Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"She Became Their Mother"

Its priests and prelates might tend to dominate the news of the day, but experience shows that the church's most important and lasting story -- the chronicle of its holiness -- usually finds the headlines turned on their head.

Far too often, all the fleeting barrels of ink and reams of copy shed too little light on the reality that, more than any other force within its walls, American Catholicism literally owes its life to the energy, devotion and selfless service -- in other words, the constant "yes" -- of the generations of women religious who've built and sustained the church, not through the flashy ease of brick-laying, but where it counts most: in the unsung search for and care of its living stones.

To this day, the sisters might still outnumber the clergy by almost 2 to 1. But more often than not, the account of their works remains known but to God and the many whose lives they've each touched. What's more, there's arguably no apostolate of the church in this country -- be it chancery or classroom, health care or homeless shelter, parish or prison -- that wouldn't collapse in seconds were it not for the gifts of their presence and commitment.

In sum, they're our heart and soul, brains and backbone, the first exemplars of our compassion, competence, integrity and credibility -- and I'm sure my mother is far from alone in being named for an especially beloved and radiant one (a Sister of Mercy who's still well, kicking and on top of everything... at the youthful age of 97).

Far too often, for all they do, we have failed to appreciate our silent heroines as they deserve... even as time's shown that their knack for making the impossible happen in this life is merely the beginning.

Of the six Americans raised to the honors of the altar, five (Elizabeth Ann Seton, Frances Xavier Cabrini, Katherine Drexel, Philippine Duchesne and Theodore Guerin) have come from their ranks. And at the front of the queue to join them, today marks the feast of Mother Marianne Cope -- or, as she's now known, Blessed Marianne of Molokai.

Beatified in 2005, the German-born Franciscan (who emigrated with her family to upstate New York at a young age) left behind the prestige of her provincial superior's post in Syracuse to minister in the Hawaiian leper colony founded by Fr Damien deVeuster, who was himself beatified in 1995. Marianne spent the remaining 35 years of her life on the island, eventually succeeding the Belgian cleric as the colony's administrator after the disease claimed him.

At her beatification, the Vatican's chief saintmaker summarized her witness thus:
She demonstrated the beauty of the life of a true Franciscan. The encounter of Mother Marianne with those suffering from leprosy took place when she was far along on her journey to Christ. For 20 years she had been a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Third Order of St Francis of Syracuse in New York. She was already a woman of vast experience and was spiritually mature. But suddenly God called her to a more radical giving, to a more difficult missionary service.
Bl. Marianne, who was Provincial Superior at the time, heard the voice of Christ in the invitation of the Bishop of Honolulu. He was looking for Sisters to assist those suffering from leprosy on the Island of Molokai. Like Isaiah, she did not hesitate to answer: "Here I am. Send me!" (Is 6: 8). She left everything, and abandoned herself completely to the will of God, to the call of the Church and to the demands of her new brothers and sisters. She put her own health and life at risk.

For 35 years she lived, to the full, the command to love God and neighbour. She willingly worked with Bl. Damian de Veuster, who was at the end of his extraordinary apostolate. Bl. Marianne loved those suffering from leprosy more than she loved her very self. She served them, educated them and guided them with wisdom, love and strength. She saw in them the suffering face of Jesus.

Like the Good Samaritan, she became their mother. She drew strength from her faith, the Eucharist, her devotion to our Blessed Mother, and from prayer. She did not seek earthly honours or approval. She wrote: "I do not expect a high place in heaven. I will be very grateful to have a little corner where I can love God for all eternity".
Celebrations of Bl Marianne's feast are taking place today across Hawaii. Though she now rests at her community's motherhouse in Syracuse -- where her body was moved in 2005 from its original resting place at the Molokai colony -- her memory is not currently observed on the liturgical calendars of the United States.

Then again, it wasn't until 1999, four years after his beatification, that the US bishops approved Bl Damien's feast for national celebration; it's observed as an optional memorial on 10 May.