Sr Colette – Ireland
Sr Colette is Mother Abbess of the Poor Clare nun’s in Galway. As a young woman she graduated as an accountant, had a healthy social life and a few boyfriends. After watching a video on Medjugorje she became intrigued by the story of the apparitions and ended up visiting the village for the first time in 1988. During the consecration at Mass she had a profound encounter with God and this paved the way for her to make the decision to enter the enclosed order some years later. Medjugorje was not only the catalyst that transformed Sr Colette’s life, but the faith within her family too.
This is Sr Colette’s testimony.
I first heard about Medjugorje at my friend Maura’s house. Maura and her father had borrowed a video about the apparitions of Our Lady there. Having grown up with stories of Lourdes and Fatima, I was utterly fascinated by the video. Shortly after that, Fr Slavko came to Ireland and spoke in the Abbey, the Franciscan church in Galway. Again, I was spellbound as the story of Medjugorje unfolded. After that talk, I got a book about Medjugorje and another with the messages in it, and I began trying to live them in my own way.
I should explain that I would not have described myself as very religious. I grew up in a fairly normal Irish Catholic home. I never gave up the practice of the faith, but it didn’t go much beyond Sunday Mass and trying to do stuff for Lent. I did become more fervent around exam times, doing novenas to St Anthony and St Joseph of Cupertino – anyone that I felt could swing it for me. At this point in my life, I was studying accountancy, which entailed working full-time in an office, and studying for exams twice a year. I always ended up ‘cramming’ for exams, so I needed any help I could get.
I heard about a monthly Medjugorje Mass which was held in Galway, and Maura and I began attending it. This whetted my appetite for Medjugorje all the more, as I was exposed to people sharing their experiences of it. Working as a trainee accountant, I didn’t earn that much and most of what I did earn went on my social life. I wanted to go to Medjugorje, but not enough to save for it! However, we eventually decided to go at the end of July.
In the meantime, my younger sister Louise got an opportunity to go there in June of that year. She was still in school and was really just treating it as a chance to go on a sun holiday. She was hooked on several TV soaps and had left a list of the ones she wanted recorded while she was away. We forgot to record several of them and knew from past experience that she would not be impressed, to put it mildly. However, when she got back, she told us that she had had a wonderful week there, and she didn’t mind at all that we hadn’t recorded the programmes. We were flabbergasted, as it was so unlike her. It was quite obvious to us all that she had been touched in a very deep way and I think I found her response to the TV programmes more convincing than anything else I had heard. I felt that something must really be happening in Medjugorje, to have brought about such a profound transformation in her. She worked very hard that summer, as she wanted to save up so that she could go back to Medjugorje in autumn. Meanwhile, I was really looking forward to my trip there the following month.
Eventually, our time to go came. Being the end of July, it was extremely hot. I love sunshine, but it really was hard to take. We launched into the pilgrimage with gusto, climbing a mountain every day and going to everything that was on. We got up very early most days and we would often climb a mountain before breakfast! There were twenty-four pilgrims in our house and there was a great dynamic among us.
Several things stand out for me from that first pilgrimage. One of them was when we went to visit the village where Fr Jozo was ministering. One of the tour guides gave her testimony. She was a convert from Islam and spoke movingly of what her conversion to Christianity had cost her, being virtually cut off from her family. At the end of her story, she thanked us for being her brothers and sisters. I was deeply touched and really sobbed during her talk, as I realised how much I took my faith and God for granted. Another thing that really stood out for me was my experience of confession. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what I confessed that day. It was more like a feeling of coming home that I had experienced. I know that a lot of people would not have thought that I had ever strayed away from the Church, as I had always continued the practice of the faith. But that day, it felt as if the Father was looking out for me and when He saw me coming, He ran towards me and took me back, just as He had done in the parable of the prodigal son. I felt I made a really good confession and again, I cried very much. It was as if I was cleansed at a very deep level and was accepted again by God. It was such a freeing and liberating experience and I felt so light and joyful within myself.
However, it seemed both of these experiences were a prelude to a profound encounter with God that would change my life. It happened during the consecration at Mass. I had often heard that God loves each one of us, though it meant nothing to me. But in an instant, I was swept off my feet. I felt utterly loved by God and knew for certain that Jesus was truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. I was totally overcome and could not believe the intense feelings of love that I had for God. I cannot even begin to explain the deep feelings of peace and joy that I felt. Nothing in my life compared with it. I had gotten a great love for prayer, because now, it was not just some dry formula that I had to repeat, but a living relationship with someone whom I loved with my whole heart and who I knew loved me.
