By Linda Andrade Rodrigues, Anchor Correspondent
DARTMOUTH, Mass. — Pope Francis proclaimed 2015 a Year of Consecrated Life, which began the First Sunday of Advent, the weekend of Nov. 29, 2014, and will end on Feb. 2, 2016, the World Day of Consecrated Life.
Pointing to the importance of the religious vocation, the Holy Father said that a “radical approach is required for all Christians, but religious persons are called upon to follow the Lord in a special way: They are men and women who can awaken the world. Consecrated life is prophecy. God asks us to fly the nest and to be sent to the frontiers of the world. This is the most concrete way of imitating the Lord.”
Eleven-thousand miles away in Perth, Australia, a young woman receives a calling, reads a website about the Maronite Servants of Christ the Light, and after much prayer and discernment leaves family, friends and homeland behind to join a new community in Dartmouth.
“It’s a great joy to see the Maronite Servants growing,” said Mother Marla Marie Lucas, M.S.C.L. “Petra Nakhoul is a postulant and has taken the first step to become a consecrated religious in our community. God is the One Who calls. He puts that attraction in the heart of a young woman.”
Seven years ago Mother Marla returned to her roots and began the first Maronite religious congregation of women founded in the United States.
“After all these years of joyfully serving our Lord, God again knocked on the door of my heart — a call within a call,” she said. “I ask young women to discern a vocation to serve as Spiritual mothers to God’s people as Maronite Servants of Christ the Light.”
Five years ago Sister Therese Maria Touma joined the new community, and another postulant, Natalie Salameh, entered the congregation last year.
“We are very happy that Natalie and Petra are with us,” Mother Marla said. “What the Lord is doing — it’s a miracle.”
Born in Sydney, Australia, Nakhoul grew up with her five brothers, and the family attended St. Charbel’s Parish.
“My parents are devout Catholics,” she said. “We went to Liturgy every week and prayed the Rosary at home a lot as a family.”
Her parents, Sarkis and Georgette Nakhoul, had emigrated from Lebanon and practiced their faith with the large Maronite community in Sydney.
Nakhoul received her calling in her teens.
“But I didn’t really pray about it, and for a long time I wasn’t ready,” she said. “In my mid-20s I could hear it more clearly, and I made the decision to give my life to my Lord and His people.”
Seeking a vocation, Nakhoul also needed to find a community.
“I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted to follow the Maronite or Roman Catholic rite, and I took a long time praying on that one,” she said.
Then she heard about a community of English-speaking Maronites in the U.S.
“I looked at their website to check it out and found Mother Marla’s testimony,” she said.
“I recall vividly the moment I realized our Lord was calling me to be all for Him,” wrote Mother Marla. “It was 1982, and I had just graduated college and was going full speed ahead in my career plans as a journalist in the nation’s capital. Then something, Someone, changed everything. Jesus made it clear to me that my life was meant to be offered as a consecrated religious to serve His people. I was captivated by His love and drawn deeply to let go, leave all things and to follow Him. The next year I entered a Roman Catholic congregation.”
Nakhoul sent off her first email to the American convent.
“They were Lebanese Sisters in an English-speaking country,” she said. “I could study in English rather than struggle with the (Arabic) language.”
Last year she spent four weeks during the winter and six weeks in summer with the Dartmouth community.
“This is where God wanted me,” she said.
Nakhoul entered as a postulant of the Maronite Servants of Christ the Light on May 31, the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, at Our Lady of Purgatory Parish in New Bedford. At the close of the Liturgy, Father Jack Morrison gave her a blessing.
Having the desire to live the Gospel in community, postulants are single Catholic women, between the ages of 22 and 40, who have actively participated within a Catholic parish for at least four years and have completed undergraduate studies.
Nakhoul spends her days in prayer and meditation, studying, and working in the convent or outside in the parishes.
“We are in silence sometimes, and we also get together to talk over our meal,” she said.
“Our mission is Religious Education, to visit the sick and home-bound, and work with families, teens and young adults,” added Mother Marla. “In addition, we try to reach out to the wider community. We help at St. Anthony’s Food Pantry in New Bedford, offering a half-hour Bible study for 35 to 40 people.”
The nuns also host retreats, as well as prayer and supper events, at the convent.
Nakhoul offered advice to women who are thinking about a vocation.
“Do not be afraid, and trust in the Lord,” she said. “Trust that He has your life, your happiness and peace in His hands. I’m very happy and so much at peace. I’m really looking forward to my time here and spending my life in the Lord’s service with my Sisters.”
Mother Marla encourages those with a calling to the priesthood or religious life to talk to a priest or nun about this adventurous life.
“A lot of people ignore the initial attraction, put it out of their minds or never get around to it,” she said. “Make some kind of contact, inquiring and learning more. If they take an active role following through in that desire, God will take them the rest of the way.”
In this year dedicated to consecrated religious life by Pope Francis, she also encourages everyone to pray for vocations.