Sister M. Nancy: An Interview

Sister M. Nancy Arroyo was born in 1953 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. She studied biology and biotechnology, and since 2019, she has been the Director of the Biotechnology Research Center of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. The following interview was published in a new website to honor the first 100 Years of Women in Schoenstatt.

What experiences have shaped you as a woman?

I grew up in a very devout Protestant family and later in my teens found my way to the Catholic Church. My parents were very quiet about it. They would go to their church and I would go to the parish church in town. ‘Till one day, my mother sat me down and said: “Catholics speak a lot about the Mother of Jesus. We Protestants do not say too much about her, but we follow her example much better, in the way we dress, talk, behave.” It was shocking to me. I knew then that I needed to better integrate my love for the Blessed Mother and my way of life. I needed to surround myself with Catholic women who could strive to live like Mary in our modern times.

Not too long after that conversation, I was introduced to Schoenstatt’s spirituality. I met devout Catholic women of all ages and all states in life, who had a longing to be little Marys for our times. I felt I had found the place.  I wrote my mom a long letter and told her about the Schoenstatt groups and about the beautiful prayer: “Let us walk like you through life…strong and noble, simple, kind…” (Father J. Kentenich). She met my group members. And later she said: “That is a nice group of girls. I am peaceful.” And till her last days on earth she had a deep appreciation for the Blessed Mother and for Schoenstatt’s spirituality. We could have the nicest conversations and inspire one another. When the day for my covenant of love with our MTA came, I explained to my mom what I was about to do and she confessed that, when I was a baby, in a time of great need, my maternal grandmother had consecrated me to the Blessed Mother.

As I look back, sealing my covenant of love with our MTA was the most defining moment in my life. When I asked the Blessed Mother that April 11, 1974: “Take me to that place that God has foreseen for me from all eternity. Help me say yes like you, Mother and Queen…” She took my petition seriously, and I found my vocation as a Schoenstatt Sister of Mary. Since then, when in doubt, – personal or career-wise, as a scientist, as a professor – our MTA has remained faithful to our covenant and has guided me. She opened the doors for pursuing a Ph.D. and helped me find the right graduate program at the right university. I found the place to live, free of charge, and the financial sponsorship for my studies and later the perfect job at a Catholic university.  Someone once said: “God does not always call those that are able, but always, always enables those whom he calls.” I am so grateful for his calling, and can only say: “Let my loyalty to our mission be my thanksgiving” (Father J. Kentenich).

Where in your life have you experienced God?

I have experienced God and his mercy many times in my past, through my parents, my amazing four brothers and my only sister, my extended family, wonderful friends that over the years became family, and in my Sisters’ community. I have experienced his mercy in prayer and in special circumstances that include amazing joys and successes but most painful moments too. I was able to identify God behind these experiences through our Schoenstatt spirituality, which helped me to meet God as a merciful father in my daily life. The first time I read Father Kentenich’s words, “Nothing happens by chance, everything comes from God’s kindness,” or “Let yourself be guided by a practical faith in Divine Providence” – this provided me with a new light. This new vision of life and of the whole world enabled me to understand that I had been given tools to live a happy and fruitful life, secured in God’s fatherly love. This spirituality has also had a deep impact in my professional life as a scientist: as I stand in joy and awe before God’s creation, as I stand with reverence before every life, and as I have the great opportunity to try and convey this to my students. In the bioethics course that I teach to graduate students, I have the opportunity to help them learn to value life, and to open their minds and hearts to find God behind everything they do. In one class, we spoke about how to care for the sick, how to understand their perspective, and how to enrich their lives. I noticed one student who was always taking notes, but who didn’t say anything. At the end of the semester he wrote that his mother had been in a coma for years and as a family of only boys, they had so many doubts of what else could still be done for her besides the proper nursing care. He mentioned that the bioethics course had enlightened him in how to provide the basic care she needed, with the empathy, the dignity, and the love she deserved. He returned a year later to share with me that his mother had peacefully passed away and the family had the time to value all she had done for them, even in her suffering. I was also thankful.

