Testimony of a Sister working with young people that shows how she lives out the Holy Father’s expectations for the Year of Consecrated Life.

Missionary dimension of Pastoral care in a school and the expression of my identity as a Daughter of Charity.

To help you understand my testimony I feel it is important to tell you that for 8 years I have been at St. Louis Vocational School, about 10 – 11 km from my local community of “Petite Oeuvre” (at Saint Vincent de Paul High School). Saint Louis is in the northern section of Marseille. I can just imagine what that brings to your minds: killings, trafficking of all sorts, the black market, radical Islam…

The majority of students welcomed to our school come mainly from neighborhoods with a high concentration of immigrants. The two dominant communities of our students are Algerian and Comoros, they are 75% Muslim and 70% are on scholarship.

st_vincent-4Saint Vincent, in speaking of the origins of the Company, liked to tell the Sisters, “I didn’t think of it, Mademoiselle didn’t think of it, nor did Monsieur Portail…” In looking back at my missionary experience 8 years later, I have the same astonishment: “I didn’t think of it either.”

It is true that when I first arrived at Saint Louis there were high expectations from the administration and the educational team for the personal and social development of the students. This was very evident and quickly became a priority for me. How could the youth be present intellectually when living in unbearable situations (even for adults)?

I was lucky to have an office with a discreet entrance, in relation to the administration, allowing anyone to feel comfortable to come. If the walls of my old office could talk…!!! So many emotions of sadness and joy were shared there!!! Such burdens, too heavy for our young to carry, were shared there: forced marriage, abortion, abuse, rape, imprisonment… The sincerity, truth, maturity of exchanges taught me the humility to listen, to be welcoming, without judgment. What lessons learned from these young people! Yes, “the poor are our masters.” In some way they taught me on the job, and that continues…

At the same time that our students would not voluntarily participate in pastoral activities, I found the young people to have an ease in speaking of God. It was part of their daily existence. I talked with my Headmistress who also noticed the way the students would talk about religious things. She suggested that I take the new students for one hour a week. It was an ambitious project. It was the beginning of my third year at St. Louis. In addition to being the school counselor for the students, I integrated lessons with the educational team.

We discovered the reality of the three monotheistic religions through videos, visits to places of worship and testimonies. The discussions were rich and powerful. I organized roundtable discussions with guest speakers, such as the roundtable on the “need to remember” with the presence of a Jewish person from Marseille who was a survivor of Auschwitz, along with a Justice, an historian and a spokesperson from « Crif » (Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France). What emotion to see more than a hundred young Muslims rise to their feet to welcome with applause that 85 year old Jewish woman who arrived with her cane (her feet had frostbite while in the camp when she was 16). Knowing the tensions between Jews and Muslims we realized that this event could be a disaster, especially since it didn’t take much for some of these young people to “explode.” But it proved just the opposite. Our audacity was rewarded because the students were well prepared by their teachers who had agreed to help me with multidisciplinary reflection. The collaboration with the teachers bore fruit.

Another roundtable was on “modern slavery”, with the presence of an association in Marseille, ETZ (zero tolerance of slavery). The young people stayed to discuss with the speakers and we learned that the students are victims of forced marriage and other domestic slavery. Contacts were made. We are already planning for next year to have a roundtable discussion on “abuse day-to-day.”

In fact, I give you all these details for you to understand that the Pastoral ministry we propose is primarily “living together” with our differences and our personal history … a living together made possible if we receive one another like brothers and sisters, created free by God to love and be loved.

YES! God is at work! I am a witness!

I must admit that the missionary dimension of pastoral care is present whenever there is a meeting with a young person, a group, a parent or a colleague. Everything is “pastoral” as soon as the other is received and treated like a beloved of God, whatever their background and history. Such is what I am or trying to be every day: a Daughter of Charity, Daughter of St. Vincent with my human and professional limits. Boldness in such a mission would be for me, “to dare to go beyond the fear to face risks and failures, denial and rejection.” Grace outweighs everything, such as the Confirmations of three students of the school. It has been more than 20 years since anyone was confirmed at the school. Other graces: the young people who hold their heads up, who take interest in life, or even 6 adults and 2 young people attending the Vincentian gathering in Lourdes and Cradle at the end of September 2014. This may seem little but for us it is already above our expectations.

Pope Francis affirms in #109 of his exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium”: Challenges exist to be overcome! Let us be realists, but without losing our joy, our boldness and our hope-filled commitment. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of missionary vigour! And he continues in #129: if we allow doubts and fears to dampen our courage, instead of being creative we will remain comfortable and make no progress whatsoever…