Embracing the Rejected

Worth Revisiting Wednesday! This post originally appeared on March 12, 2014.

Studying theology invigorates the mind and soul but sometimes, unfortunately, it can also distract us from God…or perhaps even hide Him.  January 23 was the feast of St. Marianne Cope (1838-1918), canonized 20 October 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI. With all the media’s attention on Pope Francis (and rightly so!), it might help to recall one of the saints elevated by our Pope Emeritus.  Amid all the constant scandal and political chatter, St. Marianne’s example gives us a great reason to reflect on God’s love for those whom the world has rejected. From Twitter, January 23:

Community of Grace ‏@communitygrace Today is the Feast of St. Marianne Cope of Hawaii who risked her life to bring Christ to those whom the world abandoned. #saintoftheday  

Exactly. At age 45, St. Marianne took six of her Franciscan sisters from Syracuse, New York, 20140311-212746.jpgto minister to the leper colony isolated on Hawaii’s Molokai Island.  She had worked in a factory to support her younger siblings and then, after joining the Franciscan sisters, founded hospitals welcoming all patients, including alcoholics and single mothers, in Utica and Syracuse.  St. Marianne was no stranger to helping those whom everybody else had rejected.  She lived another twenty-five years working on Molokai, helping St. Damien DeVeuster build a community where previously leprosy patients had lived in abject poverty.

In an age where we obsess over Super Bowl performances, celebrity arrests, and viral videos, St. Marianne’s quiet heroism reminds us of what the Gospel can accomplish…precisely where nobody else is paying attention.  However, Gaudium et Spes, the crowning statement of Vatican II, opened by declaring the Church’s desire to share the Gospel with the world and in so doing embrace the hopes and concerns of all.  Theology students know that. St. Marianne’s life offers a sobering—and inspiring!—commitment to do just that. Of course, it is not easy, but St. Marianne (and Vatican II!) knew that…and embraced the rejected anyway.

Learn more at http://blessedmariannecope.org/index.html

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

Immigration and the Kingdom of God

Worth Revisiting Wednesday! This post originally appeared on March 26, 2014.

Recently, I was fortunate to attend a lecture on the theology of migration by Fr. Daniel Groody (Notre Dame) at St. Peter’s Church in Charlotte, NC. The following quotation from his article in Theological Studies indicates the themes:

The visio Dei [vision of God] also challenges people to move beyond an identity based on a narrow sense of national, racial, or psychological territoriality. It holds out instead the possibility of defining life on much more expansive spiritual terrain consistent with the kingdom of God. Corresponding with the positive dimensions of globalization that foster interconnection, it challenges any form of ideological, political, religious or social provincialism that blinds people from seeing the interrelated nature of reality. http://www3.nd.edu/~dgroody/Published%20Works/Journal%20Articles/files/TSSeptember09Groody.pdf

I began thinking of how the Gospel of Luke explores similar issues. On Gabriel’s announcement of her upcoming pregnancy, Mary’s response is to ask an intelligent question to this oddly invasive and unsolicited migration of God. “The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’” (Lk 1:35), the same image as the presence of God filling the tent of meeting (Ex 40.34); in other words, Gabriel uses the image of God migrating with the Hebrew people after leaving Egypt. Only then does Mary make a commitment to the kingdom of God rather than to social custom. The requirements to build the kingdom of God, foretold in covenantal theology, trump the local laws of humans.

This commitment sets a tone for the Gospel, in which we see various examples of those who will, and who won’t, migrate with the kingdom of God. We find, for example, a parable of a man with excess grain. Surprised by unexpected bounty, the man asks himself (not God, not his priest, not his neighbor): “What should do, for have no place to store my crops…” (Lk 12.12). His first person soliloquy continues; then he is condemned as a fool by God. This man won’t budge an inch from his own concerns, and by staying stationary in every way, refuses to see “the interrelated nature of reality” and thus rejects all covenant relationships. In contrast, outcast and tax collector Zaccheus breaks strict social rules in several ways, and Jesus responds in like manner. The encounter outside the boundaries creates conversion, and salvation came to that house (Lk 19.10).

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

“What’s love got to do with it?”

In my own prayer this summer, I’ve been using a collection of prayers from the great American Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. The prayers were part of a journal that was recently found among her papers. They are the prayers of a young struggling writer who wants her faith to inform her writing and her writing to be a work of faith. The collection is called A Prayer Journal.

In one of the journal entries she is writing about the importance of a thread in writing a novel. The thread, she writes is “a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of [the] world is the conception of love—divine, natural, & perverted” (O’Connor 30). She continues to reflect on how many of our great writers, Freud, Proust, Lawrence “have located love in the human & there is no need to question their location; however, there is no need either to define love as they do—only as desire, since this precludes Divine Love, which while it too may be a desire, is a different kind of desire—Divine desire—and is outside of man and capable of lifting him up to itself” (O’Connor 30).

