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Staying thankful – and healthy – on mission

Wed, 04/22/2015 - 9:48am
By Valerie Ellis
Current missioner in Cochabamba, Bolivia
Franciscan Mission Service

This post is about my health. Now before you get all squeamish, even though this is regarding the stomach and all sordid details, I promise to leave out the gross ones.

It starts with amoebas. Yes, they are little creatures living in your stomach, but I assure you that this is not the gross part.

“What’s the big deal about amoebas?” you ask. “I heard they were really common in Bolivia.”
Yes, they are. It is not as common to get them twice in three weeks. At which point your stomach turns into a breeding ground for bacteria. Then, you walk around all the time with an “inchado,” or bloated stomach.

These are the symptoms I will leave you with for now, as I promised not to get graphic.

Just picture this – you’re following your doctor’s orders, which means following a super strict diet, and then you find out you have developed gastritis. Which is caused by citrus fruits and vegetables. Which you have been consuming an unusually large quantity of, because you are only allowed to eat certain proteins, fruits, and vegetables.

The road has not been fun. However, I have been able to maintain a healthy outlook on this, if only through the sheer grace of God. Here’s what I am thankful for:
  • I am able to seek medical attention. Sadly, most of the population of Bolivia simply does not have the resources to do so.
  • I have stopped eating all junk/things that caused damage to my stomach before: cake, cookies, and any added sugar; dairy especially including cheese; and any added preservatives.
  • I have started working out on a regular basis. This not only helps my stomach process food, but it also helps my sanity!
  • I have learned a lot about what the people of Bolivia go through on a daily basis. This is accompaniment and solidarity in the strongest sense.
And now, since I have focused so much on food and would like to alleviate the mood, I leave you with my favorite silly song about food cravings:

Beauty in the Potential

Tue, 04/21/2015 - 9:04am

By Sr. Sara P. Marks, OSF
Director of Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain
Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia

Spring is upon us, spring—the great season of possibility. Spring the season of planting, the time of first fruits, the time that reminds us of brighter and warmer days, the time that leads us to hope. This potential that spring holds is nowhere more evident to me than on Red Hill Farm. As I look out upon the readied fields I imagine the transformation that will occur in the coming weeks. The brown that dominates the landscape will soon be leafy and green. Hands will work diligently to rid the beds of weeds to give life to the crop.

One summer, while working the farm, we were in the midst of harvesting the squash. One of the seasonal farmers plucked an oddly shaped yellow squash from the bush like vine announcing, “Look at this one!” Quickly another yelled, “Eat it!” None of us were accustomed to eating squash raw—sauté it in butter and garlic right? But the farm manager, in sharing that there was nothing wrong with raw squash, walked over and took a bite. Soon the oddly shaped yellow squash was being passed around the community of dirt-covered farm hands, each partaking of its goodness. Was this not Eucharist? The breaking, blessing, and sharing of the “fruit of the Earth and work of human hands”?
My time on the farm was a time of great transformation in my life. Never had God’s creation been so obvious to me, the distinctive nature of each plant speaking of the Gospel message of truth—peace, humility, and patience. It is for this reason that as we as a congregation set out to create a new volunteer program that we include Red Hill Farm as a ministry site. As Franciscans we hold deep reverence for the Earth and all creation. This home of ours is total gift from God and it is ours for which to care and share. Red Hill Farm is a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) owned by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. Community Supported Agriculture allows community members to connect with a local farm and support their local food economy. 

Pope John XXIII, the Pope who called on the Second Vatican Council, a man who understood with great courage the concept of potentiality, says, “Consult not your fears but your hopes and your dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.” The Sisters of St. Francis believe deeply in “consulting our hopes”. This is why we have made the effort to bring Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain to reality.
I share my story to encourage others to consider an alternative way. Can you see the potential in these fields? Can you see yourself as the farm hand with earth-stained hands harvesting what the land yields? A Franciscan Volunteer will be placed on Red Hill Farm to work with the Farm Manager, Lilley, and the full-time farmer, Dylan along with other seasonal workers. If you see potential beauty in these fields please feel free to contact us to start the process of becoming a Franciscan Volunteer. We are taking applications now to fill volunteer slots for September of this year! No Risk, No Gain!
To learn more about serving at Red Hill Farm with Franciscan Volunteers: No Risk, No Gain, email Sr. Sara at

Physical health and mental health as a volunteer

Mon, 04/13/2015 - 10:53am

Megan Davison
Former Lasallian Volunteer

Exercise taught me that nothing is insurmountable. Trust me, that lesson carried me through the majority of my 2 years of service.
I vividly recall standing in the doorway of the Brothers house, shoes tied and my iPod charged and ready. I remember exhaling as the street lights came on and running down Indiana Avenue towards Lake Michigan. Those after-dinner runs on the south side of Chicago were absolutely pivotal in my experience as a Lasallian Volunteer. Day after day, night after night, I settled into a pace, ran down the streets as a transplant in my new neighborhood, and out of nowhere, the daily run was the most important part of my day.
The correlation between physical health and mental health truly became apparent to me in my first year as a Lasallian Volunteer. Exercise enabled me to clear my mind at the end of a trying day, demanded that I prioritize my self-care during the service year, and pushed me-from running 1-2 miles to 10-12. 
My first real test? Running a ½ marathon for Lasallian Volunteers. Annually, LV’s run in a different city every year to raise money for the program that supports our infrastructure. That infrastructure allows Lasallian Volunteers to receive support from their local community and national community of staff, De La Salle Christian Brothers, and colleagues.
The Annual LVs Run stemmed from a few volunteers running the Chicago Marathon to raise money for the program they were a part of to becoming a weekend-long event filled with community, friend-raising, and celebrating our fundraising goal.
To date, the race has raised several hundred thousand dollars to honor the work of the Lasallian Volunteers and ensure that future volunteers are able to have the same faith-filled experiences. 
To me, fundraising was the easy part. It was trusting in the training that was difficult. Some days, it is so easy to write off the run you had planned, in favor of doing something else, anything else!
But the effects of running and training spilled over into other parts of my life. I was able to prioritize work at my service site, feel well-rested after a weekend in community, and have confidence in myself that wasn’t exactly bubbling to the surface. Especially living on a stipend, running is a very inexpensive way to get a great workout and see the city that you are living in.
In my second year of service, I had the pleasure of working with several Lasallian Volunteers in planning the annual run. We each had a tangible role and our success was contagious! We raised over $85,000 in one year and I still look on that experience fondly.
Today, those fellow LV’s are my closest friends.  The best part? After my service year concluded, I signed up for my first marathon and ran it last fall. Every training run I thought back to my nights running after community dinner, planning the annual run, and where it’s taken me since.
I leave it all on the trail and always remember, nothing is insurmountable.

From A Convent In Queens

Tue, 04/07/2015 - 10:14am

By Alyssa Keller Mercy Volunteer Corps 

 I am completely inspired by my community. Not only because it is comprised of amazing individuals, who each bring their own unique flavor to the table. Nor solely based on the fact that they produce great ideas for living in the spirit of Mercy. It is mostly because they act upon these ideals of spirituality, simplicity, service, and community, that I am grateful to be part of such a group.

SpiritualityThere is no doubt that weekly spirituality nights strengthen our volunteer experience as a whole. The action-based sessions stand out to me. At the mid-way point for the year, we wrote letters to our end-of-the-year selves, expressing the best parts of the year so far and what we hope to accomplish by the end of our service. For the Christmas season, we made a wall tree comprised of post-it notes. Each piece of paper has something we are grateful for the day we wrote it. The most challenging assignment was writing notes of encouragement and passing them out on our work commutes. Most strangers were immune to paper distribution, thinking we were spreading an agenda, but it felt good when people ultimately accepted what we had to offer. Outside of spirituality night, we as a community have decided to give up meat during Lent. Not only is there hope to be spiritually strengthened by this, but we are using this as a prolonged act of simplicity.

