How He Called
This article is part of a series of testimonies from our missionaries about their call to missions. The text was originally published on Angela’s blog in 2017.
Many people have naturally asked the question “How did you discern that God was calling you to be a full-time foreign missionary?” or something of the sort. This is my discernment story.
In the ever present roller coaster of life, the Lord has prepared my heart for the freedom to answer ‘yes’ to this call. It could start as early as Freshman year of high school sitting on a bench at my first retreat, reading letters from people I rarely knew, telling me that they loved me and wanted me to experience God’s love. Or maybe being prayed over by a French priest at a Good Friday prayer service at Notre Dame de Paris and discovering my place in the heart of God. Perhaps the first, second or third time I felt heartache after a failed relationship. Possibly my first confession after years of being afraid of my sins. Surely each day I heard of the death of my cousin, father, grandpa, and uncle. Or maybe on the bench outside of DH Hill Library (shout out to NC State) with a discipleship mentor walking through the Scriptures. Very likely during the Evangelization Training Camps hosted by the Evangelical Catholic. And certainly when I spent time with the elderly and the homeless.
Through joyous occasions and devastating heartache, holding on and letting go, growing and falling down, crying for hours and smiling until my jaw hurts. He was there, even before I recognized who He even was. The first time I discovered God’s personal love for me and for the whole world, I knew I would spend my life for Him. In the depths of my heart I knew I would follow Him anywhere.
I have watched friends go on short-term missions or year long missions throughout high school and into college. It seemed pretty incredible but the opportunity or burning desire never aroused in my heart. I was excited for them and encouraged by their courage but the time went so fast and soon enough they were back home. I am a committed person. Once I decide to do something, which usually takes a while, I put everything I have into it. I don’t say this lightly. I love committing to people (and I’m not talking about romantic relationships, though that is also true). I love walking with people in everything, the hard stuff and mundane just as much as the joyous occasions. I love discovering what makes people come alive when they talk and why they do what they do. So naturally the thought of a short-term mission seemed really difficult to me because I could not fully commit to the people I was with due to natural time restraints.
Certainly in my life I grew and sustained a life in the Lord through the obedience of His disciples, people in my life that follow Jesus with intentionality and a joy that is non-circumstantial. People who walked with me, prayed with me and taught me. These are my heroes.
After senior year of high school I told my parents that I wanted to serve in missions (not really understanding what that meant) and my all too convincing dad, Jim Petrongelli, told me I would be much more help after college (probably hoping this desire would go away). I did not understand why I wanted to serve but only that it was in my heart. I went to college, studied social work and the desire remained as a “nice thought.”
Alongside this I have always gathered spiritual inspiration and strength from St. Teresa of Calcutta, a dear friend of Heaven, a little but great missionary. I like to think that it is through her prayers that I answered this call. She taught me that we all belong to each other and that suffering with and for people is the greatest act of participating in God’s love. “Love to be real, it must cost – it must hurt – it must empty us of self.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta
Fast forward to a year ago, summer 2016, I was coming out of a year long position as discipleship coordinator for my campus ministry and had spent the year meditating on Matthew 28:16-20, especially 19-20 which says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
During that summer I went on a 3-week cross-country trip with my mom and two brothers. I was hurting after a breakup and thinking very seriously about where God was leading me after December graduation. I began this trip with the need to see something beautiful and hoped for some clarity and healing, so I set aside time each day to pray through scripture and journal. The Lord consistently brought up in prayer his heart ‘for the masses’ and ‘the world.’ Every sight we saw filled me with wonder and awe.
I found myself noticing my family more, and I smelled the fragrance of God’s love around every corner. It changed me. It tied up loose ends and it solidified the fact that God was calling me out, away from home, to be a foreign missionary. He had people here to share the faith but I was being called out. This trip was followed by many trips to the Adoration Chapel, everyday prayer, meditation on scripture, reception of the sacraments and pastoral direction of some pretty incredible priests.
During the fall, I was spending my last semester as a full time social work intern at a Nursing Home and Rehab. Though I felt called to be with people during crisis I felt so much lacking in my care for the people. No peace. I could not share the Gospel or walk with them in spiritual confusion. I could not be me. I recognized the great good in social work and addressing practical needs or hurts right away but I also recognized deeper, spiritual wounds that I could not address because of the setting.
Maybe it is a millennial thing, not sure, but I could never look into my future and imagine my life in suburbia or with loads of money. In a world so full of political turmoil, suffering, and sometimes pure evil. The call to missions was becoming more urgent in my heart, especially when I discovered that two-thirds of the world have never even heard the Gospel of Jesus. The commission is as urgent as it was when Jesus sent out the apostles. My heart breaks every day knowing that others cannot even have the option to choose Jesus.
