“At all Times and in all Places, God Draws Near”
Note: Sr. Regina Marie Gorman, O.C.D., vicar general of the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, served as Thomas Aquinas College’s 2015 Commencement Speaker.
The foundress of your community, Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Blessed Sacrament, was a very holy woman whose cause for canonization is now open. Would you tell us a little about her?
If you have watched the movie For Greater Glory, which tells the epic story of the Catholic persecution in Mexico in the 1920s, the dates, time, place, geography, people — those same dates mark the beginning of our community of sisters.
Mother Luisita was born in 1866 in Atotonilco, Jalisco, Mexico. She wanted to be a Carmelite nun, but her father, in very good faith, arranged a marriage for her when she was 15 years old to a physician twice her age. Together, they started a hospital for the poor. Their marriage was a happy one, but after 14 years, her husband died.
Mother Luisita continued to run the hospital, but in her heart she still longed to be a cloistered Carmelite. Eventually, in 1921 she and the holy women who had been helping her in her work received permission to be active Carmelites. The persecution of Catholics was increasing at that time, so her focus was to continue to do whatever good that she could do, for this person, at this moment.
By 1924 all of the sisters had dispersed and were hiding in the homes of courageous believers. Some of the sisters were caught and spent time in prison. Seeing that this was no way to form a community, Mother Luisita and two sisters came across the border in 1927. They were welcomed by Archbishop Cantwell of Los Angeles who asked them to work with the tubercular daughters of immigrant families.
Is this how your community began its healthcare apostolate?
Yes, and since then our apostolic service has grown. Today we serve God’s people in healthcare, education, and retreats. At this time we provide elder care from independent living through palliative care, preparing people for heaven, preparing them to see Jesus. We also provide childcare from six-week-old infants through pre-school; education from kindergarten through high school; and we have a retreat house, which is where our motherhouse and novitiate are. Our Lord has truly blessed us.
We are grateful to be able to live together in community. We are grateful to be able to wear the habit in a country that permits us to do so. Even though providing healthcare is a challenge because our government does not appreciate the privilege and need to care for our elders, our sisters are grateful to be called and to serve.
The charism of your order is to unite the contemplative spirit of Carmel with the active life. How does that play out, practically speaking?
It plays out in an attitude, an awareness that in every single moment God speaks with us, that at all times and in all places, God draws near. I listen for His voice. I am present to Him in prayer as much as I am when I am with the elderly, the child, the retreatant, with a person in the grocery store. I am looking for His face and I am listening for His voice — at all times. That only happens if I am praying regularly before the Blessed Sacrament. Each day, in addition to attending Mass, we chant together the divine office, the morning, evening, and night prayer of the Church. We make at least an hour of meditation. Each afternoon, we make a holy hour before Our Lord exposed in the Blessed Sacrament, and pray our Rosary in community.
How do you cultivate vocations in young women?
We have two programs. One is for young women to serve for two weeks with the sisters to learn what it is that we do in all our apostolates. The other is our series of “Come and See” retreats. The beauty of these retreats is that they are very authentic; they are not about us selling ourselves to the participants. As Carmelites, our primary purpose is to foster the interior life, first, our own, and then that of anyone we meet, helping them to become more attuned to what Our Lord is doing in their lives. Yes, we do show the young women our life, trusting that they will take this information back to prayer and see if “the shoe fits.” But we do not try to coax them, to recruit them. This would be hurting them. We simply ask them to ask Our Lord where He wants them to be.
That is our great commitment. In fact, that is how the sisters were with me. They taught me and inspired me to love Our Lady, to want to be near Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. We encourage the young girls who come to avail themselves of the sacraments, and we teach them how to prepare for confession and for Holy Communion. That will last throughout their lives. What happens with a young girl who does not have a vocation to the religious life? Chances are she will be our friend for the rest of her life. So the relationship will still be there, the communion. We are building the Body of Christ. If a young woman finds her vocation, then this is success.
Though this attitude to vocations seems “hands off,” you nevertheless have many vocations.
Yes, we do. God has blessed us. The vast majority of women are in their mid- to-late twenties. We never have had huge numbers, maybe three to five each year. What is beautiful about this, though, is that we do not have an age dominance in our community because we have always had a steady number. Now Our Lord seems to be attracting more women, and the women, by and large, are staying; they are persevering. Of those that do not stay, 98 percent of them are friends for life. They feel this was a very positive and life-giving experience, and they want to share it with their children.
How much of a draw for young women is your fidelity to the teachings of the Church?
I think it is a draw, but young people very often cannot put words to it. Very often they are not even aware that there are some who are not in alliance with the Church. What they are looking for is clarity of identity, and what they perceive is that we know what we are about. We know where we are going and how we are going to go there. They are also looking for something radical. They do not want to give their lives to something mediocre and comfortable. All of them, in some way or another, have been touched by Christ, and they want more.
What is your role as vicar general of your order?
The role of the vicar general is to give support to the superior general. The main responsibility of Mother is service to our sisters who have given their lives to be one with Christ. They do this through their personal prayer, their personal life, and through their apostolates, their service, their corporal and spiritual works of mercy. My job is to assist Mother by being vigilant and ensuring that our sisters have the support and formation they need in order to fulfill the goal of Carmel. The first focus is always the sisters’ well-being.
At the moment, Mother Judith also has me working on our plans to build a neighborhood of care for elders — for our laypeople who will receive excellent healthcare in an environment that brings them close to God. We have many sisters who are gifted, licensed, and certified in healthcare, and we know the strength, the beauty, and the healing of living in community. So we are creating a community of elders where they are needed, wanted, cherished, and well cared for. We will have a small amount of independent-living apartments, a large number of assisted-living units, and a significant number of skilled-nursing units.
With the many hours our sisters have spent before the Blessed Sacrament, they know there is a very thin veil between this life and eternity — and there is nothing we need fear. We want to companion the elderly, and the entire family, as their loved one — their mother, father, husband, or wife — prepares to go home to God. It is a beautiful gift to be able to journey with people during this sacred time of life.
In what ways did you and your sisters mark the Year of Consecrated Life?
There can be no renewal of religious life without prayer. So at the beginning of the Year of Consecrated Life, the sisters did a “Prayer Drive” through our website and our Facebook page. The goal was to get 10,000 people to commit to praying for vocations throughout the world for nine days, and 12,000 people actually committed!
Throughout the year we have had a series of open houses, “Come and See” events, and opportunities to serve and to pray with the sisters. We also held a “Sisters Appreciation Dinner” at our retreat house, inviting every community, every sister, in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to come to our house. We notified our friends and asked them to contribute, promising the prayers of the sisters in return for their appreciation. Restaurants kicked in, and we had a “Taste of the Town.” We had a showing of the movie Little Boy, and each sister received a small gift. All this was possible because of the laypeople who wanted to show their appreciation for religious.
We have also made a CD of the sisters’ singing called Lean into the Wind. It came out last spring and was very favorably reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. In fact, the Journal’s music critic told us that he typically starts critiquing music within about four measures. He said about our CD, however, that for the first time in many years, he allowed the music “to wash over” him, that though there is no value placed on the quality of joy out there in the music world, that was the very hallmark of our sisters’ singing.
What are your impressions of the College?
When I was delivering my address to the students, I was struck by the clarity of their eyes. When they came up to receive their diplomas, they all had such a look of purity, of confidence, of clarity — every single one. These are not things learned in a “manners” class. They come from something deep within them. The inner poise and confidence and humility in their eyes was absolutely stunning.