What do you see as the challenge for women today?

Women’s struggle for equality has come a long way and it has seen some excellent results at home, in the work place, in Church circles, in government, and in education. Yet women still face violence, discrimination, and many barriers. In Schoenstatt we appreciate all efforts made toward protecting women, their physical and spiritual lives. We are serious and totally engaged in the education of women. We believe in women; we value their role in family life, in Church and in society as a whole. Yet we do see the need to answer some important questions. Could it be that the focus to safeguard women’s contribution to society has been directed toward the application of strategic actions? Though necessary, shouldn’t these actions be accompanied by strengthening women’s inner resources?  Do we know those resources? Are we aware that, as women, we are worthy heirs of a promise?

As a woman in science, I am constantly challenged to help answer the needs of our times. We can be so easily impressed and swayed by the precision and speed of scientific progress. Science breaks its own frontiers every day, but who is there to provide the parameters for the correct evaluation of this progress? As scientists we are trained to follow the well-proven scientific method, and yet my experience as a scientist has been that we must go beyond the scientific method. As a scientist I have to dare and insist that in the education of young minds, we must help them develop natural and supernatural skills in the discernment process to know when progress in science has crossed the line. Sometimes it is such a fine line we cannot see it clearly. There are many examples I could give. I think of the suffering of a mother who cannot have viable pregnancies and how medical biotechnology offers her the possibility of healthy children through the controversial technique that uses DNA from three people. The baby ends up having 3 parents. How can I, as a woman in science, appeal to these biotechnology students to go beyond what science can offer and include other criteria in their analysis? I often ask them: You have heard the saying: Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are. I have modified it a little: Tell me your image of a human being, and I will tell you who you are. If you see persons in their embryonic stage as a heap of cells, then you can do anything with them, grow them in a test tube and manipulate them, as in this three-parent procedure. You can freeze them, fertilize them outside the sacred conjugal act; you can throw them away if they do not meet your standards. But if your image of a human being is an incarnate thought of God, or a reflection of the Holy Trinity, then your scientific endeavors will have a firm foundation and will be based on love, on respect for the dignity, integrity, and transcendence of the human being you have before you. This image of a person will provide a clearer vision, a good foundation for your work and for your life. As women, we must remember that, with the gift of being the door of entry into this world for human beings, we have the task to continue to protect every person’s dignity from conception to natural death. In the covenant of love with Mary, our mother and model, we as women can be that gift to the world which Fr. Kentenich describe with the words: “There is nothing as similar to God as a noble woman, who in noble ease and simple, God-filled self-possession calls this spirit of freedom her own; that is, a sister of the dear Mother of God as I would like to present her to the Church.”

What do you want to change through your life in this world?

From the moment I met my first two Schoenstatt women there was something about them that captivated me. They were charming, joyful and feminine, natural, and radiating peace. Both of them had known and were educated by Fr. Kentenich. Here were two women: a consecrated woman and the other, a wife and mother, so pure, so natural and supernatural at the same time, so sure of themselves, joyful, and believable. They were credible witnesses of a spirituality which equips women for their role in society. I told myself: I want to be able to give that lasting impression to others too. I would like to help other women reach that fullness in life. I would like to contribute to the education of women so that we reach a deeper confidence in what we have to offer society. These trustworthy examples helped me later to be at ease in a scientific world that demands, and rightly so, excellence, precision, hard work, discipline, truthfulness, but also intuition, empathy, and mercy. As a woman I can accept the challenge and educate myself and others to make that powerful contribution.  Like the Blessed Mother, we women can be partners and collaborators with men in helping make the world not only better, but a true home for others. I can empower other women, help them find their inner beauty, share with them the tools I have received to come to a deeper knowledge of self. “Only she who knows herself can make a unique gift of self.” Then wherever I live, work, pray, and suffer, I can build a beautiful place – a Schoenstatt – within (many hearts) and in my surroundings.

Sister M. Nancy’s “office shrine” at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico.