ST. PAUL. Minnesota — Father Paul Baker said he sees Natasha Sager as one of God’s spies — in a good way.
“She’s able to … be more embedded in ordinary life in such a way that she can reach people in a different way” than by being a religious sister or nun, said Father Baker in a homily during a Sept. 14 Mass that included Sager’s first dedication to the Caritas Christi secular institute.
The dedication was equivalent to first profession in a religious order.
Sager is not a religious sister, although some elements of her life are similar. Members of her secular institute, which is a form of consecrated life, live and work in society. They also are self-sufficient, unlike religious sisters who live in community.
But, like men and women religious, secular institute members share commitments to prayer and the apostolate of their institute.
Sager said members of her institute bring Jesus right into the heart of the secular world because they are meant to be “the leaven in the dough,” impacting people as they encounter them in work and family environments.
“One of the beautiful aspects of our vocation is its hiddenness,” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “We blend in with society and bring Jesus to places where priests and religious can’t.”
Sager, 34, completed three years of initial formation before her recent profession. Four years of renewal will follow before her commitment becomes perpetual, she said.
Baker, parochial vicar of Epiphany Parish in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, and Sager’s spiritual director, said she also dispels any notion that someone with a physical disability is hindered in dedicating his or her life to God.
He added that Sager, who uses a wheelchair because she cannot walk on her own, is approachable. She was born with a rare medical condition caused by a small cleft in her brain. Sager said two physicians thought she had an inoperable brain tumor, but a third correctly diagnosed her around age 1 with a rare form of cerebral palsy.
“My parents were relieved to find out it wasn’t terminal,” she said.
She said a lot of people want to pray for her. “People always ask why I’m in a chair, and I feel like God put me in a chair to be a witness in a different way, because I feel like the whole Bible verse about God uses the weak to shame the strong,” she said.
Society looks at people with disabilities as burdens and having no purpose, she said. “It may not look exactly the same as an able-bodied person, but there is a purpose.”
Caritas Christi has 793 members in 37 countries, with 29 in the U.S., half of whom are at least age 80. Sager is the only member in Minnesota.
Therese Druart, the national sponsor, or leader, of Caritas Christi’s national council in the U.S., attended the Mass for Sager’s first dedication. Born in Belgium, Druart, 75, joined Caritas Christi after moving to the U.S. in 1978 to teach philosophy at Georgetown University in Washington.
The institute was founded in France in 1937 by Dominican Father Joseph-Marie Perrin, who was blind, and Juliette Molland, who Druart said walked with a limp.
Druart is not certain if their disabilities are related to the institute’s openness to members with physical limitations, but said that, from the very beginning, a disability was not a problem as long as members could sustain themselves financially.
“We have to live this life of ordinary people, with all the risk,” she said.
When Sager sought to join religious life, she feared her options would be limited if not impossible. She didn’t believe a religious order that lived in community would consider her because of her disability, so she did a lot of searching on the internet for an option.
She started discerning with a different secular institute but decided it wasn’t the right fit. And when she saw Caritas Christi’s materials stating that having a physical disability does not necessarily preclude membership, she researched it further.
“Our charism is to love God,” Druart said, “and to make him loved in all providential circumstances,” which “vary a lot,” usually because of the members’ professional work.
Caritas Christi’s members aim to serve God and influence people they meet through their work and relationships, Druart said. “Quite a few are in teaching,” she said, and not necessarily in Catholic schools.
The institute also had a social worker, a woman who worked for an airline and another who was a hairdresser, she said. One member was dependent on an iron lung, yet spent a couple hours a day doing computer-aided design.
“(St.) John Paul II spoke of … members of a secular institute being pioneers, because they go in every kind of milieu, even some where the church usually is not very present,” she said.
Sager lives with her family in Andover, Minnesota. One way she serves God and influences others is through her volunteer service in parishes. Being part of the institute has deepened her prayer life and helped her bring God into others’ lives, she said.
She has used her experience in social media to design vocational materials for Caritas Christi and has helped her community and the U.S. Conference of Secular Institutes with their social media.
Baker said Sager’s service through Caritas Christi has provided her a greater opportunity to live out the “fullest flowering” of the identity in Christ she received in her baptism.
That’s the case when anyone responds positively to God’s call, he said, “whether that be the universal call to holiness, or a call to following in a closer way as a member of a secular institute, religious community, consecrated life or clergy.”
Umberger is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.