I turned 45 years old this past Friday and I celebrated the occasion with gusto. Besides the face to face birthday wishes from Sisters, friends and colleagues, I took pleasure in replying to every Facebook and WhatsApp message, every birthday card, email and text. I relished every one of the dozens of students who passed me in the hallways at my school and shouted out a birthday greeting, and thoroughly enjoyed the classes that welcomed me with a rousing rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song. By the end of the day on October 11th, I felt like no one could have been better celebrated than I had been. What a blessing!
Now, we in North America know more than a few people, men and women included, who hide any evidence of their birthday after the age of 29, if not before. Aging is not always well celebrated in our Western Society. So how to explain my reaction? Am I simply a product of my genetics? Was I born with the ability to enter into celebrations with joy and excitement? Or you may be thinking that I was raised in a family that always celebrates birthdays with this much delight. Perhaps I’ve recently survived a bout with a serious disease and am treasuring life all the more? How could a woman, entering more deeply into middle age find such cause for happiness on, of all things, her birthday?
200 years ago, God invited a middle aged woman named Marie Madeleine d’Houet, a mother and widow, to be God’s instrument in founding a ‘little Society’ called the Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus. She said ‘yes’ to this invitation, knowing that she was weak and imperfect, but also trusting that God would be able to use her weakness and the imperfections of all the Sisters that joined this Congregation to found a Religious Society that would joyfully journey with those most in need of God’s companionship.
This year, the Bicentenary Year, the Society is celebrating these 200 years in diverse ways around the world. Here, in Edmonton, we are remembering the legacy of the courageous Sisters who braved mosquito swarms, brutal winters and vast distances to found the first Catholic school of the Edmonton Catholic School District in 1888. In other parts of the world, FCJ contributions to the Church, to Catholic Education, to Retreat Work and to various initiatives supporting refugees, immigrants, the poor and the underprivileged are being remembered with gratitude and enthusiasm. The Bicentenary is a birthday of sorts, and a time to celebrate this Society of women who dedicated their lives to God. By embracing their own invitations to be the instruments of God, they have left a lasting gift to the world.
This small, but mighty, group of Sisters entered into my life in a personal way eight years ago. I first met the FCJs in Calgary, and over the course of the next few years, God used this group of women, with all of their many gifts and imperfections, to help me more deeply experience the transformative love that Jesus has for me. This gift of God’s love that the Sisters shared with me changed the course of my life, eventually leading me to want to devote myself to God in a new and exciting way. I stand with them, now, a Faithful Companion of Jesus, too. It is with a sense of humility, but also not without some pride, that I walk in the footsteps of the women who have come before me, teaching in this District that our Society helped pioneer more than 130 years ago.
Knowing and experiencing the companionship of Jesus cannot leave one unchanged. Our Sisters, through their faithful companionship of the people around them, have impacted countless lives. I know this, because they have impacted my own life in a profound, long lasting way. And so, it is not because of my genetics or my family upbringing or the survival of any major disease that I have learned to celebrate the blessings of my life. Rather, it is because of the determined and faithful efforts of this group of women who have companioned with me, helping me to deepen my relationship with Jesus. They have created the space for me to find my strengths and they have loved me in all of my weakness and with all of my flaws. And so, as I celebrate 45 years of life, I can’t help but think of Robert Lowry’s hymn How Can I Keep from Singing? Or, in my case, how can I keep from celebrating?
During this Bicentenary Year, as we rejoice in 200 years of the loving companionship of the Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus, let us pray that we can continue to build on their efforts, ever bringing that gift of God’s intimate companionship to all those that we meet on our journey.