Good Shepherd 'did a lot of work to find me,' says young religious sister

Good Shepherd ‘did a lot of work to find me,’ says young religious sister

Good Shepherd ‘did a lot of work to find me,’ says young religious sister

Nuns shelter from the sun with their umbrellas bearing the colors of the Vatican flag prior to the start of Pope Francis's Angelus prayer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia.)

A young woman discusses her journey to religious life.

HAMDEN, Connecticut — After Christina Skelley graduated from Washington University, it seemed like her life had fallen into place.

Years of searching led her to the Catholic Church and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. She became active in campus ministry and then landed her dream job, working for the Chicago Symphony.

She got an apartment with her best friend in Chicago and was dating a young man. She loved city life and at lunch would walk to a nearby church for daily Mass. Jesus had indeed blessed her. Everything seemed perfect, but then something changed.

“I felt a nagging sense that I was living my second-best life,” she recalled. “When I came across the passage from Scripture that said, ‘I remember how you loved me as a bride’ in Jeremiah, I got the sense that Christ wanted more, he wanted me to marry him in religious life.”

She immediately pushed back and thought, “How could I, an only child, do this to my parents, who weren’t even Catholic?”

Thus began months of searching along a path she started on as a little girl who was looking for something more — Jesus.

Christina grew up outside of Chicago, the only child of two high school teachers, James and Susan. They loved her dearly, gave her a strong sense of the importance of education but they rarely talked about religion.

“As a teenager, I became skeptical of any faith that went beyond scientific proof,” she told the Fairfield County Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Bridgeport. “And yet I occasionally attended church with my paternal grandparents, Burton and Barbara, who were faithful Protestant Christians. I felt a longing for something deeper that I couldn’t push away.”

They gave her a children’s Bible, which she read. Her grandmother taught her to play the piano, which became a form of prayer for Christina.

“As a child, I had an openness to the faith even though I didn’t know a lot,” she said. “I knew the Christmas story, but didn’t know about the cross or much of anything else.”

Although the thought of becoming Christian was in the back of her mind, as a teenager she resisted the idea of joining a religion that would tell her what to do or “would say who would and would not go to heaven.”

However, her lifelong best friend Eleanore was a Catholic, and when Christina visited her family, she was exposed to grace before meals and prayers including the Hail Mary. “Something about the way they lived,” she said, “was a strong power of example.”

In high school, she had considered pursuing a career in science. But upon enrolling at Washington University in St. Louis, she entered the interdisciplinary project in the humanities, minoring in French and music.

After her first year there, her beloved grandmother died unexpectedly, “and my quest to figure out my beliefs became more urgent,” Christina said. “I longed to be a self-sufficient adult, yet I was beginning to realize that I desperately needed God and other people.”

By the end of sophomore year, she began to explore different religions and attend services. Her parents accepted her pursuit, if it made her happy.

Back at college in the fall, she started going to Mass, partly because her mother had been raised a non-practicing Catholic. Soon, she realized “how much I wanted to be a part” of receiving the body of Christ in the Eucharist.

She felt God was directing her to the Catholic Church. She finally went to the Catholic Student Center, met the religious sister heading the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program.

In 2006 she received the sacraments at Washington University and became part of the community at the center. At the end of her senior year, she was accepted for a post-graduate year of service in campus ministry.

Christina began to have an inkling that she might be called to the religious life, but she accepted that job in arts administration with the Chicago Symphony. A year later she had the sense “of looking for something else, for something more.”

She was attending daily Mass, was active in her parish and was praying regularly. Thoughts about religious life persisted.

Almost a year later, “God was getting through to me,” Christina said. “And I knew I would not be at peace on another path, so I said, ‘OK, God, I’ll look into it.'”

She reached out to several religious, including Sister Virginia Herbers, a member of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who had worked with her in campus ministry.

She met Sister Colleen Smith, then the congregation’s vocation director and currently director of mission advancement. The two met over lunch in Chicago and discussed Christina’s discernment.

From that came Christina agreeing, despite her hesitations, to visit one of the congregation’s ministries — Clelian Heights School for students with special needs in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

She found the sisters to be “deeply prayerful and down-to-earth joyful people, and their prayer and relationships with Christ flowed out into the rest of their lives.”

“My heart had been searching so long, and then I felt at home. It was like God was telling me, ‘This is it,'” she recalled. “Like God was proposing to me.” She accepted the proposal.

Christina entered the formation program in August 2012 and made her first vows in 2015 in Hamden, Connecticut, where the order’s U.S. province is based. She eventually got a master’s degree in teaching from St. Louis University and went on to teach fifth grade and music at St. Joseph School in Imperial, Missouri.

On July 26, Sister Christina Skelley renewed her vows at Mount Sacred Heart in Hamden.

For her parents, it required a period of adjustment.

“This was hard for them,” Christina said. “They never saw me doing anything like this. It meant moving away from my family and not having a family the way they had imagined, but the community has been extremely warm and welcoming to them.”

Looking back on her journey to conversion and religious life, Christina said: “God can find anybody. My favorite Gospel is the one about the Good Shepherd, who has to go after the lost sheep. That is what God did with me.”

“He did a lot of work to find me, and I can only respond with gratitude … and my life. Now, when I pray for people and see the struggles in their lives, I’m reminded to never give up on what God can do for someone.”

– – –

Pisani writes for the Fairfield County Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Bridgeport.


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