Don’t tell Mary Anne Marks the Catholic Church is an oppressive, misogynistic disaster. She knows better. And she’s got a Harvard degree, too.
Miss Marks, a native of Queens, N.Y., graduated from Harvard University this past semester with an undergraduate degree in classics and English, delivering her commencement address in Latin. This fall, she begins a new life, discerning her future consecrated to Christ as a Catholic religious sister with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich. She and I are alumnae of the same high school, Dominican Academy, in Manhattan. Before heading to Ann Arbor, she talked with me a bit about how she got to this point.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You are a Harvard graduate. Aren’t you surrendering all the possibilities that entails by entering a convent?
MARY ANNE MARKS: Yes, if one doesn’t see becoming a well-educated, intellectually alive nun as one of the possibilities.
LOPEZ: I don’t know about you, but I read the New York Times. A number of the op-ed columnists there, and a number of the news stories, tell me that the Catholic Church is anti-woman. And from other stories, about the various scandals, the Catholic Church also sounds like a dying, loser organization of sinners. Why would you choose to represent it in such a public, hard-to-miss way — in a religious habit?
MARKS: I feel privileged to represent the Catholic Church in a visible way, because it is an organization of sinners and sinners-turned-saints, emphatically alive, expanding, and responsive to the needs of the time, an organization that has been enormously effective in promoting the spiritual and material well-being of women and men throughout the 2,000 years of its existence.
From its earliest years, the Church’s doctrine of the equality of all humans as beloved children of God and its reverence for Mary as the spouse and mother of God elevated women to a status previously unheard of. In our own times, the Church’s unequivocal opposition to practices such as abortion and contraception, which harm women physically and psychologically, and threaten to render them victims of their own and others’ unchecked desires, makes the Church a lone voice above the chaos, promoting women’s dignity and happiness.
The cry that the Church is a “dying, loser organization of sinners” echoes down the centuries; it rang out in Christ’s day, it rang out in Luther’s day, and it rings out in ours. The second part always has and always will be too true. Kyrie eleison. The erroneousness of first part is suggested by the Church’s record of accomplishments and its longevity to this point, and by the new growth that people of my generation rejoice to see.
LOPEZ: Your call was not a sudden one. You explained to a Harvard publication that you’ve “always thought about being a nun.” You grew up in Queens at the turn of the 21st century. How would you ever think of such a thing?
MARKS: Religious life is an institution thriving in our time and in our nation; go figure.
LOPEZ: Did you ever worry that it was a weird impulse?
LOPEZ: Is the countercultural nature of your call important? Especially now, in this culture, in your generation?
MARKS: Absolutely. Religious are called to witness by their life and garb to supernatural realities: God’s existence, His immeasurable love for each person, and the fact that our duty and happiness lie in returning His love. This witness becomes increasingly important as a culture’s materialism and corresponding distaste for the supernatural increase.
LOPEZ: Have you known religious sisters in your life?
MARKS: Yes. When I was young, my family often visited the Daughters of St. Paul bookstore in Manhattan, and I attended a retreat at their convent in Boston after freshman year of high school. Around 2000, I encountered my own, then very young, Dominican community and got to know the vocations director. In eighth grade, I switched from a private to a parochial school and met some of the Sisters of Charity, who had formerly run and were still somewhat involved with it. One of the sisters and I continue to keep up a strong friendship formed that year. Through her, I met several members of the relatively new order Familia Spiritualis Opus. The Dominicans of St. Mary of the Springs ran my high school, and the Sisters of Mercy administer a nursing home where I volunteered during the summers. In high school, I also visited the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, whom I had heard about at my parish. During college, I met the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at a pro-life event and visited their convent, and one of my close friends joined the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich.
LOPEZ: Was there anything at Dominican Academy that especially helped your spiritual growth and discernment?
MARKS: My English teacher, Mrs. Gunset, and her daily example of faith, joy, and charity inspired and encouraged me. The presence of Christ in the tabernacle under the same roof was also a tremendous privilege and source of strength; I think it was in high school that I became attuned to the desire, in moments of joy and grief, to run to our Eucharistic Lord. In college, I missed having Him there all the time and, like other students, would be frustrated to find the local church often closed. One of the beauties of convent life is Christ’s constant physical presence.
It is a tragic irony that Dominican Academy also helped my spiritual growth by laying before me in religion classes from the lips of my own teachers many classic arguments for relativism and Biblical fallibility. When I encountered these same ideas in college, I was prepared, because I had worked through counterarguments with my parents at home in high school.
LOPEZ: Is there something important to young women about all-girls schools? Did you ever think you were missing out on something?
