“The Church is like a great clock.” This is an analogy drawn by Bishop Aguirre, a missionary bishop in Africa who was visiting a convent in Rio de Janeiro. According to his analogy, the hands of the clock, which we can all see in constant movement, are like the missionaries who travel throughout the world, tirelessly bringing the Word of God to the people. But behind these hands lie the inner workings, hidden within the watch case, who are likewise working uninterruptedly, ensuring that the watch functions correctly. These inner workings are the contemplative religious, who sustain the Church silently through their constant prayer, “sounding on their lips the praise of God and interceding for the salvation of the world”, as Mother Maria Aparecida puts it, recalling the words of their rite of consecration. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) went to see her to learn her story.
Mother Maria Aparecida and the other 14 Benedictine religious sisters are a perfect example of those beautiful “inner workings” which still further enrich the spirituality of Juazeiro do Norte, a town in the semi-arid region of the Sertão, in northeast Brazil. The Abbey of Our Lady of Victory, the first in the Brazilian state of Ceará, in addition to being a refuge of deep prayer and contemplation, is likewise a place of welcome for thousands of pilgrims who arrive in the city each year. The sisters open the doors of their convent to pray for and attend spiritually to all those who seek welcome beneath the image of Christ, the needy stranger.
For 15 years Mother Maria Aparecida was the abbess of the convent. Today, owing to her age, she is abbess emeritus. “I am the Benedict XVI of the community,” she explains jokingly. This joyful spirit, which she has retained throughout 54 years of convent life, is the fruit of a life history filled with “adventures of faith” as she describes the stages she has lived through over the course of her vocation.
Coming from a family in which her parents were Catholics “in name only”, in other words, who only thought of the Church when someone asked them what their religion was, she did not grow up with any close bond to the Faith in her infancy. When she made her first Holy Communion, it was her own grandmother who was her catechist and taught her religion with great zeal in her own home from an old book, and she was also the one who sewed the dresses so that her grandchildren could receive the Holy Body of Christ for the first time. “But the only thing I retained from that time was the photo”, Mother Maria confesses, explaining that her true communion with Christ did not happen until some years later.
In her youth, her life was still far from the ways of God. In the town of Niterói where she lived, in Rio de Janeiro state, the pattern of her daily life was marked by the beach, the cinema, and parties. Today Mother Maria has a nice way of describing that period in her life: “Jesus was still waiting for me!”
One day, after ending a relationship in which there had been every indication that it would end in marriage, she took herself off to a church to weep. “That was the only place where nobody would ask me what was the matter”, she explains. But there was something more; in her desire to be alone she was beginning to become aware of a presence that filled her heart in a way that she had never experienced before.
From then on her life began to change. The flirtatiousness that had been so much a part of her personality was beginning to give way to an air of modesty. The parties and the outings no longer satisfied her heart, and she began to become increasingly involved in the activities within the Church.
This radical change in her astonished and alarmed her mother to the point where she decided to take her to see a psychiatrist. “Listen!”, the doctor told her. “I am an atheist, but what your daughter has is what they call a vocation.” God can make use of anything and anyone!
This incident confirmed the young woman’s heart in her aspiration and her enthusiasm for God, and from then on she began to get more and more involved in the Church, joining the Legion of Mary, working as a catechist, visiting cancer patients and the poor in the hospital, among many other activities. Today Mother Mary Aparecida recalls with amusement what her grandmother said to her at that time: “She told me that anyone who wanted to hide from me would only have to go to my home because I was never there!”
Still, without knowing how to actually live in practice this longing to belong totally to God, she even went as far as to fix a wedding date with a young man. But despite the fact that this young man was “handsome, kind, everything a young woman could wish for”, as she herself acknowledges, her heart was looking for something else. At the moment of decision, which she describes as the “day of Abraham’s sacrifice”, because she felt as though she was offering up “his son Isaac”, she broke off their engagement and went to visit the Benedictine Sisters in Minas Gerais, as she had been recommended to do by a monk who had been preparing her for her marriage, when he finally saw in her a possible contemplative vocation. At that time she didn’t even know what a nun was or what the contemplative life was all about. The only thing she knew about was the iron grille. And yet, no sooner had she entered the convent, but she knew: “He is here!”
Her conviction grew ever stronger, along with the awareness of the commotion it would cause in her family if she fulfilled this desire. “And it was then I did something crazy”, she recalls, explaining how she secretly packed her cases and went off, telling them she was going to visit a sister who had just married. Her parents only learned of her true destination when they got her letter, written when she was already in the convent. “It was a tragedy for them, but since it was for Jesus, he took care of everything. But that is part of another long story.”
In addition to contributing to the construction of the convent, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN provides regular maintenance support for these sisters, so that many more stories like that of Mother Maria Aparecida can be written, and so multiply within the Church these vocations which are so important for our times, and so that through them there may be more and more “hands” and “inner workings” of that “great timepiece” that is the Church.