O’Connor saw this way of defining love as primarily an emotion as a real problem for the modern heart, which was becoming increasingly “divorced from faith” (O’Connor 31). She writes “The modern man isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire is sunk into the position of seeing physical love as an end in itself” (O’Connor, 31). This, though written more than 50 years ago, is at the heart of the debate today on the definition and meaning of marriage.

Wedding-Feast-at-Cana1Recently, I was asked to be part of a panel at the Catholic Information Center reflecting on the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. I was asked to address the theological and pastoral implications of the decision. One of the pastoral implications is both a challenge and an opportunity to give witness to that which makes a sacramental marriage different. I suggest what makes a sacramental marriage different is the way in which the Church understands love. As Flannery O’Connor writes, the love we are called to share in marriage is a divine love. Married love is a self-sacrificing and self-giving imitation of Jesus’ self-giving love. The married love of man and woman couple is a visible sign for the world of God’s faithful and fruitful love. What made this presentation so interesting was the centrality of defining what love means and what love has to do with marriage.

Please follow this link to view the complete presentation which includes President John Garvey of The Catholic University of America and Helen Alvaré, of George Mason University.

Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Monastery of St. Clare: My Sisters, Our Sisters

ClareI was going to write this as a reflection on the life of Saint Clare, given her feast day is this week (August 11) and that there are so many interesting facts and stories about her life. Then a different, but related, reflection came to mind…

Seven years ago, being a relatively recent convert to Catholicism, I had no idea who the Poor Clares were. However, I gained some new “sisters” when I started a diocesan two-year faith development program that year and was fortunate enough to have two Poor Clare nuns of the Order of St. Clare (OSC) in my class. The Poor Clares take vows of poverty, obedience, chastity, and enclosure and are followers of St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, living the simple, Gospel life in an enclosed contemplative community. The variety of Poor Clare expressions includes the Order of St. Clare (OSC), the Colettine Poor Clares (PCC), Capuchin Poor Clares (OSC Cap), and Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration (PCPA). No matter the expression though, the Poor Clare life of prayer is possible because they do live in community. I am now profoundly involved with the Monastery of St. Clare in Great Falls, Montana and count the nuns of the Poor Clares of Montana, who I affectionately call my sisters, amongst my dearest friends. My sisters have taught me a few things…

SistersSisters Maryalice, Catherine, Jane, and Judith Ann all came to Great Falls 16 years ago at the invitation of the Bishop of the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings, who wanted to bring a monastic presence to the state of Montana. Each sister came from a separate monastery of the Holy Name Federation of Poor Clares along the eastern seaboard. I did not know the sisters then, but I am in awe at their courage, tenacity, and conviction to pull-up their roots and move west to this beautiful, but unknown land, to start the first monastic presence in Montana. They did not know each other well, had never lived in Montana, and had no monastery to occupy. I have moved around a lot in my life, but my horizon was never as uncertain and rocky as was the horizon for these four amazing women. Their story on starting the first monastery in Montana echoes St. Clare, who ran away from her familiar surroundings, wealthy family, and pending marriage in 1212 to join St. Francis in a life dedicated to God. My sisters, you have taught me to trust God’s providence, discern God’s call, and follow that call with all my heart no matter how difficult the road ahead seems.

PCMIn the time that I have known them, the Poor Clares of Montana have faced numerous, varying tribulations, and in each of those situations, they relied on the power of prayer (ok, no surprise there, that is their vocation – to pray, to pray with and for all of God’s people). Witnessing the sisters’ trials brings to mind St. Clare herself who faced many struggles including years of difficulty in obtaining papal approval of the form of life she and her sisters lived, a life she called “the privilege of highest poverty.” The effect of St. Clare’s prayers also come to mind as her prayers are credited with obtaining victories in turning back invaders of Assisi as well as numerous healings. My sisters, your witness to the power of prayer and reliance on Divine Providence have helped me to deepen my prayer life and ultimately my relationship with Christ.

StClareEach Poor Clare community is unique as each monastery is autonomous while expressing the Poor Clare spirit of evangelical poverty, prayer, and contemplation, and t he nuns of the Poor Clares of Montana reflect St. Clare’s charisms in their own exceptional way . As a small community (the same four who were the foundresses here 16 years ago are the same four who are the community today), each nun has an enormous workload to keep the monastery running as well as to try to grow her community all while keeping her emphasis on enclosure and prayer. You would think enclosure would ensure a level of certainty, but each day is distinctive for these women. Yet, somehow, the sisters maintain their prayerful focus. What they encounter in the work of each day, likely, is not very different from what St. Clare went through in starting the Order of Poor Ladies of San Damiano over 800 years ago – all the responsibility initially falls on a few until the community can grow. My sisters, you have taught me no matter what each day brings to rely on Christ and persevere through prayer.