MARKS: It has been documented that graduates of all-girls schools display greater self-confidence, engagement with current events, and academic commitment. I was always grateful for the unique camaraderie and businesslike attention to learning that characterized my experiences in all-girls schools.
LOPEZ: Did you always know you were headed to Harvard?
MARKS: Not at all. I only had the faintest hope of getting in and still can’t believe it happened.
LOPEZ: I don’t know Harvard to be a great incubator or beacon of religious vocations. Am I wrong?
MARKS: Yes, Deo gratias! A couple of years ago, a young man who finished Harvard in three years entered the seminary in St. Louis. A little further back, a young woman who attended Harvard and lived in the same women’s residence that I did joined the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. One of my friends, whom I met while she was pursuing a degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, joined the Religious Sisters of Mercy two years ago. This July 25, two young men from Harvard joined the Eastern Province of the Dominicans.
LOPEZ: Were you able — even encouraged, by elements on campus — to pursue a spiritual life as much as an intellectual one?
MARKS: The pace of life at Harvard is fast. Tackling challenging course work and myriad extracurricular activities, and surrounded by others doing the same, even those students who desire a spiritual life are often impeded from developing one. Only the grace of a religious vocation gave me the insight and willpower to carve out a part of each day for prayer. That said, those seeking spiritual resources at Harvard will not find them lacking. A strong Knights of Columbus group complements the very active Catholic Student Association, two parish churches are within walking distance of campus, and the men’s and women’s Opus Dei houses nearby are sources of superb spiritual direction and enriching weekly and monthly events.
LOPEZ: You’re from New York. Why are you going to Ann Arbor?
MARKS: The Ann Arbor Dominicans are on fire to spread the witness of faithful religious life throughout the country and to revitalize the Church in America from the ground up, through classroom teaching, retreats, catechesis on EWTN, and whatever other means of preaching the Lord provides. They combine love for the monastic traditions of the Dominican order passed down since the thirteenth century with a zeal for Pope John Paul II’s new evangelization and for the challenges of today. Their particular devotion to Mary and to Christ’s Eucharistic presence is evident in the community’s name — Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist — and finds concrete expression in each sister’s consecration to Mary according to the formula of St. Louis de Montfort and in the daily period of communal Eucharistic adoration written into the constitutions. The community also emphasizes support of priests through prayer, word, and action.
LOPEZ: The Dominicans’ love of learning and teaching attracted you. Where and when did you come to love these things?
MARKS: Before the age of three. I used to observe the yellow buses lined up next to the local public school and ask my father wistfully, “Daddy, when can I go to school?” The moment I set foot in preschool was the beginning of an ongoing love affair. The first and last school day I missed was in fourth grade, when a doctor forbade me to infect my classmates with strep throat. They thought I had died when I didn’t show up that morning. My relish of learning only grew stronger in college, in those thrilling moments as a professor unfolded a new way of looking at the world, in those wrenching moments as I sat in the library walled in by piles of books hammering out an argument. The love of teaching grew up simultaneously as I encountered brilliant, enthusiastic, and imaginative teachers from my earliest years and enjoyed volunteering as a tutor.
LOPEZ: Why do you want to teach? Is that more a desire or a call?
MARKS: For me, the attraction to teaching is both a desire and a call. Some sisters in my community never wanted to teach but still knew that God was calling them to the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist; for them, the community’s educational apostolate is an element of their vocation that requires trust and surrender. In my case, I have always been exhilarated by the idea of being able to give children the solid grounding in their faith that I never received in school. Truth has always been extremely important to me, and I am thrilled that God can use me to transmit it — Him!
LOPEZ: My Latin isn’t what it was in high school, so I read your commencement address in English. What did I miss? What is it that’s so special about Latin?
MARKS: As in any language, there are untranslatable elements: nuances of meaning; an extremely satisfying economy of expression; phrases that, through their vocabulary and word order, allude to other works of literature. There is also the mischievous thrill of expressing modern concepts in an ancient language rarely spoken today — “e-mail” as litteris electronicis, for example.
LOPEZ: You told a Harvard publication that “One of the exciting things about being a nun is that one never knows what the future holds!” Did Harvard people think you were nuts when you started saying such things?
MARKS: Not really; it’s a little like saying, “One of the exciting things about joining the Peace Corps is that one doesn’t know where one will be assigned or what life-changing experiences lie in store.”
LOPEZ: When did you start talking to people casually, publicly, about your vocational call?
