Vocation Story: Living at the School of Mary
By Sr. Milagros Gregorio, FMA
This is the inspiring story of a Filipina Catholic nun whose devotion to Mary sustained her throughout her vocation.
Early Remembrances of Mary
I have two vivid remembrances of Mary from my childhood days. The first one was the Wednesday novena prayers at Baclaran with my nanay (mother). The second one was the annual Mayflower offering in St. Joseph Church, Canlubang, Laguna. Little did I know that these events would foreshadow God’s beautiful plan in my life. The title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was a prelude to the title of Help of Christians. The place where I became aware of my vocational call and where it will be realized was Canlubang.
“I have called you by name... I love you, you are Mine!” To be called by name is to have a personal identity. My baptismal name is Milagros, a name inspired by Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, whose feast falls on 27 November, the day following my birthday. As a little girl, I did not give importance to my real name. At home I was nicknamed “Agot”. Then, as an adolescent, I did not even like my baptismal name for it sounded like the name of “manangs” (elderly women). Only much later did I appreciate it when I realized that my name has a particular significance, that I was not called “Milagros” by chance and that it embodies my life project. This realization came about when I was discerning the call to religious life.
The Lord Calls
I had been attending vocational retreats in Canlubang since 1973. After three years of attending these annual encounters, I knew I needed to make a decision. I had begun studying medicine proper at that time. I was happy with my life but I knew there was something I needed to decide: What is my real priority in life?
Notwithstanding the consultations and the continuing prayer for enlightenment, I did not find it easy to make the decision. So I made a novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. During that time, I had learned the story of the apparitions of our Blessed Mother to St. Catherine Labouré. With this, I had also realized the significance of my name.
During the novena, I asked the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, to give me a concrete sign at the end of the novena, the day of my birthday. If He was calling me to religious life, I would receive a white rose; if not, a red rose. When the day arrived, I looked for the sign. At the end of the day, I did not receive the sign I was asking. Instead I received another sign and an interior inspiration. While I was opening a gift I received on that day, my birthday, the Lord told me within:
Milagros, I am calling you to belong entirely to me through the religious life. This is an invitation, not an imposition. I did not give you the sign you were asking for if I did that, I would be deciding for you. I want you to choose in freedom. Remember, however, that whatever choice you make, MY LOVE FOR YOU WILL NOT CHANGE. This rosary, a gift you have received today, is the sign I give you. It stands for Mary, my Mother and your Mother. You bear her name. She will be with you always as Mother and Guide. Entrust yourself totally to her.
I felt a deep peace and joy within. At that particular moment, I made my choice. “Yes, Lord! Here I am. Make of me what you desire. I am Yours.” Then and always, I desired to be something beautiful for God.
More of Mary
I was sent to Rome in 1984 for a two year course on the spirituality of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians. Just a week before making the perpetual profession in 1985, I received the obedience from Mother Marinella Castagno, Mother General then, to change course and take Mariology in Marianum (in Rome). This announcement was a real surprise for me. My mind and heart was set to go back home to the Philippines and share in the growth of our new province. It is not easy to fathom God’s mind. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the new obedience. What made me accept was our Blessed Mother herself. Am I not consecrated to her? Didn’t the Lord tell me to trust her? I remembered the “sign” when I was deciding about my vocation: the Rosary, Mary’s presence in my life.
So many years later, on 11 February 2002, together with a group of students we were privileged to meet Pope John Paul II in his private chapel at the Vatican. At the end, we had the opportunity to greet the Pope. I thought within me, maybe this will be the last time I will see the Pope in person, considering his age and frail health. I became attentive to what particular message the Lord may want to tell me through him. We sang “Abba, Ojcze” (“Ojcze” is Polish for Father). After the Mass, we had our photos taken with the Pope. To make us smile, he shouted aloud “Abba, Ojcze,” remembering the song we sang. “Abba, Father”: that was the first message for me. Then at the end, he gave each of us a rosary. That was the second message for me.
Lessons in Suffering
A year after, on 11 February 2003, I was admitted to Gemelli Hospital for surgery to treat my cancer. Since then, my life has changed radically. To be sick with cancer means to touch existentially our frailty and mortality as human beings. I had become more aware of the reality of DEATH. When we are in the peak of health, these things are at the back of our minds; we don’t think of them seriously. Not yet! For now, there are more important things to do. We live as if life here is forever. We live caught either by the urgency of the moment or programmed by the many plans at hand.
