Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Lasting Lessons from a Catholic Evangelist: A Farewell Interview with Sister Geralyn Schmidt

On the terrace level of the Diocesan Center, where her office has been located for the past 14 years, Sister Geralyn Schmidt, SCC, ponders what to say when she looks back on her ministry in the Diocese of Harrisburg.

Serving in the Diocese itself for 24 years, she’s been an educator, technology coordinator of the Wide-Area Network, member of the IT Department, columnist for The Catholic Witness, faculty member for the Diocesan Permanent Diaconate Formation Program and formation director for the wives of the men, and coordinator of the Diocese’s formation program for spiritual directors.

She’s also been a spiritual mother, a mentor, a friend and an “elevator counselor” – roles she filled just from speaking to co-workers and visitors passing by her ground-floor office.

Asked to reflect on her ministry, her transformation as a columnist, her role as a spiritual mother, and her reassignment to Assumption College for Sisters in Denville, New Jersey last month, Sister Geralyn began with a story. And just like in her nearly 320 articles for The Witness since 2011, her story imparted a lesson.

“When I was a ‘baby Sister,’ there was a teacher in formation with me who was a classical violinist. She played the violin, the cello, the bass. I loved to watch her tune the strings. When you’re tuning a string, you’re also bowing the string next to it. When the string you’re working on is finally in tune, it vibrates.”

“So where am I going with this story? The message is that God speaks to us all the time, but we’re not always in tune with Him. It’s a journey to learn to be in tune with Him, to listen to Him, to hear Him in the love language He knows we speak,” she said. “Our eyes need to be open to the small moments in our life, to see the lessons we can learn every day.”

Last month, Sister Geralyn began her new assignment as Assistant to the President for Assumption College for Sisters. In the weeks leading up to this new chapter, she sat down for interviews with members of the Communications Office, including one with Rachel Troche, host of the Candid Catholic Convos podcast (which can be heard here on Spotify), and one with The Witness, which focused on her transformation as a columnist, her openness in sharing personal struggles, and her role as a spiritual mother.

‘I Never Knew I Could Write’

Sister Geralyn’s volume of articles for her “Thoughts from a Catholic Evangelist” column numbers more than 315 pieces, with reflections on the sacraments, consecrated life, the Works of Mercy, the Beatitudes, and forgiveness.

But you might be surprised to know that she wasn’t always a writer, let alone a prolific one.

Her collaboration with The Witness started on a smaller scale when the Diocese’s Wide-Area Network was first launched in 2009, connecting its schools in a robust online network for distance learning and videoconferencing capabilities. Part of Sister Geralyn’s role with the WAN was to help teachers develop technology in their curriculum and then write a blog about their efforts.

Before long, several of her blogs were picked up by Powerful Learning Practice, a national organization that empowers educators to become connected learners. With the success of her blog, and at the suggestion of a colleague, Sister Geralyn offered to write a column for The Witness. Initially, the column focused on the use of technology in Catholic education.

“They were the only things I thought I could write about, but I soon found my voice, and expanded into other topics,” she said. “The further and further away I got from the classroom, the more that ‘educator’ voice retracted and articles about faith began.”

“My message has been one of living our faith in the world, and that means taking action, taking ownership of our faith. Our faith can’t be just an hour at Mass on Sunday, it has to be lived out. I’m passionate about that. Ultimately, that’s what the column transformed into,” Sister Geralyn remarked.

Fans of her biweekly column will be happy to know that she will continue to write her regular articles for The Witness.

‘Every Grace God Gives Us Should be Applauded and Shared’

Sister Geralyn’s progression as a writer wasn’t the only obvious transformation during her time of service in the Diocese. She also took charge of her health, tackling a sugar addiction and starting a walking regimen to lose 65 pounds.

Throughout the experience, she was open about the challenges and the journey – sharing it in her writings and in presentations she offered at countless retreats and workshops for parishes, women’s groups and conferences alike.

She also spoke about the childhood trauma of being sexually assaulted by a close family member, and how it ultimately led to her addiction.

Asked why she decided to be so open about these deeply personal and painful experiences, Sister Geralyn said it was rooted in being authentic, being willing to ask God for help, and wanting to share the good news of His graces.

“Eight years ago, my doctor told me I was morbidly obese. If my body was a temple, then the doors were off the hinges and the carpet was ripped up,” she said. “I took it to prayer. I was praying in front of an icon called ‘The Humility of Christ,’ an image of Jesus scourged at the pillar. I said to Him, ‘I cannot control what I eat. I need your help.’”

She acknowledged her addiction to sugar, made a weeklong retreat and completed the Twelve-Step Program. Walking more than a mile a day and cutting processed sugar from her diet, she lost 65 pounds in a year.

