Culture

The Pope and Handmade Soap: One Nun’s Perspective on the Papal Visit

Sisters pose with their gift of soaps for Pope Francis. (Image: SummitDominicans.org)

All encounters with Sister Judith Miryam are memorable. My first started out with her declaring, “Well, there go my hopes of being the first saint from Bayonne, N.J.!”

The occasion was the first beatification — when the Church celebrates a “blessed” life, a step on the road to sainthood — of an American on U.S. soil. Sr. Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, a Sister of Charity, was the blessed. She was born and raised in New Jersey, as was Sr. Judith Miryam (Boneski) of the Trinity, O.P.

Sr. Judith Miryam is a cloistered nun with the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, N.J. She’ll be praying Vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday night with Pope Francis. She talks about the pope’s visit for the World Meeting of Families and our prospects for sainthood this week. 

 

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What are your thoughts as the United States prepares to welcome Pope Francis?

Sr. Judith Miryam (Boneski) of the Trinity, O.P.: I see this visit as a great opportunity for our country and our Church to show their love and warmth for our Holy Father. My great hope is that we as a nation may experience a conversion of heart. Our country is in such need of a real turning to mercy as we near the Jubilee Year of Mercy. What does that mean? Respect for life in all its stages, immigration reform, an end to racial hatred, religious liberty, and economic justice: all demand our attention and action.

 

Lopez: Why is the pope’s coming here important to the Church here?

Sr. Judith Miryam: It is important because the Church is a major force for good in this country, not only through its many ministries to the poor and marginalized, and through its health-care and educational institutions, but also by its consistent and vocal witness to the dignity of the human person. The visit of Pope Francis has the potential to be a wonderful witness to the vibrancy of the Church in our country, to turn many to the Church and back to the Church.

The visit of Pope Francis has the potential to be a wonderful witness to the vibrancy of the Church in our country, to turn many to the Church and back to the Church.

And, Philadelphia’s hosting of the World Meeting of Families is a vital opportunity for catechesis on the family at a time when it is really besieged by hostile forces in our society, whether they are ideological or economic.

 

LopezA radio interviewer recently asked what I thought of micro-brewery beer in honor of Pope Francis. What do you think of cardboard cutouts and selfies with the pope?

Sr. Judith Miryam: I love the cardboard cutouts and selfies with the pope! As a nun of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans), I’m very aware of the importance of preaching. Today that preaching means meeting people where they are at, within the Church and without, at the margins. Those margins may even include a hipster bar in Brooklyn serving a bottle of pope-themed beer! We need to engage people, especially the young, and present the Gospel in new ways. Though there may be more than an element of commercialism and irreverence behind some of the pope swag, the astounding fact that the Successor of St. Peter is garnering so much attention should be cause for great thanks, for, in all of this, Jesus Christ is being proclaimed through the person of the pope. So, I was thrilled when Pope Francis was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and chosen as Time’s Man of the Year. And, I was even more thrilled over the media coverage of his encyclicals. Does anyone know how incredible and unprecedented that is?

 

Lopez: A lot of people are excited by Pope Francis because they think he is changing the Church. Does that worry you?

Sr. Judith Miryam: No, it doesn’t worry me at all, for I believe that the Holy Spirit is always at work, that at this pivotal moment in time when the Church is in need of reform and renewal, Pope Francis was chosen by God to steer the Bark of Peter. He is daring us, all of us, left and right and those in the middle, to be true disciples of Christ. This pope goes into the crevices of our comfort zone, to pry them open, demanding us to be authentic, often in blunt homespun language. “The shepherd should smell like the sheep!” “The churches, the parishes, the institutions with closed doors should not be called churches; they should be called museums!” My ultimate favorite line is when he reminded religious sisters that their chastity was to be fruitful: “The consecrated are mothers, not old maids!” Amen!

 

Lopez: A lot of people are frustrated with Pope Francis because they think he is guilty of “fact-free flamboyance,” as one commentator has put it. Does that worry you?

