During the month of October, the Sisters of the Holy Cross Laudato Siʹ Office is focusing on pastoral ministry on the peripheries—those physical, emotional and spiritual places that often go unnoticed. Featured stories relay how sisters respond to the cries of Earth and people in situations of impoverishment through pastoral ministry outreach. Here, Laudato Siʹ Coordinator Katie Yohe discusses with Sister Mary Elizabeth Bednarek, CSC, what pastoral ministry means to her.
Sister Mary Elizabeth Bednarek, how did you know that you wanted to be a sister?
I usually say that I grew up in the back seat of a car. About every two years my father, [who] was in the military, received a new assignment and we moved. I went to 10 schools before finishing high school. However, with all the moving, schools and adaptation this put on my parents and family, I was always impressed by their concern and care that we find a parish and a Catholic school. Faith was always a part of our family rhythm. We prayed at meals, at bedtime, Mass on Sunday, May processions, no meat on Fridays, etc.
Because we were to be sent overseas, I was six when I received First Communion at my mother’s insistence. When I was 11, we moved to London, England. And it was during this period that I began to sense God’s presence and my desire for him. A personal experience of his presence when I was 12 stayed with me through moves, schools and high school.
Returning to the States, I attended Saint Mary’s Academy, in Alexandria, Virginia, run by Holy Cross sisters. Their missionary charism and visits from Sister M. Canisius (Minahan), CSC, from “East Bengal” confirmed my search for a Congregation. Because travel and moving were part of my life, I couldn’t see myself in one place or in one job forever. Meeting people, making new friends, learning to relate and adapt to new cultures and differences had always been a part of my life. One of the vocational flyers advised that any talent or gift you had could be used in Holy Cross. That encouraged me, since I didn’t know what talent I possessed. I just “knew,” in a deep way, that this was where I was called. It was this “knowing,” flowing from my experience of God’s presence, that kept me going during difficult times.
What is pastoral ministry to you, and what experiences and influences helped you come to that vision?
God is relationship, and being present to others, especially in their need, is foremost. All ministry, including pastoral ministry, is built on relationship and being present to, getting to know, listen, understand, walk with, and see God’s presence in all persons and situations.
My parents were very relational. When my family moved into a new neighborhood or country, they began to meet and get to know others and their stories. Our house was a meeting place of many!
Jesus walked with the people, taught by what he did as well as with words. He received, questioned and served their needs through “transforming love.” He showed us how to build a community of believers and “do” pastoral ministry.
As a religious, that is what I am sent to do/be! As I listen to people on the peripheries, their needs become evident and that turns into “ministry.”
In what countries have you ministered?
I’ve served in the United States, Brazil, Ghana and Uganda.
Sister Mary Elizabeth Bednarek, what was your favorite pastoral ministry experience and why?
After teaching 15 years in our large school in São Paulo, Brazil, we opened a new mission in the northeast of Brazil in the State of Bahia. Three of us were sent to a very large parish spread over two counties, from the coast to the interior rural areas. After 11 months the parish priest died. As there was no one to replace him, the bishop put us in charge of the parish, where we served for the next nine years!
It was after Vatican II and the seminal meeting of Latin American Bishops in Medellín, Columbia, which transformed pastoral ministry in Brazil. The preferential option for the poor, Base Christian Communities, and insertion among the people were the new guidelines.
The parish consisted of 80 rural communities and two large towns. As a team, we visited them all, listened to the people, experienced their needs, and then began our ministries. Working this way with the people, we formed lay leaders, youth groups, a school for children with disabilities, Base Christian Communities. We also helped organize just pay for washerwomen, prepared catechists, organized Bible groups with the people, ministered baptisms, and witnessed marriages. Before we arrived, there were no pastoral activities except Mass. We found the people open and desiring to grow and participate in their faith.
Jesus walked with the people, taught by what he did as well as with words. He received, questioned and served their needs through “transforming love.”
Share a story of a personal interaction with someone you were ministering to and how it impacted you.
While teaching adolescents in São Paulo, I was very touched by a personal conversation with a student who shared her difficult relationships, sense of guilt, fear of sharing. And while listening to her, I realized her “confession” was real and sincere, and that, as a woman religious, I represented God’s presence to her. In union with God’s love and care, I prayed with her for the gift of forgiveness. It was a healing moment. A few months later, she was killed in a car accident. I believe God uses us, as women, to be his priestly presence.
Another moment, in the parish with no priest, the people came to our house and asked if I would pray for someone sick. I followed them to a house where a man with AIDS was dying. He was able to share some of his story. I blessed him with holy oil and prayed over all of his senses. He got up! Walked a few steps, smiled and then lay down peacefully. The family and I held hands, asked Mary to be present and bless him and the family members, and he slipped away into God’s hands.
What tips do you have for people interested in doing ministry in their local church setting? How can we all practice pastoral outreach in our daily lives?Whatever our life calling is, or what particular job we have, as Christians we are called to be witnesses of God’s presence in the way we relate and work. How do you use the gifts and talents you have received? In that sense, all of us are “ministering” to one another. Respect, willingness to learn, listening and dialogue are fundamental. Knowing oneself, discipline, patience and gentleness are all vital. In our global societies, intercultural understanding is paramount. It is a mutual process of growth that takes faith, openness to make and learn from mistakes, and, most important, to let love lead!