“That was a huge transformation in my life,” Sister Geralyn said. “I realized I had been trying to medicate myself from the trauma I experienced in the assault. I was medicating that wound with sugar. There I was, a vowed religious, and rather than asking for God’s saving and healing grace, I was focusing instead on sugar, thinking it would fill that hole. My Beloved, my God, waited for me to wake up. That struggle with sugar will always be part of my life. It’s not been clear and smooth, but I have leaned into His love.”

She is open about these experiences because “every grace God gives us should be applauded and shared,” she said. “It’s a witness to His love and mercy. Do I walk around with a banner about it? No. But I rejoice in the healing, love and mercy of God, and that’s why I openly share it. It’s not about me; it’s about Him and His fidelity.”

‘A Mother in a Very Real Sense’

At a farewell luncheon with Diocesan Center staff several weeks ago, one coworker affectionally dubbed Sister Geralyn as the “elevator counselor” at the Diocesan Center, as the elevator doors on the terrace level of the building opened directly to her office.

It’s an endearing title, but one that rings true of Sister’s role as a spiritual mother, even to perfect strangers, as Sister Geralyn recounted a story about meeting a bereaved man at Penn State Health Holy Spirit Medical Center, where she resided with members of her congregation.

“I was in the chapel at the hospital during Adoration. I heard a voice in the background, and the Sister sitting in the back came up to me and said there was a gentleman who needed to speak with me. I turned around and saw a man with tattoos and body piercings, long hair and ripped jeans. His sorrow was palpable.”

“I took him into the parlor across from the chapel. He told me his wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and she had less than a month to live. We prayed together. He was surprised by concern for him and he said, ‘You really care about me?’ I said, ‘Yes, you are my spiritual son that I just met.’ He started wailing. He said he never knew his mom, and was now blessed to have one. I continue to pray for him on a regular basis,” she said.

The lesson in this story is the gift of the feminine genius and spiritual motherhood that all women are called to.

“Women are heart-centered. Women bring love and care and nurture into every circumstance,” Sister Geralyn said. “Even as a religious Sister, I am called as a woman to be a mother in a very real sense. Because of my vows, everyone walking the face of the earth are my sons and daughters. I approach every human being in that way.”

That certainly included her encounters with fellow employees and with two classes of men in formation for the permanent diaconate, as well as their wives.

“I soon realized that it became a ministry for me, to speak with people every day,” she said of her counsel and friendship with co-workers. “God has given me wisdom and grace that I readily share, because it’s not for me. I take people where they’re coming from and always look to God,” she said.

Her involvement with the permanent diaconate formation program “has made me love the Church in a way that nothing else could have, because what woman has been in diaconate formation for eight years?” she said with her boisterous laugh.

‘Be It Done Unto Me According to Thy Word’

As an artist, Sister Geralyn’s body of work includes paintings, woodwork and glasswork, some of which she gifted to others before her new assignment began, and much of which will remain behind in storage.

And with her artistic talent comes the ability to also see and receive lessons and messages that Church artwork provides. She received one such message during her visit to Assumption College to begin moving some of her things.

“I was sitting in the first pew of the chapel there. I was gazing at a window of Mary in Glory with the words, ‘Be it done unto me according to thy Word.’ I said, ‘Yes, God, I get it. That’s an obvious message.’”

“But to my right was a statue of Joseph holding the baby Jesus,” she continued. “Joseph was looking toward me, and Jesus was looking at Joseph. I was looking at this statue and Joseph spoke to me, saying ‘Love the Sisters here as much as I loved Jesus.’”

It was an appropriate message, as Sister Geralyn will be living with 24 Sisters from various parts of the world, including Africa, Asia and Central America.

Run by the Sister of Christian Charity, the college offers a two-year program of liberal arts and theological students, in addition to English as a Second Language classes for international students. It is the last remaining college for religious Sisters in the United States.

“Will there be challenges in this new ministry? Sure. But there is grace in this, and I know there is nothing I can’t do with Him. It’s about asking, ‘What can I do in my own way to make this world a better place?’” Sister Geralyn said.

“This change is God’s doing. I go with the love and prayers of the people I worked with and the beauty and gifts of this Diocese – nobody can take that from me. I take that to a new Diocese with a completely new ministry, and it makes me a better person than when I came to Harrisburg 24 years ago,” she said.

If you know Sister Geralyn, had the privilege of hearing her speak at a conference or in a retreat, or read her articles over the last 13 years, she doesn’t leave you without imparting a lesson; something “to chew on,” as she says.

And it was no different here, in her farewell interview for The Witness.

“I have great hope for the Church,” she said. “Twelve men and four women who served as disciples of Jesus and spread the Good News. Our sin and brokenness are not the end. There is redemption for all people. We are infinitely loved as we are.”

“Be proud to be Catholic. We have all the Truth.”

(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness

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