When I came home from Medjugorje, I spoke to Fr Des O’Malley, a Franciscan priest who was based in Galway, about my experiences. At that stage, I loved God so much, that I wanted to do whatever He wanted, even if it meant becoming a nun. I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to but I was open to whatever the Lord wanted for me. He suggested that I finish out my studies and look at the vocation later.
Well, I was delighted with that bit of advice, because it meant I could continue to enjoy my life and not have to look seriously at a vocation at that particular moment. In hindsight, it was very wise, because I was not ready to be a nun at that stage. Louise, Maura and I became very involved with a youth prayer meeting in Galway, which was being held in the home of Des and Pat Mannion. It attracted big crowds, with up to one hundred young people there many nights. We made many new friends and it was a great blessing to have young people to share our faith with. We also often socialised together. My mother began attending an adult meeting which was also held in Mannion’s on a different night.
As I mentioned earlier, my sister had planned to return to Medjugorje. My mother decided she would like to go as well, so they went together in September of that year with a group from Galway, including her best friend, whom she also persuaded to go. My mother loved it too, so the three of us all became great fans of Medjugorje. My other sister, Nicola, was studying Law in Dublin at that time. She had been working in London during the summer, and so had missed the transformation that had happened to us. She didn’t know what hit her when she got home, with all the holy talk! My poor father was living with us, so he had seen it all happening. When we had friends coming around to the house, he used to take up the newspaper and ‘tune out’ – he didn’t have great hearing, which was an advantage. Nicola had about a week at home before she returned to Dublin. I think she was relieved to be going back.
When Nicola came home for Christmas, she had a longer time with us and got a chance to meet and socialise with some of our new friends. Little by little, she was becoming fascinated by it all, though she wouldn’t let on that she was. Unbeknown to us, she began exploring her faith a bit more when she returned to Dublin. In the meantime, Our Lady was also working on my dad. He was giving me a lift one day and just said, ‘I think I will go to Medjugorje on Thursday.’ I couldn’t believe it. He had obviously already booked it, but didn’t want to let on to us until the last minute. That was the April after we had all gone.
I can remember his return so well. He stayed that night with his sister in Trim. We all spoke to him on the phone and he told each of us, individually, that he loved us. Of course, we knew it already, as both he and my mother had always done everything they possibly could for us, but it was still amazing to hear him saying it. When he got home, he rang Nicola and said that he felt she too should go to Medjugorje and that he would pay for her to go. I think hearing it from dad bore more weight than when we spoke about it. He had been her ally in not being too interested in all the religious ‘stuff’ and now he too had experienced a great peace in Medjugorje, and it whetted her appetite to go there.
The youth prayer group that we were involved with planned to go to Medjugorje together that summer, for the youth festival, so I felt I would like to go with them. Nicola and Louise also decided to go, and this would be Nicola’s first time going. We were very excited to be going together, the three of us and we had great fun packing. We all wore the same size in clothes and often shared them with each other. So we packed all of our summer clothes and as we packed, we’d remind each other of different things we might need to bring. I can remember asking them if they had packed their passports. Nicola is the most organised of all our family and I almost felt stupid reminding her and, needless to say, it was one of the first things she had rooted out when she began to pack. We organised a bus to bring us to Dublin Airport and began to check in when we arrived. It was at this stage that Nicola missed her passport. Unfortunately, when she was packing, she had left something down on top of it and so, it was left at home. We all felt so sorry for her, as it was to have been her first trip. My mother even said she would drive to Dublin with it, if they would hold the plane, but they couldn’t. The flight company said that she could go the following week, and only have to pay €50 for it. There was another girl who was also due to go and didn’t have a passport either, so they were both left behind and went the following week together. When it was confirmed that they couldn’t travel with us, Louise and I raided her luggage, to see what other clothes we could bring with us, assuring her that we would leave them over there for her. It was awful leaving them behind, but she did go the following week, and her life was profoundly touched while there.
This was quite a different trip to the first one. About fifty of us went in all, spread over two weeks and it was wonderful to go there as a group. However, it involved a lot more responsibility for me than when I had gone with my friend. We had many experiences there: most pleasant but some very challenging. It was wonderful to see how Our Lady was working to touch the hearts of all these young people and lead them to her Son.
Having now been well and truly bitten by the Medjugorje ‘bug’, I saved to return there one more time. As it turned out, this was to be my last time, though I didn’t realise it at the time. I returned the following year for Easter Week and it was very special to be there for Divine Mercy Sunday, which was a day of special grace for me. I again travelled with my friend Maura, along with another friend, Martina; my father and aunt were also on the same trip. One thing that stands out for me about that trip was going to Fr Svet for confession, which was so helpful. One of the things he said to me on that occasion was to consider religious life, as it was such a fulfilling way to live. I took what he said on board, but didn’t feel it was for me at that stage.
