Since August 2014 a small group of Dominican sisters of St. Cecilia have been living and working in Sittard, The Netherlands. They are from the United States of America. I spoke with Mary Amata, one of the sisters, about faith, joy and love. And, of course, about Christmas.
By: Tanja van Hummel
Did you grow up in a family where faith played a role?
My family went to Mass every Sunday, and although we moved often because of my father’s work, all five children in my family attended Catholic schools or religious education programs wherever we lived. We prayed together before meals, and Advent and Lenten devotions always played a part in the life of my family. I remember celebrating the anniversary of our Baptisms like a second birthday each year, and when I would leave for the university or a long trip, my father would pray for me. Our faith played a large role in my life, but it wasn’t until high school when I accepted the Catholic Faith as my own and began to live a life of real faith in Jesus.
How did you discover that you are called to a religious life?
When I was in high school, I went on my first retreat with other high school students. For the first time in my life, I discovered that Jesus is real – not just a nice story – and He wants to have a deep relationship with His people. I realized that He is present to me in prayer, in the Eucharist, and every moment of the day, and He desires for me to know His love and mercy and to share it with others. From that moment on, I knew I needed to change my life and begin living for Him and for others. I started helping in a homeless shelter with Mother Teresa’s sisters in Washington DC; then, I took a year off to work with prisoners, refugees, and the homeless in New York. After that year I attended university, and although I desired marriage and a family, I also felt a strong desire to the religious life. When I met the sisters of our congregation, I recognized in them a joy that was so striking, from the youngest postulant to the oldest sister in her 90’s. I realized that their joy came not so much from what they did (in their work), but it came from their union with God and their love for Him. From the first time I met our sisters and visited our Motherhouse in Nashville, Tennessee, I felt God calling me to be His.
How did people around you react on your decision to enter the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville?
My parents were very happy, because although they had never pushed me toward religious life, I think that they knew that I would become a sister much earlier than I did. It was hard on my sister and brothers who perhaps envisioned a different life for me. Some of the people at my work and some of my university professors didn’t quite know what to think – a young woman with a bright future, seemingly giving everything up to enter the convent. It didn’t make sense to them. My biggest support came, unexpectedly, from my best friend in the university who was Protestant. She said that if I hear God calling me to do something, I’d better respond to Him!
What do you see as your mission as a Dominican Sister?
We are given a new name when we receive the religious habit; I asked for the name “Amata” which means “Beloved.” With a new name comes a new mission, as in the case (in the Bible) of Saul becoming Paul or Simon becoming Peter or Abram becoming Abraham. I have felt that my mission as a Dominican Sister is closely linked to my name – we are called as sisters to be living witnesses of the truth that God is Love and He desires His people to accept this love and to be lights in this world – a world that can be very dark from sin and despair. Saint Dominic preached that God’s creation is good and that we are called to live in loving relationship with Him. We are called to be people of hope and to live virtuous lives modeled on the Beatitudes. This isn’t easy, but it’s possible with God’s grace. We are all weak and in need of mercy – God wants each of us to know that we are the “Beloved” sons and daughters. Unfortunately, our image of God can become distorted because of anxiety, fear, or bad experiences growing up. Our mission as sisters is to restore the right image of God as loving Father, and to be the loving face of Christ to the people we serve.
How do you experience your time in the Netherlands? What do you appreciate here and what is difficult for you?
The past year and a half has been an experience unlike any I have ever had. Of course the “culture shock” and language acquisition have been normal difficulties for all three of us on our mission. The people of Sittard have been welcoming, hospitable, and very encouraging toward us. I appreciate that people have given us time to learn the language and to get to know the culture. It is difficult to communicate the deepest things – those that reach hearts (and where I speak from my own heart) – so that can be frustrating, (but also a source of humility and patience!)
Do you see or visit your family sometimes, now you are living in the Netherlands?
My family can’t come to visit Europe, since it is expensive to travel. We see our parents on a yearly home visit for about a week. The mother of one of our sisters came to visit last year – and she became “mom” to all three of us!
How will you celebrate Christmas?
We have missions of our (American) sisters in Scotland and Italy, and they are all coming to Sittard for Christmas. (We call it our “European Summit”!) We will have 14 sisters all together in our convent – like a big family! We are very much looking forward to being together and celebrating Christmas together. We celebrate mainly through the Church’s liturgy (going to Midnight Mass and Mass on Christmas Day). We also celebrate by eating meals together, and just being together.
What is the message of Christmas you would like to tell to the people?
Jesus came as a baby out of love for us. God became man to show us that although we are weak and frail human beings, we are capable of sharing in God’s own Divine life through His grace. He desires that we know Him and have faith in Him; perhaps this Christmas, we can dare to accept Him in faith in a deeper way than ever before.
Tanja van Hummel is a philosopher and works as an editor at nieuwwij.nl.