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IPS 2013 Commencement Address, Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, SV

Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., Ph.D.

Commencement Address
Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Crypt Chapel
“Make straight the way of the Lord.” (John 1:23) 
Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Arlington, VA
May 22, 2013

Your Excellency, Bishop Paul S. Loverde, Reverend Fathers, President – Rev. Charles Sikorsky, Dean William Nordling, Dean Emerita Gladys Sweeney, faculty, staff, family and friends of today’s graduates and dear graduates of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences it is my honor and my joy to share this day with you.  Thank you.

Your past years of study at the Institute have been, no doubt, something of a “cenacle” experience during which the Holy Spirit has prepared you for today’s commissioning, to be sent forth to live and to practice your vocation of healing.  Today the Institute presents you to us, and invites you to take your place as healing professionals in the Church and our society; and we are blessed to receive you.

The human person in light of the Easter mysteries. 

It is the Divine Physician from who all healing flows. Professor Paul Vitz said it well nearly 25 years ago when, having gathered with a small group of Catholic students and faculty for coffee after delivering a lecture at Columbia University, he suggested to us St. John the Baptist as the patron for psychologists for it was St. John who first received the vocation to: “make straight the way of the Lord.”  This is in essence your privileged vocation; and the human person your chosen field of mission.

I. What light do the Easter mysteries shed on our understanding of the human person?   We cannot have lived out the Easter season without being reminded of the personal, generous, total love of Jesus for each one of us.  We tremble at the worth of each human person in the sight of God. What we as Catholic-Christians believe about the human person changes everything! We believe that each human person is willed and loved by God into existence as a unique and unrepeatable icon of the living God – a unique reflection of the Divine image. The human person is the summit of creation.

Cardinal O’Connor, the Father and Founder of the Sisters of Life, once reflected upon the sacredness of the human person with the Sisters in this way:

If there are millions and billions of [persons who in the same way] reflect the Divine Image, then the loss of any one, or a thousand, or hundred thousands would be as the loss of a falling star.  But each one is an unrepeatable act of God; each one brought into being for a specific purpose, a purpose that will not be carried out by anyone else.

[That particular mission in life,] its specific mission will not be completed by anyone else.  It cannot be.  It is this person’s mission.  If this person is unique, [is intended by God to be unique,] then what that being in time would do is undoable by anyone else because it would be done uniquely in accordance with this individual’s unique nature.

This makes every human being sacred, very special.  I believe this passionately.[1]

Jesus’ Redemption is gift – a pure, unmerited, gratuitous gift; and simultaneously, reveals the truth about every human person: one prized, precious, and cherished; one chosen by the Lord, and set free from the bondage of sin and death by Love – to be loved and to love.  The challenge for the believer is to live in the moment of redemption – fully alive, fully human — trusting confidently in this most wondrous gift.  Unfortunately, it is much more likely that each one of us will be tempted to live comfortably some portion or aspect of our lives in the narrow confines of self-accusation, self-condemnation, self-doubt and self-blame.

To become effective witnesses to the possibilities for human life demands that we first receive in full measure the abundant blessings and graces of this the greatest Mystery of faith, the Paschal Mystery, and rejoice that –  Jesus did it for me!  Then standing in the strength of this grace, we can become witnesses to a wounded world thirsting for love, desperate to know their identity, and desiring to live fully the life they have been given.  So let us rejoice in a God so great that He works His redemption in spite of my sinfulness if I be but repentant and humble.  And for the one suffering let our lives be an invitation to new life as we participate in the fulfilling the desire and mission of the Heart of Jesus: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10).” (p. 160)

II. Human suffering and redemption: the surpassing greatness of His power for us who believe.  As a psychologist and a consecrated religious, I have been sobered and sorrowed by the manifold sufferings born by our brothers and sisters.  Today you declare yourselves their special companions — someone willing to accompany the one who suffers on a journey to healing and wholeness.  But we, in the image of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, first must be willing to have made the journey ourselves.

There is a little poem which possesses a riveting image of Jesus as he descends to the dead on the first Holy Saturday.   Our victorious Lord is received by the patriarchs and prophets, Adam and Eve (can you imagine?) and all who have died under the law still marked by the wounds of His Passion, but now those wounds are “five crimson stars.”  Allow me to quote you a few lines:

 And there He was

splendid as the morning sun and fair

as only God is fair.

And they, confused with joy,

knelt to adore

seeing that He wore

five crimson stars

He never had before.

(Sr. Mary Ada, “Limbo”, from The Mary Book, p.p. 181-183, F.J. Sheed (Ed.),  Sheed & Ward: New York, 1950 )

This image captures something of the beauty of the healing that is promised to every person in Christ Jesus.  Indeed, we are promised healing but we ourselves, and many who will come seeking your counsel, may be surprised to find that the gift of wholeness will be routed in and through our wounds, weaknesses, and those circumstances of life which challenge us to greatness.  This, of course, should come as no surprise at all.  It is the hallmark of Christian spirituality that “by His wounds we are healed.”

