St. Louis, Missouri — “Five hundred virgins? Is that even possible?”
So observed an NFL player at the sight of just that: 500-some nuns in town for a weekend of renewal.
The symposium (sponsored by the Council for Major Superiors of Women Religious) for the Year of Consecrated Life set by Pope Francis “to wake up the world” seemed to be providentially timed. As the sisters gathered on Friday evening for Mass at the Old Cathedral here, built by French immigrants, news streamed into my phone about terrorist attacks in Paris. The faces of joy all around me seemed a world away from the hatred on display in the murder of innocents. But why would the two ever have anything to do with one another? Simply because these women are exactly what the world needs: prophetic witnesses of hope. Countercultural, yes, but also very much a necessary part of our world (just not of that world): infusing the culture with the love of God through their self-sacrifice and service, about as pure a love as you’re going to find this side of Heaven.
As Sister Mary Elizabeth, a Sister of Life and a friend of mine from New York, came over to say hello, I realized I was in the pew closest to a statue of Joan of Arc, the young French saint from the late Middle Ages known for her strength. It was a strength beyond the warrior ways for which we popularly remember her. As Pope Benedict XVI told her story one morning in 2011, she believed she was asked by Jesus to live an intensely Christian life, one “with a new commitment to sacramental life and to prayer: daily participation in Mass, frequent Confession and Communion, and long periods of silent prayer.” She would be wrongly tried by “judges . . . radically incapable of understanding her or of perceiving the beauty of her soul. They did not know they were condemning a saint.”
“The words of Jesus, who said that God’s mysteries are revealed to those who have a child’s heart, while they remain hidden to the learned and the wise who have no humility [cf. Luke 10:21], spring to mind,” Benedict said.
During the St. Louis symposium, there was considerable talk of and meditation on “prophetic witness.” This does not mean there were 500 soothsayers gathered there. There were no crystals here. Rather, there were women displaying a radical commitment to the kind of life proposed in the New Testament. As Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, O.P., a New York native visiting from the Vatican, put it in his opening address to the sisters:
“If you have been raised with Christ,” as Colossians has it, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:1–4). The prophetic witness of the religious life is precisely to communicate in a public and authorized institutional form this seeking of the things that are above that is at the heart of life on high in Christ Jesus and to which all Christians, and indeed all people, are called.
DiNoia is talking about surrendering to God, who, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us in his recent book Not in God’s Name, made all people in his image. As Sacks puts it:
Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way.
Elsewhere in the book he writes:
Freedom involves letting go of hate, because hate is the abdication of freedom. That is what Moses taught those who were about to enter the Promised Land. Don’t hate the people who persecuted you. Instead, learn from that experience how to build a society without persecution.
He says that this is precisely
what the Holocaust survivors taught me: look forward, not back. Build a life, a family, a future, a hope. Hate makes us slaves; therefore let it go. Do not wage war on the children of darkness. Make sure instead that you and your children are sources of light.
#share#And so these 500 women, whose children are the aching and the lonely, the scared and the lost, the hungry and the forgotten, are seen for a rare moment together here in the cathedral, beaming a bright light just yards away from St. Louis’s famous Gateway Arch. In their freedom, they have given their lives to God, taking into their hearts the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience to a Creator who asks us to honor his name “by honoring his image, humankind,” as Sacks puts it. These guideposts (chastity and celibacy, although frequently confused, are not the same thing) could be a source of healing and renewal beyond the 500 and their sisters in religious life.
Looking at the scene, as fans of the World Cup (which was also in town) and American football found themselves surprised by so many habits, of different colors and varieties at that, and on so many young women, I remembered something said half a century ago and repeated just a few years ago in a message from Pope Benedict that was handed to me a few months before he resigned: “Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.”
There’s no war of the sexes vying for power there, but rather a need for the cultivation of a culture that nurtures people like Joan — people who know who they are in the light of faith and love, even in the face of the most cruel injustice. Pure love. Sacrifice. It’s what families are made of. It’s what healthy civilizations are made of. You don’t have to be a believer in order to give.
The world is on alert, overwhelmed and overstimulated. Women of the world unite? There’s hope there for the peace of the world.
— 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 (available from Our Sunday Visitor and Amazon.com). Sign up for her weekly newsletter here. For more on the St. Louis symposium, read here. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.