This Feast of the Lord’s Presentation in the Temple has been observed for many years now as an occasion to acknowledge the contributions of Religious to the life of the Church. That day was chosen by Pope John Paul II precisely because on that day the Infant Christ is proclaimed as a “light for the nations” and the late Holy Father – along with the whole Church – saw Religious as particularly responsible for bearing that light of Christ to the Church and to the world, giving us an opportunity to thank God for the life and witness of those in consecrated life and also to pray for many more young men and women to join their ranks.
For decades we have been treated to unrelenting barrages of negativity about the damage allegedly done to generations of Catholic school children by the nuns of yesteryear. We have also witnessed some very sad developments in religious life in the post-conciliar period, especially loss of faith and loss of identity.
I would like to address both concerns by paying tribute to the outstanding women Religious who educated me. I shall mention each and every one by name, highlighting one especially memorable aspect of that Sister’s relationship to me and my human and spiritual development. As I do so, I invite you to think back on the Sisters who educated you, your children, your grandchildren, and those in the parishes where you have been spiritually nourished.
From 1954 to 1968, I attended three Catholic elementary and secondary schools, operated by three different religious communities in two dioceses. In that entire time, I received a superb education at every level, never saw a single child brutalized, and genuinely looked forward to every day of school. Were all the nuns perfect? Of course not. And one or two were, shall we say, “off-base,” but where don’t you find that? At any rate, permit me to launch into my personal litany of thanksgiving, most appropriate in the midst of Catholic Schools Week (January 31-February 6 this year); again, to my own litany, unite your own.
1. Sister Matthew Joseph accepted into the parish kindergarten a boy whose parents were not married in the Church and who seemingly had no intention of ever practicing their Faith.
2. Sisters Grace Gabriel and Grace dePaul, principals from kindergarten through fifth grade, befriended my mother, made her a full-time volunteer, and helped bring her and my father back to Catholic practice.
3. Sister Rita Gertrude had taught second grade in the same classroom for 56 years, worked until the age of 92, and died at the age of 102, having over 3000 people at her funeral. She was quite a spit-fire. When John XXIII was elected in 1958, she informed us that she was disappointed by the election of another Italian but assured us that would change soon. Twenty years later, my mother smilingly noted that Sister Rita must have been pleased with the election of John Paul II – although she would surely have preferred an Irishman! She was also the nun who told us that people that don’t go to Mass on Sunday go to Hell, causing me to share that insight with my non-practicing parents at the time.
4. Sister Vincent dePaul lovingly and carefully prepared us for our First Holy Communion, an event still indelibly etched on my consciousness.
5. Sister Miriam Eucharia told my mother that I was too good to live in this world and that she would be praying for me to die the day after my First Holy Communion. My mother thought she was a bit weird and was rather relieved that Sister’s prayer was not heeded. Sister Principal told by mother: “Ignore her; she’s a nut!”
6. Sister Mary Vera was the woman who did massive amounts of research on epilepsy when she was informed I had fallen victim to the disease. With eighty-one other children in the third grade, she still noticed any time my eyebrows fluttered – one of the advance warning signals of a possible impending seizure.
7. Sister Regina Rose in the fifth grade predicted to my parents that I would be a priest, a teacher, and a writer. I took her out to dinner for her ninety-fifth birthday. Chatting with her on the phone recently, I asked how she’s doing, “Not bad for 106,” came the swift reply. Those old faithful gals never die, it seems!
8. Sister St. Roch, my sixth grade teacher, left Ireland at the age of seventeen, with her mother pregnant with a baby boy whom she never met until her father’s funeral eighteen years later. Whenever she got homesick, she would ask us to belt out a chorus of “Danny Boy” to cheer her up. I never understood how a funeral dirge could cheer someone up. But, then again, I’m not Irish.
9. Sister Dorothy Ann gave me straight C’s my first quarter in seventh grade. She’s the only nun my mother ever challenged. The grades were changed – by the pastor – and Sister later said I was the finest student she ever had. She and Sister Regina both attended my First Mass.
10. Sister Laureen Francis was my junior high principal and eighth-grade teacher. She had the rare treat of teaching both me and Bruce Springsteen at the same time.
High school was an interesting time, occurring as it did in the midst of the Second Vatican Council and the secular spirit of rebellion spawned by what has become known as the “Vietnam War era.” Not surprisingly, then, our tiny parish high school went through three principals in four years: Sister Mary Joseph, Sister Francis Joseph, and Sister Mary Janice. Each one concluded that “kids today are ‘ungovernable’.” It was the first time we ever saw authority figures “blink”.
1. Sister Ann Marie was the most beautiful nun I ever encountered; in fact, we later learned, she had been a model before entering the convent. By year’s end because of faculty shuffling, this freshman boy with a crush on her ended up having her for homeroom, religion, art and algebra!
2. Sister Maria Gemma was a feisty young nun, who taught French and served as the moderator of the Mission Club; she threw me out of Senior French class for three months because I had gotten into a battle with the girl behind me who was “bidding” on me for the Senior Prom! Sister Gemma was the first and only nun in our school to wear a modified habit at the time; she was also the first to leave religious life.
