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Monday, 16 March 2015 13:44

Sr Gabi on urgent mission

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Sr Gabriela Aguilar vdmVerbum Dei Missionary Sister Gabriella Aguilar's mission to make God known doesn't come only from her calling to religious life, but also from her own experience of standing on the precipice of atheism, writes Emilie Ng.

Soul brothers Jake and Elwood Blues claimed to be on a mission from God to save their childhood orphanage.

But while the 1980 cult classic film characters’ mission was mere fiction, the mission from God for Sister Gabriela Aguilar, 35, is real, and according to her, urgent.

“Everyone needs to know God,” the ever-joyful consecrated missionary sister said.

This urgent mission to make God known is not just a result of Sr Gabi’s calling to religious life in Verbum Dei, a Catholic missionary community founded in Spain.

It’s also based on a personal experience that “deeply marked” her, a time when a teenage Sr Gabi living in Maroubra in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, was on the precipice of atheism.

“As all teenagers, I rebelled against God and the Church, anything to do with faith,” she said.

“From when I was 16 to 19, I was closed as a rock. There was no entry point for my spiritual life, or me and God.”

But like St Augustine, a persistent mother was prayer blocking the Uruguayan-born teenager.

“I remember that my mother met the Verbum Dei missionaries in Sydney through my aunt, and her whole life changed,” Sr Gabi said.

“She started wanting to go to church; she kept trying to speak to me, saying that God is beautiful, that we were meant to live as a community, like a family, that Church is a family.

“And what I would do is block my ears. I’d say, ‘Mum, I don’t want to hear about God. I don’t want to hear about faith; please, I don’t want to hear about anything to do with it’.”

When mentioning God or anything to do with faith wasn’t working, the words love and life started creeping into conversations.

“At first I thought this was okay, but then I knew where she was going, and I said, ‘You’re using the word love but you’re meaning God’,” Sr Gabi said.

The tenacious evangelising eventually bore fruit when Sr Gabi’s mum tricked her into attending a silent retreat, leaving out the part about it being silent.

“I ended up going to this retreat – it was a two-hour journey – and when I got there, they told the missionary to break the news to me that it was a silent retreat,” she said.

Without any way to escape, Sr Gabi, then 19, decided “to make the most of it”.

“And I thank God for that because that was an inner movement of openness, there’s no other way I can describe it,” she said.

The retreat’s theme, on the dwelling place of the Trinity, gave Sr Gabi insight into her dignity and identity.

“I sat in those talks, and the Word of God was preached, and I felt resurrected,” she said.

For the first time in years, she had a dialogue with God through the Scriptures.

“I said, ‘Hello, God, how are you?’ and in my heart, I really experienced through the Holy Spirit God saying, ‘I’m here, I love you and we have 19 years to catch up on’.

“And I began a relationship with God in that retreat – I found God.

“I walked in alone, and I left God like the Samaritan woman, running, because I knew God.”

Knowing God also gave Sr Gabi a new perspective on suffering, an issue she had wanted to attack since she was four.

“At 19, I was really discerning my career, and I wanted to find ways to address the suffering of the world,” she said.

“I saw the war, the famine, the violence, and murderers, because a lot of my friends were in gangs, and they were getting in and out of jail, and detention centres.

“Even the news would make me cry.

“I’ve touched a lot of suffering, and I remember wanting answers.”

Becoming a doctor or social activist seemed to fit the bill for eradicating suffering for good.

“I called up A to Z every single social organisation and offered myself as a volunteer,” Sr Gabi said.

She volunteered with the Salvation Army, Youth Off The Streets, Lifeline, Wesley Mission, but “felt something was missing”.

“My greatest joy, was when I could share about the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit,” Sr Gabi said.

“Putting someone in contact with God, helping someone discover that they could have a relationship with God, fired me up.

“It’s all I wanted to do.

“Even the tough cookies? Well, I was a tough cookie – I was closed – so I’ve got to persevere with them, I thought.”

At age 21, God gave his exact mission.

“Little by little God was very specific – He said, ‘I want you to be a consecrated Verbum Dei missionary’,” she said.

“And I cried for a week.”

Missionaries, Sr Gabi thought, were for “untouchables”, not an ordinary sinner like her, but within a week, she was prepared to leave everything behind, even a boyfriend, for God.

After four years of stealth discernment, Sr Gabi entered the Verbum Dei novitiate in San Francisco in 2005, taking temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience two years later.

Her first mission field was in the United States of America where she spent six years studying and evangelising.

In 2011, Sr Gabi was sent to Brisbane to found the city’s first Verbum Dei community, now based in Bardon.

Three years on, the Verbum Dei Sisters are regulars at St Stephen’s Cathedral, run numerous booked-out retreats, and have a strong relationship with the Jubilee Catholic parish, who offered them their Bardon home.

While the mission field is still ripe, Sr Gabi is grateful that her flock of young disciples are not as stubborn as her former atheist self.

“People are searching for God, for meaning, and a greater depth in the world,” she said.

“I can’t let go of that deep sense of openness that people have.

“It’s been really beautiful for me.”

Find out more about the Verbum Dei Missionaries in Sydney.

This article written by Emilie Ng was first published on 17 February 2015 at The Catholic Leader, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Watch the behind-the-scenes video of this interview in the original article.