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Vocations: From Olympic hopeful to Sister of Life

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Sr Mary Grace and Sr Leonie Therese enjoying a day of leisure in Maine in July 2023. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SISTERS OF LIFE

Sport was Sister Mary Grace’s daily bread when growing up on Sydney’s northern beaches but as a young adult God opened up her heart to something much greater.

Known also to many Australian Catholics as Jessica Langrell, the Sister of Life spoke to The Catholic Weekly by Zoom from her convent in the Bronx in New York.

She’s preparing to make her final vows, age 33, on 5 August along with seven of her friends from the community—and also celebrates 10 years in religious life this year.

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The Sisters of Life were founded by young Catholic women in New York in 1991, to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life.

Sr Mary Grace says only God could have pulled her to a convent 16000 kms away from her beloved family, friends and Sydney beaches and even a chance of representing Australia at the Olympics.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a strong pulling,” she agreed.

“Growing up I never saw a nun. It was not even on my radar. If anything, it terrified me, something that was so distant. I honestly didn’t even think people were doing this anymore, at least not willingly or happily.

“And that’s the mystery of God’s plan for each one of us.

“God wants our happiness, he wants our joy and he’s called us to love in particular and unique ways, and I think we’re all waiting for our hearts to come alive in love.”

Vibrant and with wisdom beyond her years, Jessica was one of the first organisers of Sydney’s popular event series for young adults, Theology on Tap, which her brother Patrick began in 2007.

Sr Mary with a missionary from Damascus Equip Conference in Columbus, Ohio, above. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DAMASCUS.

She later served in campus ministry at the University of Notre Dame, where she obtained her theology degree.

When World Youth Day came to Sydney in 2008 she met members of a new congregation—the Sisters of Life, from New York’s Bronx district—and never imagined she would follow them all the way back, five years later.

Just out of school, the sports-mad teenager was hoping for a career as a professional athlete but was also thinking of journalism, teaching or politics.

She also dreamt of having a big family and coaching her own football team.

But her conversations with the visiting sisters, whose congregation has an average age in the mid-30s, struck her powerfully.

“It wasn’t their vocation, it was that these were women who were really alive and in love with God,” she explained.

“God was real to them, he was alive, he was making a difference in their life, and it wasn’t just about being a good Catholic.

“That to me was such a beautiful thing to witness and I noticed when I first saw it that I was lacking that in my own heart.”

Growing up I never saw a nun. It was not even on my radar. If anything, it terrified me, something that was so distant. I honestly didn’t even think people were doing this anymore, at least not willingly or happily.” – Sr Mary Grace

Though “not hit with an instant vocation lightning bolt” she began to pray differently from that time, and while she studied, worked and socialized, she says she also encountered the Lord in her heart. “I started to really talk to God about what was going on inside me. And I was like, ‘What just happened there? Who are you? Are you real? Can you make that difference in my life?

“’I don’t want to just follow you on a rule-basis; is there more to life than just living a good life and fulfilling all my dreams? What are your dreams for my life?’

“I wasn’t having pious thoughts or great prayer experiences. I just really woke up to the fact that I had a heart and really great desires, and I think God wants them to come true.”

In her early 20s two opportunities became clear. She arranged to spend a month with the Sisters of Life to discern whether she had a religious vocation, and she also tried out for Australia’s first-ever Olympic women’s rugby sevens team.

She got the call to say she had made the Olympic training team as she waited to board her plane to New York.

“They said, ‘We like what you’ve got and could you put aside the next two years for this’,” she said, shaking her head.

“I could not believe the timing. It was hard not to think that God was teasing me, honestly. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’

“But God new it was exactly what I needed. He wanted to show me, ‘This is your greatest desire in life, what you think will bring you most meaning, now let me tell you about your heart and show you who you really are.’”

That month she grappled with all of her hopes and fears about religious life, writing out “pages and pages” for and against.

But in a moment at prayer she understood that God was only asking her to discover her own deepest hopes.

“It sent this flood of freedom through me, as I realised not that God was calling me to be Sister of Life as such, but God wanted to hear from me what I really wanted, which was to love him and serve him, as I saw these sisters did,” she said.

“His deepest desire for me was that my deepest desire come about, and he was not prepared to settle for the Olympic dream—he was going for everything.

“I had a tremendous upbringing in a very devout Catholic family that I’m so grateful for, which set me up for this.

“And what I needed was a moment in my life to realise that it wasn’t just about what I did as a Catholic, it was who I was in relationship with and that God knew me, loved me, and was all about me living a full and alive life.”

Now ministering in the institute’s Evangelisation Mission and co-hosting its podcast Let Love, each day Sr Mary Grace fights what she sees as an ever-growing contempt for life, with contemplation of God’s love for each person she meets.

She made her first, temporary vows in 2018 and has spent three years in Canada serving vulnerable pregnant woman and women suffering after an abortion.

She still loves sport and will run on a treadmill, go for walks with fellow sisters, play basketball or the latest craze, pickleball, in her free time.

“One of the gifts of the religion vocation is that while I say ‘no’ to my own immediate family and the possibility of having my own children, that giving up is always for a great ‘yes,’” Sr Mary Grace explained.

“God asks some people, ‘Would you offer up the gift of having your own children so that you can look at every single human being as if you were that person’s mother, that child or woman before you, this elderly man you’re visiting in hospital or the person you’re walking by on the street?’

“That is not possible on a human level, but God makes it possible and I’ve been amazed at the people I have loved as if they’re my own.

“For me that is one of the biggest testimonies of God’s grace and power and infinite love; when I can be sitting with a woman who’s sharing the depths of her pain and suffering of experiencing an abortion, everything she’s been through and the pressures she was experiencing, and while listening actually experience in my own heart and my own being such a compassionate love for her, actually experiencing the Lord’s mercy and kindness for her, and receiving her in that way.

“That’s the beauty of God, that he actually chooses each one of us to be instruments and carriers of his life and love to others, whether we are ordained or religious or married or single.

“So, while my final profession is about my relationship with the Lord and my whole life’s purpose, my commitment to religious life is basically a public witness to everyone who participates in it to the way God looks at every single soul, and why we’re all here and where we’re all going.”

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