MARKS: In eighth grade, after I had committed myself entirely to God during a trip to Lourdes the previous summer. Until then, I had lived a double life, drawn on the one hand to immerse myself in the beauty of my faith, on the other to imitate the less than edifying dress, speech, and behavior of my classmates. Kneeling before the tabernacle in the lower church at Lourdes, I was filled with an understanding of God as Love and a yearning to love Him at all times in everything I did, no matter what anyone else thought. Freed from the need to conform to others’ standards and willing to make Love the ruling principle of my life, I could speak unashamedly and sincerely of my desire to become a sister.
LOPEZ: What are some of the most notable or revealing things that adults — maybe especially faculty — have said to you once they became aware of your vocational plans?
MARKS: Two of my professors told me they had siblings who had entered religious life. Another, a kind but thoroughly unsentimental professor who had been very encouraging of my intention to apply to graduate school, ended our discussion of my change of plans by opening her arms and declaring quietly, “I am going to give you a hug, because this is a big decision, and I admire you for it.” When I remarked to yet another professor on the many positive responses from faculty, he replied that he wasn’t surprised that academics could appreciate the appeal of a life of contemplation and of single-minded pursuit of a spiritual goal.
LOPEZ: What did your classmates say? And did their reactions, in one way or another, explain anything to you?
MARKS: Most were happy that I had found a path to which I could unreservedly commit both mind and heart, and they respected my willingness to do so. One classmate, after hearing my vocation story, felt emboldened to tell me about her upcoming marriage, and I had the chance to explain the Church’s teachings on human sexuality. Another conversation turned toward my friend’s a-religious upbringing and her current unbelief. That my plans could open up discussion on such a personal level was beautiful but also startling and slightly disconcerting, and I realized that I was already experiencing one of the great graces and great challenges of the religious life and priesthood: the legitimate expectation of others that those in a habit or collar are equipped and willing to discuss profound or painful subjects . . . anywhere: in the airport as much as in the classroom or the rectory.
LOPEZ: What’s your advice to high-school and college girls who have considered a road similar to yours, but who maybe don’t know where to look or how even to talk about it?
MARKS: Spend a bit of time each day talking to Jesus, before the Blessed Sacrament if you can, or in a quiet place free of distractions. Start with 15 minutes and work up to half an hour. You can’t know what He desires for you if the two of you aren’t good friends. Ask Him and His mother for guidance. And check out some community websites, maybe starting with those listed on the website of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. If a group piques your interest, send the vocations director an e-mail and see what happens! Vocations directors are not recruiters; they are seasoned religious with long experience helping young women to discern God’s will for their lives.
LOPEZ: You wanted to go to graduate school but discerned that God wanted something else. Why would you give up your free will like that?
MARKS: Part of the answer is that when Love asks you to be His spouse, you don’t quibble about the when and where. The other part is that anything worthwhile in life requires an ongoing, freely willed surrender of one’s freedom.
LOPEZ: It’s August. What does your life look like in the coming days, weeks, months, years?
MARKS: Right now, I am savoring my last few weeks with my parents. When not helping them around the house, I’m sewing my postulant outfits for the convent and preparing the rest of the items we are asked to bring with us. I am also working to publish my senior thesis as an article, finishing another article I’m co-authoring with the other two Harvard commencement orators on the oration experience, and planning a trip that the vocations director of my community and I will be making to Boston in October. Yesterday, I visited the Sirius radio studio in Manhattan to be interviewed on Lino Rulli’s The Catholic Guy about my vocation.
On August 27, my parents and I will be starting the drive to Ann Arbor to arrive the following afternoon. In a short and simple ceremony, 21 other young women and I will be accepted into the community as aspirants. During our first year, our daily schedule will include prayer, recreation, classes, study, and free time, and duties around the convent like cleaning, preparing meals, and gardening. We will also go on the occasional field trip and help the sisters with apostolic work like retreats and summer missions. After the first year, we will receive the habit and our religious names, becoming novices for two years until first profession of vows, which we will live for five years until making the lifelong commitment to religious life at final vows. Alongside this eight-year timeline for spiritual formation, there is also professional preparation: After four years of classes in the convent, we will attend a local university to obtain the degrees necessary to teach, and will student-teach in the Detroit public schools. We will then be sent to one of the growing number of schools around the country to which the sisters have been invited.
LOPEZ: Are you happy?
LOPEZ: For all those, younger and older than you, who are in pursuit of happiness or have given up on it: What is it and how do you hold onto it?
MARKS: Happiness is the sense of peace and joy that stems from knowledge of and union with the One Who created us and Who loves us infinitely. We will attain it fully in heaven, but we can achieve it to a significant extent beforehand by battling our desire to remain independent of God, ignoring the voices that label religion boring and unnecessary, and better acquainting ourselves with Truth through study and prayer.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This piece has been amended since posting.