3. Sister Stella Grace taught forty boys Sophomore English, holding our interest and never speaking above a whisper. She died during our Senior year, when we also discovered that she had had terminal cancer throughout our high school career although no one ever suspected it because of her enthusiasm and joy. We dedicated our Senior yearbook to her.
4. Sister Patricia William was our Freshman World History teacher and Forensics coach. She got me into speech and debating only because I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t know what “forensics” was and, after learning, afraid to tell her “no”.
5. Sister Rose Catherine taught us biology; she spiced things up by having a life-size model of the human anatomy which she called “Shim” since it had all the necessary equipment for both genders. She was way ahead of her time!
6. Sister Mary Augustine was a brilliant historian, who had the audacity to expect Juniors to take notes and be responsible for the material she delivered in classroom lectures.
7. Sister Mary Jordan tried to teach us chemistry. A kindly young Sister, her only flaw was that she presumed we had all walked into the room having the interests and abilities of Lavoisier, and she operated accordingly – to her frustration and ours.
8. Sister Robert Mary, nicknamed “Parvus Caesar” (Little Caesar), was one of the Latin teachers. She didn’t exactly exude the milk of human kindness, but she was an exacting taskmaster for the first two critical years of the language, and I am still grateful for her approach.
9. Sister Ann Virginia privately tutored me for my third year of Latin; compared to “Parvus Caesar,” she was rather lackluster.
10. Sister Mary Sylvester guided us through Junior English. A recurring theme of her off-book reflections was that the Beatles would go down in history as the beginning of the end of western civilization.
11. Sister Francis Rita taught Algebra II. She was one of those rare individuals who can make everything come together for a student. For the first time in my life, math made sense as I not only did the right thing but knew why I was doing it. She was eighty-four in my Junior year. The next time I saw her after graduation, I was at the Dominican Sisters’ motherhouse some ten years later for a funeral. She saw me at a hundred yards, rushed toward me, dropped to her knees and asked for my blessing. “In Latin, please,” she said as she peeked up from her veil.
12. Sister Mary Joan taught four of us stalwarts Vergil in Senior year. She offered me an “A” in exchange for teaching her first-year Latin class, so that she could have a free period! Needless to say, hers was not a major academic contribution to my education.
13. Sister Mary Alma guided us through Senior English. She was a dynamic and learned late-middle-aged woman. A year into my seminary experience, she wrote to tell me she had left religious life because it had already unraveled to the point that it was not what she had joined forty years earlier.
Well, that’s my saga of life with the nuns. As I said at the outset, they weren’t all perfect, but fairness demands that I say that their communal successes far outweighed any individual failures. And, in light of today’s Gospel, one can see – in hindsight – that the presence of the Sisters in our schools as salt and light was indeed taken for granted and that we now sorely miss their dedicated and loving witness.
I hope that their witness, however, moved me – and many of you as well – to take up their example to be salt and light in the circumstances of our lives. As we thank God today for who those good women were and for what they accomplished to make the Church in our country great and for those who have stayed the course amid so many challenges, let us also beseech the Lord that He would raise up women today to form new communities of Religious to replenish their ranks,1 communities that will be faithful to the true identity of consecrated life and that will offer new generations of young Catholics even a tenth of what so many of us received at their hands, so graciously and so generously.
Thomas Merton penned a magnificent poem in celebration of today’s feast; I trust it will be a fitting close to these reflections of mine. I don’t know if any of the Sisters who gave me the gift of faith and the grace of my vocation ever read this poem, but they certainly epitomized it. May their tribe increase.
THE CANDLEMAS PROCESSION
Lumen ad revelationem gentium2
Look kindly, Jesus, where we come,
New Simeons, to kindle,
Each at Your infant sacrifice his own life’s candle.
And when Your flame turns into many tongues,
See how the One is multiplied, among us, hundreds!
And goes among the humble, and consoles our sinful kindred.
It is for this we come,
And, kneeling, each receive one flame:
Ad revelationem gentium.
Our lives, like candles, spell this simple symbol:
Weep like our bodily life, sweet work of bees,
Sweeten the world, with your slow sacrifice.
And this shall be our praise:
That by our glad expense, our Father’s will
Burned and consumed us for a parable.
Nor burn we now with brown and smoky flames, but bright
Until our sacrifice is done,
(By which not we, but You are known)
And then, returning to our Father, one by one,
Give back our lives like wise and waxen lights.
(Note: This essay was originally given as a homily on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord and posted here in slightly different form.)
1There are several communities of Sisters that never went off the rails – they maintain their common life and prayer, wear their habits, and continue their apostolate in Catholic schools. Here I am thinking of the Nashville Dominicans, the Carmelites of Alhambra, the Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St. George, the Sisters of Christian Charity. And then there are newer communities like the Dominicans of Ann Arbor, the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist, the Mercy Sisters of Alma. Young ladies interested in living an authentic religious life with the charism of Catholic education should consider these institutes of consecrated life.
2From the Gospel of the day, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32).
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