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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Sr. Cecilia Espenilla, OP

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

Dr. Knight: Could you describe your early Catholic formation.

Sister Cecilia: I grew up with a Catholic formation. We are a family of 8 siblings, 5 boys, and 3 girls. Both my parents came from catholic families in our province in Masbate, Philippines. Sunday masses are important obligations we should not fail to celebrate, except for reasons beyond our control. When I was younger, we used to pray the rosary as a family, although we did not persevere in this beautiful tradition as I was growing up. Most of us finished our high school studies in the Catholic school. We joined Catholic organizations as a way to express our faith beliefs. I would like to believe that probably the most important indicator of our Catholic upbringing is that two of us in the family became workers in the vineyard of the Lord. My brother, the second from the eldest became a Diocesan Priest. He is a Monsignor and currently the Parish Priest in his church, and I, the second from the youngest became a Dominican Sister.

Dr. Knight: In regard to vocations, the Scripture states: “Here I am Lord, I’ve come to do your will.” When and how did you respond to this call?

Sister Cecilia: It was not an easy nor immediate response for me. It took me about 7 months fighting with Jesus begging Him to get other ladies, but not me. After graduation, I got a good job in a bank, and so for me I was settled, happy, and planning bigger things. I wanted to pursue another course in law, have a family of my own, and travel to other countries. But Jesus kept prodding me to enter the convent. I was mad. In my room was a calendar photo of Jesus, so I would poke His eyes with a pen or scribble a big X on His face, while I kept saying, “no, no, no, I don’t want to enter the convent”. At one point, I told Him “please mind your own business and I will mind my own, get away from me”. But Jesus pursued me until I got tired of running away from Him. Finally, Jesus won over me… and I literally said, in front of the torn calendar of His photo, “I surrender.”

Dr. Knight: You’ve become a very successful woman in your order who understands the importance of threading your faith into your teaching career. Would you describe that for us in regard to being true to your faith? Can you describe your international promotion of justice, peace, and integrity?

Sister Cecilia: I belong to the Dominican Family founded by St. Dominic de Guzman in 1215. We are called the Order of Preachers (OP). Preaching is our life and mission. One of the quotes that inspire me is “bloom where you are planted,” and this is my prayer “Lord, let me be faithful in preaching your Word wherever I am.” Preaching is the joy of my heart, and I want to be faithful to this mission and calling, to bring the message of Jesus to the people I work with and work for, especially the least, the last and the lost, until death.

Currently, I am in Rome as the International Promoter of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation for the Dominican Sisters International (DSI), a movement of 147 Dominican Congregations in 109 countries. Our priority as Dominican Sisters is to respond to the UN-Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and the Laudato Si of Pope Francis, with a focus on the rights and needs of women and girls. The 1971 document of the Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World, came up with this important insight, “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appears to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel…” Hence, as a Dominican preacher, justice and peace are fundamental elements of our life and mission.

Dr. Knight: Please discuss how the social teachings of the Church inform us of the documents that we adhere to in regard to the treatment of others.

Sister Cecilia The social teaching of the Church covers a huge variety of issues; we can say that anything that affects our social and ecological relationships is our concern. The latest encyclical of Pope Francis Fratelli Tutti is a very timely document. This is a challenge in how we treat one another as well as the environment. Do we really look at each other as sisters and brothers, with God as our Father? Do we treat God’s creation as our partners in our journey in life? We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation. We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences. We are our brothers and sisters’ keepers, wherever they may be. Loving our neighbor and caring for our mother earth has a global dimension. And we have the moral obligation to care for one another and our planet.

My involvement in justice and peace has strengthened my resolve to give what is due to God, to humanity, and creation. We are all connected to one another, the injustice to one affects us all, in the same way, that the injustice to earth affects us all too, especially the most vulnerable members of our society. Hence the saying “the cry of the earth, is the cry of the poor.” How do I promote this Church teaching? I begin with myself. I begin the day with a prayer to God that I may be loving and respectful of those I will encounter during the day and to counter the throw-away culture. I want others to see first what I do before I ask them to do the same. This is at the core of my involvement in justice and peace, respect for the rights of others, and the integrity of creation.

Dr. Knight: Profiles in Catholicism highlights religious vocations. Your vocation is important to many of our readers. Can you tell us about your success in following this vocation? What is the mission of your order?

Sister Cecilia: Now, as a Sister, I am perpetually grateful to Jesus for pursuing me and for putting me in the right place. I am very happy and truly contented that I entered religious life. I realized that this is my mission on earth to be at the service of the Church, through my congregation, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, Philippines, which was founded by Mother Francisca del Espiritu Santo in 1696. This year 2020, we are celebrating our 324th foundation anniversary. We are a congregation with a focus on the school apostolate.