I eventually qualified as an accountant and it seemed then as if the Lord started giving me little hints about religious life. I knew I had to start looking at it more seriously. Shortly after qualifying, I went on holiday to Italy. While in Assisi, I felt that I was being called to the Poor Clare way of life. I got an opportunity to meet with one of the sisters in the monastery there and this was very helpful. When I returned home, I began to look more seriously at the vocation issue. At this point in time, I had a few friends who were also discerning vocations to the priesthood and religious life. I knew that I would eventually have to talk to my family about it, but I dreaded broaching the subject, as I knew they would find it very hard, especially given that I was considering an enclosed order. However, it was only fair to tell them, so one evening I met my sister for a bite to eat after work and told her. I felt that she would be able to help me tell the others, as I had always relied on her strength. However, she broke down and began to cry in the restaurant. I knew that it was going to be awful telling the rest of them, given her response. We went home and told the rest of the family. It was dreadful, as I had expected.
The day after I told them, my father was giving me a lift to work. He told me, with tears in his eyes, that whatever I did, he was proud of me. I was so glad of the moral support of having him behind me, but it broke my heart to see him cry and to know that I was causing my whole family such pain. I felt that it was my fault that they were suffering so much and yet, I knew deep down it was something I had to do.
The following weekend, I went away – I needed a break. My sister gave me a letter as I was leaving. I remember taking it out to read it in a coffee shop and the tears spilling down my face as I read the very moving words about her inner struggle with my decision. It was heartbreaking for me. At that stage, it would have been so much easier to put the whole idea on indefinite hold, but there was no turning back the clock. When I went to Mass that Sunday, I got great consolation from a reflection that was printed in the parish newsletter. I was convinced, when I read it, that the Lord was with me and knew what I was going through. The reflection went as follows:
Life’s most painful choices are not always between good and evil. If that were so, there would be a lot fewer quitters. No, the most painful choices are often between the good and the best. In other words, the things that tempt us to abandon our goals are not always bad. More often than not they are good, and that is what makes it so hard to resist them. We forget what was once precious to us and exchange it for something else that is less good but more immediate. If we wish then to remain faithful, we must be prepared to meet difficulties, especially from inside ourselves. We have to go forward at such times in bare faith, simple hope, and love without sentiment.
The next few months were difficult. Eventually, I applied to the Poor Clares and was accepted. It was a decision that I had to make in faith. God had given little hints, but no big signs. I can see now that He was asking me to take a leap of faith and to trust that He would give me reassurance afterwards. That is one of His many ways of making our faith grow.
A few months after I joined the community, my mother got cancer and had to have major surgery. It was a time when my beliefs were really put to the test. I believed that prayer was all-powerful and now I was given an opportunity to put that belief into practice. And the Lord blessed that in a marvellous way. On a rational level, it might have made more sense to go home and look after my mother, but I entrusted her to God. And He looked after her. She said afterwards that she really felt carried by prayer. It was a great turning point for my entire family, as even up to the time I entered the community, they found it difficult to deal with. Now, at least, they found it easier to accept. Since then, they see that I am happy and they are happy for me. Over the years, they have come to a deep appreciation of our way of life and are very supportive, which has been a great blessing for me.
It has not always been easy, but then I never expected that it would be. I didn’t think I was coming to a holiday camp. I knew I was committing myself to a radical way of living the Gospel and I wanted to live as fully for God as was possible. It is a wonderful vocation, living as we do, with our lives centred on Christ in the Eucharist. We carry all people in our hearts, and present them daily to the Lord. I have never regretted coming here. I thought, before I joined, that I was making a big sacrifice and doing a great thing in giving myself to the Lord. However, the more I live this life, the more I see that it is I who am on the receiving end, with God endlessly showering His love upon me. Everything has been a huge gift of grace, and I want to spend my life in thanksgiving to God for that.
So, what can I say that Medjugorje means to me? If I were to try and put it in a nutshell, I think I would have to say it is the home of my vocation. It is where I encountered the Lord in a real, life-changing way and I have never looked back since. I also encountered the gentle way that Our Lady works in our lives, leading us to her Son, while staying in the background. I am forever grateful to both of them for what I received there.
To purchase the book by Columba Books, visit here.
Also available as an e-book.
To view other titles by Louise Hall, visit here.