In my 4-year bout with cancer, I have learned some important lessons. My sickness is helping me to focus on essentials and not on appearances. The first lesson is the awareness that my sickness is a blessing. It seems absurd to say this. In fact, I can say this with conviction after a period of journeying back into my “heart” and working on the interior need of reconciliation with self, with others, with God.
The second operation and the subsequent chemotherapy in the Philippines (March 2005-2006), brought me to experience strongly the so called “dark night” of the spirit. It was a “denuding” experience. It made me touch ground. I experienced my radical poverty and nothingness. No matter the care and help I was receiving from the Sisters who were near, from my family and friends, I felt ALONE and useless. During this time, because of the debilitating and devastating effect of chemo, I felt more than ever the need for affection and recognition. I saw everybody busy, moving and doing something. The constant coming and going in the communities where I stayed left me alone and the more I felt useless.
It took time before I could pass through this “dark tunnel.” I was aware that many loved ones were praying for me. At that moment, however, I felt my faith was on the head level and my will power was not enough. There was so much anxiety, fear and helplessness within me. I needed God’s grace to flow through my whole being, to bring me peace to accept God’s will for me. I felt like a “paralytic” waiting to be touched by the Divine Healer. In time, the miracle of my interior transformation happened, not in a spectacular way but silently and slowly. It happened as I grew in the attitude of trustful abandonment to God’s will.
It has been a year since I came back to Rome. Notwithstanding another session of chemotherapy for lymphoma, and a limping right leg caused by the viral attack of “herpes zoster,” I am alive! I can smile, I can walk, I can talk, and thank God for His love and goodness.
With my sickness, I have realized ever more that LIFE is a GIFT, received and given with love. The second lesson which my sickness imprinted on me is to live the present moment with love. I don’t hold the past and I do not have the future in my hands – I have only the present moment. Actually, this is the reality of God. In Him there is no past or future. He is NOW! My fear of being a nobody and of being annihilated with death is liberated with the awareness in faith that God is and in Him, I am! No matter how I am today, healthy or sick, I can be a channel of God’s love and embrace everyone with God’s merciful embrace.
At the School of Mary
“To be a Christian, one has to be Marian,” Pope Paul VI affirmed. It seems to be a strong statement and needs to be understood. It cannot be otherwise, however, for the roots of our Christian faith point to Mary as the woman in whose womb, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, took on flesh. Mary is Mother of Jesus and our Mother. This is part of God’s Divine plan for the salvation and regeneration of humanity and the whole creation. And to this plan of God, Mary adhered in freedom and love: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done to me according to your word.”
Don Bosco, when he was nine years old, received in a dream his mission to become father and teacher of the young. In his dream, it was Jesus Himself who gave Mary to little John as Teacher: “I will give you a teacher without whom all wisdom is foolishness.”
The educative intervention of Mary is rooted in her divine and spiritual motherhood. Mary is teacher because she is Mother; and mothers cannot but be teachers. Every Salesian vocation is led and guided by Mary in her school. When we refer to the “School of Mary,” we don’t mean an academic school with formal lessons. Mary’s school is our daily life itself.
The lessons I learned in the school of Mary are not at all easy for it calls one to die to self, the old self, to let the life of Jesus grow in me. What Mary is teaching me is what she herself has lived. She constantly whispers in my ear, in moments of fear and uncertainty: “Do not fear, the Lord is with you.” When difficult problems and responsibilities assail me, I ask: “How is it possible?” She assures me: “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you. Trust! Nothing is impossible with God!”
In everything Mary reminds me: “Do whatever Jesus tells you”. For this reason, I have realized how important it is to educate myself to listen and discern the Word of Jesus in daily life. This needs a constant contact with the Word of God in the Scriptures: studied and celebrated in the Eucharist and the Liturgy of the Hours, contemplated in daily meditation and in the Rosary.
Indeed in the school of Mary, I grow daily in understanding the significance of our charism, expressed in Italian as the “amore preveniente di Dio” (the “all embracing love of God”). This means that God does not only take the initiative, the first step to love us. He loves us all throughout. His love is an “all-embracing love,” one that has breadth and length and height and depth.
Indeed, Mary continues to be our Mother and Teacher. What Don Bosco told our first Sisters is true even today: “Our Lady is here. She is in your midst. She loves you very much. Trust in her and you will see what miracles are.”
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