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Tuesday, 14 February 2012 11:55

Sister Rita’s ministry of story-telling

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When Sister Rita was offered a part-time position in the SVD Mission Office in 2000 she had no formal skills in writing and editing. What she did have was a passion for the mission of Christ and a desire to help people retell their stories of mission and ministry.

She also understood the world many of the SVD missionaries were living in as she had spent nearly 30 years in Papua New Guinea. During her time there she was a primary teacher in remote rural areas, worked with families and led the Diocesan Education Office in the highlands in two dioceses run by the SVDs. Her later role as coordinator of a newly founded seminary in PNG also brought her into contact with many in the order.

Returning to Australia in 1991 she went back to university and completed a degree in Health Science, Rehabilitation Counselling. Following her graduation she worked at the Sisters of Mercy ministry at Mamre House in Sydney’s St Mary’s.  She assisted unemployed people over 40-years of age to gain skills and the ability to re-enter the workforce. After six years in this role, she felt it was time to reduce her hours in ministry.

Well, that was the idea. But along came the offer of a role at the SVD office in Sydney’s Marsfield.  Initially part-time, the tasks grew and so too did the hours.

But for Sister Rita the position has fulfilled her love of a challenge.

“When I took my final vows in 1964 the motto I chose to be inscribed on my ring was, ‘That they may have life.’ My role at Marsfield certainly challenged me because of my continual need to develop skills, while many of the tasks gave practical expression to my motto.

“It has given me opportunities to develop promotional material requiring depthing of theological and spiritual beliefs. The social contact of missionaries calling into the office on home leave or passing through Australia has been life-giving for me.”

One of Sister Rita’s main roles has been as editor of Society Matters. The publication is distributed three times a year and is central to the Society’s fundraising for their overseas works. She has also worked on other promotional material for the order and for the Holy Spirit Sisters. One of her main focuses has been to inform the reader about missionary work in Australia and overseas being done by the SVDS and to articulate a contemporary understanding of Mission.

“I believe the richness of culture, language and customs must be woven into the spiritual expressions and Christian-based beliefs of people,” says Sister Rita.

“The SVD is a multicultural and multi-nationality group, which tries to reflect and witness to a multicultural society wherever they work.”

After more than 11 years in the role Sister Rita feels strongly about Religious Orders being pro-active in telling their stories and informing the wider community about their ministries.

“This strikes deep in my heart,” she says. “I believe that unless members of Religious Orders tell the stories of their lives in ministry they are robbing the Church of role models and inspiration for living the Gospel as it can and should be lived today.”

She says she fears that there can be a false ‘humility’ out there.

“I have a reasoning that goes something like this; if I truly believe I have been called by Christ to be his missionary today in a ‘public domain’ I need to be responsible in being a witness ... and ‘hiding under the bushel’ may be denying a much-needed ministry.

“Answering the why and how questions are not easy; but story-telling is at the heart of sharing faith and dreams, and it can be an effective ministry in a world where less than 140 character messages are accepted as norms for communication. Surely the Letters in the New Testament are the reports of the men on ministry!”

While Sister Rita has hung up her pen or keyboard so to speak at the Divine Word Missionaries, her life of writing will not end.

Sr Rita Hassett in Papua New Guinea“My years in Papua New Guinea built on the firm foundation of family life and religious formation, making me the person I am today,” she says.

“For 20 years I have planned to write reflections on some events of my time there. We often said to the local people and our national Sisters of Mercy in particular, that we missionaries learnt more from them than they did from us. However, I felt we did not go the next step and say what that meant.

“I hope that during 2012 I can have time and opportunity to take to the keyboard and struggle with the written language to explain in some limited way my learning and my becoming because of the people I met and worked with in PNG.”