‘Everyone knows my first name.
“When I’m walking down the street, people instantly know my relationship to them. And I know they’re entrusted to me.”
A religious sister — a Catholic nun, as we say informally — was talking with me about her gratitude to be known as just that: a sister, a mother, a sign of God’s radical love for His people.
It’s not every day, perhaps, that you see a nun walking down the street. Though if you had been with me this past Thursday, a week before Thanksgiving, it might have appeared the most natural thing in the world. The scene around me on that frigid evening included Sister Antoniana navigating a cart with a Crock Pot, a laptop, and a large pot of tortellini soup from convent to convent, from event to event, through the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
It doesn’t take long to discover that one will never go hungry traveling with sisters, who, as good sisters and mothers, make sure everyone around them is well nourished, in body and soul. They even stop to talk with people on the street and, if it seems appropriate, offer them something to eat. The sisters seemingly line their habits with granola bars.
Earlier in the day — the same day on which President Barack Obama would speak to the nation about his executive order bypassing Congress on immigration — another sister, known as “Mother,” addressed the issue with a wisdom that underscores what a gift it is that Christ’s Church is understood to be our mother. That same week, Pope Francis announced that he will be visiting Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families next September. With grace and tenderness, she welcomed the news of the first pope from the Americas visiting the U.S. as a unifying opportunity. American culture runs deeper and longer than the establishment of a democratic republic here; it precedes the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Surely we are reminded of this on Thanksgiving. The mix of cultures into one American culture enhances and enriches. How do we do that today? By acknowledging failures while strengthening the bonds within communities to present a renewed culture respecting freedom and national sovereignty, humanity, and law? Maybe here a holy father might help.
Spending a day with these radiant women is a crash course in both the great contributions women uniquely make to the world and the beauty of self-sacrifice. As the sisters will tell you, this radical life they’ve found themselves living, with their freedom surrendered completely to prayerful service of God and His Creation, is meant to be a window into the peace and joy of Heaven, a reflection of the glory of a Creator who would give humanity His Son to win victory for us over sin.
As we turn toward Christmas in the coming weeks — the stores have their Christmas displays up already — this, of course, is what we celebrate: a Divine gift of mercy to humanity. That, too, is what the United States is preparing for.
The papal visit — organized around the theme of family life — gently underscores a point that we don’t often talk about but which is a jarring reality of our day: Outside of the utter commercialization, what are the predominant, iconic images of Christmas? The Nativity. Mother and child. A holy family. As Mary Eberstadt asks in How the West Really Lost God, what ever do these images mean, really, to a culture that increasingly is not seeing children in the context of a mother and a father committed to each other in marriage? What does God the Father even mean to someone who grew up without knowing his own father?
As nuns flew into New York in preparation for the big year ahead, an ecumenical gathering in Rome was wrapping up; it had been discussing the complementarity of men and women. It might seem quaint at a time of transgender bathroom controversies, but it’s also essential to ask who we are and why we are. The questions of our lives, in these “spiritual not religious” times, make self-help books a business, motivational seminars a budget line, and crystals and soothing aromatherapy candle big sellers. And yet something much more basic than any newfangled recipe has been found tried and true for centuries.
At the Humanum seminar at the Vatican, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talked about it as “the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization: the idea of the love that brings new life into the world.” He went on to emphasize that “our compassion for those who choose to live differently should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanizing institution in history.” The family as we’ve known it — man, woman, child — “is not one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love.”
The family, he said, “is where we learn the delicate choreography of relationship and how to handle the inevitable conflicts within any human group.” “It is where we first take the risk of giving and receiving love,” he continued. “It is where one generation passes on its values to the next, ensuring the continuity of a civilization. For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children’s future, we must be its defenders.”
A rabbi and a nun reminded us of who we are and what we need? It’s not a joke but a reason to give thanks.
Perhaps it takes a sister, a spiritual mother, who lives differently, to remind us — even on the streets of New York — of its importance, as she sacrifices her own chance at just that life which is so essential to our society, in order to support, in prayer and service, the lives of so many who are trying to serve God, to serve their families, to serve others.
“Service” could be Sister’s first name. When asked if she’s waiting for some “real” power in the Church — echoing a conventional view — she seems a bit perplexed. It never occurred to her to be or have anything other than what she is and has. (And the headaches of a cardinal’s administrative responsibilities are clearly not enviable in her mind.) “To serve is to reign,” after all, she says, citing John Paul II.
Our humble sister, with knowledge of the most powerful love of all, reminds us of the love that binds us and frees us from slavery to earthly and material power. It’s not on sale on Black Friday, but it is written on our hearts and perhaps on a banner right above a holiday meal table. And we can see it walking down the block looking for a bite to eat or a safe haven — a room at an inn, if you will.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.