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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Irene Gonzalez-Hernandez

Entering the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

Dr. Knight: You have been active in the parish for several years. What stands out for you?

Irene: Holy Name Cathedral is a beautiful community and a place where you always feel welcome. I love that whenever you participate at any event you immediately feel that you belong to a wider family. I also like that it is a diverse community with people from different cultures. You can really get a feel for what the Universal Church is about.

I have made some very good friends and I have lots of good memories especially with Holy Name Cathedral Young Adults where I was a board member for two years. Some of the activities that I have enjoyed very much are the Lenten Bus Pilgrimage to different churches in Chicago, praying the rosary in Prayers with Mary, painting a school during Service Day, the Ethical Controversies retreat, “Finding God” small group series, meeting new people at Parish Life Commission breakfasts, praying Vespers with the choir, receiving accompaniment from “Papa bear” AKA Dr. Ken Ortega, celebrating Mass with amazing priests that give very insightful homilies, and just witnessing true Christian joy in all the people that collaborate in the Cathedral’s Parish Lay Leadership.

Dr. Knight: Could you describe the schooling you had in grade school and high school that formed your desire to respond to the call of Christ?

Irene: I attended private schools in Mexico, but none of them were Catholic. During my childhood and teen years my family would only go to Mass on Sundays and that was about it. We did not pray the Rosary nor receive the sacraments very often. That came until I was in college.

However, something that I remember dearly from my childhood was being a lector at Mass. Unlike in the USA where it is a very formal and professional ministry, in many churches in Mexico doing the readings at Mass is something spontaneous. Because of this, many times people do not read correctly. In my family we have always been very fond of reading and so my little sister and I would volunteer to read at Mass, especially to do it properly hehehe. At first it was a bit difficult to read in public out loud from the ambo, but then, we came to enjoy it. People were delighted to hear that we read well and see that we were so young.

Of those years, a memory that I treasure deeply is my catechism preparation for my first Holy Communion. I was lucky to have a sister as a teacher. She was a novice preparing for her vows as a religious Franciscan Missionary of the Eucharist. The lessons were at the convent and they had a pretty awesome garden. I loved the sister’s joy and that she taught us a beautiful song about the life of St. Francis of Assisi.

Another childhood memory that comes to mind is my dad telling us stories about lives of the saints during lunch. I particularly remember about St Thomas Aquinas riding his donkey to attend the Council of Lyon. On our way to school we would also pray the Student’s prayer by St. Thomas Aquinas.

When I was little, it amazed me that during Lent one of the sacrifices my grandma made was renouncing any sweets or sugar, and I knew this was hard for her because she really had a sweet tooth. I remember that it shocked me and I thought “she must really love Jesus!”

In junior high school, one of the projects I remember the most was doing a presentation on the life of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She was a Hieronymite nun of New Spain (Mexico) during the 17th century and was a great writer, philosopher, composer and poet of the Mexican Baroque. It was fascinating for me to learn about the life in a convent and about the life of a young woman who had a passion for beauty and knowledge and was able to create great pieces of literature about God and the world as a nun.

Finally, during high school, I had this great teacher that introduced me to the writings of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and I really enjoyed thinking about the brevity of life and how to “last long” is very different than to “live” long. In those days, he also invited me and other friends to start a book club. We were aiming to know more about what is true and beautiful. This teacher was also a poet, a singer and an actor, so he really helped us get immersed in the humanities and know more about a more refined kind of culture. Because of him I became a huge fan of Renaissance polyphony, especially the masses of Palestrina.

From those years, the things that mostly shaped my future religious vocation were serving as a lector and altar girl at my parish and my love for the humanities, discovering that my soul longed for what is true, beautiful and good. The Christian life in general and Religious Life in particular draws upon the insight that contemplation is the most necessary and joyous activity in human life. I guess my Dominican heart started to be shaped from an early age.

Dr. Knight: Would you describe the mission of your order.

Irene: To preach and teach the Truth. As Dominicans, we share in the work of Christ the Teacher.

