January 11, 2008

Religious Vocations Supplement

Benedictine sister helps college students find God

Benedictine Sister Jennifer Mechtild Horner, left, helps sort boxes with University of Indianapolis student Michelle Stephens during a community service project at Gleaners Food Bank in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

Benedictine Sister Jennifer Mechtild Horner, left, helps sort boxes with University of Indianapolis student Michelle Stephens during a community service project at Gleaners Food Bank in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The story of a young woman who overcame hatred, fear and her own doubts before she finally found peace in her life is not one that Benedictine Sister Jennifer Mechtild Horner tells too often.

Still, the story of her own life helps Sister Jennifer when she counsels college students who come to her seeking advice and comfort from their stresses and challenges.

Sister Jennifer knows the necessity of making every day in life count after she was nearly killed in a traffic accident.

She personally knows the difficulty of trying to tell your parents what you really want to do with your life—even when you believe it will cause them deep heartache.

She knows the struggles of searching for a place in the world and wanting to be closer to God—longings that she believes define many young people today.

“The students who come to me are searching for God and they are really longing for community,” says Sister Jennifer, a chaplain and the director of the Lantz Center for Christian Vocations and Formation at the University of Indianapolis. “For the most part, I see students who have a desire to change the world and be part of a community that serves God and one another.”

That desire has marked her own life ever since she almost died when she was in college.

‘I knew it was home for me’

“In the spring of my junior year, I was in a horrible traffic accident and I was almost killed,” she recalls. “I was in the hospital for five weeks. I was in a wheelchair and on crutches for a couple of months so I had a lot of time to think. I realized then we only have today to live. I was 21 at that point, but I realized I needed to live my life today as God is calling me to do.”

Before the accident, she was struggling to deepen her relationship with God. She grew up in South Africa, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who stood and spoke against that country’s system of apartheid which discriminated against non-whites. Her father’s stance led him to be hated by certain people, which created difficulty for the family. They eventually moved to Idaho when she was 15.

When she entered Boise State University, she started attending different churches, searching for a spiritual home. Her college roommate, a Catholic, invited her to Mass. At first, she declined, but she finally decided to give it a try.

“When I knelt down, I knew it was home for me,” she recalls. “It was just a feeling within me of a sense of comfort.”

Still, she dreaded the discomfort of telling her parents that she wanted to become a Catholic. She had always admired her parents for standing against apartheid even though that stance resulted in hatred toward them. Besides, she loved them and didn’t want to disappoint them.

Yet the accident convinced her to follow her desire to join the Church.

“When I told my parents, it was very hard for them,” she says. “They initially tried to talk me out of it, but I knew it was what I needed to do. I joined the Catholic Church on my birthday in 1986—March 29.”

Later that year, she attended Christmas services with her parents at a Presbyterian church. Following the service, she told her mother she was going to a Catholic church for midnight Mass. Her mother asked to come with her. The close bond with her parents had endured. It was tested again three years later when she joined a community of Benedictine sisters in Idaho.

Finding a home for others

“I felt I was definitely called to the Benedictines, that prayer and community and seeking God in every part of my life is what brings me joy and lets me serve others,” Sister Jennifer says. “At first, my parents felt they were losing me. Then they joked that they didn’t lose a daughter, they gained so many more because of all the sisters. I made my final vows in 1995.”

She felt called again by God when a position opened in 1998 as the director of spirituality for the Benedict Inn Retreat and Conference Center in Beech Grove. During the next two years, she lived at Our Lady of Grace Monastery and fell in love with the community of religious sisters there. She asked to transfer her vows to Our Lady of Grace Monastery. She also served as the parish life coordinator at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle before joining the staff at the University of Indianapolis in 2003.

She’s found her home in helping college students find their place in the world.

“College is such an important time in their lives,” Sister Jennifer says. “They’re figuring out who they are and their relationship with God. It’s not just, ‘What is their major?’ It becomes larger: How am I going to live my life? What values are important to me? What does it mean to be a Christian in today’s world? Those are tough questions. I feel called to be part of that journey with them.”

She is a great traveling partner in that journey with young people, says her boss, Michael Cartwright, the dean of ecumenical and interfaith programs at the University of Indianapolis.

In working with students from different faith backgrounds, Sister Jennifer offers an approach that combines down-to-earth advice with a gracious respect for people, Cartwright says.

“It’s one thing to say you’ll accept someone ‘just the way they are, right where they are,’ ” Cartwright notes. “It’s another thing to really do it. Jennifer does it with a listening heart. She points them back to the Gospel witness of Jesus, the disciples and Mary.”

The daughter who learned to live a life of faith from watching her parents now provides her own example.

“One of the gifts I can give to students as a Benedictine sister is a sense of commitment,” Sister Jennifer says. “A lot of people haven’t seen commitment lived out fully. To realize one can live out their life in God and live that visibly is important for young people to see.”

Sometimes, the college students even ask her about the choice she has made for her life, and whether she’s happy about it.

“I tell them about the joy I have in the community here,” Sister Jennifer says. “That’s an important part of living out our Christian vocation—that we have an inner joy. For me, that joy is living in community with other sisters who are seeking God in the same way I am. We can support each other on the journey.

“Because I made the commitment I have, it allows me to serve God’s Church. That’s the call of every Christian—to learn how to serve.” †

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