A story of a late vocation: Sister Rita Marie Sofka, USA

date: 05.05.2007.

In 1991 after partaking of dinner at my parents’ house, my father asked me to watch a video concerning Medjugorje. I have always loved Our Blessed Mother, so I was fascinated to hear that she was appearing in Medjugorje, and I asked my father if this was truly possible. Ten years had elapsed, and I hadn’t heard one single priest speak about it in a church! My father told me that it was a protestant man who had made the tape. That evening, there was a dreadful storm which prevented me from driving back to my own home, so I spent the night at my parents’ house. During that night, I truly felt Our Lady’s presence in the room. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. On the one hand, I was excited, but on the other hand I was nervous, nevertheless I felt at peace. Something happened that night. She touched me. That experience remained etched in my mind. Whenever I heard Medjugorje mentioned, the fascination returned.

In 1993, despite working for 26 years, I was laid off by the company. They gave me a year off, or rather a year’s salary I should say. I went to Mass the following Sunday and found that the priest needed help. I decided I would volunteer. After all, I had a year off! The next morning, the priest invited me to attend daily Mass. I had never done so before. Up until then I would simply go on Sundays. So, I began to attend daily Mass. Then he invited me to visit the sick with him, visiting the nursing homes... He made me a Eucharistic minister. I experienced great joy going a couple of times a week with him visiting the sick. Some of the elderly would call me “Sister” because sometimes I wore a navy blue jacket… I experienced a lot of joy deep within myself. I began to reflect: I was paid a good salary… as a single person I had a three-bedroomed house, a lot of clothes, new cars regularly, I was always traveling, I had twice been engaged to be married, and yet I now experienced great joy despite making no money! The next thing the priest asked me to do was to teach Sunday school – the Confirmation class, and I did so! Next I became a coordinator for Adoration. I signed up for my hour, but then, as I followed through, I stayed on for two hours, then three hours, then four hours… My friends wondered: What is she doing in there? The Lord really was drawing me to Himself.

Then, at the beginning of 1994, a friend of mine asked me to go on a pilgrimage to Betania, in Venezuela, where Our Lady was appearing, and all kinds of extraordinary things happened to me there. Subsequently, I joined two Rosary Cenacles, one of which was a Medjugorje prayer group, while the second was a Fr. Gobbi Cenacle, but we also followed the messages of Our Lady from Medjugorje on the 25th of each month. The desire to visit Medjugorje was ever-present to me. During that year, I experienced many spiritual happenings. However, I began working for an insurance company, but the desire to ascend the corporate ladder no longer mattered to me. I was attending spiritual conferences, healing Masses and Cenacles, my reading matter was changing, indeed my whole life was changing. The one thing I continued doing that the world was doing was going out dancing with my friends because I always loved to dance. Rather than desiring to date, we evangelized in fact, talking to the men about Jesus and Mary instead!

In January 1997, I entertained 12 spiritual friends for dinner. We watched movies about saint Francis of Assisi, and movies about Our Lady’s apparitions. When they all left, while washing the dishes I thought, if I were to die the following day, how would I account for my life? What was God really calling me to do? From January until August, I received so many signs pointing towards a religious vocation that I was very angry at first: I was too old to be a religious, I was already 49 years old, on the very threshold of 50! Most religious communities cut off at 30 or 35! But the signs were so strong that I said: there has to be a place! On my 50th birthday, I went to Adoration. It was three o’clock, and I said to Jesus, “OK, you have been haunting me all year about the religious life. I still think I am too old, but if that is what You want, I am willing to accept, but give me one more sign relating to it. That very night, my friends took me out for an evening dinner to celebrate my 50thbirthday, and one of my friends whom I hadn’t seen all year wasn’t fully aware of all that was going on in my life. She gave me a gift, a secular magazine entitled “New Woman”. In it there was an article on mature women entering the convent, three of whom were women in their forties and one other who was fifty! She had no idea… it was nine o’clock. That night, I said to Jesus, “You did not waste much time!” I had asked Him at 3 o’clock, a mere six hours earlier, for another sign…

Two weeks later, after I had said “yes” to Jesus, my friends called me and said, “We bought a ticket for a priest from India to go to Medjugorje, but he has some difficulties with a visa. He was afraid he wouldn’t be allowed back to the US. Can you go instead? We know how much you wish to go there.” I said, that it would mean having to ask for 2 weeks off! My company was so strict. They would never give me two weeks off! I had a protestant boss, but I went and told her the story. She said OK. I had 9 days leave left. As accounts manager, I was responsible for 450 accounts. My boss said I would have to find somebody to cover my work. I knew that everybody was overworked. My chances seemed bleak, but I asked five people. All of them said yes! I just couldn’t believe it!