Sr. Judith Miryam: We have to admit Pope Francis has a real talent for hitting all our buttons! The temptation for all of us is to make the pope in our own image and likeness. We accept what we agree with, and ignore or censure the things we don’t. The particular temptation with Pope Francis is to dismiss him as an intellectual lightweight who doesn’t know what he is talking or writing about. Let the pope talk about religion (that’s his thing), but he has no business to talk about economic and environmental issues. I think that’s a grave injustice to him and to the Church. We really have to take the time to learn from Pope Francis, to seriously read his words and not just accounts of his words.

Perhaps part of so much of the frustration with Francis is an issue of inculturation. He is the first pope from the New World, an expressive South American with a much different personality, perspective, and communication style from that of his predecessors. At the expense of sounding trite, we have to see where he is coming from.

 

Lopez: Who is Pope Francis, as best you can tell?

Sr. Judith Miryam: Two aspects come immediately to mind. Pope Francis is a man touched by the mercy of God, who has responded to God’s call to shepherd the Church with faith and humility. I consider him, to use my Dominican sister St. Catherine of Siena’s affectionate title for the pope, “The Sweet Christ on Earth.” And, he is a devoted son of “La Madonna.” To see the visible affection he has for Our Lady whenever he prays before her image always gives me the goose bumps.

I have felt a special connection with him from the beginning of his pontificate. To explain, during the conclave, I had a very animated discussion at our dentist’s office over the papabile with one of the assistants, Irene (who is from Argentina). In her lilting accent, she loudly declared her favorite candidates to be Cardinal O’Malley and Cardinal Dolan. I shook my head and told her that we would never see an American pope in our lifetimes, adding that I was simply praying for a pope outside of Europe. Then, for some reason, I said, “Irene, who knows? Maybe we’ll have a pope from Argentina?” She looked at me in disbelief, “Argentina? Never, Sister! Never a pope from Argentina!” When I returned the following week, after the election of Pope Francis, Irene greeted me with a joyful tearful hug, “Sister, you are a prophet!”

 

Lopez: What will you be watching for this week?

Sr. Judith Miryam: As I mentioned earlier, our country and Church are faced with a lot of issues, which are all, deep down inside, moral and mercy issues. The headline stories of the Supreme Court’s tragic error to recognize same-sex marriage followed by the shocking videos of the atrocities inflicted upon the unborn by Planned Parenthood have certainly not escaped Pope Francis’s notice. How will he address them? How will he reach a president who promotes the culture of death? I don’t think I’m the only one who is eager to hear what he has to say to our U.S. Congress. My suspicion and my hope are that Pope Francis’s address to Congress will be one of his most powerful and hard-hitting speeches.

 

Lopez: How does a cloistered nun get out for Vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral?

Sr. Judith MIRYAM: Good question! With the permission of the prioress, of course! We were blessed to attend Vespers with Pope St. John Paul II at Sacred Heart Cathedral in 1995. And, in 2008, we went to Pope Benedict XVI’s Mass at Yankee Stadium. This time around, with Pope Francis’s visit, we tried to get tickets to one of the papal events in NYC, without success.

However, our nuns at Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx offered us an extra ticket to the Vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and I was chosen to represent our community. What an honor! So, I’ll be accompanying the three sisters. I was a frequent visitor at St. Pat’s when I worked in the city, so to see the cathedral again, in all its post-renovated glory, will be a very special moment for me. And then, just being back in the Big Apple is such a blessing! At the risk of sounding like a commercial, I love New York!

A dear friend of the monastery offered us a ticket to the Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden, so our Sr. Mary Catharine will be attending that. We Summit Nuns are really blessed to be at two papal events!

 

Lopez: How does a gal from Bayonne wind up a cloistered nun?

