Editor’s Note: First in a series of profiles on women of faith and action
For as much as Pope Francis has alerted the global consciousness to the marginalized, the abandoned and lost, a deep-seated mentality still exists: others will take care of them. While there is undoubtedly concern for the well being of the underprivileged whose lives have been upended, Catholics as a unified force remain a sleeping giant in swaying their influence to the major societal problems of the day, in not only the right to life, but also the quality of life. While the Catholic Church is, above all, a spiritual corpus, its powerful social teaching across the centuries, rooted in the Gospels, fortified by papal teaching, witnessed by lay social workers, hospitals, apostolates, and whole religious orders has shaped civilization. Letting someone else handle a problem has never been the perspective of the Church Militant. Being a saint is still an attainable goal, even as culture is prone to wallow in the mediocre.
Here in the Diocese of Orange and Southern California, four women of faith are humbly but determinedly transforming not only their areas of focus in tangible ways, but exuding to those they encounter what Pope Francis has described as “the fragrance and hope of the Gospel.”
“The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves,” the pontiff said in his homily in Lampedusa on July 8, 2013, “offers a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference.”
In each of their own way, these women are combatting this “globalization of indifference” that has affected swaths of humanity in apathy toward the concerns of those around them. By their witness and results, they are prompting others to follow their leads. Such influence to change is the vital ingredient in transforming one’s life from the will of one’s ego to one totally dedicated to the will of Another: metanoia. Conversion.
Faith relations manager, Habitat for Humanity – Orange County, habitatoc.org
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped out onto the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013, Tristen Seagondollar felt an instant connection. With his disarming wave as the newly elected Pope Francis, she knew “this man was completely humble.” Looking back on this emergence of the first Jesuit pontiff four years ago, in a time when so many people suffered from the global effects of economic turmoil, unemployment, wartime displacement, and other disasters, Tristen felt that “[Pope Francis] was going to stand humbly and walk next to people.” Indeed, the hallmarks of his papacy—cultivating a culture of care and encounter speaks directly to Tristen’s work in forging relationships throughout Orange County.
Coalescing Orange County’s diverse faith landscape toward the greater context of offering hope for those in need of a home is Tristen’s primary focus. Putting love and faith into action, the mission of Habitat OC, is at the heart of Tristen’s own approach to actualizing faith—evoking the Ignatian spirituality adage of contemplatives in action.
When reflecting on her mission, Tristen has emphasized that collaboration between communities is central to Habitat for Humanity’s work in getting families in good standing into homes—a collaboration that has embraced ecumenism and diversity, while evoking the prayer of Jesus in Saint John’s Gospel: “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (cf. 17:21).
“As a Catholic, you are responsible to the least of us,” Tristen says. To her, that means “actually giving of yourself.” Tristen believes the reality of the word “Catholic”—universal—and the reality of what the title “Church Universal” signifies is not a cosmic abstract, but a point of inspiration to galvanize the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world—and all people of goodwill—to foster conversion toward a more just humanity rooted in the unconditional love of God.
This summons to universality also fuels Tristen’s signature initiative, the Catholic Coalition, a Habitat for Humanity program uniting parishes across the diocese to address in a concrete way the housing crisis in Orange County. Bishop Vann endorsed the coalition in August 2016 that now consists of 20 parishes throughout the diocese. Tristen hopes the unity aspect of Catholics coming together physically on building sites will in turn foster bonds of solidarity spiritually—where faith is a common bond, just one example where motivated Catholics can reshape the world around us.
“We all hear the same message on Sunday,” Tristen observes, reflecting on the unity of every Catholic Church around the globe in prayer—the same liturgical prayers, the same Eucharistic Lord manifesting Himself again and again. Such profound images of unity—from the commonality of the Mass to the “great cloud of witnesses” who’ve punctuated Church history with their impact thoroughly shaped Tristen’s identification with Catholicism, so much so that she herself converted to the faith.