The Dominican apostolate can be summed up in the various mottos of the Order: Veritas (Truth), Contemplare et contemplate aliis trader (to contemplate and to give to others the fruit of one’s contemplation), and Laudare, Benedicere, Predicare (to praise, to bless, and to preach). As women religious we do not preach in the strict sense of preaching during Mass, but in the broader sense of proclaiming truth. The main manifestation of the preaching charism in our Community is through Catholic education. As teachers, we bring our love of truth to our students, helping them to encounter Christ in their studies. Dominicans recognize that all truth is a participation in the first Truth, who is God. But we also preach the truth outside the classroom within everyday encounters through the example of our lives.

In order to preach the truth, Dominicans must first come to know it. Thus, study is an essential part of the Dominican charism. Yet, Dominican study is not simply an intellectual exercise but rather an avenue to contemplation. As Dominicans, study is one privileged encounter with our Spouse, and teaching, the overflow of study, is another.

In the Dominican Order, great importance is attached to studying the truth, and this is out of charity, out of love for our God Whom we wish to know better in order to contemplate Him in His beauty and it is also out of love for souls to whom we wish to make Him known.

Dr. Knight: When you see the needs of the society in which we live what calls out to you as the most important part of your work in your community?

Irene: Dominican charism plays a providential part in today’s world because, as one Sister said, “preaching the truth is always in season, and so there is always work for Dominicans to do!”

I particularly would like to tackle “spiritual poverty” that is a very specific thing I notice in young people. Kids have iPhones, nice shoes, the latest gadgets and nevertheless are absolutely empty, sad, and ignorant of their own dignity and worth. I find this heartbreaking and it moves me to compassion. I want to show them that life is beautiful and worth living, that they are deeply loved by our Heavenly Father and by many people in their communities, and that they have an important role to play to make this world a better place.

Every Dominican is eager to enlighten those who are deprived of the truth and also to defend the truth when it is attacked. We are living in an age that is particularly hostile to the teachings of the Church and Gospel values, so preaching the truth with love is absolutely necessary. To be a Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, means working toward nothing less than the re-evangelization of the world.

Dr. Knight: Societal understanding of the need for assistance in the work as a missionary disciple is always on our minds. Could you give us one thing we could do that mirrors the work that your order does?

Irene: I have noticed there are good people that attend Sunday Mass and have a significant prayer life, however our faith is not meant to be lived only in private. True apostles engage the culture, live their faith in the public square, and seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will.

As Dominicans, our prayer fuels our apostolic work, and we share with others what we have first spent time contemplating in silence. So, it is not just prayer. Contemplation must overflow and find its outlet in apostolic action. Doing is a natural overflow of our intimacy with Jesus.

I would encourage people to live this more. Prayer should lead us to action and action to prayer and so on and so forth.

The work of the apostolate fuels our prayer, yet at the same time our life of prayer and contemplation of God fuel our apostolic desire to go out and make God’s love known to others.

I recently read, in a book written by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, a beautiful image that describes this very accurately:

Dominican life resembles ocean tides. The ebb and flow of the tides is very much like the Dominican life. We are always to be centered on God and in the contemplation of truth, but we are often pulled out into the world to meet the needs of our fellow man. Similarly, when the tide comes in it does not lose its connection to the rest of the ocean, but brings the ocean to the dry land.”

I would say that this is something that every Catholic should try to live out too.

Dr. Knight: What mentors have you followed in your calling? Saints or neighbors?

Irene: I guess the two most relevant figures in following my calling are my parents. Both have a very active life of the mind which is essential for Dominicans. My dad is an accountant, but he has always been very passionate about philosophy and he pursued graduate studies in this field. On the other hand, my mom has incurred in theological and pastoral studies in the past years, after both my sister and I became independent young adults. I would say that my dad’s relation with God has deepened through his intellectual quest, whereas my mom has grown in her love for God in a more heart felt way. They both are a huge inspiration for me.

However, I think my mentors have been especially Catholic friends that have stimulated, assisted and encouraged me toward the good, and showed me how to be a faithful Christian. Those good and holy friendships that “pertain to charity, the love of God, [and] Christian perfection” and which St. Francis de Sales says that are “truly precious and excellent: excellent because [they] come from God, excellent because [they] tend toward God, excellent because [their] bond is God, excellent because [they] will endure eternally in God.” These friends are whom I would call my closest and dearest mentors.