Sr. Judith: Good question! Indeed, to paraphrase Nathaniel, “Can anything good ever come out of Bayonne?” Well, I am proud to proclaim that my hometown has produced not only Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich but also many priests and religious. I attribute my own initial attraction to religious life to the good example of the Felician Sisters who taught me at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. That early attraction (I expressed the desire to be “a sister superior” when I was in kindergarten!) became more refined as it developed and grew. At 14, prompted by my reading of St. Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul, I sent out letters of inquiry to various contemplative communities. The most positive response came from the novice mistress here at the monastery. That began an eleven-year correspondence with the sister, who patiently answered my endless questions, shared news about the monastery, and recommended books. Sister even sent me a breviary! The vocation ebbed and flowed through those years, but the desire to consecrate myself to the Lord remained constant, all through Catholic high school and college (Caldwell University, a Dominican college), and the beginning of a career in college textbook publishing at McGraw-Hill Inc. in NYC. I finally visited the monastery in 1990 and entered two years later. One of the sisters calls me a “delayed vocation”! I had to be sure, very sure, before I dropped those nets! The Lord was very patient with me!

Lopez: Was there a favorite saint who helped you get where you are today? Is there one you count on most days?

Sr. Judith Miryam: Without doubt, St. Therese of Lisieux is the saint who brought me to the cloister through her autobiography. Reading her description of her contemplative vocation as “being love in the heart of the Church” cinched it for me. As a contemplative nun, my outreach would be unlimited; the entire world could be in my embrace of prayer!

As for a saint I count on most days, I would have to say that I call very often upon our Holy Father St. Dominic. We nuns were his first daughters, and he cared for us with a tender solicitude while on earth, and he continues that even more powerfully now.

 

Lopez: What’s life like inside the Summit cloister?

Sr. Judith Miryam: To quote one of our sisters, life inside the monastery is like “having one foot in eternity and the other on a banana peel.” I’ve been here for over 20 years and can attest that there is no monotony in the monastery. That may sound ironic when you consider how structured our daily schedule (horarium) of prayer and work is, but it’s true. I am the monastery infirmarian (overseeing the health-care needs of our sisters) and also our kitchen supervisor, a combination of jobs that guarantees excitement. So, the day may bring anything, from an ambulance ride with a sister to the ER, a large donation of food, a defrosted freezer, an unexpected parlor visit, or a splinter removal. As for the “foot in eternity” moments, those don’t just happen during our liturgical celebrations in choir, at our chanting of the Psalms, attending Holy Mass, praying the Rosary before the Blessed Sacrament, but throughout the day. It may happen when a Scripture passage suddenly strikes you in the heart, or when a sister sacrifices her time for you, or when you behold a splendid sunset from the cloister. One of the perks of being a contemplative nun is that you develop such a heightened awareness of those glimpses of eternity.

 

Lopez: Your convent has recently gotten a little press attention — including in the New York Times — what has that meant?

Sr. Judith Miryam: On a practical level, that has meant lots of soap and candle orders! On a spiritual level, it has meant touching the lives of so many people. Several have e-mailed, phoned, or written about how the article has affected them, expressing gratitude for our vocation. Many have asked for prayers and have sent donations. So, they are keeping us prayer warriors very busy! The article was very well done and received a lot of positive coverage in the media. Truly, that articles like this do serve as a form of evangelization is what we are most grateful for.

 

Lopez: And, one or more of you made soap for the pope? What’s the story there?

Sr. Judith Miryam: As a result of the New York Times article, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia sent us a letter requesting that we provide a selection of our monastery’s Seignadou Soap for the Holy Father’s guest room. We promptly got together a basket of three soaps (and included a bottle of room spray, lotion, a rosary, and a handcrafted wood pen) and sent them to the archbishop along with a card (featuring our community photo) signed by all of us.

Who would have thought when we first started our handcrafted soap business that some day the pope himself would be using our soap?

Who would have thought when we first started our handcrafted soap business that some day the pope himself would be using our soap?

 

Lopez: From your contemplative spot, what would you advise people watch for when the pope is in the U.S.?

Sr. Judith Miryam: Watch Pope Francis! Pay attention! To his words, his actions, his gestures! Listen to him with open hearts! Be thankful! And, remember that he always asks you to pray for him!

 

Lopez: What are your prayers for his visit? For after his visit? 

Sr. Judith Miryam: I pray for his safety, for his strength, for him to be attentive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I pray for all who hear him and encounter him, that their hearts may receive his message. I am sure Pope Francis will exhort us and scold us, and give us our marching orders, so let’s get busy!

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice

 

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