Nothing about us is too much for God. The Church assures us that many of the Saints, those closest to the Heart of Jesus, are persons whose wounds became the source of the greatness of their love because it opened the door to a definitive transformation in Jesus Christ.  Saints who now rejoice in the words of the Easter liturgy:  “Oh, happy fault!”  These Saints lived firsthand the experience of the life-changing power of the love of God, and found themselves freed to love oneself deeply and well, and then others. Saints like Josephine Bakita, Therese of Lisieux, Maria Goretti, Dorothy Day all knew the profound truth of Jesus’ words:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

III. Make straight the way of the Lord: a motto for those in the ministry of healing. Deeply tied to the desire to discover something more of the mystery of oneself, is the thirst to encounter the living God. Pope John Paul II never tired of reminding the world that:  “Christ …fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.” (Gaudium et Spes, n.22) Knowing oneself in Christ, a person can, with freedom and maturity, come to know and claim one’s identity.  For it is in the benevolent presence of the redeeming Lord that we can safely descend into our compulsive, defective, fearful and sinful selves and see through these outward behaviors to their deeper motivation.  In an encounter with the living Lord we come to see and know ourselves – all of ourselves: that which is beautiful and true, and that which is marred, and see in it all: I am loved. Seeing oneself in Truth is the beginning of liberation from the bondage of our fallen nature: from the bondage of guilt and fears, from the bondage of lies about our masculine or feminine dignity.

[As you well know, so many of the problems of modern man result from a faulty anthropology of the human person which exalts as truly human only the man or woman who controls one’s destiny. Given the fact that this is both an existential and ontological impossibility, a person cannot but lose hope. The angst of modern man, then, lies precisely in his inability to decode and understand the secret of his own nature.  It is the work of the Christian psychologist blessed with “an adequate anthropology” to bring man or woman to a place of awareness and strength so that he is unafraid to stand before the mystery of life and suffering.]

Those who will seek your counsel, will come with the hope and expectation that you have an accurate map or typology of the human person capable of revealing the way toward the integrated healing of the mind, body, emotions and soul; and that you, yourself, are an apt guide to and through humanity’s first and final frontier – the interior life of man.

Let us remember that, at our best, we are but heralds whose lives and whose practice of a healing profession “make straight the way of the Lord”, pointing to the final human integration and fulfillment: a transcendent life lived in communion with the living God.  What might the journey to human integration and fulfillment look like?  Let me answer that question by sharing with you one story of many from our missions:

Last year, the Sisters came to know a young woman, “Monica”, who lives nearby in the Bronx.  The Friars of the Renewal recognized that grace was stirring in her heart, introduced Monica to us Sisters and encouraged her to attend one of our ‘young women’s retreats’.  Monica arrived complete with tattoos for a week-end retreat which would change her life and re-capture a lost identity.  The story is best told in her own words:

“I didn’t have the relationship a girl needs to have with her father. I had several broken relationships with men, and had seen a lot of abuse. I didn’t know who I was. I felt unlovable, and yet, I still wanted to give myself away. I decided to go on a retreat (with the Sisters of Life) whose theme was, ‘Perfect Love Casts Out Fear’, and I really wanted to believe that was true.  One of the Sisters gave a conference on the dignity of being a woman, made in the image and likeness of God. When she described woman as the crowing glory of creation, something happened to me. … It dawned on me – I have so much to give! God made everything, and He decided to make me. The world needs me. I went to the Lord in prayer saying, ‘Jesus, show me how to be a woman. I need to know the truth about who I am.’ I had been living in a world of so much anger, feeling I could never be pure again. …That weekend, I knew God was saying, ‘You have dignity. You do not need to degrade yourself.’

I understood then that I needed help, and it wasn’t long before I was able to receive Christ’s forgiveness. It made me cry because I knew I wasn’t alone anymore.

And all my dreams came back.

I had yearned for a fairytale, for someone to come and save me! I reclaimed my freedom by accepting God’s infinite love.  I started sitting before the Blessed Sacrament because it was the one place where I felt myself.  I would just sit there and allow myself to be loved.

I started living, really living.  I wanted to be the woman Christ made me to be. I could love myself, and give myself to Him. It was transforming.  I now know that I am the daughter of a King.  I know that I am beautiful; my body is beautiful. It took sacrifice, to live this way.  Things changed for me – the way I saw and spoke with others.  I started to really love people, seeing the good in them.  I knew happiness was out there, but the joy of knowing Christ is like a never ending, eternal fire! What’s more, I started wanting to see God, face to face; I desired heaven.  Now, [the prayer of the] Mass is what gets me through the day, through my life…  I can’t be thankful enough.”

(Since that retreat Monica became a member and leader of the Catholic young adult community of the South Bronx and is now a student at AveMariaUniversity on a full academic scholarship – a dream she never before could have imagined for herself!)

As you receive your well-deserved degree today in the midst of the Octave of Pentecost, I pray that the power of the Holy Spirit will accompany you and confirm your efforts to bring healing to a wounded world.  May you live the privileges and responsibilities of this blessed profession with integrity and zeal.  And may you measure the success of your lives – at the end of each day, at the end of each week, at the end of your career – if others have found in you not only some measure of healing and a reason for hope, but in you have glimpsed a horizon for their lives, far beyond their imaginings, which stretches to eternity.  Then you will know that you have not only fulfilled the dream of becoming a competent professional but were in the midst of a beautiful, life-giving profession a witness to Jesus Christ “making straight the way of the Lord”!

God bless you. I thank you.


[1]John Cardinal O’Connor.   Sisters of Life.  14th Discernment Retreat. January 1, 1998.