Hence, I had been into different roles and responsibilities in the school as a teacher, school treasurer, principal, president and others like retreat facilitator for students and teachers and as the superintendent of our schools. I was also a member of the General Council of our congregation for 12 years. In the context of highlighting vocations, one of the important roles assigned to me was that of Vocation Promoter.

I travelled from place to place in the Philippines encouraging women to enter religious life. Of course, my life’s calling was a source of inspiration to them. I was able to recruit between 5 to 10 young women, a year, to join our congregation. It is such a joy for me to see them now blooming in their calling and responding to the mission of the congregation.

After 30 years working in the school I was assigned as the Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Promoter of the congregation. I find this responsibility very important and close to my heart. Yet, I do not know where to begin and what to do. The social and environmental issues happening, locally and globally, were enormous. One day I attended a conference on Violence Against Women and Children (VOWC) and there I was deeply shaken to learn about the existence of human trafficking in the Philippines and that most of the victims were women and children.

I could hardly believe that some victims of human trafficking were as young as two-months old to one year old. This was almost impossible and heart-breaking, yet this is the real picture of trafficking in person, the modern-day slavery. Hence, I decided to commit myself to anti-human trafficking advocacy.

Dr. Knight: Your consistent generosity to the Church is important for all of us as we attempt to assist the Church during this pandemic. Could you inspire our readership to do so also?

Sister Cecilia In God’s providence I was stranded in the Philippines for 5 months, from March until July, due to lockdown. I could not travel back to Rome because it was during that time that Italy had the highest number of Covid-19 cases worldwide.

In the Philippines, the poor and the homeless were severely affected by the pandemic This was compounded by thousands of Filipino overseas workers who were repatriated because they lost their job, due to economic collapse worldwide. They returned back to their families with nothing to support their daily basic needs. All of these factors caused extreme poverty and hunger. Some of these poor people even said that they will not die of Covid-19, but of hunger.

Thus, we saw the immediate need to respond to this urgency. Our sisters and brothers were begging for care and attention, especially food. We decided to organize the Dominican Family Justice and Peace Covid-19 Response Project. We encourage one another, including the young people to join us in this project. With the help coming from kind-hearted donors near and far we were able to deliver about 6,000 meal packs, 195 cavans of rice, 80 vigie packs, 7,600 pieces of bread, 1,900 coffee packs, and counting. We also responded to the needs of the front liners in hospitals and were able to provide 2,460 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to 40 hospitals. We got also a donation of 200 packs of Vitamin C, to counter Covid-19, which we distributed to tricycle and jeepney drivers. The project is on-going thanks to the kind-hearted donors and volunteers.

Dr. Knight: You have a basic positive attitude about those you come in contact with. What inspires your positivity?

Sister Cecilia Life is beautiful even in the midst of darkness and negativity. Why? Because there is always the abundance of God’s love, mercy, and compassion. A gift is given to each one of us, for free. Personally, this is a basic attitude that I have in life. God is always there, 24/7 so to say. God’s light will always come, we just have to believe, to have faith, in this free gift. We will of course encounter difficulties and hardships, which is part of everybody’s journey, but that is not the end. Our faith in God will continue to inspire us to keep hoping and loving. Some of us may not have everything we aspire for in this life on earth, but there is a life after where the reward will be beyond our expectations.

Dr. Knight: What are 3 words that you would encourage teachers to adhere to?

Sister Cecilia Love, Mission, and Commitment

Dr. Knight: What are the teachings of the Catholic faith that are important to you?

Sister Cecilia Salvation is given to all of us through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a reward we don’t deserve. God is only asking us to know, to love, and to serve Him through the Church, the people of God.

Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Human life is sacred. Hence, every human being has a value and dignity, from the womb to tomb that we have to respect and to give what is due.

The call to justice and peace has always been an essential part of our life. The spirituality of justice and peace promotes the service to the wounded for the love of Jesus. We address the root causes of evils, the personal or structural sin that generates fractures, injustices, and suffering. All of this is to "make the knowledge of the glory of God shine, reflected in the face of Christ " (2 Cor 4:6).

Dr. Knight: What are some of the hopes for the future Church?

Sister Cecilia The Church belongs to God. The Church will always be the body of Christ, the people of God, with Jesus Himself as the Head. If I looked back to the history of the Church, it went through ups and downs, several times, but the Church would always survive. There will always be people, like me and many others, who will be touched by God and who will work for the Church, to achieve her mission. Hence, as to the future of the Church, I have always relied on this Bible reading from Isaiah 55:10-11, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth… so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it”. I believe in my heart that the Church will fulfill its mission and promise. Evil will be conquered and God with His Church will be triumphant.

Dr. Knight: Thank you for your inspiring interview as we all try to follow the vocation that God has called us to.

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