SimplicityIt was agreed upon that we take measures every day to live simply, including unplugging electronics and utilizing the standard reduce, reuse, and recycle method. However, we wanted to take it further with a weekly Simplicity challenge. Each spirituality night we draw a paper from our jar, which dictates what extra measure will be taken (or more often, what we will go without) for the duration of the week. Examples include: 4 days without Netflix, cutting shower times in half, no name brands, 4 days of candlelit dinner, and cutting AC use in half. Sometimes the challenge bleeds into the next category of serving our neighbors.

ServiceAside from collecting spare change and handing it out on our commute, our community does absolutely no other form of service. JUST KIDDING! I am amazed that on top of a 40-hour week of service, there is still the energy and drive to search out extra volunteer opportunities. So far, these include a park clean-up, a morning at a soup kitchen, and the co-teaching of ESL classes. One of our members noticed there were few altar servers at Mass and made an offer to our parish to do some youth outreach and coordination. While many of these efforts have been made on an individual basis, there is an intentional effort from all, with all, to strengthen the community.

CommunityHave you heard the phrase, “The family that prays together, stays together”? Well, we believe eating can be a form of prayer, and when food is around, we are stuck like glue. Besides dining together at least two times a week, we bond by going to parks, watching movies from collective library runs, and challenging each other to work out. (Although I think all of us would like to hit the exercise machines more often than we do.) Museums are a common interest in the group, and we are all excited to take advantage of the new NYC municipal ID cards that will give us access to these and other cultural institutions. It is a pleasure to be a part of such an inclusive, exploratory community.

It is evident why the individuals of the NYC community were drawn to Mercy Volunteer Corps. Mercy’s tenets of spirituality, simplicity, service, and community are appealing to us as agents of positive growth. MVC and its mission has caused our group to challenge each other in our development, and that is something I believe will impact my lifestyle long after this year is over.

Easter Sunday Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Sun, 04/05/2015 - 9:30am
"When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place."
John 20:1-9
By Monica Thom Konschnik, Catholic Apostolate Center Staff and Former Jesuit Volunteer

Imagine how it must have felt for Mary Magdalene to go visit Jesus’ tomb and to find it empty. Consider the thoughts that must have been running through Peter’s mind as he heard what Mary had to say. Having, in their own ways, gone through the experience of seeing their teacher and their friend crucified a few days prior, one can only imagine the range of emotions they must have been feeling seeing that empty tomb.

I think back to my year as a Jesuit Volunteer in New Orleans. We were the first group of JVs back after Katrina devastated the city. Having never visited the city prior to showing up for my volunteer year, I tried to think about what it must have been like for my co-workers and neighbors – watching their city destroyed by a flood. They must have been like Mary, Peter, and the other apostles – scared and unsure of the future after the water receded.

But as we know, Jesus was raised from the dead and the city of New Orleans continues to rebuild. For all of the darkness in the world, we need to remember that after every death, whether literal or figurative, there is new life. If we don’t go through times of uncertainty and sadness, we can never experience the true beauty of the resurrection.
Focus on the Four Pillars:

Spirituality: Take some time to read each of the Gospel stories of the resurrection. How do each of the stories differ? Where are they the same? Which is your favorite? Why? How do the stories apply to your life? Where do you see yourself in these Gospels?

Social Justice: Even though it has been nearly ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, the city is still continuing to rebuild. Learn how you can help by donating time or resources. Visit for details.

Simple Living: During Lent, you may have given yourself extra simple living challenges. Why not continue those on? Try another type of fasting, prayer, or almsgiving during the Easter season.

Community: It’s Easter – celebrate! Lent is over; the Lord is victorious over death. Gather together your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and other volunteers to celebrate Easter.

This reflection is part of our Lenten series - download the entire reflection guide here.

Reflection: 5 Favorite Memories with the Sisters of Mercy

Tue, 03/31/2015 - 9:43am

Lauren TatanusCurrently serving with Mercy Volunteer Corps at Hands on HartfordHartford, CT

As a second year Mercy Volunteer, I have been exposed to the Sisters of Mercy in many different facets. This year, in particular, is memorable since our community is laying the foundation for future volunteers in Hartford, CT. In order to demonstrate the love and compassion that we have received as a community, I want to list my top 5 favorite memories with the Sisters of Mercy:
5. Grocery shopping with one of the sisters each weekend
Since we rely on public transportation (usually the bus), our support staff, Sisters Lorraine and Judy, graciously organized a schedule for us to go grocery shopping once a week. During the week we contact the sister or associate listed on the calendar and arrange a time for all of us to grocery shop. This has presented us with the opportunity to meet different members of the Mercy community and to humbly accept our reliance on others for transportation.

4. SHELBY! The day that Alex, Sonia, and I arrived in Hartford, Judy and Lorraine hosted a wonderful cookout in their backyard. Before arriving at their home, we were exhausted from a day full of travel and moving into our new apartment. Our groggy moods quickly changed once we met Judy and Lorraine’s cocker spaniel, Shelby. This 13-year-old rescue dog exuded more energy than all 3 of us new MVCs combined! She woke us all up and entertained us at the sisters’ home. We always look forward to spending time at Judy and Lorraine’s home, especially because we get to see the always-smiling Shelby!
3. Spontaneous tea parties Along with having Judy and Lorraine as support staff, we also have many other sisters taking care of us. For example, Sister Beth Fischer, who works at University of St. Joseph (USJ, a local Mercy college), recently stopped over on a Friday evening to chat over a cup of tea. Both Alex and I frequently see her at our service sites when she brings nursing students to the different programs throughout Hands on Hartford, but we realized there is not much time to catch up while at work. I know I felt honored and excited to spend an evening talking with such an inspiring woman like Sr. Beth! 
It is amazing to see how interested the Sisters of Mercy are in our lives as young ministers of service in the city of Hartford. They frequently ask us how we are doing as a community, spiritually, with our service sites, and in living simply. Since Sr. Beth is connected to a college campus, she has also offered to keep us informed of events taking place at USJ. I look forward to many more shared cups of tea with other sisters as well!
2. Making our house a home A few days before leaving for orientation was when we figured out our official housing. Keri, an MVC Community Coordinator, had magically found a recently renovated apartment not too far from the bus line that would take us right to work. With only a few days until we arrived, the sisters and associates of Mercy from all over the North East gathered up items to fill our apartment. There is a rocking chair in each bedroom as well as two in the living room.  The whole kitchen was stocked with pots, pans, utensils, and everything we would need for the year. Upon entering the apartment for the first time, we were also greeted with the sight of welcome baskets in the living room, kitchen, and each of our bedrooms with essentials for the year. Sr. Judy also kindly placed her crocheted doilies around our new home. Only in the Mercy community could this apartment come together and become a true home for all three of us.
1. Hospitality Hospitality seems to be an important quality when it comes to mercy. As a community we keep jokingly spelling Hartford H-E-A-R-Tford because ever since we landed in Connecticut, we were greeted with open arms by Sisters Judy and Lorraine. Following our introductions, they invited us to a cookout at their home with several other Sisters in attendance. While this could have easily been an overwhelming experience, especially after a busy day of travel, we certainly felt right at home. 
It feels as though I have about 15 aunts here in Hartford that I can turn to whenever needed. I know that my parents were appreciative of this hospitality when they visited me over Labor Day weekend. As soon as I told Judy and Lorraine about their planned trip, they invited the whole Hartford MVC community as well as my parents for a cookout. My parents were overwhelmed with gratitude at their welcome. I could tell that my parents left the dinner a lot more confident that I was in good hands with the Sisters of Mercy.
Overall, I cannot wait to see what the rest of this year has in store. We have already met several amazing people in the Circle of Mercy, but apparently there are many more who are anxiously awaiting to meet us! The best is yet to come!

Reflection: Do It Anyway

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 10:21am

By Gabby Mejia
Holy Child VolunteerBatey Lecheria, Dominican Republic

I have been serving as a missionary in the Dominican Republic for about 8 months. It has been an incredibly humbling, challenging, adventurous, overwhelming, crazy time. I’ve learned a lot about myself, about this culture, but most importantly, I have deepened my relationship with Christ by serving His people. 
Gabby Mejia (far right) with the Holy Child sisters
and another volunteer in the Dominican RepublicThis experience has not been how I thought it would be, in reality, it has been better. I thank God every day for calling me here and for trusting me enough to serve His people in this way.
I found out I would be moving to the Dominican Republic in February of last year. It always seemed far away. I thought, “I’ll be leaving in 5 months” or “oh whoa I can’t believe I’ll be leaving in 2 months.” As the time for my departure drew near, I started to think about all the ways my life in the next year would change. I realized I was being given an opportunity to live in a beautiful country for a year. I was going to be able to spread God’s love to people who the world seems to have forgotten about. That’s why I was going. 
The first couple of months were difficult. Getting accustomed to a new culture, new people, new everything proved to be more difficult than I had imagined. There were times when I doubted my ability to stay here. However, I always repeated to myself the quote that says, “The will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you.” I definitely found that to be true.