With regards to saints that I look up to, while I was studying my Master’s in Public Policy at DePaul University, I came across the writings of Blessed Frederic Ozanam and his life resonated a lot with me! He was a French scholar and lawyer that served the poor and founded with fellow students the Conferences of Charity, later known as the Society of St Vincent DePaul.

Frederic wanted to study literature, although his father wanted him to become a lawyer. Frederic yielded to his father’s wishes and studied law at the University of the Sorbonne. I wanted to study philosophy but also obeyed my parents and I became a lawyer. When certain professors at the university mocked Catholic teachings in their lectures, Frederic defended the Church and I did that too.

Frederic organized a discussion club where he spoke about Christianity’s role in civilization, but he soon decided that his words needed a grounding in action. He and his friends began visiting the poorest people in Paris and offered assistance as best they could. Soon a group dedicated to helping individuals in need under the patronage of Saint Vincent de Paul formed around Frederic. A turning point in my life was also helping the poor in rural missions in Mexico and I also enjoy fostering in college students a desire to know and love God and work for the common good.

Feeling that the Catholic faith needed an excellent speaker to explain its teachings, Frederic convinced the Archbishop of Paris to appoint Dominican Father Jean-Baptiste Lacordaire, the greatest preacher then in France, to preach a Lenten series in Notre Dame Cathedral which was well-attended and became an annual tradition in Paris. In my case, before coming to the U.S. I did pro-life and pro-family advocacy in Latin America and held conferences with important civil society leaders and politicians. Additionally, I like sharing Dominican resources for people to grow in their knowledge of the Catholic faith.

A well-respected lecturer, Frederic taught law at the University of Lyon and worked to bring out the best in each student. I also want to do service for the people of God through education.

In his sermon at Frederic’s funeral, Fr. Lacordaire described his friend as “one of those privileged creatures who came direct from the hand of God in whom God joins tenderness to genius in order to enkindle the world.” Because of all this, I find Frederic Ozanam’s life and works fascinating. He truly was a pioneer in living the Catholic Social Teachings of the Church to the fullest.

Finally, the authentic joy, wisdom, and happiness I have found in all the Dominican sisters I have met is also a great motivation in my own “fiat” towards responding to God’s invitation to become a Dominican sister myself.

Dr. Knight: Do you think the general public suffers from systemic misunderstanding of the importance of God in their lives?

Irene: I think people’s lives are getting busier and noisier every day. With all this hustle and bustle going on, people have no more room for silence which is essential for self-knowledge and for fostering a relationship with God. I do not think it is a misunderstanding, it is more like ignorance of the goodness of God. Then, it is no surprise that people are more stressed and frustrated because they do not experience gratitude for all the blessings that God bestows upon them. Additionally, with so many technological advances and the possibility of getting almost anything with a single click, people tend to forget that everything is a gift from God. A distinctive feature of human life is its vulnerability. Because of it, we are reminded that we are in God’s hands and that we need Him and each other. I do hope that with this pandemic and all the challenges that the world is facing, people might turn again to God. Not just to pray for his assistance, but to fully acknowledge our true identity as beloved sons and daughters of a loving Father and King.

Dr. Knight: Can you recommend some books or articles that would help our society understand the work of your order?

Irene: Absolutely! One that I really like is called “Hounds of the Lord: Great Dominican Saints Every Catholic Should Know” by Kevin Vost. As the author says in the introduction: “For 800 years [Dominicans] have barked out Christ’s gospel message, saving countless souls and showing us how to think, do, and love for the glory of God.”

A must read that I would definitely recommend to any young woman discerning Religious Life, their family, and friends, or anyone who is just curious about the role that Sisters play in the world and the Church is called “And Mary’s Yes Continues” by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. It is a treasure of wisdom that truly holds “a whole world of answers to burning questions and of possible dreams that the Holy Spirit just might bring into fruition in an open heart!”

Another very good book is “Dominican Life” by Ferdinand Joret, OP. It is a masterful treatise for anyone who wishes to learn more about the Dominican Order and the character and spiritual charism of St. Dominic.

Finally, I would say that since the New Evangelization is about bringing Jesus Christ to the people of our time with new ardor, courage and creativity, there are now more resources in addition to books.

