The following is a reflection that Ursuline Sisters of Louisville President Sister Jean Anne Zappa gave at the funeral liturgy of Sister Denis West, OSU on March 8, 2024.

There was a young girl who was born in Oolitic, Indiana, about 75 miles from Louisville, a small town, population 1,200. Many people who lived there knew each other and would support each other and help each other.

Ruby Mae and her family moved to Louisville, and she felt a call and invitation to have an intimate relationship with her God, desiring to be a Sister, even before she became a Catholic. She was baptized Catholic and entered religious life three years later. Next year, 2025—would have been Ruby Mae, Sister Denis’ 75th jubilee. She was faithful to the call and invitation to the end. I asked Sister Denis what faith tradition she was before being Catholic and, in her honest way, she said, “I think I was a pagan!” Amazingly, her faithful response to that call and invitation from God for intimacy began at her birth; lasting 95 years on this earth, 75 years in religious life and now for all eternity.

The readings chosen by Sister Denis reflect invitation and intimacy with God. Isaiah reminds the Israelites in Babylon that their sorrows and challenges are real, but so is the promise and presence of God’s salvation in their lives. God knows us intimately, and God will provide gracious restoration now and, in our life, to come.

Her struggles with Spasmodic Torticollis (ST), a neck disorder, led Sister Denis to start a support group with others. She was open to God’s promise and gracious restoration by dealing with her condition in a positive way. These words from Isaiah filled her heart and helped her to see God’s love in her life by the acceptance of her condition. She experienced being precious in God’s eyes, honored and loved, as Isaiah proclaimed.

God’s love is the source from which all real love flows, for love as we share it is a witness to God’s presence in our lives, according to John (1 Jn 4:7- 8). One who loves is a child of God, for God’s very being is love, and one without love is one without God.

I think Sister Denis being from a small town shaped her; for she reflected God in a simple and clear matter-of-fact way.  She was without guile—she was innocent in some ways, honest, real and always kind and grateful, and she was not afraid to say what she needed. She was who she was—no pretense, but authentic because she knew she was a child of God, loved by God, and she tried to communicate that love with others.

In John’s gospel, Jesus is the gate and the Good Shepherd. Being a shepherd was a major occupation in Palestine, and most likely shepherds came from the lowest socioeconomic level with little or no education. However, the position carried a great deal of responsibility—proudly protecting the sheep, ready to give totally of oneself in order to do so. Jesus commits to us a total gift of self—his life—as a means of our being reconciled with God, protecting us along the way. It is Jesus’ gift of life offered in invitation and intimacy, a gift that Sister Denis accepted and tried to live in her own life and shared with others. Jesus asks us to shepherd each other, to give of ourselves in encouragement, support and friendship. As Denis did in her life and ministry, we are all invited to journey together toward that life Jesus gave us, loving God and sharing that love with our neighbor.

In the book Seeing with the Heart, Kevin O’Brien, SJ, said, “Any encounter with Jesus will not leave us the same. As we grow in heartfelt knowledge of Jesus, we learn his way of doing, being, seeing, feeling, and loving deeply. That is intimacy. We become more like the one we are to follow.” The invitation to intimacy with Jesus is always there from now to eternity, we just need to say “yes” over and over again.