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An Interview with Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V.

Posted: September 11, 2017

Defending the Vulnerable

Note: Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V., Superior General of the Sisters of Life, served as the College’s 2017 Commencement Speaker.


What is the charism of the Sisters of Life?

I must go back to the source to answer that. In the 1980s, our founder, the late John Cardinal O’Connor, was on retreat in a Carmelite Monastery on the perimeter of the concentration camp in Dachau. He was walking the grounds and came to the crematorium. As he described it, somewhat mystically, “I put my hands into the semicircular red-brick ovens and felt the intermingled ashes of man and woman and child, of rabbi and priest and minister, and my soul screamed out to God: Good God, how could man have done this to man?” The cardinal left with something newly impressed upon his soul: For the rest of his life, he would defend the dignity of the human person. With that experience was born the charism of life. Nearly a decade later, he would raise up a community of religious sisters to serve the vulnerable human lives he defended.

In the beautiful intricacy of God’s design, we would learn, but only after Cardinal O’Connor’s death, that he was Jewish. He was born to a Jewish mother, who was a convert to Catholicism as a 19-year-old young woman, before she met and married his father. There is something exquisite about the fact that God chose Dachau as the place to grant him this incredible grace.

The Sisters of Life are devoted to the dignity of the human person at all stages of life. At this moment in history, those most vulnerable are the unborn who can, literally, do nothing to defend themselves. The philosophy which undergirds a culture in which abortion is normative has opened the door to euthanasia, which will be the next battlefield for life.

Do you see any change in attitudes about abortion?

Definitely. The truth cannot be stifled, ultimately. There is so much violence and terror in the world that I think people are willing to hear a reasonable argument from the other side. I don’t think that means they are ready to let go of their legal “right” to abortion, but there is a greater willingness to understand that not everybody will accept that, and that perhaps it is not making us a better people.

The truth is the truth, and people will not rest easily with abortion — even those who practice it. We have a large ministry to those who suffer after abortion.

Do you mean to those mothers who have had abortions?

Yes, and who grieve tremendously. Their lives have been changed by the experience of abortion. Watching the Lord set these women free is one of the most life-giving works of the Sisters of Life. We witness women who, through a program of prayer and accompaniment, recover their own sense of self-worth and experience the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. They begin again, and enter into a personal relationship with God, Who has loved them back to life. His mercy endures forever, and is bigger than abortion.

Not long after our founding in 1991, a group of women who had formed a prayer group gathered around us as a corps of volunteers. After about a year, they asked if they could talk to me. So we sat down, and they shared with me: “We have all had abortions — and now we suffer. We have come to you because we believe that, since you defend life, you would understand us, and you would have a heart for our suffering.” So with these women we designed retreats and the days of hope and healing for those suffering after abortion. It has become a powerful mission which has served more than a thousand women.

I look at people my age and older, the Baby-Boomers, who were involved in abortion at young ages. I pray they find forgiveness and reconcile with God so they can approach death without fear.

How do you help the pregnant women who come to you?

The large majority of women who come to us are still considering abortion, but they are looking to see if there are other options. How you speak to a woman, and how you receive her, is vital because she is not in a position to hear moral truths in an explicit way; she needs in the moment of her crisis someone who will receive her and listen to the desires of her heart.

Usually, in the chaos of thoughts and emotions, she just doesn’t believe that carrying the baby within her to term and making room for another in her life is possible or doable. So we’ll ask her: “If everything were different, what would you desire?” And the answer is consistently: “Oh, I’d have this child.”

So we help her by providing resources to fulfill the real needs she names. The mother, herself, will actually design the program for us that make another option possible. It is our work to provide for her real needs, and we do that through the practical compassion and love of our Co-Workers of Life. They are essential; they are our arms and our feet providing the support of friendship, housing alternatives, jobs, pro-bono medical care, etc.

