Vocations of women religious
Religious life is a ‘dynamic experience of life and God,’ Sister Áine O’Connor says
Nov 25, 2019
Nearly 25 years since joining the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Áine O’Connor said she still finds her vocation and life as a religious woman a “dynamic experience of life and God.”
“What I love about a vocation is it’s a daily call,” she said.
As one of the five sisters that sits on the leadership team for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Sister Áine said she works to continue the “spiritual role, mission role, and leadership for justice role” of the Sisters of Mercy.
An Ireland native, Sister Áine grew up in Dublin as one of five daughters, just around the corner from the first House of Mercy opened by the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, in 1827. With an aunt who was a Sister of Mercy in Australia, Sister Áine said that while she didn’t consider entering the religious life at the time, she did notice her aunt as a “very joy-filled woman” during visits with family.
She described her family as “faith-filled.” Raised in the Catholic Church, she said she grew up with the understanding of what it meant to be spiritual and to also form a relationship with God. Her father, she said, was a frequent reader of theology books who invited his daughters into conversation about theological topics.
When Sister Áine was in her mid-twenties studying to receive her doctorate at Trinity College in Dublin, she came to the United States to do research as a speech pathologist. Her plan was to stay in the states for 11 months.
“I had my life mapped out,” she said. “I had a sense of where my life would take me. I didn’t have a conscious sense of a religious vocation.”
In the United States, she found a “very dynamic Church,” she said, where she felt invited to be “fully alive.”
“I was taken by the sense of service in the Church,” she said. “When we left the table of the Eucharist, we were invited into service.”
Around this time when she was experiencing the Catholic Church in America, her father then began sending reflections on his faith to his daughters over email.
“It was a deep invitation for us to reflect on our faith journey, especially as an adult,” Sister Áine said.
From there, she began to ask what it really meant to be active in the faith.
Sister Áine’s research was based at a Sisters of Mercy hospital in Atlanta, St. Joseph’s Hospital, and she said she noticed during her time there that the whole hospital and the community that served there, was “alive with a sense of mercy.”
“I began to think, ‘What can I give?’,” she said. “They seemed to be asking, ‘What’s in you?’”
A key moment for Sister Áine was during a healthcare outreach volunteer program, where they ministered to people living in the streets.
“I just saw the needs of people, immigrants, people who lack the most basic health care, and it was a real assault on their sense of dignity,” she said. “I knew when I went home that I was either going to stay awake with a sense of what I had witnessed, or fall asleep. And I stayed awake.”
That “sense of an actual opportunity of encounter,” for Sister Áine, as she described it, impacted her deeply.
“I absolutely knew the mission had to continue,” she said. “...I knew I had one option, to wholeheartedly enter into religious life.”
Her attraction to religious life was with the Sisters of Mercy, she said, and it was with their mission that she felt called to continue.
“I can’t not be in the thick of it…,” she said. “The ministry of the Church, the Church of the people of God. What a gift we have to bear witness to a God who is alive.”
The five ministries of the Sisters of Mercy – anti-racism, women and children, sustainability, immigration and anti-violence – guide both Sister Áine’s work and the work of all the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, who seek to be the “face of justice work,” Sister Áine said.
“Our Church has the opportunity today to recognize it is (a place for) radical hospitality, but engagement of all people,” she said.
Throughout her years with the Sisters of Mercy, Sister Áine has worked in hospital administration, ministry, and as the sisters’ representative for Mercy International at the United Nations.
“I was able to bring concerns of the people and Earth on the ground to the United Nations,” Sister Áine said.
Most recently in the Washington, D.C. area, Sister Áine serves on the leadership team for the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, where she works to guide the order to continue its mission and vocation. She said the role is a spiritual one, a missionary one, and a leadership for justice role.
“I absolutely believe God continues to call us to live out our vows in religious life,” she said, adding that she believes that call is as “alive as ever before.”
To women who might have a religious vocation, Sister Áine said, “Be open, let God do the rest in you.”