Lumen Ecclesiae Digital is the digital media platform by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist where you can find lots of interesting content about who they are, what they do, fascinating vocation stories, and resources on how to teach Catholic doctrine and bring that doctrine to life by living a life of virtue. All this can be found in:

Another great resource is Aquinas 101 which is a series of videos designed to help you engage with the truth as Aquinas presents it. It breaks down who St. Thomas is, his works, and his vocabulary; and helps you navigate the Summa Theologiae with more confidence. In these videos, we learn about topics ranging from creation to the last things, all with an eye towards God who gives light to our minds.

And for those who like podcasts, the Dominican friars have one called Godsplaining that presents ideas from the Church’s tradition and brings them to bear on our lives’ most urgent questions. This is the link for the episode on Dominican Spirituality:

For Spanish speaking folks, please look for any conferences of Fray Nelson Medina, OP who is a phenomenal Colombian Dominican preacher.

Dr. Knight: Father James Martin. S.J.. has written a book entitled: “Becoming Who You Are” in which he talks about the need to recognize one’s gifts if you are Thomas Merton, Mother Theresa, a college professor or a janitor. There are a variety of gifts but the same Spirit. Tell us about your specific gifts.

Irene: What I have discovered to be a gift in me is my passion for finding young people’s strengths, nurturing them, and requiring them to stretch them towards excellence. Recognizing and cultivating the potential in others and looking for ways to challenge them and help them grow. I want to feed a hungry world. The world hungers for God so much and I want to feed hungry minds and hearts.

I had never thought about this as spiritual motherhood, but it really is! I love to nourish the people that I encounter through things that are true, beautiful, and good. This is the essence of motherhood, for mothers to provide their children with healthy things, with good things and help point out the things that are not healthy. Mothers also educate, which means to “draw out of”, so motherhood is to look at a person, see their deepest potential, and draw that potential out of them.

I guess I never saw myself as a mother, but when I understood that all women are called to be mothers in a physical or spiritual way, I realized I do have a motherly heart that loves dearly and that loves seeing people grow into their best self.

Another thing that I would like to offer back to God is my previous background as a committed lay person. Having been very active in the world, I feel I have a good sense of the challenges that college students face and that young professionals face because I lived them myself.

Through different experiences, God placed in my heart the desire to see the social order founded on truth, built on justice, and animated by love. I believe my previous background, helping in rural missions and mentoring college students, is part of God’s amazing plan for me and a great preamble towards the work He will entrust me in my vocation as a Dominican sister. I want to be a gift to the Church in the service of God’s people in the midst of culture, sharing with others the fruits of my contemplation.

Finally, I would say that my Hispanic heritage as a Mexican American is also a very important part of who I am and of what I have to offer the world. Pope Francis says we Catholics are called to be “bridges” not walls, and I truly feel I can help people from different cultures understand each other better. Coming from Mexico, I bring with me my love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, strong family values, and the history of sacrifice and defense of the Catholic faith that the “Cristeros” lived during the religious persecution.

Yet, it is with great joy that I embrace the calling to consecrate my life to God within the Dominican family in the United States, the land of opportunity and freedom, with new digital tools and resources to preach the Gospel, in very interesting times for educating new generations of Catholics and inspiring in them a greater love for God and neighbor.

Dr. Knight: What one thing could each of us do to support you as you enter religious life?

Irene: One thing? Pray. Pray for me, for my vocation, and for all the priests and religious. However, I would like to ask more of you...

Live authentic and joyful Christian lives! Learn more about your faith! Learn more about consecrated life! Provide opportunities for service to young people! Remember that “Man […] cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes). We must give ourselves away in order to find ourselves, hand over our talents to God in order to have them multiply.

Do not give up on our young ones! Invite them to retreats and to experience for themselves the great love of God. Show them what it is like to bear witness to Christ in the midst of the world, what it is like to be Catholic businessperson, a Catholic doctor, a Catholic engineer, a Catholic lawyer, a Catholic family, a Catholic community, a missionary disciple, and beloved sons and daughters of God.

Please share with our little ones, by the example of your lives, the wisdom of this quote of St. Augustine: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him, the greatest adventure; and to find him, the greatest human achievement.”

Dr. Knight: Thank you very much for assisting us in understanding the importance of the religious life of women.

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