The Poor Clares of Montana recently started offering contemplative prayer workshops and Christian meditation prayer groups, bringing the Catholic Church’s rich Desert tradition of prayer to the local laity. I am amazed that these women (all who have been involved with prayer for decades longer than I have) continue to expand and deepen their relationship with Christ by embracing various expressions of prayer, adding to their repertoire of vocal and silent prayer methods. I am reminded of St. Clare’s words, “Gaze upon Christ, consider Him, contemplate Him, as you desire to imitate Him.” My sisters, you have shown me the power of praying silently in a group as a way of cultivating my relationship with Holy Trinity, as a way of responding to God’s presence in the world.

My sisters live for God alone, dedicating their whole being to God in a life expressed in community, silence, solitude, and prayer. I am grateful for their prayer, their presence, and the peace that they bring me as well as the whole community of God’s people. The Monastery of St. Clare in Great Falls is the only monastery in the state of Montana, but like the dozens of Poor Clare Monasteries in North America and the over 900 in the world, the Poor Clare nuns, following in the footsteps of St. Clare, are here for all of us – my sisters are our sisters. Thanks be to God.

Fawn Waranauskas teaches in the Catholic Catechesis Certificate Program for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


Mencius and Misericordia

Worth Revisiting Wednesday!

Mencius leaps right over the dichotomy of mind and heart: “all people have a mind and heart which cannot bear to see the suffering of others,” that is, misericordia.  Mencius thought with his heart and felt with his head.

“All people have the mind/heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others, my meaning is this:  When people see a child falling into a well, they feel distress, not to gain friendship with the parents, nor to seek the praise of neighbors, nor because they dislike the reputation of in humanity if they did not rescue the child. A person without misericordia is not a person; a person without the feeling of shame is not a person; a person without the feeling of deference is not a person; and a person without a feeling of right and wrong is not a person.  The feeling of misericordia is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.  People have these four beginnings, feelings, just as they have four limbs. Having these four beginnings, but saying they cannot develop them is to destroy the people.  If anyone with these four beginnings, feelings, in them knows how to give them extension and development, the result will be like fire beginning to burn or a spring beginning to shoot forth. When developed, they will be sufficient to protect all the people.  If they are not developed, they will not be sufficient to serve even one’s parents.” 

The Book of Mencius,  2A:6

The four beginnings are innate moral qualities that bridge the dichotomy of head and heart. For Mencius, they are the core of humanity and the center of education.  Analogously, these four beginnings help us understand that our educational mission is essentially religious, but specifically intellectual.  Our educational mission should neglect no significant dimension of human possibility and experience.

The one thing necessary here is not to draw an unnecessary dichotomy.  Our merciful minds and hearts, fully engaged in education, seek to understand and encompass the full breadth of human experience. Our Sister of Mercy, Catherine McAuley, challenges us as educators to see higher education as a work of mercy, as an activity of a compassionate mind and heart, as misericordia.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program.


About Our Foundress: The Educational Vision of Catherine McAuley

The educational vision of Venerable Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, Catherine McAuleyis rooted in Christian ideals and values. For Catherine, the ministry of education is, in essence, a work of Mercy, that is, a wholehearted, compassionate, and integral response to people’s learning needs. In her writings, Catherine views educational endeavors as a way to live out Jesus’ mandate to love others through enabling their personal and professional development, including attuning them to the importance of social responsibility.

Catherine grew up in an Irish society rampant with poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and religious bigotry against Catholics. In response to the needs of her day, she developed educational opportunities ranging from pre-school to the adult level. Thus, she sought to provide others, especially poor young women and children, the chance to improve their human situation. Clearly, Catherine understood that education is essential to the process of the betterment of both individuals and society.

Catherine McAuley possessed various personal qualities that enabled her to become an excellent educator. She was a visionary woman of keen intellect who inherited a propensity for independent thinking from her mother, Elinor. Catherine was open-minded and flexible. She readily adapted to changing circumstances and possessed a remarkable ability to be practically oriented. Her very way of being reflected her profound commitment to Christian values.

