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Youth minister answers decade-long call to religious life

Some conversions take a lifetime. For Shannon Gunning, the call to Jesus was instantaneous. She said she had been living as a partier, full of “things of the world”. Then she went on her senior high school retreat at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Littleton. It was during adoration that she first heard the Lord speak to her.

“It was a tremendous first moment. I just started weeping for what had become of my life. I felt dissatisfaction, and loneliness, and sorrow for the recklessness of my life,” Gunning said.

Then the Lord asked her to become a nun, she said. He continued to ask this until her early 30s, when she agreed to say, “Yes.”


Life (immediately) after conversion
Gunning was afraid of the Lord’s call.

“That was very terrifying for a 17 year old who had made very different plans for her life. I thought it was rude,” Gunning said. “I was like, ‘This is why you don’t have more friends—I just converted, and now you’re asking this of me?’”

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She wasn’t ready to enter a convent, but Gunning did decide to switch schools. Within a few weeks of the senior retreat, she had called, applied, and been accepted to Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. She said it was a wonderful first step in conversion.

“I had never been exposed to a large Catholic community where authentic joy and hope were present in everything. By the grace of God, I just jumped in headfirst,” Gunning said.

She began to question the sparkle and glamour of her former partying lifestyle, and realized it only left her empty and longing for more. She began to restructure her priorities and wondered what made the people around her so joyful. She noted that many of them had real prayer lives and were dedicated to Holy Hours.

“I concluded that this was the cause for their joy, this time with Jesus. Peer pressure works. I wanted to try it,” Gunning said.


Life in Christ

The experiment was successful.

“My life became deeply anchored in the Lord. I was giving him an opportunity to speak into my life. My new desires and new dreams started to grow, particularly in terms of vocation,” Gunning said.

She realized that she was likely called to religious life, so she went on several discernment retreats. She also went on several dates. However, by spring semester of her junior year, she felt she was ready to enter a community.

That was when the Lord told her to wait.

“It was another moment where I had to tell him that this is why he doesn’t have a lot of friends,” Gunning said.

Back to Cabrini
Gunning was initially disappointed that she didn’t enter a convent right out of college. But now she says that she realizes the Lord had a mission he wanted her to do first: She became the youth minister at her home parish, St. Francis Cabrini in Littleton.

“We recklessly pursue vocation because it is important, but the Lord’s love is more important,” Gunning said. “We need the Lord, not vocation. Then he will invited us into vocation.”

In fact, she started to forget her call to vocation.

“I think I got temporarily distracted. I knew I was called to consecrated life. I responded by saying ‘I know this is what you want from me, but I’m not going to do it.’ That put me in an irreconcilable tension,” Gunning said.

Finally, after years of spiritual strain, Gunning found the Sisters of Life. Her initial interest in them did not seem divinely ordained.

“Their website was user friendly. I got on their website thinking I was doing God a favor,” Gunning said.

She said boarding the plane to visit them was one of the most terrifying moments of her life. But when she arrived, she felt a spirit of joy and peace. She visited several times. It was during her last visit, in the beginning of February, that she knew she was meant to join the Sisters of Life.

“The last time that I was out there, I was in the chapel, and I just kept praying, asking him what he wanted. Silence, then finally he said to me, “Shannon, there’s a thousand reasons for you not to come, and some of those reasons are even good. In that same breath, he said, there’s one reason to come. That reason was Christ, and that reason was enough,” Gunning said.

“I just said, ‘Lord what will be most pleasing to you?’ I’m 32, and it was the first time I had ever prayed that prayer. And then he said come. So I asked him three more times just to be sure.”

Gunning returned to Denver finally knowing where she was called.

Sharing the news
Gunning says there are many things she will miss about Denver, especially the teens in St. Frances Cabrini’s youth ministry program.

“I’m very sad, but very confident in God’s faithfulness. If he asks you to do something outrageous, he will provide everything that invitation entails,” Gunning said.

She’s found that sharing her vocation with the kids has a been a joy.

“It’s been beautiful to share it, because you see the lights in the eyes of these kids,” Gunning said. ”

She also said she’s not worried about her mission continuing.

“I have a lot of confidence that I will be more effective, and that my life will be more fruitful, once I follow this calling,” Gunning said. “There’s a real spirit of joy and excitement, because the Lord has provided me with a lot of joy and peace. Those can’t be manufactured.”

She said that a certain level of understanding has also helped her parish support her in her vocation.

“The only thing we have is to give our gifts back to the Lord. When you understand that, it makes sense why someone would do something so radical and completely counter-cultural,” she said.

Shortly after she announced that she would be joining the Sisters of Life, the sisters announced they were coming to Denver. Gunning also realized she had made her announcement during the Year of Consecrated Life.

“I was completely blindsided. I just laughed. It’s the Year of Consecrated Life, the Lord told me now’s the time, and then they move here, and then I announce it. But it really has been a longtime process of discernment,” Gunning said.

How you can help
Gunning is hosting a “Nun Run” fundraiser for the Sisters of Life.
Aug 29 7 a.m.-noon in DeKoevend Park (6301 S University Blvd, Centennial, CO 80121)
Purpose: Fundraise for the Sister of Life, and to pay of Gunning’s student loans so she can join.
For more information, go to http://bit.ly/1JCVVba


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