Life lessons from the Sisters of Life
In January of 2020, I attended the March for Life for the first time. I had long admired and loved the pro-life movement, but the 10 hour bus ride each way and sleeping on the floor of a parish center were not insignificant deterrents as I avoided the pilgrimage for years. After plenty of persistent encouragement from a close friend, I finally decided: this is the year. After convincing a few other friends from my dorm to join, I signed up with Notre Dame Right to Life in a whirlwind of enthusiasm.
In the weeks leading up to the March, I began to regret my decision. What was I thinking? Not only did I sign up to go to DC for the March, but I had also — for some reason — signed up to stay an extra day. The trip would keep me from my work, a lot of my friends, and my bed. I was this close to emailing the club and withdrawing, but some persistent pull on my heart prevented me from doing so. Thank God for that.
The streets of the national mall were filled with joyful people of all ages and backgrounds, committed to protecting and cherishing the lives of the unborn and of every human person. Mercifully, I slept pretty well on the bus ride to DC, had a great time marching with friends, and when I got back to the parish center that evening, I was grateful that I came. I could not have imagined how much more the weekend had in store.
The next day, after Mass at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, my friends and I were on our way to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine just up the street. The same friend who had convinced me to go to the March for Life assured us that the trip up the road would be time well spent. While there was an entire shrine to explore, upon walking through the doors I was drawn directly to the back of a line outside a chapel, where people had gathered to venerate the blood relic of St. John Paul II. My friends followed closely behind.
We stood in an awkward quiet for no more than two minutes before a group of religious sisters came up behind my friends and I at the back of the line. I gave them a silent smile and nod and kept to myself, impatiently waiting. I looked forward again and began distracting myself on my phone to pass the time. Within 15 seconds, a cheerful “Hi there!” interrupted my scroll, and looking up from my phone I saw a group of habited women looking straight at me with beaming smiles and eyes that felt like they were gently — yet insistently — looking into my soul. Taken aback, I stood stock still for probably five full seconds before responding. My friends were equally shocked by our new conversation partner.
The sisters introduced themselves and began asking us about ourselves and chatting about the heroic virtue of John Paul II. But more than anything they said, I have never been looked at before the way these sisters were looking at us: as if they were looking straight through my eyes and into my heart. Without saying anything, my friends and I knew we were having an encounter we would never forget.
After ten minutes of conversation, one of the sisters asked me for the time. With some worry, she mentioned that they may have to catch their bus before making it to the front of the line. John Paul II would understand, they smiled. Quickly, we suggested that they go in front of us and shortly thereafter, the attendant noticed their predicament, lifted the rope and let them go straight to the front. Before leaving, the sisters promised their prayers and looked directly at us again. “You are so very loved,” they beamed: “God bless you!” As soon as they turned the corner into the chapel we all looked to each other in stunned silence: “WHAT just happened?”
Not twenty minutes later, having departed the chapel, we were standing silently in the atrium of the Shrine when another sister, not with the original group, came up to us. With the same welcoming joy and piercing gaze, she starts asking us how we’re doing and, like those before her, reminding us how much we are loved by God. It was as if proclaiming the life and love of God to complete strangers was the most natural thing in the world. Interrupted with a call from a fellow sister notifying her that their bus is about to leave, she said goodbye to us quickly and began hustling for the door. There she paused, turned around, ran back to us and said: “You are beautifully and wonderfully made. Remember, each of you are of inestimable worth.” With her veil flying behind her, she turned around and left.
Even now, I struggle to find the words to describe our encounter at the Shrine. We left glowing from our visit with the sisters: it was as if we had seen the face of God, and through that same face and eyes, He had seen us. The sisters had looked at us as if they were beholding a miracle.
We continued through the rest of our late morning still afire with the infectious joy of these sisters, our awkward silence now filled with God’s presence, until over an hour later one of my friends — who had been quiet since the encounter —loudly blurted out: “BRO, WAS SHE AN ANGEL!?” We all laughed out loud, still not quite sure. They very well may have been.
It was only later that we discovered that the white-and-blue clad women we had met were Sisters of Life. The community, founded by John Cardinal O’Connor of New York in 1991, is consecrated to protect, cherish, and celebrate the beauty, dignity, and sacredness of human life, ministering to women facing unexpected pregnancies or suffering after abortions and preaching the Gospel of Life to each and every human heart. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s my vocation to become a Sister of Life, but that is not going to stop me from incorporating this charism into my own life.
How difficult this is! How often I go through the motions, talking with family, friends, and strangers without realizing or appreciating who I am talking to: a miracle — a person created in the image and likeness of God. I am like the blind man from the Bible. If only I could marvel in and appreciate the miracle and gift of the person before me the way these sisters did. If only I could see: just how much would my life be changed?
Cardinal O’Connor wrote of his Sisters of Life: “They will love with their own lives, with their own hearts, with their own prayers, with their own thoughts. They will never look at anyone except through the eyes of love.” At the National Shrine that January day, this is what they had done: they had looked at us through the eyes of Love Himself. It explains why my friends and I were so profoundly encountered — it felt like God Himself was beholding us.
After relaying this experience to that friend who convinced me to attend the March and go to the Shrine, I told her how discouraged I was. I could never be as holy as they were, I thought. But with patient insistence she reminded me of something important: it’s not by their own merit that they are able to do this. It wasn’t the sisters who had encountered us that day: it was Christ in them. They had truly lived what I would later read on a prayer card from the community: “God wants to reach out to others through your hands. He wants to speak to others through your lips, and God wants others to look into your eyes and see Him…Give God permission.”
By letting God show us how He sees, the sisters had changed our lives. Remarkably, God desires to give this grace to each of us! We just have to allow Him to teach us how to see. I hope and pray that each person has a chance to be loved by a Sister of Life as we were that day. Until then, let’s beg for the grace to see as they do, and to give God permission to work powerfully in us as well.
Leo is a senior from New York studying electrical engineering. If he’s not hanging out with his friends, he is almost certainly playing Fortnite or Minecraft until 2 in the morning. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.