TESTAMENT to God’s limitless power, Gabriela Aguilar professed perpetual vows as a Verbum Dei Missionary Sister in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Brisbane.
Her almost 20-year journey of discernment and preparation culminated in a Mass presided by Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge, with Verbum Dei female branch General Responsible Magdalena González Santos, from Rome, and hundreds of supporters.
From the Verbum Dei Brisbane “hub”, a unique two-storey dwelling beside Mary Magdalene Church, Bardon, Sr Gabi (pictured) vividly recalled her youthful petulance.
“I was an impossible case,” the 37-year-old said. “I was a rock; I didn’t want anything to do with God.”
Born in Uruguay, South America, and living in Sydney from age six, Sr Gabi said resistance to faith began with her family’s estrangement from the Church.
“My family stopped practising (the faith) when I was 12,” she said.
“Everyone stopped going to church, they were discontent with many things … (but) they weren’t formed to know that the Church is made up of limited sinners.”
Sr Gabi’s mum Alejandra Aguilar reset the family’s faith trajectory following a Verbum Dei retreat with the Sydney community.
“After the retreat, Mum came home ready to share all about it,” Sr Gabi said.
“I had a strong repulsion to God and would close (block) my ears and say, ‘I don’t want to know about God’.
“I was in a fragile state. My mum and aunty were constantly praying for me and crying.
“I’d say to them, ‘Go and cry to your statues’. I was a really tough cookie.”
Equating her mum’s persistence in prayer to St Monica who prayed for her son St Augustine’s conversion, Sr Gabi, the eldest of four, said she eventually agreed to attend a Verbum Dei retreat.
Asked what convinced her to attend, again it was maternal wisdom.
“I remember Mum saying to me, ‘You have so many questions and maybe this retreat might answer them’,” Sr Gabi said.
“She knew I was searching for answers and was very restless.
“‘Let me be open’, is what I thought about going.”
Sr Gabi uncovered many graces during that time of contemplation and prayer.
“The missionaries taught me how to pray with the Word of God (at the retreat) and, for the first time, I discovered God alive in me and that I’m a temple of God,” she said.
“That answered everything.
“It was an invitation to place God at the centre of my life.
“For the first time, I discovered how to listen to God.”
Discerning life’s meaning and pathways, Sr Gabi said she then felt drawn to offering the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to a broken world.
“I ran to the world with a passion to evangelise,” she said.
“I wanted to help with those who hunger or are in war or are homeless.
“I realised that the answer to hunger and war was God, and for people to also learn to pray as I did on that retreat.
“I felt like the Samaritan woman who ran to bring the town to Jesus (John 4:28).”
The evangelist chose images of the Samaritan woman passage to accompany the Mass of her perpetual vows.
She volunteered with organisations such as Lifeline and Wesley Mission.
While in the workforce Sr Gabi began a well-attended prayer group.
“My desire was to teach others to encounter the living God,” she said.
“So many people are unaware that God is their creator, they are unaware of their sacredness, and unaware that God has a plan for their lives … (and) I felt God saying, ‘You can share my Word, you can preach my Word’.”
Finding great joy in evangelisation, it wasn’t long before she was sensing a strong call to be a consecrated missionary with Verbum Dei.
“I felt God asking me to dedicate myself to Him full-time,” Sr Gabi said.
But the call “was overwhelming”.
“I felt unworthy,” she said.
“I remember saying, ‘But God, I’m limited, I’m a sinner’.”
Ever deeper in divine conversation and prayer, the spiritual direction offered from among the Verbum Dei community reinforced Sr Gabi’s religious vocation.
“The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience I needed to take seriously for my life,” she said
Sr Gabi’s almost five-year journey before entering the novitiate, or initial stage of formation, was about “leaving everything behind”.
“The call was to a specific community and also to live the vows,” she said.
“We understand poverty in a radical way, we live off God’s providence, from what people give.
“This is a challenge to live poverty in what we eat, how we dress, how we pay bills, in the cars we drive … we live in solidarity with the poor and I understood God saying, ‘Dedicate yourself to the mission and I will take care of you’.”
The 11-year journey to Sr Gabi’s perpetual vows brought the challenge and reward of formation in San Francisco, Mexico and California.
In 2011, she joined the Queensland branch of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity in Springfield parish, south-west of Brisbane.
In later years the community was given a home in Bardon, in inner-city Brisbane and within Jubilee parish.
Eight months of final formation in Colombia preceded the April Mass where Sr Gabi professed her perpetual vows.
“My perpetual vows were beautiful and I was full of joy that God was completing the good work He had begun in me,” she said.
“Many people said it was like a wedding and that’s what it was, my perpetual union with God.”
Her vows expressed the Verbum Dei charism of dedication to forming disciples “of all people, of all ages and from all cultures and backgrounds … through prayer and ministry of the Word”.
Verbum Dei members are “contemplative active” which Sr Gabi said was the ability to “find a balance of contemplation and the active living out of evangelisation”.
The community offers School of the Word in Bardon, Brisbane City and Nerang, on the Gold Coast, with other prayer and retreat opportunities throughout the year.
“We preach the Word of God in a way that places people in contact with God,” Sr Gabi said.
“The dynamism of the Word of God is to listen, assimilate the Word, live the Word and share the Word … (and) to make disciples that make disciples.
“Our day is non-stop.”