The first couple of months came and went and I found myself in a much better place. Sure, there were still some things I was getting used to, but the doubt that once cluttered my mind was no longer there. Instead, I found myself building relationships with the kids, with my fellow teachers, and with my community. 
I’m serving as an assistant teacher in a school in one of the bateys in the Dominican Republic. Bateys were once used to house immigrant Haitians that came to work the sugar harvest. However, since the cane industry dried up, bateys are now home to Dominican and undocumented Haitian families and are some of the poorest areas in the Dominican Republic. 
Many of our kids have behavioral problems. Many witness family violence regularly. Many are victims of abuse and maltreatment. Many are hungry. All of them, however, are beautiful children created in the image and likeness of God. All are worthy of love. That is what I have tried to share since I got here. My mission has always been to spread love. Though sometimes I may not know what I’m doing as a teacher, I know that these kids, mykids, know that I love them. To me, that’s all that matters. I am incredibly grateful to get the opportunity to serve these lovely kids and people who show me every day that Jesus is alive and works in us.
As I embark on my last few months here, I can’t help but look back at the last 8 months and see how much this experience has impacted me. It has changed the way I see the world. It has helped me grow as a person. It has also taught me a lot about faith. This experience is something that I will take with me for the rest of my life.   
I know that once I leave, these kids’ lives will continue on as normal. They will grow up and may not even remember me, but I will always carry them with me in my heart. I have always loved the poem titled “Do It Anyway” by Bl. Teresa of Calcutta and I think it sums up my experience as a missionary beautifully. The end says, “The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give it your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

Reflection: The lives of vowed religious are reminders of our own paths to holiness

Tue, 03/24/2015 - 10:04am

Alexis ParkCurrently serving with Mercy Volunteer Corps at SafeNetErie, Pennsylvania

Do you enjoy rocking out to pop hits like “All About that Bass” by Meghan Trainor? 
How about enjoying a glass of wine or a beer at a friendly gathering?
Do you recreate by going out to watch a play or spend some time at the local casino?
Would you believe it if I told you that these are also things enjoyed by fellow lay people consecrated as sisters in religious orders? That’s right, the three questions I just asked contain ways I have seen or been told Sisters of Mercy and Sisters of St. Joseph have fun! Yes, they are normal people, just like you and me! 
For the sake of formalities, HI!!My name is Alexis Park, and I am a Mercy Volunteer stationed in Erie, PA. I serve at a domestic violence organization called SafeNet. When I am not busy with tasks like processing volunteer applications or doing outreach at local schools, I love learning more about the Erie community. One of the ways I have especially done this is visiting the many Catholic churches and religious orders. Yes, Erie is a very Catholic area, which works out for me. For those who know me, I am a proud Catholic woman!
Alexis with her spiritual director, Sr. Mary AndrewDid you know there is actually a difference between nuns and sisters? Nuns are vowed religious who are cloistered and live by very strict rules. They also wear habits. You know, they kind of look like something Whoopi Goldberg wore in the Sister Act. They may come off as serious and very prayerful. A great example of nuns in Erie are the Carmelite sisters. The most I see of them is at Mass behind a closed gate in the chapel. This may seem strange for those of you who have never heard of this. Yet, when one takes a closer look, their way of life is very beautiful. They are answering their calls to devote their lives to pray for souls and the needs of the world. Being away from the world is difficult and brings a great deal of suffering. Yet, greater joy lies in their devotion to God and the sanctifying grace brought by their way of life. 
Meanwhile sisters are vowed religious who have a calling to live out an active ministry in the secular world.This is where orders like our awesome Sisters of Mercy come in! While a routine of prayer is integrated in their daily lives like community prayer and daily mass, they also have professions to fulfill certain ministries.Many are teachers and nurses.They can also be a social worker, like my friend, Sr. Kelly from the Sisters of St. Joseph, or a feminist author and lecturer, like the famous Sr. Joan Chittister from the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. Some sisters act as spiritual directors. For example, I am receiving direction from Sr. Mary Andrew, who just celebrated 50 years as a Mercy sister. She is one of the coolest individuals I have ever met! 
Depending on personal preference, sisters can choose to wear a habit, jeans and a sweater or even a combination of both. As I mentioned earlier, they are the ones you are more likely to find stepping out to enjoy life in their free time. This isn’t to say you can’t find the luck to crack a joke with a nun (I have in the past ☺), but it may not be as easy due to their cloistered lifestyles. 

Alexis with Sr. Kelly after her first vows
celebration as a Sister of St. Joseph.
As you can see, there is a broad spectrum in the lives of vowed religious. No way of life is holier than the other. Not all vowed religious stay inside a monastery to pray, and not all vowed religious wear habits. If anything, the lives of vowed religious are reminders of our own paths to holiness. We are called to be the individuals God made us to be. 
In the spirit of ordinary people called to holiness and that many Mercy Volunteers are recent college graduates, I would like to share an excerpt by Pope Francis I from his World Youth Day speech in 2013:
"We need saints without cassocks, without veils - we need saints with jeans and tennis shoes. We need saints that go to the movies, that listen to music, that hang out with their friends. We need saints that place God in first place ahead of succeeding in any career. We need saints that look for time to pray every day and who know how to be in love with purity, chastity and all good things. We need saints - saints for the 21st century with a spirituality appropriate to our new time. We need saints that have a commitment to helping the poor and to make the needed social change.
We need saints to live in the world, to sanctify the world and to not be afraid of living in the world by their presence in it. We need saints that drink Coca-Cola, that eat hot dogs, that surf the internet and that listen to their iPods. We need saints that love the Eucharist, that are not afraid or embarrassed to eat a pizza or drink a beer with their friends. We need saints who love the movies, dance, sports, and theater. We need saints that are open sociable normal happy companions. We need saints who are in this world and who know how to enjoy the best in this world without being callous or mundane. We need saints.”

Fifth Sunday of Lent Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Sun, 03/22/2015 - 9:30am
"Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."
John 12:20-33
By Laura Castro, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff and Former Cap Corps Midwest Volunteer

In today’s reading, Jesus reveals his death to his disciples knowing they soon would be welcomed and celebrated in Jerusalem. He sets up his teaching with a metaphor: “just as a grain of wheat must die to produce fruit, we must die to ourselves to encounter the fruit of eternal life.” This teaching stretches us to live for something beyond this world, a place we only know through our faith. We can relate to Jesus’ humanity because we see how he might have found doubt in this invitation when he says, “I am troubled now.” He understands the heaviness of what lies before him, yet he follows this moment of confusion with an affirmation of his purpose in the world and ends the teaching with hope. The reading shows the complexity of Jesus and his faithfulness to God and humanity.

As Jesus reminds the people of his death, do we remain hopeful? What in our lives makes this difficult? What inspires us to be hopeful? Through our service and ministry – how have we found hope in the darkest places?

Focus on the Four Pillars:

Spirituality: When speaking to the youth, Pope Francis stated, “Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad!” he said. “Ours is not a joy that comes from having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person,” he said. “We accompany, we follow Jesus, but above all we know that he accompanies us and carries us on his shoulders.”

Social Justice: Catholics have essential beliefs and teachings around social justice that give us direction to encounter Christ in all people and all creation. The seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching can be implemented in your daily life. Visit Catholic Apostolate Center’s Catholic Social Teaching resources page for more information:

Simple Living: Living simply has its challenges, especially in a consumer-centric society. You may feel daunted by the idea of adopting practices of simple living and making a lasting commitment to this new lifestyle. Don’t let those worries prevent you from giving it a try today. View this Lenten season as a way to experiment with new forms of simple living – and once you’ve tried it, decide which practices you want to maintain for the long haul. Also, remember that integrating some practices of consuming less are forms of solidarity with those who are living in poverty.

