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The Heroic Nuns the NYTimes Failed to Mention

Heroic Sisters Jeffrey Bruno

Jeffrey Bruno

Tom Hoopes - published on 08/22/14

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When Nicholas Kristof praised religious sisters recently, he missed a whole category of great nuns – those whose fidelity to the Church is a part of their witness of strength to the world.

Don’t get me wrong. It is a good thing when a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist praises nuns. Kristof has done that good thing several times now, this time in a column called “Sister Acts,” about author Jo Piazza’s new book If Nuns Ruled the World.

Piazza is a perfect fit for Kristof. “I may not believe in God,” the author says, “but I do believe in nuns.” She loves women of God but not God; Kristof loves servants of the Church but not the Church.

When Kristof writes on Catholic matters, he does so to build his thesis that there are two Catholic churches. One is the “rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy” that (in “A Church Mary Can Love”) he calls “obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice.”

The other is the one “I admire intensely,” he says. “This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for” serving the needy and educating the poor. (Ironically, as examples of this “grassroots” church he cites two groups headed by the hierarchy: the U.S. Catholic Relief Services and the Vatican Caritas.)

“Jesus himself focused on the needy rather than dogma,” he proclaims, forgetting for the moment the Sermon on the Mount – and the Eucharistic Discourse and the Last Supper Discourse and the Great Commission and the Keys to the Kingdom, and “not a jot nor a tittle,” and so much more.

In “Sister Acts” he praises religious sisters by name. The women he praises are fine women indeed – each of them better Christians, I’m sure, than me, for instance. But Kristof wants to use their lives to serve his “two churches” meta-narrative, and so focuses on a nun in tension with “conservatives,” one who has been silenced by the Church, and one who has left the Church altogether.

The implication: To be truly strong women, religious sisters must stand up to the man, and the man has a pointy hat.

I thought it would be instructive to answer his “two churches” stories with counter-examples from the one Church –strong women who accept all of Jesus’ teachings, including his counsel to “listen to the Church” (Matthew 18:17).

Sister Roseann Reddy, for example. She founded the first new order in Scotland in 150 years to help make good the promise of the late Cardinal Thomas Winning that any woman facing a crisis pregnancy, or suffering after abortion, could come to the Catholic Church for help.

Founding such an order takes uncommon strength. It also takes uncommon strength to buck popular opinion.

“If you are a member of the Catholic Church we are not a democracy and we have never claimed to be a democracy,” she is reported saying. “Something like women priests will never change because of the nature of the Catholic priesthood, which is that Christ was a man. We believe that when the priest is officiating at the sacraments he becomes in the person of Christ.”

Everyone is your friend when you accept the truth as popular culture sees it. Accept the truth as God sees it and you lose friends, fast.

Olalla Oliveros knows that. She is another strong woman who gave her life to God.

She was a successful model in Spain, but found herself increasingly unhappy with the world’s adulation of skin-deep beauty. Then, at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima in Portugal, she felt an “internal earthquake” in her.

Earlier this year, she went from the catwalk to the cloister, and she’s not the first. In 2005, Sister Amada Rosa Pérez was a top Colombian model who joined religious life. “I want to be a model that promotes the true dignity of women and not their being used for commercial purposes,” she is quoted saying.

It takes courage to push against the media on behalf of the Church. But it also takes courage to bring the Church to popular culture.

That is what 25-year-old Ursuline Sister Cristina Scuccia did. First, she won the 2014 Italian edition of the singing contest “The Voice.” Then, she did the unthinkable. “I want Jesus to enter into here,” she told the audience and led the crowds in a televised Our Father.

Or perhaps Kristof could have written about Sister Antonia Brenner, who died last year at 86.

Married twice and divorced twice, she had seven children before she became a religious sister who literally lived with the residents of a notorious Tijuana prison.

“I’m effective in riots because I’m not afraid. I just pray and walk into it,” she told the Associated Press in 2006. “A woman in a white veil walks in, someone they know loves them. So silence comes, explanation comes and arms go down.”

She could easily have been a victim of the “two churches” mentality. For years after her divorce, she was unable to receive holy Communion. That didn’t stop her from eventually founding a new order, following the spirituality of St. John Eudes, in service to the poor.

Or Kristof could have spotlighted a modern martyr like Sister Valsa John of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. The 53-year old was hacked to death two years ago serving the tribal people of Jharkhand in eastern India.

Sister Valsa had spent 24 years volunteering for the most challenging work in her order. As concerns for her safety
escalated in recent years, Sister Valsa refused to change jobs.

“She was determined to stay on with her people,” said Sister Mary Scaria, of the Indian Bishops’ Conference. “Sister Valsa was no ordinary nun. We have lost a courageous and determined sister who stood up for the poor.”

It has been true throughout time. From St. Catherine of Alexandria to St. Catherine of Siena, from St. Teresa of Avila to Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, strong women have served both God and his Church.

As Pope Francis put it: “We can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ.”

There is no reason to treat women faithful to the magisterium as second-class citizens. They love the poor and they love the Church. Kristof is right: We should all emulate these remarkable women of God.

Tom Hoopesis writer in residence at Benedictine College.

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