At the close of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI spoke of “women impregnated by the Spirit of the Gospel,” and more recently Pope Francis has called for a “new theology of women.” There are thousands of Catholic lay women discerning how to share their gifts and responding to ministerial calls. In many cases, these women are well-trained and highly educated professionals who bring a wealth of life experience to their work in parishes, diocesan offices, faith-based non-profit organizations, hospitals, schools, and many other settings.
This post on Mary Ruppert is the third in a series which celebrates Catholic lay women’s vocations and profiles some of the many women who are enriching the life of church. Past profiles include Kate Burke (New Lectio Divina) and Rita Emmenegger (medical missioner) If you know a woman in ministry that you think should be profiled, please email me.
– Rhonda Miska
“It was a frustrating experience…at first. I wanted to do something.”
So describes Mary Ruppert her first experience of L’Arche – an inter-denominational Christian community which includes people with intellectual disabilities (called “core members”) – during a spring break service trip with Loyola University. She and her fellow students found themselves receiving hospitality, sharing meals with core members and assistants, and learning about L’Arche philosophy as well as helping out around the house. Compared the students who had gone to do construction and home repair over spring break, Ruppert felt like she wasn’t doing enough.
That all changed the last day of the service trip when the group met up with some L’Arche community members at a local church. Ruppert recalls, “this one core member saw us come in the door and his face just changed in an instant from stoic and serious to utter joy. A huge smile. He starts waving with two hands – like he didn’t have enough arms to wave he was so happy to see us. All we had done was walk in the door. I realized it’s not about what I can do, it’s just that I exist. I’m here.”
The warm welcome from the core member was transformational for her, and her frustration gave way to insight. “Finally [it] dawned on me: the work of L’Arche isn’t accomplishing great things, it’s about being.” Ruppert describes her week at L’Arche as “an invitation to get off the achievement treadmill” away from a pressure-filled academic environment.
Her path led her away from L’Arche after college. All of her older siblings had done post-graduation volunteer service and she sought out volunteer opportunities as well upon her graduation. Inspired by the Gospel call to serve the poor, and since she had studied Spanish, she spent a year teaching in the Dominican Republic.
“I bumped up against my limitations. It was a really hard year,” admits Ruppert. “I didn’t have a teaching background and the culture was so different.” Upon her return to the United States, her brother-in-law gave her a copy of the book Befriending the Stranger by Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement.
One line from the book resonated deeply with her: “people may come to our communities because they want to serve the poor; they will only stay once they have discovered that they themselves are the poor.” Having found that overseas work wasn’t the right place to exercise her gifts and seeking nurturing community after the challenging year in the Dominican Republic, she became an assistant at one of the houses of L’Arche Greater Washington – the same place she had spent her spring break years before.
“Within two months, I remember thinking ‘oh, this is what it means to live the Gospel.’ I don’t have to leave my family behind and change everything. I need to pay attention to what my natural gifts are. That’s where God is calling me to love,” Ruppert reflects on her entrance into L’Arche community and finding it a fit.
One of the greater gifts of Ruppert’s ministry at L’Arche has been the bond of friendship that has formed between her and core member John Schofield. She has accompanied him and assisted him with the details of his life such as managing his finances and medical appointment. She describes Schofield as her “mentor in the community” and her “great advocate.” Since Schofield is outgoing and loquacious, and Ruppert describes herself as “naturally a pretty shy person,” she credits him with showing her how to extend friendship and “meet new people with an open heart.”
“We’ve become part of each other’s family,” Ruppert says of the relationship that has evolved over eight years. She has traveled with him to Miami to visit his extended family, and he regularly asks her parents to pray for him. When Ruppert was looking for full-time work, Schofield took her concerns to prayer.
“’Yo voy a hablar con Dios’ – I’m going to talk to God – is what he said, very seriously, and he prayed for me,” she recalls. In May 2009, she was offered a full-time job in the L’Arche development office and he was delighted his prayers had been answered. To this day Schofield delights in telling the story of how he talked to God and helped Ruppert get the job.
While working in the development office is very different from working as an assistant, Ruppert has found a continuity in the mission. “It’s about developing mutual relationships between the L’Arche community as a whole and those who support it. The heart of the work of assistants and core members is mutual relationships in homes where people support each other. The fundraising work is an extension of building mutual relationships.”
Those mutual relationships are at the center of L’Arche spirituality. Ruppert describes the spiritual practice of celebrations on community members’ birthdays and anniversaries of entrance into the community: “we affirm the gifts the person brings. We may or may not overtly talk about God, but the voices that are affirming are the voice of God saying, ‘I love you, you are my beloved child.’” Ruppert says that it was a shock to her system the first time she was celebrated this way, but over her years of community participation she has learned to “soak it up like a sponge.”
Ruppert acknowledges she has been much changed since she first walked through the door of a L’Arche house as college sophomore. Where once the focus on “being” instead of “doing” left her feeling frustrated, she now finds delight in the daily life and simple interactions. She recognizes how – as a self-described over-achiever and goal setter – her definition of success has changed, and how life at L’Arche continues to challenge her to resist the temptation of the “achievement treadmill.”
“Just sitting with a core member, a woman on the couch and letting her mother me….I see that as a spiritual practice,” Ruppert reflects. “I’m letting God mother me through this woman. It’s about those teeny tiny little moments of interaction, about hearing the laughter at the dinner table. It’s about delight and just the dailyness of God’s presence.”
Having found her place in at L’Arche, Ruppert encourages those discerning their vocation to recognize both their brokenness and giftedness, and to “pay attention to what gives them a sense of belonging, a sense of being held.”