Community: Robert Greenleaf said “The servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” How are you utilizing your leadership positions to lift up your community?

This reflection is part of our Lenten series - download the entire reflection guide here.

Fourth Sunday of Lent Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Sun, 03/15/2015 - 9:30am
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life."
John 3:14-21
By Carol Lackie, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff

This is one of the most frequently quoted passages of the Bible. For many believers, simply mentioning “John 3:16” or declaring it on a bumper sticker evokes strong feelings of humility and thankfulness regarding the life and sacrifice of Jesus – especially as that sacrifice was for each one of us as individuals. As we ponder the power of this faith tenet during the Lenten season, I invite us all to challenge ourselves about what the on-going message of Jesus’ sacrifice requires of us since that message is timeless and very much alive and dynamic.

Our Christian faith proclaims we are all children of God. As such, aren’t we bound to practice the same self-sacrifice that Jesus exhibited? It is said that Jesus is the human face of God. If Jesus now lives in each of us, isn’t it true then that we all reflect the face of God and are called to serve each other as Jesus served those around him? This is the simple plea of Pope Francis – that the Church would put aside secular trappings of power and wealth and serve the poor.

There is another powerful declaration in this short phrase that qualifies our service – it must be compassionate. John states that Jesus was not sent to condemn, but to save. The compassion of Jesus is one of the qualities of his ministry most often cited in the Gospels. He reached out to all peoples – even those shunned by society – and he made clear that his healing power was available to all. When we engage in our ministries, is our embrace as free and nonjudgmental as that of Jesus?

Focus on the Four Pillars: 

Spirituality: The theologian Philip Sheldrake defines Christian spirituality as “the way our fundamental values, life-styles, and spiritual practices reflect particular understandings of God, human identity, and the material world as the context for human transformation.”  One’s spirituality is particular to a time and place and experience of life – an ordering of what is important and how those values reflect an understanding of and relationship with The Divine. The call to model our lives after the sacrificial life of Jesus may challenge us to reorder our priorities. During this Lenten season, perhaps we can spend time thinking about whether the true motivators in our lives – whether those things we hold dear – are truly reflective of the Divine love and compassion with which we, ourselves, have been so blessed.

Social Justice: The concept of social justice flows naturally from John. God’s love for all people is a consistent theme of his gospel and in Chapter 10:10, he quotes Jesus as saying “I have come that they (all people) may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In our ministries, have we developed a Christian appreciation what it means to “have life” – have we discussed this with our fellow servers? Then, once we have considered that, what does it mean to possess or share this life “more abundantly”? Do we leave room in our hearts for the variety of responses to these questions that God, undoubtedly, treasures?

Simple Living: Loving everyone always seems so daunting to me – especially as I realize my very human flaws in liking some people and disliking others. Where does one begin to tackle this most challenging commandment? I try and consider this – loving means sharing. Each of us is gifted by God in some special way. We have a unique contribution to make to this world and that is why we are here. The gift we are has never walked this earth before and it will never be repeated. My challenge then is to discover that gift and to share it. I believe that the sharing of that gift brings true, heartfelt, inner joy. I believe that feeling that joy helps overcome the pettiness of limiting, human fears and resentments. A heart filled with joy has no room to hate. Simple.

Community: Sometimes it is easier to apply the teachings of Jesus in the broad, abstract way than a particular, concrete one. Make it a regular practice during Lent to check-in with those in your ministry team and ask each other if you have lived the sacrificial example of Jesus and have you done so without judgment?

This reflection is part of our Lenten series - download the entire reflection guide here.

Discernment story: Called to become

Fri, 03/13/2015 - 12:01pm
By Sr. Margaret Culloty
Former volunteer with The Volunteer Missionary Movement
From Service to Sisterhood Vocation Story

We all have dreams and one of mine was to go to Africa. Following my graduation from university I had a profound sense of gratitude in my heart. I felt truly blessed for all I had received in life and had a desire to contribute something positive to society, to give something back. Deep within me I felt a tug at my heart to go to Africa.
I did the usual homework by looking at different volunteer agencies and finally settled with V.M.M. – The Volunteer Missionary Movement. This movement was founded in 1969 by a lay woman Edwina Gateley. Edwina had worked in Uganda as a teacher and this led her to founding VMM. Having gone through the application and interview process I was accepted and the excitement I felt was uncontainable. My dream was becoming a reality.
With other hopeful pilgrims I attended a six week preparation course and during this time received my assignment. I would be going to Kenya, East Africa. This was a real joy for me with the added bonus that my mission was to an English speaking country as I am weak at languages. 
I would have two companions, one was a nurse/midwife and the other was an accountant. We would all work in the same compound. Here there was a school, where I would be teaching, a clinic and the office from which this great project would be administered from. We would live as a Christian Community.
We worked in a slum or shanty town in the city of Nairobi. It was a small area with over 70,000 people. Everybody was extremely poor, living in tiny houses only 10 feet by 10 feet, made of mud or sometimes cardboard and plastic with sheets of corrugated iron for the roof. There was no electricity, running water or sanitation. There were a few pumps in the slum where the villagers went each morning with their jerry cans to bring water back to their homes. There were also a few latrines but often as the queues were long, some would just go to the rubbish dumps to relieve themselves. I often wondered and marveled at how the people survived in those conditions and not only survived but emerged each day with a smile on their faces, thanking God for another new day. In the midst of their poverty they saw opportunity.

The project where I worked was initiated by the Sisters of Mercy and from humble beginnings it grew and grew. At that particular time in Kenya parents had to pay for elementary school education and for many they could not afford it. Consequently the children could not attend school. Needless to say when the school was opened by the sisters and it was free, hundreds of children flocked to it. To teach there was an amazing privilege. Imagine having students who really desired to be there. They were extremely eager to learn and worked tremendously hard. It was truly awesome to see how quickly they progressed - what a sheer joy to be with them.
During vacation time I had many opportunities to see different parts of this beautiful country and experience the Kenyan culture – their rituals, music and dance are a real treat. To take a safari is a must.

These experiences of being with the Kenyan people who were so happy although they had little and being with other long term missionaries who were giving of themselves for the greater good touched me and changed me. I began to question and ask myself what really is life all about? What is God asking of me in all of this?
Upon reflection I sensed that God was asking me to be myself. To be true to the person I was called and created to be – to listen to my heart, to be in tune with the movement of the spirit within.Following this two year volunteer service I felt called to make a more long term commitment and sometime later joined a religious congregation and became a Franciscan Missionary of Mary.
I believe God gave me this volunteer opportunity to help me to step back a little from the fast moving treadmill of life and to see what is truly important. As pilgrims on the journey of life, God travels with us and God gives each one of us a special mission. God does not force us, he gently invites but are we listening? 

Called to become (by Edwina Gateley)You are called to becomeA perfect creation.No one is called to becomeWho you are called to be.It does not matterHow short or tallOr thick-set or slowYou may be.It does not matter Whether you sparkle with lifeOr are as silent as a still pool.Whether you sing your song aloudOr weep alone in darkness.It does not matter Whether you feel loved and admired.Or unloved and aloneFor you are called to become A perfect creation.No one’s shadowShould cloud your becoming.No one’s lightShould dispel your spark.For the Lord delights in youJealously looks upon youAnd encourages with gentle joyEvery movement of the spirit   Within you.Unique and loved you standBeautiful or stunted in your growthBut never without hope and life.For you are called to becomeA perfect creation.This becoming may beGentle or harsh.Subtle or violent But it never ceases.Never pauses or hesitates.Only is -----Creative force ------Calling youCalling you to becomeA perfect creation.

For more resources on discerning your vocation through service, click here.

Third Sunday of Lent Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Sun, 03/08/2015 - 9:30am
"Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up."
John 2:13-25

By Barbara Wheeler, U.S. Catholic Mission Association Staff and Former Vincentian Service Corps Volunteer

For people who know what it means to live in community, this Gospel can come as a relief. Even Jesus got angry. It is good to know that our God is not saccharine or sentimental; this is a real person who knows what it is like to feel anger.