One of Tristen’s heroines who influenced her own life course of love in action is St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a princess who would later build a hospital and herself serve the sick. Tristen chose St. Elizabeth as her confirmation name. “With her profound sensitivity,” Benedict XVI spoke of the saint in 2010, “Elizabeth saw the contradictions between the faith professed and Christian practice. She could not bear compromise.”
Such words could also relate to the life and mission of Tristen Seagondollar.
Rita Ray, MSN, RN, DM; Founder, Totus Tuus, totustuuspshh.org
Rita Ray is the founder of Totus Tuus, a permanent supportive housing ministry for terminally ill homeless, based in Orange County. “Christ is the suffering of the sick and infirm,” she says. Totus Tuus, inspired in part by the motto of Pope St. John Paul II—Totus Tuus, I am totally yours—seeks to provide the poorest of the poor with proper end of life care and a “happy death,” a phrase often overlooked in modern Catholic spirituality. But anyone who has witnessed what a happy death looks like knows that not only is Christ close in those moments, but so is the entire Holy Family. Just as one asks Mary to pray “now and at the hour of our death,” St. Joseph, the namesake of Orange’s great religious order of sisters and hospital system, is the very patron saint for a “happy death.”
In nursing school and as a hospice nurse, Rita meditated on what it would take for terminally ill homeless to receive hospice care. “How would I provide hospice to a homeless dying person without a dwelling?” she asked herself. “Where could they go to have a chance at a ‘happy death’?” But the globalization of indifference glared stonily back. “Often these are the people easiest to overlook,” she observes, “since it’s common to want to turn our eyes from disease or injury.”
In discerning answers to her own questions, she found encouragement in various models of faith: in Scripture, such as the 25th chapter of Saint Matthew, which contains the Works of Mercy; in St. Mother Teresa’s outreach to the “poorest of the poor”; in the works of John Paul II, especially his 1994 bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope; and Rita’s own life experiences as a hospice nurse.
“During nursing school,” she remembers, “I experienced the homeless population and how little care they have, how they are forgotten and with the knowledge they would ultimately die from disease in pain, scared and alone! It was difficult for me to view the sick in the same way ever again.”
She finds hope in Pope Francis’s ongoing work with the homeless of Rome—building a shelter just outside the Vatican and later installing showers under the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square and making it a point to engage personally as well, such as breakfasting with eight homeless on his 80th birthday.
A vision for how to move forward gradually came into focus for Rita, and she knew achieving such a dream would be not without difficulty. “In the spirit of St. Mother Teresa,” Rita describes, “I decided [the homeless population] would need a home that was totally theirs at the end of life—a home with a bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, backyard, three meals a day, visits from a priest, a social worker, a nurse, a doctor, and even burial planning, all at their own home, at no cost to them, with or without health insurance.”
A home that was totally theirs—Totus Tuus. It was in preparing to make her total consecration to Jesus through Mary when the ministry’s namesake, “Totus Tuus,” specifically came to mind to Rita. As a young man, John Paul II was forever changed when he embarked on making the total consecration by reading the works of St. Louis de Montfort. Choosing Totus Tuus as his episcopal and later papal motto was decidedly Marian: a life in service to the Church and the God who founded it. Totus Tuus ego sum: To you I am entirely yours…through Mary. “I do everything through Mary,” Rita herself declares.
“I realize my talents, that I have been given so much—and now so much is expected,” she says. “I offer it all up to our Lord through Mary. She takes it to our Lord, and it is returned to me tenfold, only to offer it back up again and again.”
Currently, Rita is striving to open the doors of Totus Tuus to at least four homeless people who are terminally ill. “I will keep offering everything to Jesus through Mary until I die, hopefully, a ‘happy death’,” she says.
“In the meantime, I have much to do—for our Lord, the forgotten poor, and the sick.”
Editor’s Note: Look for next week’s OC Catholic to read more stories of inspiring women of faith and action.