Divine Word Missionaries
Mother Mary Michael as Superior
Sr. M. Catherine, SSpSAP
hen we think of M. M. Michael we look back to a completely different era. We do not have to think too long to come up with a multitude of changes that have taken place in every area of life, to say nothing of the Church and religious life in particular. We can think that in those days it was easier to be a religious and to be a superior. Life was simple, the vows were very clear, authority had its place, family life was stable and the Sisters entering Steyl in the beginning years knew and respected authority from their homes. The Church was set on solid rock with no change in sight. Things were most predictable and the word "dialogue" maybe did not even enter the minds of the Sisters. M. M. Michael did not have workshops or seminars on leadership. Her model and instructor was our founder, St. Arnold. If the documents we have from Rome would have been available to M. M. Michael she would have rejoiced to read the statement: "the function of authority... is both necessary for the growth of fraternal life in community and for the spiritual journey of the consecrated person." (Fraternal Life in Community #48)
Let us now look at M. M. Michael in this way. Our loving God and Creator has enriched his human creation with five senses, seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling. I propose that M. M. Michael was gifted with five other senses: a sense of God, a sense of liturgy, a sense of community, common sense and a sense of humor.
Her Sense of God.
We are all familiar with her prayer: ‘Live quietly for God’. This prayer makes it evident that God was in the first place in the life of M. M. Michael. He was her center, her compass in life. M. M. Michael loved God with all her heart, all her soul, all her strength, all her mind. In all her deliberations, like the Founder in whose school she was formed, she prayed first. In her admonitions to the Sisters, she led them to see God's way and God's will in their lives. As a superior she wanted her Sisters to find God in everything and to be alert to the ways of God, to keep God always in focus. She wanted the Sisters to always seek to do the will of God. One quote from her: "As often as we take holy water and make the sign of the Cross, say the Glory be to the Father, or repeat the acts of faith, hope and charity given in our Quarter-hour prayer. Let us try lovingly and joyfully to praise and to bless the Holy Triune God."
Her sense of God was most alive in her "exceptional devotional love for the Holy Spirit." When she had decisions to make she would tell her councillors: "Let us first recommend this to the Holy Spirit," then she would ask the community to join in prayer. She led her Sisters to a greater love and devotion to the Holy Spirit with her well know saying: "For a Servant of the Holy Spirit, every day should be a new Pentecost; every breath, ‘Come Holy Spirit’, every deed, ‘Send forth your Spirit’ and every heartbeat. ‘Lord Jesus, send us from the Father the Holy Spirit’."
M. M. Michael would have identified completely with this statement from Vita Consecrata: "Like the whole of Christian life, the call to consecrated life is closely linked to the working of the Holy Spirit. In every age, the Spirit enables new men and women to recognize the appeal of such a demanding choice... It is the Spirit who awakens the desire to respond fully; it is he who guides the growth of this desire, helping it to mature... By allowing themselves to be guided by the Spirit on an endless journey of purifications, they become day after day, conformed to Christ, the prolongation in history of a special presence of the Risen Lord." (VC 19)
Sense of Liturgy.
M. M. Michael had a sense of liturgy long before the 2nd Vatican Council and its call to full participation. She understood the necessity of praying the complete Roman Divine Office for a contemplative congregation. She was sensitive to Fr. Arnold and waited until his death to introduce the Roman Office and do away with the office of the Holy Spirit. M. M. Michael saw the Roman Office as the "prayer of the Holy Spirit par excellence”. At one time she said: "Our choir prayer should be such that the angels will find joy therein and will gladly admit us to their choir." She understood, it seems by instinct, that our choir prayer links us with the entire Church at prayer throughout the world. What could make better sense for a contemplative missionary congregation?
In our day when the liturgical reform is so focused on making the Eucharist the heart of the Church and the center of our spiritual life, M. M. Michael would have rejoiced. Even before she entered, in her years of teaching at Rondsburg, she thrilled to be able to live under the same roof with the Eucharistic Lord. As a superior she knew from experience that adoration before the exposed Blessed Sacrament was much easier and much more fruitful for the Sisters. She knew the wonderful effect it would have on community life and so she kept working for the privilege. First asking the Bishop of Roermond for permission for exposition three times a week, and then in 1915, after one year of partial exposition, she courageously asked for perpetual exposition and he granted it.
Sense of Community
M. M. Michael had a good sense of community and was intent on the Sisters living a good, happy community life. As a superior, she knew that love and forgiveness were at the heart of community living. She would say; "We must forgive as the good God forgives. He never reverts to our repented sins, and he treats us just as if we had never failed." Another saying remembered by the Sisters was: "We must always judge leniently and show more love precisely to those who show us less love; very often these are just the ones who need charity the most." The Sisters often heard her say: "Nothing is nearer and dearer to my heart than the preservation of the good religious spirit among the Sisters."
M. M. Michael would have agreed wholeheartedly with the statement from Fraternal Life in Community: "Authority has as its main task building in unity the brothers and sisters of a fraternal community, in which God is sought and loved above all. A superior must therefore be, above all, a spiritual person, convinced of the primacy of the spiritual, both with respect to personal life and for the development of fraternal life; in other words, he or she must know that the more the love of God increases in each individual heart, the more unity there will be between hearts." (48a)
M. M. Michael's common sense and practical nature was well known by all who knew her. When she was overseer for the building of the Motherhouse in Steyl, she knew what was practical for the convent and the cloister, and what was superfluous. She investigated other convents and wanted to avoid mistakes that could not be rectified once the building was complete. In her care of the Sisters she stressed that they too should use good common sense in all their work and doings. One other saying speaks about the sense of responsibility that she expected of all the Sisters: "If a responsible attitude is present, all is well; but if it is lacking, all the rules will be of little avail."
Sense of Humor
Lastly, her sense of humor or spirit of joy. M. M. Michael once said "A dark countenance has no place in the convent. Our holy habit is a garment of joy not of sadness." She herself did all she could to inspire and cultivate a joyful spirit in the cloister. "Cheerfulness is holiness," was one other favorite sayings verified in her own person. Someone once said: "Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” and that a person with a heart centered on Christ possesses joy not matter what circumstances come along on the road of life. Joy is a God-given calm presence deep within us that sustains us through the good and bad events of our lives. Evelyn Underhill could be speaking about M. M. Michael when she writes; "This is the secret of joy. We shall no longer strive for our own way, but commit ourselves, easily and simply, to God's way, acquiesce in his will and in so doing find our peace."
Someone once wrote: "The spiritual leader is one who stands in the midst of his or her people helping them to know the face of God in the world... They are grounded in their relationship with God and in their search for truth." M. M, Michael was such a leader for our Congregation in the beginning and stands as an example for us in our leadership roles today.