I have noticed that when I am friends with someone, I slowly begin to feel the way they feel about certain things. I know how certain situations will bother them and I know how other circumstances will make them happy. And the closer you grow with a person, you become not only aware of how they react to certain situations and people – you begin to feel the same way. Perhaps you never even noticed a certain noise before, and after this friendship, you share their annoyance at that same noise. Perhaps you never cared about a certain kind of music, but after this friendship, you begin to listen to it in a different way. In a good friendship where both people work to build each other up, this empathy can bring people closer and lead them to discover new aspects about the world around them.

So it is, I think, with our relationship with God. It is worth asking – what made Jesus so angry in the temple? Can we find ourselves angry at the same things that cause him to be angry: are we made angry by unjust treatment of others, at turning a place of worship and prayer into a place of trade and cheating others? There are other places in the Gospel where Jesus shows emotion. To the rich young man, Jesus, “looked at him and loved him.” Later, Jesus weeps for Jerusalem. What can we learn about who God is from such reactions?

The Father of the Church, St. Athanasius, said, “God became man so that man can become God.” Being a Christian is not simply following a set of rules or an ethical choice, though those are part of it. What does it mean to conform our lives to Christ, to respond to everything the way he responds to the world? In a particular way this Lent, how are you called to respond to the injustices in the world?  There are many responses possible, but perhaps it begins with looking at the Gospel and asking ourselves to begin to see the world the way Christ sees it.

Focus on the Four Pillars:

Spirituality: For this week’s prayer time, you will need a few supplies. Grab a bowl and a handful of beans. Begin your prayer time as you usually do, presenting your personal needs to God. With every prayer, drop a bean into the bowl. When you run out of your usual prayers, pray for the needs of communities around the world. Keep going until you’ve placed all your beans in the bowl. This method of prayer will stretch you to move outside your own needs and pray for others also.

Social Justice: What social justice issues are you most passionate about? Take time this week to dig deeper into one of those issues. Read through Scripture and Catholic Social Teaching to understand the faith perspective on the issue, and find out if there is legislation supporting these concerns. Reach out to your members of Congress to share your opinions on the matter.

Simple Living: Today’s Gospel shows us how Jesus reacted when he entered the Temple, take a few minutes to think about how Jesus would assess your own home? Is it a welcoming space? Are you making good use of your resources? Do you have belongings that might better serve someone in need? Identify three things that you can change – either by fixing it, cleaning it, or donating it to someone who has a greater need for it.

Community: This week, as you gather with your community, take some time to discuss the brokenness you see in your neighborhood.  Find ways that you can be a source of healing and service to those in living in poverty. Agree on one community service project that you will take up during this Lenten season.

This reflection is part of our Lenten series - download the entire reflection guide here.

Ashes to go

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 11:15am
By Cody Maynus
Current volunteer with Visitation Internship Program
Sr. Karen Mohan, VIP director, and former VIP volunteer, Anna Dourgarian,
who participated in the Ashes to Go ministry
I live, work, and pray among prophets. 
Not the camel-hair-and-locusts or the bushy-beard-and-divine-judgement varieties. My prophets are six nuns who individually and collectively love more deeply than anybody else I've known. 
The Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis are prophets and pioneers. 
Responding to whispers from the Holy Spirit, my Sisters uprooted their monastic stability in St. Louis and St. Paul in order to move to the "hood" of North Minneapolis, a neighborhood marked in the media and popular opinion as a ghetto of guns, drugs, and prostitution. 
These women moved to the racially, religiously, economically and culturally diverse northside in order to pray contemplatively and to be a non-violent presence. Not to found a clinic or a school, an agency or a program. To pray and to be. 
Cody divides ashes into a "to go" container
for Sr. Mary Virginia to distribute on the
streets of north Minneapolis.In doing so, these six nuns have revolutionized my understanding of God, of service, of love. They engage with their neighbors, not as wise elders (which they are) or trained theologians (which they also are), but rather as friends of God (which we all are.) Whenever the door bells, the Sisters answer it, confident that they will meet God in the person of their neighbor at the door. 
On Ash Wednesday, the Sisters listened once more to the whispering of the Holy Spirit and took another leap of immense faith. We brought ashes--the ancient Christian symbol of rebirth, renewal, repentance--beyond the monastery walls and into the streets of our neighborhood. 
About fifteen of us--nuns, companions, friends--gathered together in the chapel following our Ash Wednesday Mass, prayed together, and set out, stocked with little dishes of ashes, prayer cards, and several layers of clothing (the temperature without wind chill hovered right around 0 that day.) 
We brought ashes to our neighbors not because we believed ourselves somehow holier than our neighbors. We brought ashes to the streets because our humanity and our neighbor's humanity are intricately bound together in God's plan for salvation. We do not come to God alone, but as a whole beloved community, bruised and broken, forgiven by a God who loves us fiercely and passionately. 
So many of our neighbors looked at us a little funny--these mostly white, mostly women--people pouring out of the monastery and asking to smear ashes on foreheads. Many of our neighbors are not Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, or other traditions that celebrate Lent and Ash Wednesday. Many of them are not Christian or were once Christian, but have not practiced in a very long time. Some people were hostile, assuming that we were proselytizing or hounding people about their sins. Many were receptive, eager even to have a nun or somebody associated with the nuns smudge a little dirt and tell them that they were forgiven, that God loved them, that no matter how big or how many their sins, God would always forgive them. 

Ash Wednesday Mass in the monastery. That's the power of the Gospel right there. God-in-Jesus meets us, not as divine judge and sinful penitent, but as human and human. In his Treatise on the Love of God, St. Francis de Sales, co-founder along with St. Jane de Chantal of the Visitation, tells us that God planned to become human in Jesus, not because of our sinful nature, but because of God's supreme love of humankind. Francis writes of God's desire to "communicate [Godself] such sort that [humanity] might be engrafted and implanted in the divinity, and become one single person with It" (Treatise, Book II, Ch. IV).
Ash Wednesday Mass in the monastery.Taking ashes to the neighborhood taught me that God never forgives us begrudgingly, because God desires communion--union with--us. Our sin sometimes gets in the way of our relationship with God, but God quickly scrambles to forgive us and wipe all of that sin away. The ashes, blessed and distributed annually, are a reminder of our rebirth in the waters of baptism, of our being marked as Christ's own forever. 
"Turn from your sins," God tells us as God smudges the foreheads of our hearts. "Because I already have." 
Live + Jesus,Cody 
What to submit your own volunteer reflection or program article? Email Larissa Dalton Stephanoff at

Second Sunday of Lent Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Sun, 03/01/2015 - 10:30am
"This is my beloved Son. Listen to him."
Mark 9-2-10

By Julie McElmurry, Director of Franciscan Passages and Former Jesuit Volunteer

Jesus invites Peter, James and John to witness something so indescribable that words fail them and words fail even the Gospel writer himself.  Of the Transfiguration, the writer can only tell us that Jesus’ clothes became the brightest white imaginable. In the shock of seeing Moses and Elijah there with Jesus, our three astonished heroes could only think of offering housing to them. On top of all of this excitement, the actual voice of God booms onto the scene, telling our guys to listen to Jesus. Peter “hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.”

An encounter with God dumbfounds us too. We scramble to make sense of what just happened and then we scramble to articulate it for ourselves. At times, we try to articulate it to others, at other times we are too afraid to talk about such deep things. Words are inadequate since they are merely symbols, pointing beyond themselves to a greater reality. Words can never fully capture that feeling, that vision, that moment when, in my heart and mind, I know God just saved me, comforted me, or guided me.  My descriptions will not sufficiently paint the whole 3-D picture of such an encounter, but I’m obligated to try to share it anyhow.

Focus on the Four Pillars: Spirituality: Ask God to dumbfound you this week. Be open to what comes next.

Social Justice: A rough-looking guy came up to her truck as we sat waiting. When asked, my boss from the homeless shelter gave him a few dollars out of her purse. “How can you do that, knowing what you know?” I asked, to which she responded “How can you sit there and not do that, knowing what you know?” During a lull tomorrow, ask your boss to explain their perspective on something you disagree on. Listen and consider what she has to say.

Simple Living: They thought I was nuts. I didn’t know how to describe this “year of service” concept to my co-workers at the homeless shelter. Do your colleagues understand it? Do they ask you about it? Choose a co-worker and sit down with them, recounting in a simple way, the journey from deciding to apply to accepting the offer which brought you here today.

Community: In his terror, at least Peter managed to come up with an offer of hospitality (providing a tent) for Moses, Elijah and Jesus.  On Facebook today, tell the story of a time you made a feeble yet sincere offer to others in response to an astonishing incident. Ask others to share their stories.

This reflection is a part of our Lenten series - download the entire reflection guide here.

Sheild of Privilege

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 1:33pm
By Matt Whalen
Current volunteer with Cap Corps Midwest

Protest march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014
From 4-6pm at the Maria Kaupas Center (MKC), my ministry site for Cap Corps, there are on average 60 kids ages 9-18 inside the center at once. As we can all imagine, some days there seems to be complete chaos and others days there is relative calm. On most days though there is a mixture of both. A little bit of singing, dancing, arguing, studying, breaking tables (on accident of course), and just being, all happen in this two our window. In this “just being” phase of the day is when I get to know the teens better, in particular the older guys.

One day though, after reflection ended and we were all making our way out of the chapel, I noticed three guys that stayed back and gathered in a pew. While this is not a rare occasion, this time I felt the need to go over to them and just check to see how their days were going. After a few minutes of casual talk, one of the guys told me he saw me walking around the neighborhood on the weekend and was surprised to see me around outside of school hours. He then continued to ask where I shopped for clothes, because according to him “my style doesn’t match the stores around here.” We both laughed and I told him I mainly shop at thrift stores.

This little spark of interest led a handful of others guys, about 5, to come into the chapel, which led to a two hour conversation. In the conversation I shared more about why I was volunteering, that I live in their neighborhood, and other parts of my life. All the guys graciously shared much about their past and I am grateful they did. They were surprised that I don’t get paid, that I walk home, and that out of the whole country I chose to live in Southside Chicago when all they want to do is leave it. They shared with me the realities of living in Southside and the daily struggles they face. Some of them even opened up about things I could not imagine going through.

Matt and youth at Maria Kaupas CenterToward the end of our conversation, the same guy who called out my wardrobe choice said this: “Life is hard out here Matt. But no matter how long you live here you will never experience it because you have a shield on and it’s called being white.”

With the recent Eric Garner and Mike Brown incidents and protests, we as a center have openly discussed race relations and the teens have been so open in sharing their feelings. The guy who told me “life is hard” is one of the most vocal and his statement could not be truer. What I have realized more than anything else in the past few months at MKC and in Cap Corps is that I wear this “shield of privilege” that protects from the realities people of color face. This shield of privilege is something that I cannot take off because it is engrained in my skin tone and in the middle class suburban upbringing I had. When I tell people I live in Southside Chicago, most people cringe and apologize that my safety is at risk.

Quite the opposite though, I am probably one of the safest in my neighborhood. For example, I can walk through different gang territory and am never mistaken as a part of the other gang. When I walk into a store or church, the clerk or clergy does not follow me around. I don’t have to worry about looking suspicious if I wear my hoodie up and even where I lived is surrounded by an iron gate. This shield of privilege has layers upon layers and not matter how hard I try to strip down to the core, there will always be another layer that either protects me or propels me into the stream of easy living.

It is complex and institutional, stereotypical, and exclusive. I can do things to help dirty the shield, like protest, live in the neighborhood I work in, give up some of the non-essentials, but my past already gives me a one up. I have a college education and I actively chose not to make money this year! Plus, I would be lying if I say the privilege I have is not beneficial, I just wish it wasn’t for a select few.

Protest march in Washington, DC, December 13, 2014 So as the year continues, the best thing I can do is recognize that this shield is always with me. From there I can start using it to protect people of colors’ rights, maybe swing the shield to the left to be exposed for a while, or a least get it dirty through activism, expanding my perspective, inviting more diverse people into my life, and having more conversations with the kids I work with. For people of privilege, the first step is to recognize our privilege. Not to try to hide from it and say history is behind us and everything is hunky-dory, as we can see in Ferguson, New York, Sanford, the education system, and so on. What I can do is be a voice, an educator and more importantly a learner of my privilege and fight for equal rights of all my brothers and sisters through firm resilient love.

See the original post here.

First Sunday of Lent Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Sun, 02/22/2015 - 10:30am

“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Mark 1:12-15
By Jim Lindsay, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff

Have you ever experienced times in the wilderness --- you know, those occasions when we are in the desert --- feeling lost?  Those times can be great opportunities to find out more about ourselves, about God’s plan for us and about what is most important in our lives.
In today’s gospel, we venture into the wilderness with Jesus. Times in the wilderness can be challenging.  The questions we might ask are these:  How do we deal with these challenges?  Are these challenges the same as temptations?  What is the difference between temptations and the challenges they cause?
Temptation is a very real part of life and is especially challenging in our times in the wilderness.  We are down, disheartened, afraid, and isolated.  But every temptation we encounter brings with it a consequent challenge.  Meeting those trials head on is how we rise above the inducement to sin.
Jesus knows what it is like to be tempted.  Jesus knows what it is like to be challenged.  Jesus knows what it is like to be in the wilderness.  And it was in this wasteland, following his Baptism, that Jesus struggled, mourned, questioned and endured great temptations.  
Jesus teaches us that we encounter the challenges of the wilderness by meeting God daily.  Jesus was prepared to meet the challenges in the wilderness because he was in contact every one of those forty days with God.  This is how Jesus knew God’s will for his life.  It is also the way we learn God’s will for OUR lives.
Focus on the Four Pillars:
Spirituality: The wilderness is the place of devastation and danger, of being tempted off one's path and also of meeting God. Jesus finds God's path for him in the wilderness. Prayer is a wilderness time. It can be perilous for it brings us in touch with the evil as well as with the good in ourselves. With practice, it makes known to us the peace of God in Christ - the harmony that can be found in the desert. It is also the place of recommitment to God and of finding the strength that God offers us.

Reflection: What spirit motivates me in the things I do? Is my heart a home for the Spirit? Could the Holy Spirit be inviting me to take more quiet space? In the scriptures, the ‘wilderness’ is a place of disclosure and of intimacy with God. I need to put secondary things aside to meet God. God is found in emptiness as well as in fullness.

Social Justice: As Lent begins, I might promise God that I will be faithful to the quiet space and time that sacred space offers me. I want the reign of God to come near me. I want to believe more deeply in the good news and to seek to bring about God’s justice on the earth.

Reflection: What difference do I make to other people’s lives? What do I do, within my limitations, to help remove the abuses which are part of our society?  These are just some of the questions I can ask myself during these six weeks.

Simple Living: In our wilderness times we are seduced to listen to the voices that lead us away from God. These voices tell us that the good in our lives is represented by money, power, security, and fame. All of these can be good things.  But good things turn evil when we become persuaded that we don’t need God in our lives.  We get confused about what is truly meaningful in our lives and what gives our lives genuine purpose.  The challenge in all of this is to live our lives knowing that God will provide everything we need.

Reflection: As I enter this Lenten journey, I will examine the areas of temptations, misdirected desires and loyalties in my life. “Repent and believe” involves a process of re-focusing on what is really of value in my life.

Community: Only God could be so human as to withstand temptation. Mark’s Gospel depicts Jesus as divine but also deeply human. He enters the wilderness for one reason only: to find God, to seek God and to belong to him completely. Only then does he go to Galilee and proclaim good news to others.

Reflection: What type of person am I in relation to my family, friends, work colleagues and other people with whom I come in contact? How involved am I as a member of my Christian community, e.g., my parish?

This reflection is part of our Lenten Series - download the entire reflection guide here.