Once I committed to following this inclination in my heart, I came across Family Missions Company on the internet. As soon as I read about their way of life and their charisms, I felt a peace I’ve never felt before. I was looking for an organization that did not just “do good things for the poor,” though this is intrinsically good and accompanied with good intentions, it was not what I was feeling called to.
I was feeling God’s call to suffer alongside the poor for the poor, to pour out my very self to them, and to learn from them in a culturally appropriate way. As a beggar myself, I wanted to love them and show them where I am fed and where my eternal worth and hope comes from. Only Jesus. All for Jesus. The poor have pierced my heart with their pain, simplicity, and knowledge of the world. I long to give myself to Jesus in the disguise of the poor. Please know this is more than a nice year of service. It is a vocational call I have felt to dedicate my life to for a minimum of two years.
This March I attended a “Come & See” retreat, or discernment retreat, to meet the missionaries, get to know the organization, and set aside time to seriously consider this step. I was immediately moved by the generosity, kindness, and love of the community. They truly live their name “Family Missions Company” because they are a family.
Before attending the retreat I had an interior dialogue with myself saying, “I’m prepared to say ‘yes’ as long as everything checks out and the call still remains,” even then I knew God was leading me there. I summoned up all my courage to go somewhere I’ve never been to and spend a week with people I’ve never met. The first full day, I sat in front of the Eucharistic Lord with so much conviction in my heart and said “here Jesus, here is my ‘yes’.”
He did not accept it, He gave it back saying, “not like this.” This was troubling to me because I was convicted that God wanted it. Every day this happened, until the fourth day when I realized that the Lord did not want that ‘yes’ because coupled with that ‘yes’ were expectations, fears, and anxieties. I was giving a ‘yes’ but I was not trusting the Lord with its entirety.
I was not necessarily afraid to leave the comforts of American life but I was afraid to leave my family. For those of you who know that I lost my father when I was 18, know that the last 4 ½ years have been rather difficult for all of us. Those of you that know me intimately probably know that I struggle with what I could only refer to as a “savior complex” when it comes to my family. Birthed out of love yet twisted by my own pride, this is the idea that only I can help my family or save them from their pain. This is particularly strong in my relationship with my mom. Thoughts like “what will they do without me?” and “How will they experience healing if I’m not there to encourage them?” This is a terrible sin that I struggle with because it puts my power before God’s. Pray for me in this.
All this goes to say, I do not trust the Lord with the care of my family. I’m too afraid of them getting hurt that I cannot bear to leave them. This is a dangerous place to be in. On one of the last days there, during a talk about the practical realities of being a missionary, the speaker briefly mentioned Matthew 10, did not quote it, just said it was very helpful in his discernment. This stuck with me like a neon sign in the forefront of my mind and I could already feel the tears coming. We were dismissed and I walked straight to the chapel.
I opened to Matthew 10 and my eyes landed directly on verses 37-39, which read, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
I cried, I mourned, trembling, heavy with the realization of what was holding me back and praying evermore for greater trust. A dear friend, Father Tony DeCandia once told me that tears that purge us are a reminder of our baptism, we have died and risen in Christ. I am not worthy of Him. I am so afraid of loss and yet a friend to it, but still He is asking me to lose it all.
If I did not know about His beautiful mercy and His track record of using the weak, I would have turned away and went back home. Jesus could not have been more clear why he was not accepting my mediocre ‘yes.’ It was a moment of purgatory, a purging of these expectations, fears and anxieties, and in its place were love, joy, peace and trust in the living God. Broken for Him, it was then and only then, because of Him, that He said ‘it’s time.’ And in a moment of sweet surrender and incredible gratitude I said ‘yes.’
My purgatory tears turned to tears of love and freedom because God meets and prepares our every desire even before we know we desire it. I’ve never been on a foreign mission trip or even a domestic mission trip, but here I am. A lover of Jesus, and a lover of the poor.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weakness, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
For those of you discerning where God is leading you next. Seek His face and remain there as long as you need to. Talk to Him for the first time, or the upteenth time. Let him love you and love Him there in the uncertainty. Even if it’s scary, keep your heart spread wide because it is through vulnerability that true healing and direction can be given. Do not be afraid and never give up hope. May the God of peace remind you that you are unrepeatable and made beautifully. God will not ask you to do something because you are worthy but rather, because you are willing.
P.S. some beautiful prayers that I memorized and prayed everyday for at least the past year during my discernment were:
By Cardinal Mercier
“O Holy Spirit, beloved of my soul, I adore You. Enlighten me, guide me, strengthen me, console me. Tell me what I should do — give me Your orders. I promise to submit myself to all that You desire of me and to accept all that you permit to happen to me. Let me only know Your will [which is Love and Mercy itself].” (bracketed part added by me)
And by Charles de Foucauld
“Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures – I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.”