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Parishioner is inspired to help sow the seeds of Salesian spirituality

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Carol Swiger has learned to bloom where she was planted. 

At age 12, she attended a convent boarding school where she wanted to stay and become a nun. Then her mother became ill, and as the oldest daughter, she was called home to take care of the family. Later, she got married and built a career as a business systems consultant, working with some of the nation’s largest companies — until she injured her back in her mid-40s, and was unable to keep up the frequent travel her work required. 

I had a desire to serve God, but my plan was certainly very different. I just had to listen to him." Carol Swiger

That was more than 30 years ago. Her long recuperation "was a time of redefining myself and asking, 'what is my worth?'" said Swiger. She found solace in the gentle spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, which she and her husband, Michael, had learned about at their parish, St. John Neumann Church in Reston, staffed by priests of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. 

A bishop who lived in France (1567-1622), the saint is known for his correspondence with lay people who wrote to him seeking spiritual guidance. He emphasized that holiness is accessible to everyone, whatever their occupation or state in life, and counseled them to focus on the “little virtues” of patience, humility, gentleness, gratitude, perseverance and simplicity. His feast day is Jan. 24, and this year is the 400th anniversary of his death. 

Wanting to learn more, Swiger read his “Introduction to the Devout Life,” a spiritual classic. “You can’t believe he wrote it 400 years ago,” she said. “It is so practical. It could have been written today.” 

Then she read about his life and his friendship with St. Jane de Chantal, a young widow. After Jane’s four children were grown, she worked with St. Francis to found a women’s religious community, the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.

Swiger found his advice relevant to her own struggles. “He said to make your peace with where you are right now, and when the time is right, you’ll be called to do other things,” she said. The patron saint of writers, he liked to use accessible metaphors such as his often-paraphrased saying that God invites us “to bloom in the garden where he has planted” us.  

As Swiger continued to pray about a new calling, she became more active around the parish, serving in many roles, including Eucharistic minister, lector, religious education teacher and member of the parish council. One day at Mass, the Gospel reading was Luke’s account of the 10 lepers who were healed by Jesus. When one returned to thank him, he asked, “Where are the other nine?” 

“How was I saying thank you? Was I one of the nine?” Swiger wondered. She resolved to do more to thank God, and the Oblates, for the gift of Salesian spirituality that had come to mean so much to her. 

She went to her pastor, offering to organize a morning of reflection with a few speakers, fellowship and prayer based on Salesian spirituality. The free event would include breakfast and lunch and she would find sponsors to cover the costs. Volunteers would do all the work and any donations received would go to Oblate ministries.

Her pastor agreed but doubted anyone would come on a Saturday morning. Swiger hoped for 20 attendees — and was amazed when 160 showed up. 

That 2003 event became the model for what has grown into the Oblates’ signature “Live Jesus” series, now in its 17th year, that draws more than 1,000 people, many from non-Oblate parishes. A 2022 event is planned in March, after being canceled for the past two years due to the pandemic.

“Never in 10,000 years would I have envisioned this would still be going on,” said Swiger, who manages every aspect of the event, with the help of her husband and a small army of more than 100 volunteers. The location alternates between St. John Neumann and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Vienna, the two Oblate parishes in the diocese. 

She works closely with the Oblates’ province and its development office, which says Live Jesus generates significant donations. (The name “Live Jesus” is a Salesian motto taken from “Introduction to the Devout Life,” in which St. Francis says Jesus must live in our hearts, and quotes St. Paul: “It is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me.”)

Over the years, Swiger has found other ways to share Salesian spirituality, organizing a retreat in November and classes offered in six- or eight-week sessions in the spring, summer and fall. In 2015, Live Jesus communities were created, with small groups of seven or eight people who meet monthly to reflect on his writings and their spiritual lives.

In partnering with the Oblates to share St. Francis’ wisdom and help people grow closer to God, Swiger also has found her own purpose — not only has she followed the saint’s advice to “grow where you’re planted,” she’s become a co-worker in the garden as well. 

“I had a desire to serve God, but my plan was certainly very different,” she said. “I just had to listen to him. And I couldn’t be happier.” 

Find out more

Register for the 2022 Live Jesus event March 26, 8 a.m.-12:45 p.m., at St. John Neumann Church in Reston. Keynote speaker is Oblate Father Tom Dailey, author and professor of theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa.

www.oblates.org

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2022