Ash Wednesday Reflection - Forty Days with the Four Pillars

Wed, 02/18/2015 - 10:30am

Lent begins today. This is a sacred and prayerful time for the Church. Catholic Volunteer Network has partnered with Catholic Apostolate Center to bring you a reflection guide that looks at the Lenten season through the lens of our four pillars of spirituality, social justice, simple living and community. Each reflection is written by a different contributor, and each offering their unique insights and experiences. Many of the contributors are also former volunteers who are actively working to keep service and prayer as integral components of their lives. Some will provide you with thought-provoking reflection questions, while others share practical suggestions of how you can apply the virtues of the four pillars to your Lenten observance.

You can come back to this blog every Sunday to read the new reflection, or download the entire reflection guide here.

Ash Wednesday Reflection
“When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

By Katie Mulembe, Catholic Volunteer Network Staff and Franciscan Mission Service Returned Missioner

Every Ash Wednesday for the last eleven years, I’ve found myself reflecting back on that one time in 2004 when I did Lent right. I gave up chocolate, television, the internet, shopping, alcohol, talking on the phone, and wearing makeup. I didn’t get into a car even once, instead I walked everywhere I needed to go. I wrote letters to my family and dearest friends and was sure to tell them how much I loved them. I spent time every morning and evening in prayer, and I journaled every single day. I didn’t even cheat on Sundays. It was amazing.

Okay, okay, I will come clean – I didn’t actually choose to do all that for Lent, it just sort of happened that way. At the time, I was starting my mission experience, and was taking language courses in a small, remote village in Northern Zambia. I had to travel light because I only had room for one backpack on the long and crowded bus journey to the village. Life was simple out there. My days were spent taking language classes, making new friends in the village, learning how to wash my clothes by hand, and tasting new foods (sadly, there was no chocolate to be found). But every day the sun would set promptly at 6 p.m., and I was left to myself in the quiet darkness, most often only lit by the dim glow of my kerosene lamp. It was just me and God then, and I found myself experiencing a closeness that I had never known before. Through the long silences, I learned how to open up to God and share about my fears and needs. I took comfort in God on those nights when I felt especially homesick. I finished up language school on Palm Sunday, and moved back to the big city just in time for Holy Week. That year, Easter seemed to take on a whole new level of meaning for me.

I have tried to replicate that 2004 experience by giving up or taking on small things here and there. None of it seems to have the same effect. I haven’t yet regained that intense awareness of God’s presence that I felt during those simple days. Of course, it would be nearly impossible to give up all that I did in 2004, but today’s Gospel got me thinking that maybe it’s not what I do to observe Lent, it’s how I do it. Jesus reminds us that when we do good deeds, or give to charity, or fast, we should not boast about them. We should do them in the quiet. So, maybe it is the quiet part that I’ve left out of my recent Lenten observances. As I strive to live more simply, and love more deeply this Lent, I am also taking up the challenge to carve out room for silence to hear how God is speaking to me through this Lenten season.

Focus on the Four Pillars: 

Spirituality: If you struggle with silence, Lectio Divina may be a great way to ease it into your life. This practice involves careful and repetitive reading of a particular passage in order to gain new insights. It is a quiet and introspective way to pray. Consider spending time with Psalm 139:1-18 to reflect on the constant presence of God. Want to learn more? The Carmelites provide a helpful guide to Lectio Divina here:

Social Justice: During his first Mass of 2015, Pope Francis urged us to take action on behalf of those who bear the burden of slavery. “All of us are called (by God) to be free, all are called to be sons and daughters, and each, according to his or her own responsibilities, is called to combat modern forms of enslavement. From every people, culture and religion, let us join our forces,” he said. Statistics indicate that nearly 36 million people are experiencing enslavement today, most of them suffering in silence. Take some time this week to learn more about modern slavery, and determine which steps you would like to take to stop it. Visit for more information.

Simple Living: Have you decided to live more simply this Lenten season by giving up a favorite food or activity? Consider saving the money you would have spent on that item and making a donation to a local soup kitchen. If you are giving up an activity, carefully consider how you would like to use some of the free time to give back to your community.

Community: You do not have to walk this Lenten journey alone. Sharing the experience with your community will help you stay committed to this important time of prayer and fasting. If you live in community, suggest a weekly meeting when you can all support one another throughout Lent. If you do not live in community, consider reaching out to some friends to form a supportive prayer group for this time. You may consider starting out by taking time to reflect on past seasons of Lent and recalling how you have grown through those experiences.

Lasallian Volunteers learn about Privilege while Serving a Diverse group of seniors in the Bronx

Mon, 02/09/2015 - 10:00am

By Katie Christensen
Event Coordinator, Lasallian Volunteers
and Bryana Polk
Assistant Occupancy Clerk, Lasallian Volunteers

 Serviam Gardens is a fairly new and affordable senior housing development in the Bronx, NY, housing more than 300 residents in 243 units. The demographic make-up of Serviam Gardens makes this property extremely unique. A majority of the residents are Hispanic (Dominican and Puerto Rican), Korean, and Black (Caribbean, African American, and African). The residents from this senior housing come from all walks of life. The socioeconomic backgrounds range from doctors, teachers, artists, musicians, and scientists. Though many of the seniors live alone, a handful of them live with a spouse/significant other, a child, or a sibling.
Serviam Gardens provides subsidized housing for the residents, and also many amenities and services. The property is gated with 24 hour security protection. Serviam is composed of three buildings and each one includes a laundry facility and a special recreational area. The property has a library, theatre, gym, game room, community spaces, computer lab, picnic area, garden, and access to a green roof. The social services department provides classes, health presentations, free tax preparations, and recreational trips for the seniors. They can also receive help with immigration, citizenship, and SNAP benefits. The management department offers assistance with completing necessary paperwork for their subsidized housing. Services for senior citizens at Serviam Gardens are limitless.
 Katie Christensen, Event Coordinator, Second Year Lasallian Volunteer              

Moving from Denver, Colorado, to the Bronx in New York took a huge leap of faith and a lot of courage. Working with senior citizens was not new to me but it also was not something I had a great deal of experience with. Add-in doing social work after majoring in International Affairs and I was obviously out of my league.

It became a sink or swim situation. Coming from a smaller city, going from the majority to the minority, and working with a population that is significantly older than me, I started to see things differently. The older populations become vulnerable as they age. Times change and speed up as they start to slow down. Technology changes, documentation begins to get harder to understand, and transportation is not as easy anymore. 
It is entertaining to watch a group of 65-year-olds, or older, learn to operate a cell phone. Not everything is translated, making things very difficult for a group of people that mostly speak Spanish and Korean. 
I have realized in doing this work that I am very privileged and blessed. I am in good health, grew up in a technologically advanced time, and have all of the opportunities in the world to learn new languages and skill-sets. A lot of the seniors I work with have very few family members alive or living near them.  I have a ton of friends and family. From the people I work with and live with to all of my family back home in Colorado, the amount of love and support I am given is immeasurable. 
I am also privileged in being able to work with seniors because they have so much wisdom and knowledge to share. I gain so much growth in numerous ways by hearing the stories and experiences they share with me. They want me to succeed. They want what is best for me, and because of them I can truly say I am a better person. Moving across the country was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Bryana Polk, Assistant Occupancy Clerk, Second Year Lasallian Volunteer
The idea that I would be working with senior citizens never crossed my mind when I applied to Lasallian Volunteers. A year and a half into my service at Serviam Gardens, I couldn’t see myself elsewhere or working with any other population. I’ve learned a lot of things being in the company of the seniors; some of those lessons came from conversations or by simply observing them.

While many of the seniors at Serviam are completely mobile and independent, a fair portion of them aren’t self-sufficient. Some have home health aides (HHA) who assist them with daily tasks, but it can be a tricky process in receiving one. It’s unfortunate to see some of the seniors who really do need the assistance not be granted or br eligible for that help. As mundane as the topic of HHA can be to us who don’t need that kind of service, it’s a major privilege for the elderly. Not everyone can get it. I’m fortunate to have the choice to take care of myself without aid; I’m not necessarily dependent on someone.
More important than HHA services, a privilege I have that some of the residents don’t have here is close family and friends, and the realization of that is tea- jerking. There are people here who don’t have families that stay near; or maybe they do, but they don’t visit often. Some of them spend their time in their apartment alone; witnessing that makes me want to create lasting relationships, be considered reliable to others, and maintain the solid relationships that I already have with my own friends and family.

