Autumn Cybulski loves to talk. Conversations with family, friends, after Mass, in her dorm room, on retreats – she’s enlivened by them.
She had quite a few with God during discernment retreats in the past year. They were lively, honest and inspiring dialogues, and they led her to enter the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist this month.
Autumn, 19, attends both St. John Neumann and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary parishes in Lancaster. She’s a cradle Catholic from a faith-filled family. Her dad is the Youth Ministry coordinator at St. Mary’s, one of her three sisters is involved in campus ministry at Lancaster Catholic High School, and the Cybulski girls have been familiar faces at the Diocese’s Fiat Days discernment retreat.
The possibility of a religious vocation, then, was never foreign to Autumn.
“I would always tell people I was open to it when they would say, ‘Autumn, you’re going to be a nun, right?’ I didn’t want to close any doors,” she said in a Zoom interview. “As I got older, whenever I would see a habit or interact with a Sister, there was this feeling that I really can’t explain. It wasn’t like a tugging, but just a thought, like, ‘That’s an option.’”
“When I got into high school, I started thinking about it more. I went on Fiat Days the summer before my senior year of high school and met all these great religious women. I thought, ‘This is so cool! They’re not boring, they’re so joyful. I could do this.’ It’s not so weird to think I’m called to something other than marriage.”
She entered The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., last fall. Ready to live a normal college life, she put religious discernment on the back burner.
That lasted a month.
Early into her first semester, she attended a presentation by Catholic speaker Leah Darrow, a former contestant on “America’s Next Top Model” who inspires women to “do something beautiful” with their lives.
“Something just clicked into place,” Autumn said of the night of Darrow’s talk. “I went back to my dorm room and was crying. I told my two closest friends at CUA, ‘I’m called to religious life!’”
The tears were a mix of emotions: the thought of saying goodbye to her new college friends, and relief in finally expressing her potential call to religious life.
She connected with a fellow student named Rory, who was planning to attend a fall discernment retreat with the Sisters on campus: The Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, from Ann Arbor, Mich., whose apostolate is Catholic education, and whose average age is 32.
Somewhat surprised and apprehensive at the thought of entering religious life, and unanswered questions about her future spinning in her head, Autumn went on the retreat as a kind of escape.
“I was hoping for a nice, relaxing weekend,” she said. “But the Vocations Director, Sister Joseph Andrew, called my bluff. She said, ‘You’re saying you think you’re called to religious life, but have you looked at orders? Are you talking to Sisters? What else are you doing?’
“One of the big mantras in my life is, ‘Jesus, I trust in you,'” Autumn said. “I was trying to stick with that, thinking, ‘I trust in you, therefore I don’t have to do anything.’ Well, that’s not how it works. I needed to pursue what I believed I was called to.”
Sister Joseph Andrew suggested that Autumn return for the order’s next retreat in February, following more discernment work, of course.
“But I went back to school and things went back to normal,” Autumn said. “Then February came around, and I realized I hadn’t thought about religious life all that much. I thought maybe the retreat would be a good opportunity to get myself back on track.”
Joining other students in a van to Ann Arbor, Autumn was caught off guard when the Sisters accompanying them asked each retreatant what they hoped to receive from the experience.
“I was trying to answer the question on the fly, so I pulled out of my head: ‘Clarity.’ I didn’t know what else to say,” Autumn said.
Seemingly at a loss, she went to the chapel that night to pray.
“I asked, ‘What am I hoping to get out of the retreat?’” She established that she wanted to know whether she was called to the Dominicans. If God told her that her religious life wouldn’t be as a Dominican, she was set to tell him that the answer to her second question – When should I enter? – could wait until after college.
Autumn felt resolve, until the next morning, when Sister Joseph Andrew told her she could apply to the order if she felt ready.
“My first thought was, ‘No, not right now! God, that wasn’t our plan. We’re waiting, remember?’”
She returned to prayer, and discovered why God had put the Dominicans in her path at college. For every doubt, question and challenge she had, He answered.
“I had concerns about fitting into their order: They chant and sing, and I can’t. I like to run, but what if they don’t let me? I like to cook. Can I do that here? All that was answered,” Autumn said. Amazingly, every one of her concerns were addressed in a video the order produced, showing Sisters cooking meals, enjoying recreation like soccer and volleyball, and explaining the beauty of their sung prayer.
She returned to the chapel, and again found herself starting a conversation with God.
“Ok, God, let’s re-evaluate everything. I know I am called to religious life. I know I am called to the Dominicans. But when?” she asked.
In prayer, she imagined herself in two scenarios. In the first, she returned to campus and told her friends she was called to enter the Dominicans, but nothing more. In the second, she told her friends of the call to the order, and showed them her application.
“The difference between the way I felt about those two scenes was like east and west,” she said.
In the early morning hours of the weekend retreat, Autumn and several retreatants were in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament for all-night Adoration. Again, she found herself in conversation with God. But this time, she didn’t ask questions.
I thought to myself, “I’m just going to sit and be silent this time, because I’ve done a lot of talking. Now it’s time to let God talk,” she recalled. “I couldn’t deny the joy of religious life.”
The next morning, Autumn and her friend Rory received their applications. “We were both crying and couldn’t stop smiling. We giggled throughout the entire day because we were so ecstatic,” Autumn said.
She was accepted into pre-postulancy in mid-March, which normally would have meant a week living with the Sisters in the motherhouse this summer. It was cancelled due to the pandemic and replaced with Zoom chats and getting to know Sisters and fellow applicants over video calls.
In June, Sister Joseph Andrew assembled the applicants again to reveal who would be accepted to officially enter as postulants this month.
“She kind of led on that it wasn’t going to be all 18 of us,” Autumn said. “She had us all pray the Rosary together before making the announcement. During the Rosary, the whole time I was praying, ‘God, I want this. I know this is what you want me to do. Please don’t let her say I’m not entering.’”
“At the end of it, she said all of us would be entering, and in that moment, I realized how greatly God increased the desire for this life in my heart,” Autumn reflected. “This is what I’m called to do, and this is what I want to do.”
She will enter on Aug. 22, the Feast of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Postulancy will be one year of increased discernment, with limited visits from family, and one opportunity to visit her family at home. A two-year novitiate will follow, succeeded by an apostolic year of shadowing Sisters before temporary vows. Within this period, there are several years of college study for a degree in education. The timeframe until final vows is eight years.
“Postulancy is just a step in the process,” Autumn said.
Among the tangible elements that attracted her to religious life is the exuberance she’s seen in Sisters.
“I think a lot of their joy stems from the fact that they’ve figured out what God wants from them, and they’re doing it,” she said. “Everyone wants to be happy. What will bring you ultimate happiness? Doing God’s will. A lot of people go through life unhappy because they thought they were doing what they’re supposed to, but in reality God had a bigger plan that they kind of missed out on.”
She offers words of advice and encouragement for other young women discerning a religious vocation:
“Religious life was so unknown to me; make it known to you. Go and meet Sisters, understand how they’re living. Don’t be afraid to trust God. Sometimes that means giving stuff up and saying goodbye to people, but He’s going to fulfill the deepest desires of your heart,” Autumn said.
“Often, young women will say, “But I want to be a mom.” Well, the Sisters, as teachers, have hundreds of kids. And to those who say, “I want to have a good and faithful husband,” my answer is, it doesn’t get better than Jesus himself!”
“He might be asking you to just take that first step, to trust Him, to see how far you’ll go,” she said.
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness