Sister Ethel Puno

The Will of God Leads You Where the Grace of God Will Get You Through

Who would have thought that my religious vocation would come to fruition in a land where I would be considered an “alien” before it finally becomes my second home? God works in mysterious ways. As St. Paul says in Romans 11:33, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” What is revealed and apparent is God’s abiding love. 

Growing up a cradle Catholic in the Philippines under the watchful eyes of my parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors and teachers, both lay and religious, helped me build a strong foundation for my faith. It truly took a village to help raise me. Yet it was not until I immigrated to the United States in 1991 with my younger sister and my mother that my faith really began to mature. By this time my father had died. There are a lot of unknowns and challenges that living in a foreign country presents. In facing them I have learned that the will of God will lead you where the grace of God will get you through.

Looking back at my journey, I can now connect the dots that lined the path I have taken in arriving where I am now, a full fledged member of the Congregation Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, Texas (CCVI). 

Inadvertently it started when I least expected it. My desire to consider religious life as my vocation was cultivated during my growing years in the Philippines when one
of my grade school teachers, Sr. Cleofana, approached me with the question, “Have you thought about becoming a Sister?” I was taken by surprise but that simple question became the catalyst to the curiosity, interest, desire, and then to the yearning that I would later have in responding to God’s invitation to say “Yes” in living a consecrated life dedicated to serving God and the Church. My desire to grow in my faith led me to seriously discern a vocation in religious life. The hound of heaven worked long and hard in pursuit before I finally took the first formal step in 2003 to become a member of the Congregation as an affiliate. 

The following years involved my initial formation in the life of the community and growth in the knowledge and experience of what it is like to be a religious. My time in postulancy, novitiate, and annual profession were dotted with accomplishments, struggles and challenges as I moved from one stage of formation to the next. I sought the guidance of and prayed to our Blessed Mother, whose unconditional “Yes” to God made her a holy vessel for the incarnation of our Lord, Jesus, as well as an integral part of Christ’s mission of proclaiming the reign of God.  I also had excellent and significant opportunities to deepen my faith and nurture my vocation through the Intercommunity Novitiate (ICN) program in St. Louis, my studies at Aquinas Institute of Theology, my training as a hospital chaplain, ministry experiences, and my international experience in Kenya, East Africa,  to mention a few. 

My time in St. Louis, Missouri, as a postulant or pre-novice and then as a novice was definitely a time of growth in self-awareness, maturation of faith, and grounding in religious life. My life experiences up to this point helped me to become a mature and independent person. When I entered the convent at the ripe age of thirty-seven, I had dealt with many adult life challenges. I had a full time job as a school occupational therapist working with students with special needs, and I had family responsibilities which included providing for the support of my mother. Yet, I needed the guidance and formation for the life as a religious which entailed learning to live the vows of chastity, as I lived in community, obedience, as I learned to be interdependent, and poverty, as I learned to be accountable for shared resources and how to be detached, not only from material goods but also from intangibles such as past life baggage and achievements.

It was indeed a blessing to be part of the Intercommunity Novitiate program where I met other people in the same stage of formation as I was. Twelve various orders were represented in my ICN group which was comprised of eight men and twenty-one women. Through them and with them I found support and kinship, in addition to my own religious community, which carried me through some rough patches and challenging experiences that all novices typically go through in the novitiate. To this day I keep in touch and am good friends with several members of my ICN community, both directors and former co-novices.

A crucial part of my novitiate was my time at Aquinas Institute of Theology. The thought of going back to school to get a master’s degree in pastoral studies stirred feelings of apprehension and fear in me at first. Updating my theology as part of the requirements of formation in the novitiate was a major challenge that I learned to appreciate and truly be grateful for because it opened my mind and spirit to ways of growing in my understanding of the Catholic faith and other faith traditions. I remember struggling and finding it difficult to find answers to the questions that arose in my heart and mind about God and my faith. Without realizing it, I had grown accustomed to merely accepting what was taught and handed down to me and not quite grasping how these teachings about faith and religion really made a difference in my spiritual life as a Catholic. My professors and the academic community at Aquinas Institute of Theology deepened my faith, opened up experiences which helped me learn to ask questions, even though answers were not always apparent, reflect on theological gray areas, and become more broadminded of other expressions of faith and religious practices. 

On July 15, 2006, I made my First Profession of the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Even though I needed to renew my vows annually for five years after my first profession, I was consciously making my commitment to God intending it to be for a lifetime even then. A substantial part of the time I was in annual profession was my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training to become a hospital chaplain and subsequently becoming a certified chaplain.

