Loving Islam taught her to love Catholicism all the more

If you’d like to be inspired by a bright, young adult Catholic, you’ll want to meet Jordan Denari. Jordan is a 24-year-old research fellow at The Bridge Initiative, a new project at Georgetown University to promote Muslim-Christian understanding. U.S. Catholic magazine has just published a profile of her that I wrote.

This is the story of a woman who grew to embrace and love her own Catholic faith the more she came to understand and respect Islam. A snippet:

Denari developed friendships with Muslim students while attending Georgetown as an undergrad. This led to conversations and experiences that motivated her to learn more about both their faith and her own. “I saw how committed Muslims are to prayer and also to community,” she says. “It pushed me to be better with my prayer life.” She went on an Ignatian prayer retreat, signed up for classes on Christianity, and joined a scripture reflection group. “I wanted to know why Catholics do what we do and believe what we believe. The answers I got were very powerful.”

The full article is here.

Mother Celestine of the United States

Back in 2013, Pope Francis formally recognized the heroic virtues of the U.S.-born woman, Celestine Bottego (thus officially making her a candidate for canonization). Known as Mother Celestine, she founded the order known as the Missionaries of Mary when she was 48 years old, rejecting the advice of her confessor that she was just too old for that sort of thing. This month marks the 35th anniversary of her death.

OSV has just published an article I’ve written on her. You can find that here. Here’s a snippet:

From the beginning, the Missionaries of Mary did not wear a religious habit, for the sake of simplicity and convenience in view of the difficult mission work that lay ahead. This was a significant innovation at the time, two decades before it became common in the wake of the reforms in religious life that followed the Second Vatican Council. In a 1954 letter to Father Spagnolo, Mother Celestine wrote, “I spoke with Bishop Fulton Sheen. He encouraged me and said that he was enthusiastic about the idea of our having a lay habit. He said we are the only congregation of this kind until now. He added, it was about time to change.”

Sister Rosetta recalls an early meeting that the Missionaries of Mary attended in the United States with members of other women’s religious orders. She said their absence of a habit drew curious looks from others sisters until finally one person said, “Do you know that this is a meeting of nuns?” “Yes, we are nuns, too,” came the reply, and it made for interesting conversation among those present.

Now recognized as “Venerable” by the Vatican, that puts her one step away from beatification.

Caller on the private line

On this day of Cardinal Francis George’s funeral, don’t miss this story about him told (here) by Msgr. James Moroney, now rector of Boston’s St. John’s Seminary:

During the years he served as chairman of the USCCB Committee on the Liturgy I had the privilege of flying to Chicago to meet with him for an hour or so every month to discuss current liturgical questions.  One day, in the course of our meeting his private line rang.  He looked at his watch and excused himself, saying this would probably take a while.  He then greeted someone on the phone, telling his caller how glad he was to hear from her.  The next twenty minutes consisted of questions about how she was doing, quiet listening to her stories and strong interjections reminding her to “take her meds.”

When he returned, Cardinal George explained that his caller was a woman he had met at random after a confirmation years before.  She has been diagnosed as a schizophrenic and had so enjoyed his gentle and patient listening to her that she asked for his private number, which he gave to her, with the agreement that she would call him only once a month on a given day.  And once a month the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago sat there like the good priest he was and listened to her struggles, encouraging and shepherding her in the model of Christ the Priest and Shepherd into whose image he had been molded.

Thanks to Michael Sean Winters for pointing it out.

New in OSV: on Romero, Grande, the man behind the best Romero blog, and more

Just in time for yesterday’s announcement of a date — May 23, 2015 — having been set for the beatification of Oscar Romero, not to mention the upcoming — March 24 — 35th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom and today’s 38th anniversary of the martyrdom of his friend Fr. Rutilio Grande, OSV Newsweekly has published a series of articles I’ve written exploring the whole matter.

Right here you will find my lengthy article, “The Martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero,” that offers an overview of Romero’s life, conversion, ministry, and death. At the same link is a sidebar article, “Who was Rutilio Grande?”, offering a brief portrait of the man without whom there would likely be no Blessed Oscar. Also at that same link, toward the bottom of the page, are a couple of other shorter articles, one on the factors that have made the Romero beatification such a controversial question, the other on the disturbing but important social and political context in which Romero worked and was killed.

Finally, there’s still another new article here — an interview with Carlos Colorado, the man behind the previously obscure blog that has been getting a lot of attention lately: Super Martyrio, on all things Romero.

All together, perhaps a good way to prepare for the upcoming beatification. Check ’em out!

Sisters in America: Thank you!

This morning brought the release of a long-awaited “Final Report” of a historic Vatican investigation of every community of Catholic sisters in the United States. That investigation — as John Allen, Jr. points out in this helpful article — began in 2008 with criticism by Vatican officials of American nuns having a “secular mentality.”