Knowing this makes me want to confidently feel that I am loved and cared about by someone. That I can love and care about someone without any reservations. The spectrum of residents here is truly vast. There are residents who can’t keep people out of their apartment, always have children, spouses, and grandchildren at their home; or they visit their children and grandchildren. Then there are cases of the polar opposite. Those residents don’t seem to emit as much internal happiness or joy. This by far is an example of privilege that stands out to me here.
Working with the seniors at Serviam has been challenging at moments, but it’s an absolute blessing to be here. Compared to other Lasallian Volunteers who work with populations who are just embarking into life, Katie and I are able to see how decisions and consequences from the earlier years have impacted lives in the later years, good or bad. It makes me think about how I want my life to be and how I can start or change some things to make sure that I can look back on my life when I’m 70 and feel no regrets or loneliness—only abundant joy and contentment.

What to submit your own volunteer reflection or program article? Email Larissa Dalton Stephanoff at

Reflection on international aid

Sun, 02/01/2015 - 12:29pm
By Ben, Cap Corps Midwest volunteer in Nicaragua

 When we donate time or money to a cause, we want to know that what we gave is making a positive difference.  We don’t want to spend time on things that don’t matter, and we don’t want to waste money.  I think that makes a lot of sense, but in the year and a half that I’ve been in Nicaragua working at a local NGO, I’ve found that this impulse on the part of foreign donors can have unexpectedly negative repercussions.
AccountabilityWhen the youth center where I work gets grants to do a project, say an after-school program to 50 under-served youth with classes in Spanish, English, Math, and Dance, the grant providers want to be sure that we are doing what we said we would.  They cant follow us around constantly to see that we are keeping our end of the bargain.  So the most common form of accountability are attendance lists that every kid has to sign at every event. The lists ask for things like name, date of birth, ID number, telephone, and signature.  The lists have to match up, so the kids cant make mistakes.  The lists cant have tears or stains.  Heaven help you if the kids use a red pen.  In a normal week at my youth center there are around 30 attendance lists that need to passed around and monitored so the kids don’t draw on them.  Projects also require periodic reports, photos, and testimonials.  I understand why.  But I also understand that all the time we spend obsessing over lists and writing reports to prove that were doing work reduces the amount of work we can do.  All the paperwork draws staff away from kids who need attention and love and toward mind-numbing tedium and burnout.
EfficiencyAnother thing that donors look at when deciding which organizations to donate to is their efficiency.  I remember a couple years looking through Guidestar at the percentage of a charity’s budget allocated to direct service versus administrative costs.  I thought, my money will go farther if it is directly reaching the people.  That’s reasonable if we are giving to a hand-out kind of organization, but if we look solely at efficiency as a standard it is going to push us away from donating to organizations seeking to create social change (because socially oriented work requires more staff, i.e. greater administrative costs).  I’ve seen how my coworkers are underpaid and overworked, in large part because of requirements by the grant providers that limit how the money we receive can be spent.
GoalsThe trickiest funding issue for me is related to the goals people fund.  The NGO with which I work is based in “Popular Education.”  Popular Education is a method for working for social change that starts with the needs and dreams of the people, and then works from there.  The realities of non-profit funding stand in complete contrast.  Well meaning donors will fund a particular project.  We have several projects aimed at reducing violence against women.  That’s a great goal.  The problem is that it is a goal for Nicaraguans coming from non-Nicaraguans funding the grants.  When goals are set outside of the community trying to reach them, it undermines their effectiveness.
My Take?If we are blessed to be able to put a portion of our time or resources toward a cause, we need to be able to balance personal responsibility that our gifts are being effectively used with trust that allows organizations to adapt to and work well with their context.  That’s easier to do when we have relationships with the organizations we’re involved with, but that’s not always possible.  I also fear that this sort of perspective could push people toward only supporting domestic causes even though the international community has so many needs and opportunities.  Ultimately, I take my experience as a challenge to give more freely and trust more deeply.

Jumpstart your career with post-graduate service: reflections on trajectory to success

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 12:04pm

By Laura Castro
CVN Recruitment Associate
Former Cap Corps Midwest Volunteer in Peru

I graduate on May 20, 2012. I have done everything I am supposed to do to secure a well-paying job and continue my climb up the corporate ladder busting through that glass ceiling. I spent my summers interning for a Fortune 500 company and saved the money I earned for the school year; I maintained an exceptional GPA and would receive various scholarships for my commitment to academic excellence, student involvement and community service; I built relationships with key professors who would advise my self-directed study and write letter of recommendations; I studied abroad to immerse myself in another culture and learn Spanish; I had great mentors who would help me strategize professional moves; I even choose a work study that would align with my career goals.

It’s February and I just nailed an interview with my company for a full-time position at headquarters. All my hard work is paying off and I am talking full benefits with a relocation package. I have used the past four years wisely. I am ready to graduate.
This was my story two years ago. I did not have room for error or flexibility and I felt entitled to be recognized. Looking back now I can understand why I felt betrayed when it all fell through and I thought that all I had sacrificed meant nothing. I was the product of a consumer-centric system that promotes merit, initiative and planning as the ONLY means to success. A concept we seem to equate with money and power. This narrow ideology I adopted had me in a constant state of planning and strategizing. Popular culture tokens this as the “rat race” and I wanted to win! Sure I had beliefs and hopes to change the world, but I would hold that journey off until I was at the top. Then I could make the changes I wanted to see in this privileged country.
The idea of not having a job secured after graduation scared me. My sister, a former long-term volunteer, encouraged me to consider service abroad.  I liked the idea but didn’t want to let go of my corporate track until one day I had an epiphany, which unfortunately occurred in the middle of a job interview with a PR firm. I prepared as I always prepared for interviews: I researched the company, looked up LinkedIn profiles of current employees, identified common ground, dry cleaned my suit, knew my resume, contacted references, etc. I was ready to spin whatever question he asked. Then the question came, “Why do you want to work here?” It’s a pretty standard interview question, one that I had prepped for, but for some reason, it resonated differently in that moment. The answer I was about to deliver suddenly felt too cliché and hollow, and not authentic. I was blown away by this epiphany that occurred over an awkward silence, and then I finally said “I don’t know.” 
I couldn’t take back what I just said, and I broke down in frustration. I felt that I had worked so hard. My passion has always been community service but I felt like couldn’t go down that path without first getting a “real job.” It was a hot mess. I am so grateful for the interviewer who was patient and kind in response, “it seems like you are going through something and that you really know what you want, but you are afraid to go for it. Just do it!”
Beyond all I did to secure my future after graduating, I still didn’t do enough. I know now that it isn’t about doing enough or being enough because it’s never enough. I eventually found my way to Cap Corps Midwest, a full-time volunteer program that offered me the opportunity to serve in Lima, Peru. I began as a tutor and mentor for at risk boys at Ciudad de Los Niños, a non-profit I was able to support with volunteer coordination and document translations. Going into my service year I had an open mind that gave me the flexibility to make the most out of my commitment. The 18 months I spent there came with challenges that showed me strength I didn’t realize I had. Amidst the sorrow I witnessed, I also experienced the beauty of community-based cultures where the health of the whole group supersedes the individual. This experience changed me profoundly, and helped my better understand the career path I wanted to take. 
My advice for any college student thinking about their career is to take the road less traveled to stand out. You need to know how to market yourself, present your best strengths and one of the best ways to do that is through a service year. Instead of investing thousands of dollars in a degree directly after college, consider gaining field experience as a paralegal with a legal clinic protecting families from deportation. Instead of taking an entry level position that will bottleneck you at a major corporation, diversify your skill-set as a business volunteer at a fair trade organization. Instead of pursuing a narrow path to idealized success, consider a radical lifestyle change that is simple but more sustainable. Lastly, know that it is never too late. 
With over 200 programs and thousands of placement options, RESPONSE 2015 is the most comprehensive guide for faith-based service opportunities. Catholic Volunteer Network provides the directory online or hardcopy order.

Further Reading: 1.       Invitation to a Dialogue: Working for Nonprofits, New York Times Opinions2.       Why Service is a Foundation for Strong Careers and Stronger Communities,  Chelsea Clinton3.       Volunteering=Career Development,