My name is Gerardette Philips, and I was born in Bhusawal, a small railway junction in the West of India on February 20, 1966 to Cassandra and Ralph Philips. From these names you will guess that my roots come from different parts of the world and found their home in India! Both my parents worked for the Indian Railways. It is no wonder that the image of a journey by train can best capture my spiritual journey.
I was a witness to the movements of both life and death as I was growing up. My younger brother died when I was eleven and my father died when I was sixteen. I am the fourth of five children. I have a brother and two sisters older than me. They live with their families in Canada. My mother, a woman of deep faith and courage, left our family home in India about 8 years ago and is now in Canada with my siblings. As a family, we grew close to God and to each other. My mother had simple ways of teaching us how to love, and my father taught us how to trust.
I grew up with three calls which became instrumental in shaping my life. All of these calls were received between the ages of 3 and 8! From the time I was small I knew with certainty that every religion was rich and that each had their ways of expressing a relationship with God. I saw this very clearly in the life of a Muslim I saw at prayer on my third birthday. The work of interfaith relations began naturally for me in my childhood. My second call is to the people with special needs – mainly the developmentally handicapped. I believe that they have a special place in our world. Being with them takes me to no other place but the heart – the core of our existence and the meaning of life. They teach me to live and to love. The third call came to me on the day of my first communion. I became aware that day that Jesus was dwelling in me, that God was dwelling in me, that my life was God’s and that my heart was inhabited by God. I wanted to become a religious only because I wanted to enter into a deep relationship with the God Who was in my heart. Where else could that happen if not in the Society of the Sacred Heart?
I entered the Society after my graduation and after having worked for about five years in the Consulate of Oman. The years that followed were in initial formation, studying for a Masters degree in Special Education, a year of theology, serving in a diocesan school and in two special schools. The province of India with its hopes and challenges became part of my life.
The year I made my final profession, I was asked by the Superior General at the time, Patricia Garcia de Quevedo, to discern the call to serve in Indonesia. In her letter she said,
“In the General Council, we have been reflecting on the Society’s needs in Indonesia. Our mission in Indonesia is entering a new phase with the beginnings of the noviceship and the seeding of our charism of the Society in that country. We urgently need more people for that mission. We need younger RSCJ who are happy and solidly committed in their vocation, people who live the charism and mission with enthusiasm and maturity and who can contribute to the building of apostolic community. You came to our minds and hearts………we invite you to discern….”
After the process of personal and provincial discernment, a year later I received another letter from Patricia saying, “It is with great joy that I am now sending you to Indonesia.” In the same spirit my response was, “It is with much joy that I accept in trust and respond with a full heart to your sending me to Indonesia.” I knew what I was leaving behind, our Indian province where I had received my formation, friends in and out of our Society, my mother, family and what I most loved doing, which was being with children who are developmentally handicapped. However, I also felt that what I was leaving behind also gave me strength and courage to move ahead.,In the year of the bicentenary of our Society I came to Indonesia knowing neither a single word of Indonesian nor any of the rscj. Despite this fact, I came knowing that I belong to the International Society, knowing that I would find God and Sophie here. Indeed I have, in more ways, places and persons than what I could ever have imagined. I have been able to live my vocation in joy, freedom and love because of the prayer, support and love of my family; they make no demands on me when it comes to family issues. Their lives and choices challenge mine and each time I meet them I am strengthened for mission!
Over the journey of these years God has certainly been with me and has given me the opportunity to respond to each of the calls given to me. I was involved for a while with Special Education; I had the privilege of getting a Masters Degree in Islamic Philosophy and Mysticism from a Muslim University. This was followed by a Doctorate in Philosophy, with my dissertation offering a new approach to Interreligious Dialogue. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI appointed me as a Consultor to the Commission of Religious Relations with Muslims in the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. I am engaged in building relations based on the truth among people of different faiths, teaching Psychology, Religion and Interfaith Relations in two universities - Catholic and Muslim.
The call that God has kept me closest to is God’s call to God’s self. This has been consistently renewed over these years in my work of formation. I humbly witness the beginnings of our Society and the growth of our little yet big Society in the response of young, beautiful Indonesian and Timorese women! Seeing the footprints of God in the life of these women who I accompany is God’s big gift to me. It takes me back to my own heart, inhabited by God and awakens in me the joy of my own vocation as an rscj. God tests as well as strengthens this relationship with my service as leader of the Area of Indonesia. Being with my sisters calls me each day to live and practice the name of my probation which is to “Proclaim the Tender Mercy of Our God” with the devise “Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of Heart.”
This year is the Silver Jubilee of my first vows - fifteen of which have been in Indonesia. So much has happened with no plan at all except a total openness and handing over to the Spirit. Over these years Jesus has been the center, the core of every experience, surprising me most of the time as He takes ‘our train’ very gently and very definitely from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from leaving home to making this my home, through stations of Joy, Struggle, India, Canada, Family and Friends. On this journey Sophie is very much in the train too! She travels with me, talks to me about what it means to be an rscj, directs me, shares with me the meaning of new beginnings, celebrates with me and challenges me to ‘hang in there’ when the days get difficult. The meaning of my journey as an RSCJ centers in what was so dear to Madeleine Sophie – the interior life.
Now I can say from that deep interior space that my home is where my God is and I am here, staying on because this is where God is. This is what I celebrate in this year of my Silver Jubilee!