By Sister Colleen O’Toole
Recently, because of my experience of two different rituals, I have been reflecting on the communion of saints.
On October 8, my friend Sister Amanda (Mandy) Carrier made her perpetual vows as a Sister of Mercy. One of the significant parts of the vow Mass is the Litany of Saints, when the sister lies prostrate in front of the altar. All the while, the congregation calls forth the saints, particularly those who are patrons of the order and those the sister feels close to in her own life. Together, these two actions symbolize the sister giving herself entirely to God and God’s people, just as the saints have done for centuries. Mandy added a special touch to her ceremony: her mother and her father, the deacon, laid a blanket made by her grandmother in front of the altar before the litany. It reminded the congregation that the communion of saints is not just those in heaven who have been officially canonized; it is all the faithful who have finished their earthly lives and who have inspired, consoled, taught and guided us.
Five days later, I was at a funeral for a local sister. In the Mercy tradition, the sister’s life is celebrated through a ritual of sharing memories, usually after the wake. Pictures of her are displayed, and stories are shared among sisters, families and friends. We remember her ministry and her presence. Sisters remember teaching her, or being taught by her. As a community, we give our sister over to the communion of saints. As the ritual goes on, stories of sisters who died years ago emerge, and we wonder who will greet our most recently deceased sister. Will it be her family? Her friends? Her postulant director, with whom she was particularly close? The sister she started a new ministry with? The sisters that all went on retreat together every year? Mother Catherine McAuley reminded the earliest sisters, mourning the loss of their companions, that we will all meet in heaven, saying, “Oh what a joy even to think of it!”
When I returned home from the funeral, I wrote Sister Thomas Marie Murphy’s name in our necrology, the book that lists all the deceased sisters from my area. Before we begin our morning prayer, I look at the date and ask those sisters for prayer. There may be one sister who entered into eternal life on that date, or many. Some died recently, some as far back as 1847. Some are sisters I knew myself, some I learned about through stories shared in community, and some are only names, as anyone who knew them personally has since died. The sisters I miss dearly on Earth have been welcomed into this cloud of witnesses by their sisters who have gone before them.
Having this Mercy communion of saints to draw upon gives me immense comfort. I am never alone in any ministry or work of Mercy, for these women continue to accompany me in every place and time. I am graced with not only the presence of the blessed, venerable and canonized holy people of our faith, but the lives and examples of the thousands of Sisters of Mercy who have gone before me.