teresa Benedicta:

I don’t know that I would necessarily pinpoint one moment. My parish had Eucharistic Adoration on Monday nights, and it was for vocations, although I didn’t know it at the time. I originally started going to Adoration because I wanted the blessing with the Eucharist that they give out at the end. I would come the last 10 minutes just for the blessing. And then probably around Lent, I said to myself, ”You know I should do more than the last 10 minutes. I should bump this up to 25, 30 minutes.” Then I started going up to 45. By the end of the year, I was there for an entire hour every Monday. That time of silence and prayer truly increased my faith, my prayer life, and the voice of God in my heart. It was really through Eucharistic Adoration that I found the courage and openness to hear Christ speaking.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Beautiful. In our podcasts and posts, including this one, are you (reader) aware of how many times my Sisters mention the Eucharist, the Rosary, and the Blessed Mother? Make sure you go back and listen and think about the name of our community, Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and what that means to all of us. 

Now, Sisters, though you come from different backgrounds and various life experiences that God leads us through, you both teach in high schools. How do you find the young people in high schools today to be? What would you say is both similar and different in young people today compared to when you were in high school?

Sr. Mary Magdalene:

Gosh. I would say that the high school age is such a great age. They’re so idealistic. They really want to do great things and to be great, and that’s one of the exciting things I think about teaching high school. I love teaching any grade of high school. I think one similarity is that idealism, enthusiasm and excitement for something good and beautiful. 

This past year was my 10th year teaching, and one big difference I’ve noticed is the influence of technology in schools. And here we are in this podcast, we are on YouTube and on the internet, so I don’t think technology is evil or bad, but it is necessary to know the limits of technology. If you have too much of the noise of technology, it’s harder to reach them. So that’s a big difference I see.

Sr. Teresa Benedicta:

I would pick up with that idea of technology. One of the things that I really see in young people is that their lives are so fast-paced and hectic. They’re going from sports to extracurricular activities to answering whatever it is in the emails; there’s never a break, and there’s so much pressure to succeed and to be number one. There’s very little time for silence. There’s such a hunger in our students for someone to teach them how to use silence and how to pray. The number one request I get from students I’m teaching in the San Francisco area is for guidance on how to pray and how to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Now, both of you have taught in different high schools, and Sister just mentioned that she was teaching in the San Francisco area. Sr. Mary Magdellen, you’re teaching in Chicago at Saint Ignatius College. Do you find there to be a pattern in the challenges among young people, no matter where you may be sent?

Sr. Mary Madgalene:

I’ve been at two very different high schools, so the commonality I think goes back to what we just mentioned with the technology and fast-paced lives and just not having that time. Some of the differences might relate to plans for college and trying to get into college. It pretty much takes away their senior year and sometimes even their junior year. 

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

There is a scientific theological look on this. One of the areas of discussion that has been a longstanding topic of debate is the question about abortion. Are our students aware of the pro-life issues? Sr. Teresa Benedicta, how do you deal with this in your theology classes or other classes?

Sr. Teresa Benedicta:

Yes, of course. I deal with it in several ways. I’ve been teaching moral theology for 10 years now, and it comes up very naturally. But one of the things that I found particularly in the last five or so years is that students are less and less moved by a logical argument and more moved by the story. The issue for them is not so much about the questions, “Is this a child or not? Is it possible to have a child as a young person? Is it possible to be in a difficult situation and bring that child to life?” So what they need to hear more than the biological argument is the story of women who’ve done it and who’ve been successful. So if we have time today, I can share one or two of those.

Sr. Mary Magdalene:

I would definitely agree. People are moving away from wanting to reason logically. That still has to play a role just because we have to be able to use our intellect and our brain and reach conclusions. Once those conclusions are reached, they are definitely pulled by seeing the image. That’s where science really comes in. We know so much through our progress in medicine, through sonograms and so many other things, so being able to see the image of the unborn child is powerful. I agree with Sr. Teresa Benedicta; the beauty of those images and the beauty of the stories of women who have chosen life are powerful.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Do you find the young people interested in it? Or do you find they sit back and say, “Here we go. I’ve got to put on my armor and brace myself for this.” How do they respond to even the introduction of this topic, which is permeating their world everywhere?

