If it doesn’t offend my friends in Philadelphia — or Rocky — I want to propose that their new patron saint be a Jersey Girl.
Next year, the City of Brotherly Love will be the scene of Pope Francis’s first trip to the United States ever. Papal visits tend to be a big deal, and this one will be an especially big international event for Philly, which is hosting the World Meeting on Families.
I have a particular Jersey Girl in mind, one who lived in the early part of the last century, because she is America’s own Teresa. We all know Mother Teresa, of course, and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, a Carmelite who lived in the 19th century and is considered a “Doctor of the Church” by Catholics; she is well known for her “Little Way” to holiness. The less-known Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich was born in Bayonne, N.J., in 1901. She early felt a call to serve God as a religious sister but took time first to care for her ailing parents. She taught Latin and English in Jersey City and eventually joined the Sisters of Charity, only to die at 26 from complications of having her tonsils removed. Her short life, which included penning a book under the most humble of circumstances, is an example of living in joy — whatever challenges and detours life puts in your way — growing in service, and putting love first.
Putting love first — love focused like a laser on God — has been in the news, as it happens. I have religious sisters on my mind because of a report that came out of the Vatican recently, a snapshot of the life of religious sisters in the United States.
The pre-Christmas headlines about it declared that an “olive branch” had been extended from the Vatican to American nuns. The “Vatican’s war on women” had finally ended, others declared. (One reporter even asked about the “male-dominated” church during the press conference in Rome surrounding the report’s release.)
Women religious who were present weren’t so keen on the headlines. Sister Sharon Holland, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, tells me she worries that the “olive branch” talk overlooks the importance of the report, “the fruit of enormous work.” She worries that it’s a bit dismissive and certainly misleading. “Terms like olive branch and truce are from a context of war. We are engaged in a process of growing ecclesial communion.”
“The Catholic Church is singular in its defense of the true nature of woman, and has among her ranks some of the most celebrated women in history,” said Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, a former Columbia University professor who chairs the other main organizing group of Catholic sisters in the U.S., the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
At the press conference, Sister Sharon and Mother Agnes joined Mother Mary Clare Millea, the woman who was at the helm of the Apostolic Visitation that conducted the assessment of an estimated 50,000 women religious that was the subject of the Vatican report. The press’s caricatures missed the power of the panel, who did most of the talking at the Vatican meeting. They radiated a realistic joy, and revealed themselves as diverse and yet as having in common love of God and radical devotion to Him and His people.
The solicitude on display was striking. During these “challenging times,” as the report put it, Rome sought the insight of sisters throughout the United States. “The Holy See continues to explore ways to more readily receive the contributions of women in the life of the Church,” Mother Agnes tells me.
When Pope Francis comes to America in September, the topic will be the family, and Mother Agnes and many sisters will be on hand. If that might seem contradictory or at odds, since these sisters by definition are not married and are not raising families of their own, consider this: As meetings about the family are held both in Philadelphia and in Rome this fall, and as we move toward the U.S. presidential-primary season, during which serious public-policy questions about the family will be raised, these women are a grace for us.
All too often, we have implausibly high expectations for politicians, institutions, and even individuals in our lives. Even the finest medical doctor can’t cure our every physical and mental ailment, never mind heal every wound and solve other puzzles. But the witness of people who give of themselves in the most radical ways out of love for our Creator, in gratitude and awe, can give us hope and get us moving. The mere presence of a peaceful sister on a New York City subway car can be an open window to the heart of God.
Which brings us back to our Jersey gal. This past fall, as she hit a milestone on the road to recognition as a saint, her life was celebrated in the majestic Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. The cathedral could not contain the exhilaration: Someone who walked these streets was a holy woman! She had choices and responsibility and love, and she made contributions that she may never have realized. Pray that we may do the same.
As all kinds of religious and political groups consider what families need, the generosity of those who sacrifice in joy and exist to love and support and intercede for the suffering and the struggling is our great treasure, celebrated by that report from Rome. Religious sisters have been a crucial part of American society, building schools and hospitals. And as American families struggle, remember that these sisters are also mothers, helping every mother and father, every man, woman, and child, in more ways than we will ever know.
Last year ended with the Little Sisters of the Poor making headlines just as the New Year’s Eve ball was about to drop in Times Square. The headlines had to do with their plea to the Supreme Court to protect their religious liberty from the Obamacare mandate. Still in court, they clarify our political issues by simply bearing witness to what religious liberty actually means. As we end this year with scenes of a holy family around our trees, remember that religious sisters transcend our ideologies. They are indefatigable laborers in a vineyard that never ceases to yield fruit.
— 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.