Everyone is in the circle
By Lara Pickford-Gordon
Annalisa Ramsahai is the Regional Programme Coordinator for the Franciscan Institute for Personal and Family Development, a ministry of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother (SSM) which operates in Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, and St Lucia.
The Institute has as its Mission: promoting a culture of peace where right relationships and community are nurtured in the Franciscan tradition of compassion, moderation, simplicity, and reverence for all creation. Its Vision is to assist the participants to improve their quality of life by teaching non-violent ways of relating to self, others, and creation.
Ramsahai used the words “divine providence” describing the recognition that she was “journeying” with the Franciscan Institute and its Director Sr Julie Marie Peters SSM while still discerning a vocation.
In an interview with the Catholic News May 23, she said in 2016 she was discerning her vocation in religious life and entered the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny (SJC) congregation as a postulant.
Ramsahai said: “…I learned more about the Catholic faith. I learned a deeper understanding how to build a closer relationship with God, how to live a life of service and the various charisms and spiritualities of religious congregations on the whole.”
She grew up in a strong Catholic household but said it was only after entering religious life for discernment that she found out about “the rich history” of the Catholic faith. “I realised ‘wow we are so rich in our faith’ and there is more to prayer than just reciting a prayer, it is about building a relationship.”
As a postulant, she met Sr Julie while doing retreats and Ramsahai realised she had an affinity with the Franciscan spirituality. In 2017, she left the SJC congregation, but her discerning process did not end.
Ramsahai’s work background was in health, safety, and environmental management however, working in this field did not bring fulfilment so she did a lot of volunteering with the Franciscan Institute. She said her scientific background and work experience made it easier for her to understand the Franciscan values and to also live them. “I think that is why I took a liking to the Franciscan Institute.”
Ramsahai recalled that she shared her impressions of nature with Sr Julie, who advised her to contemplate deeper and reflect on what God was saying to her at that time. “I learned to listen more attentively to what God is calling in my everyday life” and “to incorporate the things I like to do every day with becoming closer to God and developing my spirituality.”
When Ramsahai left her job, Sr Julie invited her to accept an administrative position at the institute. Although she was living in San Fernando (south Trinidad) and the Institute was in St James (north Trinidad), she accepted.
Another opportunity came when Sr Julie asked if she would be interested in being a Laudato Sí volunteer for the 2019 World Youth Day in Panama. She agreed despite not having the details. “I think a mind frame of being open and being able to stretch yourself even to discomfort is important especially in volunteering,” Ramsahai commented.
She attended as part of the Global Catholic Climate Movement now known as the Laudato Sí Movement. The Franciscan Institute is a registered international partner with the Season of Creation and Laudato Si’ Movement since 2018.
“I think that experience of people at a global level and their different cultures was a very life-changing experience for me. It was inspiring for me to say I want to continue volunteering with this group.”
She later became a member of the Laudato Sí steering committee for the Laudato Sí Movement and part of the launch of the Laudato Sí generation, the youth movement.
Ramsahai is presently serving on the Board of Directors for the Laudato Sí Movement. The position is voluntary, but she sees it is an opportunity to learn and network with the international community.
The Franciscan spirituality entails contemplation and action. Ramsahai said contemplation is key to their service and she learned this by observing the Sisters.
She mentioned a tour of the Caroni Bird Sanctuary and prayer service on a boat. “Children were there, they were able to see the beauty of God’s creation and pray at the same time. Then we started the Season of Creation Challenge in 2018. St Francis is the patron saint of ecology, but he also served the poor. He had a great passion of humility and service to the poor.”
She said the SSM did a lot of missionary work assisting the poor and from this she learned how to build relationships and to serve. This prompted a change in her encounters with the poor. Instead of just handing out money when asked, she began thinking “deeper” and to find out about their needs.
The Franciscan Institute
Reflecting on how the Institute fulfils its mission and vision, she highlighted the Institute’s logo.
The Tao, which looks like a cross reflects Christ. There is an image of the sun, sea and land encircled in a circle. “Everyone [is] in that circle. It shows the connection of creating that culture of peace you need to build relationships and right relationships with all of God’s creation, ourselves included, the environment and the earth as well.”
She explained, “they look at building a relationship with God our Creator first, then looking at our relationship with others in a non-violent way. I think that is very important right now when we look at all the happenings in the world right now.”
Ramsahai said people must also be mindful of self-care, explaining that the Franciscan Institute has many holistic programmes for mind, body, and spirit. There are programmes for mental health, personal, and family development.
During the Covid pandemic, the Institute offered counselling for grief, loss, depression, and anxiety. The Institute has a trauma team which responds on a voluntary basis to natural and manmade disasters including during the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Karen Moore is the coordinator.
The Franciscan Institute is the certified trainer for the Boys Town programme and Common Sense Parenting. Programmes for spirituality include Lent and Advent retreats.
Ramsahai said anti-trafficking programmes were “crucial” in the past few years and assistance to migrants and refugees is done in partnership with the state, non-governmental agencies, and faith-based communities.
Ramsahai said, “many of them are vulnerable and have been victims of human trafficking”. Reintegrating them into society requires these partnerships.
Workshops, especially online, have been conducted to raise awareness about human trafficking. Ramsahai said young children are becoming more susceptible to online grooming, so education has been an important tool to raise awareness and stop trafficking.
Laudato Sí, Care for Creation
The Franciscan Institute is known for its work in promoting action on Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Sí. This is done through outreach to parishes and schools and targeting different age groups. Laudato Sí week is May 22–29.
Ramsahai believes people are becoming more aware of community action. “They want to respond to the climate crisis that we are going to face and especially the future generations, so the Church is now moving in a spirit of integral ecology.”
She referred to the calendar of events involving Church commissions for the Week. “This is the way we can invite Catholics to take small steps to make a difference because they are still trying to understand the concepts of how their faith is relating to responding to the care and concern for the earth.”
Through social media awareness the Institute is supporting the initiatives of Church and other organisations.
The Franciscan Institute’s Season of Creation Challenge is an important programme to get children and adults to respond to the climate crisis. This year it began on May 1 and ends on July 25. There are four categories: Song, Art, Skit and Eco Project.
“We work a lot to help others to learn what are their creative style and how they can express it. Hopefully, that can be an empowering tool for people to feel confident that they can do something and make a difference to help our common home,” Ramsahai said.
Participants have said they did not know they could do a Spoken Word or form an environmental group until they did the challenge.
How can Catholics support the Franciscan Institute?
Donate – This will help support and expand programmes and outreach. There are many vulnerable persons in our country not only migrants and refugees. There are people living in dwellings without electricity, water, means to go to school, and women and children who are abused.
Volunteer – The Institute is a small non-profit, non-governmental organisation with two religious Sisters and one other staff. The Institute has a Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Committee comprising of volunteers. More volunteers are welcomed.
Training – The public can access parenting and non-violence programmes or learn to be a Laudato Sí animator to teach others in their parishes or communities.