Soon, I found myself on a plane with 30 people, none of whom I knew, heading for Medjugorje for 2 weeks. It was undoubtedly a gift from our heavenly Mother to let me pray about my budding vocation. I asked her to lead me! I did not know what to do next. I knew God was calling me, but how should I respond? One day, I chanced to meet Fr. Slavko Barbarić. My friends had told me to talk to him. I told him: “I think… God is truly calling me to the religious life, but I am 50 years old.” He said: “Well, if you were dating three men and you wanted to decide which man to marry, what would you do?” I said: “I would spend time with each of them to see if we were compatible.” He said: “With religious life it is the same. There are three kinds of communities: the totally apostolic who work out in the world; the totally contemplative who pray all the time; and thirdly, a combination of those two. So, to which of these do you think you would go?” I said: “The last one. I love people, and I love the Lord.” He said: “When you return home, visit the communities that are both contemplative and apostolic. As you visit them, you will see if you have something in common spiritually with them, if you possess the particular charism. You will know it. When you go to the right one, peace will come over you.” I thanked him and I went on my way. I thought that what he had said was interesting. Furthermore, the whole time I was in Medjugorje, wherever I went, a nun would sit next to me! Despite being amongst the usual September throngs of people, a nun would always come and sit right next to me! Then, there was this recurring hymn: “Here I am, Lord.” As I prayed, it felt just right…

Back in the United States, a friend called me, saying that the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary were organising a support group for women. I went along. That was in September 1998. Most of the women were younger. All the communities that we visited seemed small in number. Many sisters today live in houses and have lots of nice clothes, but I knew that the Lord was asking me to rid myself of all of that. I knew that I wanted to be in a habit, to pray the Rosary and Adore, and to follow the Pope, but when I visited these sisters, I realized they were not quite that way. They were very New Age, wearing blue jeans. They did not have a community either. I was very disappointed. Then, a priest in his fifties came to my parish. He had been married but had his marriage annulled. He had been vice president of a company. He began to give me spiritual direction. He advised me: “Write down everything you wish to find in community. Judging from the signs you told me of, God is definitely working in your life. We just have to figure out whereto, and how to accomplish it.” He went to New York on retreat and he spoke about me to Fr. Benedict Rochelle who gave him a list of different communities in New York. “ Sisters of Life” was among them, but they had a cut-off age of 35 years! In summer of 1998, I received an invitation from the Sisters to come and visit them. It was just as Fr. Slavko foretold: the minute I entered the door I felt this peace come over me. I had a statue of Our Lady of Medjugorje when I visited them. I used to take it with me when traveling, even when I was visiting the sisters. One night, I experienced something apparently evil that was trying to discourage me, but then I felt Our Lady’s mantle come over me. Later, the sisters invited me to Cardinal O’Connor’s discernment retreat, because the Cardinal founded their community. He said: “You were looking for love, I think you found the right love!” I knew then that my vocation was a gift. Our Blessed Mother had planted the seed. She truly guided me in selecting the right vocation. When I had broken up with my last boyfriend, I felt really dejected. Another broken heart! I just picked up my rosary to rid my mind of this person… to find peace. I began praying the rosary every day, and now I know for sure that I was led in grace by Our Lady.

After I became a Sister, I prayed constantly for the opportunity to return to Medjugorje to thank Our Lady. Ten years earlier I had come as a layperson praying to discern my vocation. Now, as I prepare for my final vows, I realize it is all such a gift, such a liberation!

Sisters of Life take a fourth vow: to protect life from conception to natural death. Cardinal O’Connor really wanted this, especially during these times of abortion, euthanasia and cloning… We pray for four and a half hours a day. By our fasting and our sacrifices, we can save babies. I always wanted to be a mother… to have children. We take care of pregnant mothers in our community, so I now have babies around me all the time! It is a spiritual motherhood! Everybody has his own vocation. Marriage is truly beautiful. As for myself, I have found great happiness as a religious!