'Love means radical solidarity': Walking with the Sisters of Life
A Pillar interview
The Sisters of Life are a special kind of religious community. Founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O’Connor, the sisters take a vow to protect and enhance the sanctity of human life — and they that much of their community life flows from that pledge.
Dedicated to Eucharistic prayer and community life, their mission includes caring for vulnerable pregnant women and their unborn children; bringing Christ to women wounded by abortion, and fostering a culture of life through evangelization.
Sr. Marie Veritas, SV is the community's director of evangelization, living at St. Frances de Chantal Convent in the Bronx, NY. She sat down with Charlie Camosy to talk about the sisters’ work, what accompaniment means when working with women in crisis, and about a new video series the sisters launched on Friday, in partnership with the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Sisters of Life is a relatively young order. How did it come to be? And how did you find yourself called to this particular vocation?
In a real way, the Sisters of Life were born from ashes. Cardinal John O’Connor visited the Dachau concentration camp, where thousands were tortured and killed during the Second World War. As he placed his hands into the semicircular red brick ovens, he said he had a profound spiritual experience in which he felt the intermingled ashes of Christian and Jew, rabbi and priest. Pierced to the heart, he cried out: “My God! How can human beings do this to other human beings?”
In that moment, he made a promise: to do everything in his power to protect human life. After years of preaching, advocacy, and prayer, it came to him: a different kind of response was needed to counter the “culture of death” pervading society — a spiritual response.
After years of prayer, he penned an unadorned headline in a local Catholic New York paper: “Help Wanted: Sisters of Life.” He described his vision for a religious community of women who would give themselves fully to the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of every human life, beginning with the most vulnerable. The article was reprinted across the nation, and to the surprise of the cardinal, hundreds of letters poured in.
On June 1, 1991, eight women gathered in New York to form the new community of the Sisters of Life. Since then, the community has grown to over a hundred Sisters from across the globe.
I myself, born and raised in Alberta, Canada, discovered the Sisters of Life when I was in university. I was deeply affected by the self-destructive behavior I regularly witnessed on campus. My fellow students tended to treat themselves cheaply, and as a result, there was a lot of woundedness and confusion. In my prayer time in the tiny, quiet chapel on campus, I had been astounded by Jesus' personal, tender, unique love for me — the deep, real me. And I yearned that others might experience this, too.
It was actually this ache for people to know their own goodness and God's love that helped open my heart again to the call to religious life, which I had been resisting from childhood. After years of battling the Lord’s call, one day I finally surrendered to the love to which I knew He was inviting me… and in that moment of surrender, I felt this peace and joy that I had never known before. I felt more myself in that moment than I ever had before. My friend met the Sisters of Life at World Youth Day Australia in 2008, and she came back and told me, “I met these Sisters… the Sisters of Life. I can totally see you as one of them!”
I just shrugged it off. But when I looked up the website, it was like I walked into my own heart. This desire for others to know their own goodness, which I had been experiencing so profoundly — is at the heart of our community: that every person might know that they are sacred, made in God's image.
There's a lot of abstract talk about abortion--and women at risk for abortion--from people who often know little-to-nothing about the actual reality on the front lines.
What has working directly with vulnerable women, and loving them, taught you about our contemporary abortion debate?
We all want to be seen, to be known, to be loved. We all desire to know that we are good, that we are lovable, that we matter. And we all feel vulnerable in different ways and at different times.
A woman who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant experiences these vulnerabilities and desires in a magnified way. She desires so deeply to be received, to be believed in, to be upheld and supported.
Instead of this, she often is met with misunderstanding, fear, abandonment, immense pressures from those around her, and a profound experience of spiritual battle in her heart. She so often feels terribly alone, paralyzed by fear, and in darkness. As we’ve journeyed with and listened to women over the years, we’ve discovered that love changes everything. Perfect love casts out fear. Christ’s love is the only answer to the wounds and sufferings of our time.
We’ve found that when serving a woman in a crisis pregnancy, love means radical solidarity with her, which means meeting her where she is at. Our posture of heart is to look at each woman not as a project, a task, or an argument to be won, but as a daughter of God, beloved, sacred, with dreams and a destiny.
When a woman is able to see and experience herself as a gift, she is then able to experience her child as a gift. A woman who knows she is loved can do anything.
Abortion is more than a political issue, or a women’s issue, or a hot button topic. Abortion has faces and a names. When speaking about abortion, it’s so important to speak through the lens of mercy, not judgment. We never know what someone has experienced in their lives, what immense spiritual and emotional pressures they were experiencing that led them down a path to abortion, and what devastation — often a silent, hidden anguish — they have experienced in the wake of that choice.
Many of the women share with us how their abortions wounded them deeply, and how they battled for years, even decades, with this pain. But God has a unique and beautiful plan of healing for every soul; there is no sin or darkness bigger than the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.
You are launching a new ‘Intro Life’ video series with Notre Dame's McGrath Institute for Church Life. I think it has the potential to help us understand, on a much more intimate level, what the Sisters of Life know.
What are the goals for the series?
In 2020, Life Tricia C. Bruce published this amazing, watershed study called “How Americans Understand Abortion: A Comprehensive Interview Study of Abortion Attitudes in the U.S.” at the McGrath Institute. It interviewed Americans from all walks of life about their experience and understanding of abortion. What the study found, in a nutshell, is that most Americans have never really had a real discussion about abortion.
When questioned, most people actually don’t fit neatly into the labels and slogans that are commonly used by media, but have more varied understandings affected by personal experience, by concerns for women to be able to live a good life, by a desire to take into account situational circumstances, and by a general sense that abortion is not a happy or desirable event.
As a fallout from this study, McGrath’s Jessica Keating Floyd and Christina Leblang approached us about turning our Co-Worker Training Formation Day into a video series for a wider audience, hopefully to get people thinking and talking about pro-life in a new way. So, by God’s grace and the generosity of the McGrath Institute, we teamed up and reached out to Michael Campo of CampCampo Films.
I think the most important goal of this project is to open hearts to the wonder and beauty of the human person, made in God's image and likeness, to inspire a deeper desire to accompany each other into life.
As Sr. Bethany Madonna, SV shares in the video, "In this age of fear and confusion, where abortion and euthanasia and suicide are all too commonplace , God has summoned us — each of us — to remind others who they are, to invite them to a flourishing life, and to share the good news that nothing —and no situation — is beyond the love and mercy of Jesus Christ."
This series is meant to be not only a resource for pro-life work, but for the whole scope of human relationships — Our hope is that every person who watches it will come to know deeply that their life is a gift, that they are good, made in God’s image, and that their life has profound meaning and worth.
Of the 12 episodes, do you have a favorite?
I love them all, honestly, so it’s hard to choose a favorite. Each of them unpacks something fundamental about accompaniment, solidarity, and understanding the heart of the other. But I do really love the first one, The Summons, which invites and inspires about the beauty and goodness of life and God’s call to receive the other (and yourself) as a sacred gift. The Listening videos are also particularly notable - they really help you understand not just the importance of listening, but actually how to listen, which we have found vital in our missions to pregnant women.
This series is not meant to be just an intellectual activity or social study, but an integrated experience that engages the whole person — body, mind, soul. One way to watch the videos I particularly would encourage is in a small group, using the study guide created to accompany it:
I think there is a special power to watching them in communion with others and actually discussing them in a thoughtful and intentional way, with times of group and personal prayer and reflection. I would highly encourage anyone participating to lean into these times of prayer, and to give God permission to speak into their hearts and their own personal experience in a new way.
INTO LIFE: Love Changes Everything is an original, free online formation program that includes 12 videos, support materials, and pastoral resources.