Catherine was consummately human and in her humanness is found her holiness. She looked upon love as the cardinal virtue and reminded her Sisters that charity refreshes and enlivens and that love of one’s neighbor is living proof of the love of God.[2] Catherine’s loving nature was visible in the compassionate way in which she welcomed poor persons into her life. She literally spent herself, her time, energy, talents, and financial resources, to enable the poor to live dignified lives. Throughout cities and villages in Ireland and England, Catherine and her Sisters provided economically disadvantaged persons food, clothing, shelter, and educational experiences rooted in Christian principles.

Daily, Catherine spent substantial time in prayer. Oftentimes, she rose early in the morning to eke out a segment from her busy schedule to rest in God’s presence. Such experiences taught her to trust God completely. In a letter to Sister M. Angela Dunne, for example, Catherine queries and then advises: “Tell me all the news you have about your school, sick poor, and your little children. … Put your whole confidence in God. He will never let you want necessities for yourself or your children.”[4]

According to Catherine, to be genuine, the work of the Mercy educator needs to be rooted in an ever deepening communion with God, the source of one’s generosity and courage in carrying out the tasks of one’s profession. Catherine viewed teaching as an act of prayer and praise of God. For her, to teach is to express in word and deed that God is Love. In essence, according to Catherine, the work of the Mercy educator is meant to be a potent expression of the love of God and others.

Referring to the cross of trials or opposition in life, Catherine perceptively notes that “Some great things which God designs to accomplish would be too much joy without a dash of bitterness in the cup.”[5] This reflection is applicable to the educator who experiences diminishments such as misunderstandings, the inability to respond to the needs of some students, or overwork. The educator understands, with Catherine, that experiences like these can occasion the birthing of some form of new life – a spirit of patience and humility, prayerfulness, acceptance of the cross, an attitude of mercy and love, and enthusiasm for service.         

In and through her abiding respect, love, and concern for the neediest of her day, Catherine demonstrated her commitment to the social justice dimension of her educational vision. She understood that to be merciful is to act justly by being in solidarity with poor persons. She was convinced that to live mercy entails extending practical, active love to starving, homeless, sick, uneducated, and unemployed persons. Catherine’s statement: “The poor need help today, not next week,”[6] conveys the urgency she felt for the neediest. She insisted that loving poor persons means empowering them, especially through education, to become the architects and agents of their own future. While consistently responding to people’s immediate needs for food, shelter and clothing, Catherine sought to effect systemic change by establishing educational institutions. Integral to her strategy for fostering such change, she not only established schools for the economically disadvantaged, but also founded pension schools in which middle-class students learned the importance of social responsibility.

Present-day Mercy educators, like those of us at Saint Joseph’s College, are called to follow in the footsteps of Catherine and her Sisters, who wholeheartedly committed themselves to live out an ethic of social justice. Today, such educators extend Catherine’s legacy in this regard by means of creative, innovative responses to the signs of our times.

In 1993, the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas adopted the following statement concerning the mission of Mercy higher education

The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas recognizes that higher education is integral to the mission of the Church and is an effective expression of the Mercy mission. The ministry expresses commitment to the pursuit of truth and knowledge and to the furtherance of the social, political, economic, and spiritual well-being of the human community.

Advancing this mission in the 21st century entails providing students rigorous, academically excellent liberal arts and professional preparation that promotes students’ holistic development within the context of the theological and ethical principles and values that Catherine embraced and embodied, including

  • The teachings of Jesus Christ and the heritage of the Catholic Church;
  • God’s Mercy and the call to live mercy;
  • Commitment to serving the needs of poor, sick, and uneducated persons;
  • A spirit of hospitality;
  • Reverence for each person and all other forms of creation;
  • Special sensitivity to the needs and status of women and children;
  • Active concern for and response to the needs of those who suffer material poverty;
  • Ecumenicity in embracing all persons who seek truth and moral values;
  • The primacy of life-impacting Christian learning and spiritual formation; and
  • An understanding of and response to local, national and global issues of social justice

Those of us who share in the ministry of Mercy higher education are called to uphold the values of mercy and justice that were uppermost in Catherine’s lived spirituality. In Catherine’s footsteps, we are commissioned to be heralds and agents of God’s good news of mercy and justice.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, R.S.M. teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College.

[1] A Sister of Mercy of the Diocese of Oklahoma, The Spirit of M. Catherine McAuley (Oklahoma City: Sisters of Mercy – Mt. St. Mary’s Academy, 1922), 15.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 46, quoting Catherine McAuley.

[4] Roland Burke Savage, S.J., Catherine McAuley: The First Sister of Mercy (Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, Ltd., 1949), 238, quoting Catherine McAuley.

[5] Familiar Instructions collected by first Sisters of Mercy (St. Louis: Vincentian Press, 192), 136.

[6] Bolster, 11, quoting Catherine McAuley.