Farewell, Dear Sisters

January 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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When I began writing about the two Vatican investigations of US Catholic sisters that began in 2009, my first post was a response to an article in Commonweal, the liberal Catholic magazine. It was written by a Catholic sister whose pen name, “Sister X,” indicates how dangerous she considered it  to say what she was going to say. She titled the piece “Cross-Examination.”*

There was much about “Cross Examination” that I found meaningful, but what moved me most deeply were Sister’s X’s reflections on the frequent experience of burying her sisters. “If the Vatican wants to know about sisters’ ‘quality of life,’ she riffs, ‘let me tell you about a common form of liturgical life in our community’–the burial of a sister, in a service without a priest, because priests are in short supply.” This thought gives her an idea about the cause of the visitation of women’s religious congregations and the doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious: ‘What Rome is really asking,’ she ventures, is ‘Why don’t you have more  nuns to bury? What aren’t there more of you?'”

My strong response to this thread in “Cross Examined” was more than theoretical. Catholic sisters, especially the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who taught me in the 1960s at Notre Dame High School in Moylan PA and at Trinity College in Washington, have been some of the most influential figures in my life .  Catholic women in those years often entered the convent at age 18 and so some of the Sisters of Notre Dame at my high school were only ten or twelve years older than I was and are still going strong.

But many of them were older, and like the women in Sister X’s community, have in recent years, left us. The first of the deaths that really registered with me was that of Sister Claire McCormick, the high school Latin teacher from whom I learned that sometimes being clever just isn’t enough; sometimes you really have to study. In 2008, in her eighties, in what seemed pretty good health, Sister Claire sustained a stress fracture in her spine, developed pneumonia, and died within a week. I still can’t believe it.

Then, in 2010, came the death of Sister Mary Daniel Turner, one of the influential leaders of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who had become a hero to me when I did a series of interviews with her between 2003 and 2006. Sister Mary Daniel died of cancer, so she left us a bit more slowly than Sister Claire did, but her loss was very hard nonetheless. As she said, there was a lot she still wanted to do. I continue to miss her.

And most recently, in early December, Sister Helen James John died at the age of 82. As her obituary in the Washington Post notes, Sister influenced very many students as she taught philosophy for four decades at Trinity Washington University (formerly Trinity College). She was also a vigorous outdoors-woman and fought for justice in civil rights demonstrations and at her own institution.

What Sister Helen James did for me, though, was to help me to believe, for the first time, that I could be the scholar and intellectual I dreamed of becoming. I had done fairly well in school previously, but during the first semester of my sophomore year, I took Sister Helen James’s honors metaphysics class, a pre-requisite for further study in philosophy and theology. The class was a ferocious encounter with the works of the great metaphysicians–Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and more–and when I got an A at the end of the semester, I felt I had arrived. I also took a number of memorable walks around the campus with Sister Helen James; on one outing, we decided that “being” is better than “doing,” an insight that, as you may know, I certainly do not embody!  Not long ago I came across a copy of a reference Sister Helen James wrote for me when I was applying to a Ph.D program. It’s thoroughness and thoughtfulness take my breath away.

We’re all going to die, of course, and living into one’s eighties is a whole lot better than dying young, as recent events have reminded us. But the passing of these Catholic sisters marks not only their end, but, in a certain sense, the end of a way of life, at least here in the US. The median age of US Catholic sisters is 74. At a conference on women’s religious life at Fordham Lincoln Center in December, a sociologist reported that 1200 women are currently in formation to become sisters here in the US. This figure may not sound particularly low till we consider that it comprises slightly less than 2% of the sisters in the US today.

I could go an a rant about the ways in which mistreatment of US sisters by the Vatican and the hierarchy has contributed to this decline. In “Cross Examination,” Sister X writes of the Vatican, ”Do they really wonder why our numbers shrink and shrink? They might ponder their own actions.”

But perhaps this is not the time for such a rant. Perhaps, as the winter wind  blows outside my window, it’s time simply to be grateful for these splendid women and the incalculable difference they made in so many of our lives.

*Sister X’s article is now only available in the Commonweal archives for a fee, but my 2009 blog post summarizes it.

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