Sr. Catherine Lynn- Love Himself thirsts to be lovedSr. Catherine Lynn Forsythe. Franciscan Sisters TORI was born in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada on June 17, 1963.  That was the month that Pope John XXIII died and Pope Paul VI was elected.  I love Church trivia; actually, I just love trivia.  My Mom and Dad were Shirley and Harold Forsythe, both gone to be with the Lord now.  When I was born, they were faithful Anglicans, having grown up in that tradition, and I was baptized in the Anglican Church.  At the time of my birth, I had two older brothers, Paul and Mark.  Later (12 years), my brother John came on the scene.  My parents attended what they called an Anglo-Catholic church and gradually began to ask some serious questions about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the authority structure needed to promote and protect this doctrine.  After many years of anguished prayer, they joined the Roman Catholic Church, leaving behind relationships with many people they loved.  My Dad had been the choir director and organist and I know he found it hard to leave that behind.  Of course, he wound up doing the same ministries after we entered the Catholic Church.  I was six years old when we entered the Church, and we did so as a family.  My parents received excellent instruction in the faith, and passed it along to us as best they could.  Unfortunately, they relied heavily on the Catholic schools, thinking that we were learning the faith there.  We were not.  I am so thankful for the objective graces that flow from Holy Communion, Penance and Confirmation, because I had no idea what these sacraments meant when I was initially receiving them.  Sad but true.  My faith survived Catholic grade school and I attended public high school.  At the Catholic school I had not been taught untruth, I just had not been taught much of anything about the faith.  It seems like many schools were going through the same experience at that time.  My parents became involved in the charismatic renewal in 1973, when I was 10 years old.  Things changed after that in our home.  My parents began to speak about their faith in Jesus openly, but gently.  There were prayer meetings in our living room with my Dad playing the piano and exuberant sounds of joyful singing and praise of the Lord filling the whole house.  My parents spoke about scripture a lot and their faith really took on a new life.  It was pretty contagious, I will admit, and I was even prayed over for the baptism in the Spirit when I was 10 or 11 years old, but it was all too new and strange for me then, as I was entering into my teen years.  I just wanted to be normal and my parents were definitely not normal!

Of course, I did not learn the faith at my public high school, but I did begin to ask the larger questions of life:  What am I doing here?  Why did God make me?  What is life about anyway?  Why is there so much suffering if God is good? And the like.  These questions caused me to be rather restless and I suspect a bit difficult to manage at home. My parents, in a great act of courage and faith signed me up for a youth retreat weekend without asking me.  I say it was an act of courage and faith because I was (am) quite strong-willed and not pleasant when crossed.  I think the Lord has overcome that a little in me now, thanks to the vow of obedience.  I am told (I do not remember) that I slammed every door that I could get my hands on for the next two weeks, before the retreat and gave my parents the silent treatment (this was decidedly not contemplative silence!).  I resigned myself to remaining in my sleeping bag during the whole retreat and not talking to anyone.  I was a bit of a hard case.  Gradually I softened.  The love of the young adult leaders and the presence of so many (90) young people who seemed to want to grow in their faith wore me down.  By the time I received a letter from my parents, expressing their love for me, I was mush, emotionally speaking, and ready to give God a go.  I realized that my parents’ generous and consistent love for me was so clearly an expression of God’s even greater love for me.  For the first time as a young adult, I experienced the unconditional love of the Father for me, and knew that Jesus would have died and rose from the dead just for me, if I was the only person who needed His gift of salvation.  I received the Sacrament of Reconciliation that weekend for the first time in years, and I remember going into the chapel afterward and knowing deeply that Jesus was really there present in the Blessed Sacrament for the first time in my life.  That was just grace.  I did not even pay much attention to this grace at the time, but I have come to realize its significance in my religious vocation.  I met Jesus for the first time personally on that retreat and decided with my strong will to love Him with the whole of my being.  I have always been a bit extreme.  I was 17 years old at this time of conversion.  The scriptures came to life for me and my whole demeanor changed.  When I returned to school after this retreat weekend, fellow students could actually see that I was different, but could not figure out what looked different about me.  His joy was growing in me, and it seems that it was physically evident, as many seemed to comment on this to me.  A youth group began in our parish after that retreat, and I joined a new youth music ministry in our parish as well.  It was a time of tremendous growth for me.  As I listened to the scriptures being read at Mass, and continued reading them myself prayerfully, they made sense to me for the first time.  I now heard them in an utterly personal way, knowing that God was speaking to me in these sacred words of His.  Many of my friends left the Catholic Church for more exciting protestant denominations (Bible-believing churches), but I stayed.  I gradually realized that the Catholic Church not only believed in the Bible; they wrote it under the inspiration of God’s Spirit!  However, initially I only stayed in the Church because I had begun to believe in the Real Presence and because to live in my parents’ house meant mandatory church attendance.  I began to recognize sacred scripture in the Mass prayers, nearly all of the Mass prayers, and I thought that was good.  All of this was enough to keep me in the Church long enough for God to work on me a little more.  Obviously, I am glad I stuck around long enough for the Holy Spirit to convince me of His presence with, in and through the Church.

I gradually began to realize that my faith was different from others in some kind of significant way, but it was not clear to me why I often had this feeling of being different.  It was a growing sense that I just had to give God everything in my life, every part of my life and person, all of my time and talent, everything, even my future and my vocation.  I had no idea what that would mean, but I felt it growing in me.  Then I was open to “being prayed with” for a deeper stirring up of the Holy Spirit within me; and all that had begun in me with my initial decision only grew.  Among other things, I was becoming totally convinced about Jesus’ Presence in the Eucharist.  About six months after the first retreat I went to a high school youth conference at the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  When I stepped off the bus at the university, I had a strong sense within me, “There is truth here”.  I had no idea why that thought ran through my mind.  The conferences were not as dynamic as they are today, but God was still quite alive and active among us.  Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. led the Friday evening session and asked rather energetically if any of us wanted to commit our lives to Jesus.  I sat with my 50 youth group friends and thought, “I’ve done that already, I don’t need to stand up.”  The Lord had other ideas.  No one in my group was standing because they were probably all thinking the same thing I was thinking.  There I sat, feeling as if a knife was coming through the bottom of my chair, urging me to stand and commit my life to Christ.  It was so strong that I could not resist and I somehow knew that it was very important for me to stand and make this commitment.  I didn’t understand.  When I did stand, I knew a freedom and joy I had never known and I stood alone among my sitting friends, not concerned about what they thought of me.  I still didn’t understand why the Lord had seemingly urged me to do it. It was not until I entered our community in 1997, that I began to understand what had happened all those years ago.  I believe that the Lord was asking me to be prepared to stand apart from the crowd, even the Catholic Christian crowd, to be and to do whatever He would ask of me.  It was the beginning of a call to be “set apart” for God, for holy purposes, which is literally the meaning of the word “consecrate.”  God was smart enough to not dump the whole thing in my lap at that time.  If I had known that He was calling me to be a religious sister, I would have run screaming in the other direction, any other direction.  I attended many, many conferences at FUS after that, coming at least once every summer.

I continued my education at the University of Toronto, majoring in psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology.  I loved the studies, but Christian fellowship was hard to come by.  My faith really became my own during that time, although I began to skip Sunday Mass regularly, having no idea that it was important to go.  The parish near campus was unfamiliar, seemingly unfriendly, and just not my own. I knew that Jesus was there in the Eucharist, but almost everything else about the Church was driving me crazy at the time and I had many questions about Church teaching.  The Church meant very little to me but I prayed for long periods and read scripture extensively.  I developed a deep love for the Jewish people at this time and even corresponded with a sister from a community which ministers primarily with Jews.  Part of the ‘shema”, the prayer that faithful Jews pray daily, is the passage from Deuteronomy 6: 4-5:  “Hear, O Israel:   The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”  This passage became the basis for my whole life.  It is still my favorite passage in scripture.  I basically tolerated being Catholic, knowing so little about my Catholic faith, unable to appreciate it.  As I read and prayed with the scriptures, I began to realize that I was reading a good bit about the Lord as Bridegroom to us as His bride.  Ezekiel 16: 8-14 seemed to almost jump off the page at me.  In fact, even the passages that were not specifically nuptial began to take on that same sense for me.  Slowly, I began to ask myself what this could mean, not daring to believe I might be called to marry God.  I had had little exposure to religious sisters, and I don’t know how I even knew that they were married to God.  Sally Field, who starred in the TV show “The Flying Nun” was the most positive image of religious life that I had.  It became a persistent, almost nagging question, “Lord, do you want me to be a sister?”  The idea filled me with a sense of awe and dread simultaneously.  I just couldn’t imagine it, nor did I want to.  The call to poverty was very strong and I remember thinking that maybe St. Francis was in on this whole thing the Lord was doing with me, particularly given my experiences at FUS.  I visited an established, but dying congregation for a weekend and walked away knowing that I was not called to join them, but religious life was beginning to seem like it might be right for me.  It scared me, but I continued to feel drawn.

I finished my degree and began to work in various social service jobs with the developmentally handicapped and the elderly, and finally ended up working in special education.  During this time, I stumbled across some tapes by Scott Hahn and began to learn the faith for the first time.  It blew me away.  Those tapes probably kept me in the Church.  I was really becoming excited about being Catholic and could seriously consider a religious vocation.  It just didn’t seem like the time was right.  When I was 25 years old, my Mom died after a 9-month struggle with brain tumors and my brother John was only 12 years old.  I needed to work through a lot with her death.  I remember thinking that I was learning to stand with Mary at the foot of the cross.  My future Franciscan community, with this same vision, was established as a public association just three weeks after my Mom’s death, but I did not know about our community at that time.  I know now that my Mom’s faithful intercession for me during the next few years was integral in my growing ability to embrace the call to religious life that the Lord had placed on my heart.

During the next academic year, I attended the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, for Primary-Junior Education.  I taught grade 6 for a year and then went to teach at a Montessori school for two years.  I loved the Montessori school.  Still, I was restless and needing direction.  I attended a weeklong door-to-door evangelization course at FUS and during that week, I asked the Lord about vocation again.  I let Him know that it was not my idea and that I really didn’t want it.  I knew that it had to be my own deep desire that He was not going to impose His desire on me; so I asked Him to give me this desire if it was what He had for me.  Into my head popped a scripture verse that I had to find later, “If you delight in the Lord, He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps 37:4)  I began to simply pray this scripture verse over and over again, asking the Lord to help me to want religious life if it was His plan for me.  During this time, I was graced to be able to attend Eucharistic adoration every weekday for an hour after work and to attend daily Mass quite often.  During this year when I was sitting with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, my heart began to turn slowly towards His will, and by the end of that year I could not imagine being anything but a religious sister.  This change of heart is still a marvelous thing for me to reflect upon so many years later, since I know that it was all the Lord’s work.  This is the power of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and in His Word.  I recommend it!

In March of 1993, I spent a week in silent retreat at a Cistercian monastery in Ontario and read some of the Church documents on religious life for the first time.  It was as if I was reading about my own life, my heart was on those pages.  I knew definitively then that I would never belong to anyone but Jesus as Spouse, and that I was called to live the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience for the rest of my life in a community setting.  It was at this monastery where I heard the Divine Office chanted for the first time.  I didn’t know what this prayer was, but was convinced that it had to be part of my daily life for the rest of my life, as it is now.  The call to the contemplative, even to the hermit life, began to take shape that week as well.   I didn’t pay too much attention to this specifically at the time.

I left the Montessori school and it seemed apparent, based upon my connections with various people, that the Lord might be calling me to be part of a new religious community of women associated with the Companions of the Cross in Ottawa, Ontario.  I was part of the beginning of the group and of course, there was so much to work out.  During this time, I met our community here in Steubenville when I was here for some job training.  I was also able to visit the Holy Land during this time, and that trip further confirmed my call to consecrated life.  One of the most striking things for me on this pilgrimage was a statue of Our Sorrowful Mother that is encased just to the side of the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.  Now I can reflect on that experience of extreme sorrow before this image of our Lady, and know that the Lord was preparing me to enter our community, and stand at the foot of the cross with Mary.  For a variety of reasons, the venture in Ottawa did not work out and after about 20 months, I left, continuing to have a good relationship with the Companions, but knowing that I needed to move elsewhere to live out the call that was so strong within me.  It was almost painful not to be living it out at this time in my life.  I continued to seek a strong communal sisterhood, where the Church was loved and obeyed, and where religious life was lived with vibrancy, joy and love.  Wearing a religious habit had always been a given for me, since I grew up not seeing sisters, and instinctively knew the importance of this hopeful witness to others.  During the time in Ottawa, my appreciation for sisters wearing religious garb only grew, as I wore a habit myself.  In doing so, I experienced the witness value to others first hand, and maybe just as importantly, the constant reminder it was to me with regard to Whom I belonged.  The first time I put on a habit, I had such a sense of peace and joy; as it seemed that for the first time in my life, my appearance reflected my deepest interior desires.

After leaving Ottawa, the call to religious life remained strong and was only growing.  My call was becoming more specific as well.  I had gone to Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario to discern what the Lord’s will was for me specifically, as I now did not need any convincing with regard to religious life.  Madonna House is a lay community of men and women who take promises of chastity, poverty and obedience; and it was founded by the Servant of God, Catherine Doherty (+1986).  I spent a week there and met with Fr. Emile Briere, who allowed me to pray in Catherine Doherty’s cabin, the place where she lived the last years of her life, and the place where she died.  My parents had taken me to Madonna House a number of times during my childhood, when Catherine was still living; but during this time of discernment in 1995, I began a spiritual friendship with her that has grown over time.  At this time, I began to know clearly that I had to live a strongly contemplative life, and that the community I would join would need to be rooted in a charismatic spirituality.  I had come to recognize over the years that many aspects of Catholic charismatic spirituality were the basis of my parents’ ongoing conversion, and had become the basis of my own journey in a way that I could not deny.

When I visited our community about six months later, I knew immediately that it was where I would probably spend the rest of my life.  So much of what Sr. Katherine (a founding sister) described to me as the vision for the community sounded similar to Madonna House spirituality, and lined up with everything I had been drawn towards during the many years of waiting.  Everything about our way of life resonated with me, particularly the proposed hermitage setting.  Even though the contemplative life of the community attracted me, I was also drawn to the ministries, especially among the poor and the sick.  I was especially impressed with the way the sisters approached ministry, as an extension of the contemplative life, and as secondary to the way of life, that sustains the sisters for ministry.  The centrality of the Eucharist, the love for Mary (particularly being with her at the foot of the Cross), and the joyful way of life drew me in.  I experienced a vibrant and joyful embrace of both silence and fraternity with our sisters, right from that first visit.  I absolutely loved the conversations among the sisters, full of fun and spiritual depth.  I must say that I reveled in the theological discussions that occurred during my first visits to the convent, and continue to enjoy them today.  However, the silence and the long periods of silent prayer clinched it for me.  The ‘personality’ of the community definitely matched well with my own, and it felt like home.  I did, however, want to be cautious, given my experience in Ottawa.  Therefore, I found an excellent spiritual director who was a diocesan priest in my hometown.  He had been a Trappist at Gethsemane and Piffard, New York for 14 years and left there in the midst of the radical changes after Vatican Council II.  He was a tremendous help to me since he had been a contemplative religious himself.  As it turned out, the sisters could not receive me for 14 months, since the formation section of the monastery was not completed and the convent at the time was full (over full actually).  I entered in January of 1997 with Holly Wills (Sr. Grace Anne) and we were in the first group living at the new monastery.  Today that new monastery is the “old” section of the new and much expanded motherhouse complex, including our new chapel and professed house.  We built it, and they are coming!

I have literally never looked back since entering our community.  I professed perpetual vows here in 2004, and have been blessed to minister to other women seeking the Lord’s will for their lives, by serving in vocations ministry; and now, in formation ministry within our community.   I firmly believe that if everyone were permitted by grace to know the experience of religious life, the human race would cease to exist, as everyone would want to embrace this way of life.  It certainly has it challenges and sorrows, as all ways of life do; but to be allowed to know Love in every facet of one’s life, to be privileged to share His life with others – and to do it all full-time and without the distractions that lay life can involve – this is potentially a life of heaven on earth.  If you are considering it, please do so seriously, as Love Himself thirsts to be loved.Sr. Catherine Lynn Forsythe, T.O.R.

 

 

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