Sr. Mary Magdalene:

It really depends on the school. Some schools that we go to have an amazing Catholic culture already in place. Some schools don’t as much. Once in a while, somebody will say, “Okay, Sister, we know what the Church teaches, but what do you think?” And I usually point to my habit. 

I’m pretty in line with what the church thinks. But once we start talking about it, there is this openness. I think at least when you’re in a classroom with a small group of students, there is more openness to hearing what I have to say and to what other students have to say. I’ve always had several students who are enthusiastically pro-life or who have no problem saying that they’re pro-life and explaining why they’re pro-life. And that’s great. I think especially for the high school level, I try to rope in the students who are pro-life themselves, and enthusiastically so, to kind of spread that witness to other students.

Sr. Teresa Benedicta:

I would agree that different schools have very different responses, especially in schools where you have a larger variety of kids from different backgrounds. I’ve also encountered that they expect me to be pro-life, but they have a lot of fear and pre-expectations for what that looks like.

They’re afraid, for instance, that I’m going to come down attacking somebody who isn’t pro-life, or that there’s going to be an accusation that a woman who has had an abortion is a murderer. They’re expecting it to be a very tense, very difficult topic, so they don’t want to talk about it. There are also some girls in my classes who I can tell have had or know someone who has had an abortion before, so it’s a very difficult topic. They come there, not with anger, but with a lot of fear of where the conversation will go. 

People need to be assured that the pro-life message, wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done, is always one of love and  great openness. It is one that builds up not only the child in the womb but also the mother. 

One of my greatest moments as a teacher, and just in general, was in a high school where I’d been for several years. One of the young women was a transfer student. She’d been at the school as a junior and a senior. And with me, she had gone on some pro-life activities and had heard the message. But after graduation she had a scholarship into college. She showed up at the convent at 9:00 at night and had tears streaming down her face. I knew something was very wrong, and I invited her into the convent. She just broke down and said, “Sister, I’m pregnant, and I’m so scared, and I don’t know what to do, and right now, abortion seems so easy. It just seems like the easiest option. No one would know. My family wouldn’t have to be upset. I don’t know what’s going to happen with school. This just seems to be the easy route.” And I remember it so vividly because normally I think my gut response would be to give an argument to talk her out of it, and I just felt God saying so clearly to me, “You just need to be with her right now.” 

So I just held her and cried. I cried for an hour, and then at the end, we didn’t really talk about anything. I just let her cry, and I was there. I said to her, “You know, you are so strong, and you are so capable. There are a lot of people who will be here for you.” I had the privilege of walking with her during those next nine months. It was very difficult telling her family and figuring out what was next, particularly with school because she was beginning her freshman year pregnant, and she was very young. She wasn’t even 18. She was a year ahead in school, but very bright. 

She made the decision. She looked into adoption but made the decision to keep her son. She had him February 9th of her freshman year (by God’s will, that is the founding day of our community). I was there two hours after her son was born. I got to be there and hold him. There’s often those statistics about single mother’s susceptibility to poverty. She made it to the Dean’s list. She went traveling in Europe. She’s now in graduate school. So she’s someone who has beat those numbers and who has been very successful. She’s got this beautiful Instagram page where she posts little pictures of her son, and I often show it to my students and share her story. She’s such a hope to not only the people who know her but also the people who don’t know her. Now the students that I share her story with can see her joy and love for this little boy. 

So where there is support, women are much stronger than we give them credit for and are capable of doing really great things. Those are the messages and stories people need to hear.

Sr. Joseph Andrew:

Amen. Great message in there. Greatness is in us! We can all rise to the heroic! So thank you, Sr. Teresa Benedicta, and thank you, Sr. Mary Magdalene. Our prayers are with you, and with every young woman who is pregnant and is worried. 

Share this post, this podcast, and this video because we too can save lives, and that is the heroic thing to do. It’s the only thing that will bring us that deep peace for which we are created, and it will bring us that freedom that comes from the truth. The truth will set us free. God bless you and thank you very much.

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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