In describing your work you use the phrase “pregnancies that can cause a crisis for the mother,” rather than “crisis pregnancies.” How important is language to the Culture of Life you seek to nurture?

Language is vital. Those opposed to our notions about the sacredness of the human person decades ago seized a compelling language, and got the edge in the argument. Actions follow language. So the pro-choice movement began with the notion of “choice” — a very American notion.

I think Cardinal O’Connor’s genius was his way of looking at the issue through a Christian lens. Moving beyond the issue of justice, the Cardinal preached the truth that every human person is created intentionally by God. Each person’s origin and destiny lies in God, making every human life unique and of infinite value. We are literally loved and willed into being by a God who first thought of each one of us. Language is vital. How we speak to and receive women is crucial.

The Sisters of Life is both contemplative and apostolic. How does this play out in your daily lives?

In living the contemplative dimension of our lives, we spend four to five hours a day in common prayer. Each morning we rise and praise the Lord for another day by way of the Divine Office and the Liturgy of the Mass, and silent meditation. At midday we break again to pray in common Midday Prayer, again from the Divine Office. And later in the day, we have an extended period of Eucharistic Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, during which we recite together the Rosary, have time for mental prayer, and chant Vespers. Finally, we close the day with Compline. It is our prayer life that sustains us in our daily, six-hour commitment to the apostolate at the service of life.

Turning to your work as chairperson for the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR), would you explain its mission and role in the Church?

The mission of the CMSWR is to support the vitality and flourishing of religious life in our nation by providing services and support to its members, who are major superiors of religious communities of women, that they may be effective spiritual leaders in their local congregations. It also provides a context for information sharing and friendships among peers who live the joys and loneliness of leadership.

There is a magnetic quality to authentic, faithful, religious orders such as the Sisters of Life and some others. What accounts for the influx of vocations to your order and others like it?

I would attribute it to fidelity to the order’s founding charism while living a life of public witness; a common life in community; and a corporate apostolate. These are the marks of authentic religious life.

The habit, an eschatological sign, plays an important role in our public witness. People know that you exist for them. On the streets of New York City, those we encounter will freely ask Sisters for prayers, whether we are on a subway platform, a bus, or in a park, saying: “Sister, would you pray for my mother? Her name is Elaine, and she’s dying.” It’s a beautiful thing to witness such faith. Without my habit, that would never happen.

What would you say to young girls who are discerning a vocation?

God has a plan for your life, and created you for a purpose. Each young person’s responsibility is to discern and understand the call of God. God has created each one of us with a most fundamental vocation to love. So we must ask ourselves, and God in prayer, the question: “How will my love be given totally in this world? And to whom will it be given?” Love can only be given to a person, whether divine or human.

To recognize one’s vocation to love, it is critical to develop a very real relationship with the living God. Within the context of that relationship one hears and recognizes the voice of God. With prayer she will discover the vocation which is in the mind of God for her. It is important that a young person receives the opportunity not only for liturgical prayer but also for personal times of mental prayer where one can, in the quiet, encounter the Lord.

What is it that attracts you to the College?

By way of the education you provide students, Thomas Aquinas College is producing young people who have the capacity to think, which is in short supply in the culture these days. As we heard today, there is an avalanche of information, but few are capable of sorting through and thinking about the information that is in front of them. I think you’re doing something that is really unique here, creating educated people capable of thinking clearly. You’ve done a great job!

Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, S.V.
Thomas Cavanaugh (’18) -- quote 1

“The things we discover in the classroom, we recognize as true not because someone told us that they are true, but because we have reasoned to them for ourselves.”

– Thomas Cavanaugh (’18)

Larkspur, California

“This is truly a Catholic center of learning because it reverberates with the ecclesial life of faith, a faith which unfolds the richness of reason and is given fervent expression liturgically, sacramentally, and through prayer, acts of charity, and a passion for justice.”

– The Most Rev. J. Michael Miller

Archbishop of Vancouver

Former Secretary, Congregation for Catholic Education