Today, we read in the report that “Since the early days of the Catholic Church [in the United States], women religious have courageously been in the forefront … selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals.” We also read of “the profound gratitude of the Apostolic See and the Church in the United States for the dedicated and selfless service of women religious in all the essential areas of the life of the Church and society.”

Amen to that.

A few months ago, Sr. Mary Ann Walsh (a long-time communications director for the U.S. bishops’ conference) suggested that the most appropriate feedback that the Vatican could probably offer to the American women religious is simply to say “Thank you.” It seems that the Vatican has decided that was good advice. That’s what I call good discernment.

Anyway, when I read those passages from the report I quoted above, they brought to mind a little essay that I had published here on this blog over two years ago. On the occasion of the anniversary of the arrival in 1727 of the first religious sisters, a group of Ursuline nuns, on American shores, I took the Ursulines’ presence here as emblematic of a much broader history. I figured that today might be a good occasion to point it out here again. Here ’tis.


“Sisters in America”

Here’s an anniversary that generally passes unnoticed, though perhaps recent ecclesial developments demand that attention, this year, be paid. On August 6, 1727, a ship named La Gironde docked at New Orleans. Among the passengers who disembarked, after a difficult six-month journey from France, was a group of twelve Ursuline sisters: the very first Catholic religious sisters in “the New World.”

Be careful of the New Orleans you imagine. The village had been founded less than a decade earlier and was described by a visitor in 1721 as a collection of a hundred wretched hovels amidst a swampy land infested by alligators and snakes. Before the year was out, the sisters had founded a rudimentary school for girls. It would become Ursuline Academy, which is today the oldest continuously-operating school for girls and the oldest Catholic school in the United States. Before long, the sisters also established an orphanage and began holding classes for African slave and Native American girls. One of the original group, Sister Francis Xavier Hebert, became the first woman pharmacist on these shores.

Of course, the Ursulines would be joined in ministry by many other women of many other religious communities. The Ursulines are by no means the most numerous nor the most well-known of them. But their history and their work serves as a window into the American experience and as an indication of the place that women religious have held in American life and culture.

One of the most notorious expressions of the anti-Catholic nativism that held a grip on American society in the early nineteenth century has the Ursulines at center stage. On August 11, 1834, a crowd of angry citizens attacked the Ursuline convent in Charleston, Massachusetts, then a working class town across the harbor from Boston. Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe) had recently passed through the area offering a series of fiery speeches about a papal plot to take control of America. As the sisters fled into the night, the mob set fire to the convent and cheered as it burned to the ground.

(The incident also, it might be noted, offers a picture of the tough and feisty side of many American sisters that many Catholics even today will recognize. An eyewitness account of the evening’s events reports that as the threatening crowds gathered around the convent, the mother superior appeared at one of the windows and warned, “The bishop has twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command, and you may read your riot act till your throats are sore, but you’ll not quell them!”)

In the 1880’s Ursuline sisters joined Jesuit priests in Montana, in the Rocky Mountain Missions. Sometimes with the help of funding from Saint Katherine Drexel and her sister Elizabeth, they established churches and schools, many still in operation today, to reach and serve the native American population.

In 1980, Ursuline sister Dorothy Kazel was one of four American women raped and murdered in El Salvador by members of a military bent on extinguishing the work of the Church there. Dorothy had worked for six years in the country, teaching, catechizing, and doing ordinary parish work. When that nation’s civil war began in 1977, she offered support and comfort to war refugees and widows and mothers who had lost sons. To a family member who urged her to consider returning to the United States, she wrote, “I could not leave Salvador, especially now … I am committed to the persecuted Church here.”

Of course, throughout the nearly three centuries since those twelve sisters stepped off La Gironde, thousands of other Ursulines have engaged in ministries, mostly educational, that rarely gets recounted but has contributed richly to the Church and to society in America. Catholic Charities USA recognized it earlier this year by presenting the prioress of the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans, Sister Carla Dolce, OSU, with a Centennial Medal, recognizing her community’s important contributions to the reduction of poverty in the United States.

I saw it myself during two years living in Mingo County, West Virginia, the heart of Appalachian poverty, in the lives and ministries of Ursuline sisters Brendan Conlon and Janet Peterworth. They founded and directed two nonprofit agencies that have served, educated, and empowered residents there for nearly twenty years. The two women, now retired, reminded their staffs almost daily that the reason for the work they did was to serve Christ present in the poor, as he himself insisted we do.

Today the Ursulines in America struggle with dwindling numbers, dwindling income, and an aging community. In this way, too, they represent so many other American religious communities.

Though it’s unfortunate that the August 6 anniversary will pass unnoticed by most Americans, it’s not surprising. The work of religious sisters in America has been underappreciated and largely overlooked for nearly three centuries, even within the Church. The anniversary provides an apt moment to offer them—and the Lord—a big thank you.