The sound of mercy

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Janis Clarke loves to sing. She sings at parish missions, carols in the streets and sometimes even in convenience stores. During the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Clarke, a consecrated virgin and singing evangelist, is on a mission to bring God's mercy to the hearts of all who will listen, and she is doing it one note at a time.

Clarke was born in 1960 to a large Catholic family in Quebec, Canada. Her birth coincided with the beginning of a political and cultural change in her province known as the "Quiet Revolution," a period that saw secularism take the place of faith in Quebec nationalism. By the time she turned 5, church attendance dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent. Clarke's family, however, was among the minority who would remain faithful.

"The Lord really protected me (during this time) through the faith of my parents and the local parish," said Clarke. "The culture was very life-giving."

Clarke's love and talent for music became evident at an early age. She started to sing in her church choir at just 7 years old.

"The choir attracted me to church and nurtured my faith," said Clarke. "It helped open up my heart to receive the graces that were being poured out through the sacraments."

When Clarke was 13, Father Carl Schmidt encouraged her to write letters to Jesus and let Him write back. The suggestion had a huge impact on her life and started her personal relationship with Jesus.

While her province's faith continued to wane, Clarke's passion for the faith grew. When she was 19, she traveled with her choir to Rome for the first time in the summer of 1979. There she saw St. John Paul II, which she described as an "electrifying experience."

"I experienced a deepening desire to use my voice to sing for the Lord's glory and draw people to Him."

Back home, Clarke attended McGill University in Montreal, where she earned a bachelor's in music. Throughout college, Clarke discerned her vocation and how best to use her gifts. She hoped her future would involve marriage and children.

The summer after graduation she turned down a paid position at a classical music camp to volunteer pro bono at a Catholic summer camp.

As the charismatic family camp drew to a close, the leaders and Father Francis Donnelly, who helped organize it, decided to give Clarke a scholarship to Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, for a master's in theology. The gift was bittersweet for Clarke who wanted to pursue her career as a singer as well as her relationship with a young man who had just proposed to her. She decided to trust in the Holy Spirit and moved to Ohio with her ring firmly in place.

The classes at Franciscan broadened and deepened her understanding of the Catholic faith.

"It was Father Francis Martin's preaching of the Gospel that really brought it to life," said Clarke.

Slowly she began to recognize that God was calling her to Himself and that her desire for marriage and children would be fulfilled in Him.

A new vocation

Clarke began to discern a calling to consecrated life during her second semester at Franciscan. After graduation she lived with a family of seven children close to an order of cloistered Dominican nuns in Newark, N.J.

"I would go to that monastery whenever I could," said Clarke. "The intense desire to be with Jesus in His eucharistic presence drew me like a magnet."

Her enthusiasm for the cloister was tempered by a priest she knew who felt that her talents would best serve God in the world instead of in the confines of a monastery. Still uncertain about her future and vocation, Clarke graduated from Franciscan and went to work in college ministry in Montreal. While on a walk, a friend asked her if she had ever considered becoming a consecrated virgin, a woman who completely devotes her life to God but lives self-sufficiently in the world. Clarke had never heard of this vocation but was eager to learn more. After research and prayer, she approached her bishop, and in 1993, she became a consecrated virgin.

Following her consecration, Clarke dedicated herself to music ministry full time. After receiving an anonymous donation of $2,000 she began recording songs. During the Jubilee Year 2000, Clarke collaborated with Father Martin to record a series of rosary CDs. She took her mission on the road, and her first stop was the Arlington Diocese.

"Two of my dear friends that I went to high school with had moved to Arlington and attended St. Agnes Church," said Clarke. "They started to contact parishes for me."

Her ministry was well-received, and as Clarke began to travel throughout North America she was especially touched by the impact it had on youths.

"I saw that these kids were under a lot of pressure and at the same time so open to the Lord and to prayer," said Clarke. Her rosary missions are a combination of praying the rosary with singing and meditations in between. Attendees are encouraged to cultivate an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ and to discern the personal mission He has for their lives.

"People were especially grateful for the commuter rosary CDs," said Clarke. "I would get amazing emails in support."

Mercy in silence

During one of her missions in Colorado in 2005 her life took a frightening turn. Clarke experienced sudden vocal cord paralysis that left her barely able to speak. Rushing home to Washington, doctors could not promise recovery. In her forced silence Clarke spent three hours a day before Jesus in the Eucharist praying for healing.

"I was crying on the floor one day and the thought came to me, 'Even if you never get healed you will sing better than you ever did.'" She continued in this state for nine months and began to compose, something she'd had no desire to do before. Clarke attended a healing Mass in early December of that year and on the feast of the Immaculate Conception a doctor's camera captured pictures of some normal vocal cord movement. She began to sing again and continued her ministry with renewed vigor.

Since 2000, she has produced 14 CDs, including a musical rosary with Jesuit Father Peter Ryan, and an album, "Heal Me, Lord," of her own compositions. Clarke continues to travel throughout North America on missions. She sang for St. John Paul II, and in 2008, she performed at the International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec. She looks for every opportunity to bring the light of Jesus Christ to the world, whether that is a smile to an overworked cashier or singing Christmas carols in a busy subway.

In this Year of Mercy, Clarke has taken up a new mission and will travel to parishes leading people in song and spreading Pope Francis' message of God's mercy.

"I believe that in this jubilee year the Lord wants to pour (out) His mercy in us and through us in an extraordinary way at the very heart of ordinary life and relationships," said Clarke. "The Lord is just waiting for us to step out of the boat and experience His power calming the storm as He calls us to walk on the water."

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016