I treaded on holy ground as I learned to minister to patients, their family members and friends, and also hospital staff, as they went through emotional, physical, and spiritual highs and lows during the course of hospitalization. I did my first unit of CPE at St. Louis University Hospital in Missouri, then completed a one-year CPE residency program at the Methodist Hospital in the Houston Medical Center with four other resident chaplains in 2008-2009 after initially withdrawing from the residency program when my mother became terminally ill and then died. My CPE experience was very intense and challenging, especially after the death of my mother. CPE required a closer look at myself and my own issues which can directly and indirectly affect how I minister to others. It was sometimes also quite daunting to risk to confront, argue, challenge, and face the other residents and my CPE supervisor when we met in group as part of our program. As the only Catholic Sister in the group, I became more aware of my identity as a CCVI Sister. At CHRISTUS St. John Hospital in Naussau Bay, Texas, I was given the opportunity to apply what I learned in CPE. My perspective and approach to ministry is highly influenced by CCVI values and spirituality as I participate in the healing mission of Christ. I see and regard people I serve with dignity and respect because they are beloved children of God created in the Divine’s image and likeness. Jesus calls me to love as he loves and to acknowledge that I am God’s beloved, as well.

Challenges and struggles will always be a part of life which is why it is very important to foster a spiritual life that is guided by prayer and strengthened by the sacraments. My international experience in Kenya made life’s difficulties more glaring and profound as I witnessed the struggles and suffering of the poor in Kenya. They remind me of my native homeland, the Philippines, which has its own poor and challenges not too different from Kenya’s. My experience also reminds me to be more grateful for life’s gifts and blessings, especially to my congregation and to my family.

At times I felt overwhelmed and defeated by all the problems and issues faced by the people but, as I mentioned above, the will of God will take us where God’s grace will get us through even though it is not always in the way we expect it. In Scriptures, Jesus spoke about the blind man he cured in John 9:3 “. . . it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” God is always active and present; even in our afflictions and suffering God’s glory and love can be manifested. I feel encouraged and grateful knowing that many CCVIs have served and continue to serve the Kenyan people. Kenyans are very resilient and have a strong spirituality. Our presence with them also gives them courage, strength, and a sense of God’s love and presence.

I cannot stress enough the importance of a life of prayer, reception of the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist, and the gift of spiritual direction in my faith journey in the last five years as an annually professed Sister. My first spiritual director, Sr. Kathleen Smith, CCVI, helped pave the way of my discernment to a religious vocation. I usually met with a spiritual director on a monthly basis, who guided and encouraged me to continue building a life of prayer and deep relationship with God and the people in my life. Setting aside time for a day of prayer and receiving the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist on a regular basis are part of the self-care and healthy balance needed in religious life. Yearly eight-day retreats refreshed my mind, body, spirit and soul. In preparation for Perpetual Profession, I received the gift and privilege to go on a 33-day Ignatian retreat, which included two days of preparation and one day to process the experience.  It is quite fitting that before I took the final step of committing myself to God for life I could spend time with and get to know Jesus, my beloved Incarnate Word, even more profoundly and intimately. 

The day of my Perpetual Profession is one I will long remember and treasure. The outpouring of care and support before, during, and after by the Sisters, the CCVI Associates and staff, my family, and friends was truly encouraging and a great blessing. It was a very special time for all of us because, in a way, we were all saying “Yes” to God. The Congregation’s “Yes” in accepting me as a full member, and my family’s and friends’ “Yes” in giving their support throughout my journey are united with my own response to commit my life to God. This important event was made special and memorable by everyone’s participation and willingness to give of themselves.

Something that also made it very significant is the ring which is the symbol of my perpetual commitment to God. The ring was given to me by my mother many years ago. My mother may not have been there to witness my perpetual profession, but I am consoled by the fact that something she gave me is the symbol of my lifetime commitment.

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza, who was the main celebrant for the liturgy, described my life as a consecrated religious using the image of “a vigil light that burns in praise and worship of God, who called her to dedicate her life to God alone for the sake of the kingdom.” Jesus, the light of the world, is from whom my light emanates. It is also from experiencing God’s generous love that I can love in return. 

All the things brought about by my experiences in religious life thus far – struggles, achievements, challenges –  have strengthened my resolve and my trust in God even when I did not know it at the time.  Along the way, I was blessed to have caring and prudent directors in my formation process – Sisters Ita, Elizabeth Ann, and Alice Mary, as well as the steady support of my congregational leadership. I also met other discerners with whom I shared experiences and wise guides in the persons of sisters, clergy, family and friends who were, in one way or another, instrumental in helping me find my own path toward a lifetime commitment as a religious. In my on-going formation as a CCVI, I pray that I can abide in God’s love each day and enflesh that love for others. To everything that God gives and sends I say, “Thank you” and “Amen.”

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A limited number of the DVD Called to Serve is available upon request for those interested in learning more about the mission and ministry of the Congregation. (Intro only on website)

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Since December 8, 1927, The Conventual Church of the Immaculate Conception has been the central place of worship for the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, Houston, Texas.

 

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