Growing up Catholic, in an intensely Irish-Catholic family, I had no shortage of extraordinary role models right within my big, extended family.
Two amazing Catholic women
My Great Aunt Ria (Sr. Marie Aimee of Jesus), my maternal grandmother’s sister, was a Carmelite nun with a sweet, sunny disposition whose gratitude for every little thing seemed to me to be one of her most prominent traits. As a cloistered, contemplative sister in Carmel, she didn’t have a ton of visitors or a ton of talking time each day (unless it was the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, as I recall, which allowed a lot more conversation than usual). She and her religious sisters lived more simply than I could imagine, slept on mattresses of hay, and were extremely prayerful. And yet sometimes she and other sisters in her monastery would “go on retreat“. As a teenager, I’m sure I thought someone was pulling my leg when I was told that they did so. From what I could tell, Aunt Ria and the other sisters in her community were always on retreat.
My Aunt Ria was one of my heroes; she made a life of prayer and sacrifice appear not only effortless, but natural (in the same way that a ballerina puts years of training into making that dance form look effortless, I imagine). She was down to earth and a wonderful pen pal. Her ego did not seem to be part of the picture. When she was very old, in her middle 90s, she became forgetful. One of the sisters in her community said to her that “Our Lord is taking your memory”. To that, she replied with complete sincerity, “He can take anything he wants“. She meant it, too….Her life was God’s.
Her younger sister, my grandmother, Eleanor, was equally heroic although of course married and with a family. I could write books on her faith, love and good deeds and never do it justice. As a “regular lay person”, my grandmother was an exemplary role model because she was living a normal Christian life (I knew that I wasn’t called to monastic life!) but did it with more grace than most can pull off.
“Cook” was her nickname for us Pope kids due to something our mother said to my brother “we have to get out of the kitchen, Grandmother has to cook….” In her 80s, Cook would do volunteer work at the St. Francis soup kitchen in Santa Cruz and go to visit “the old people” in nursing homes – some of whom were younger than she was. She did volunteer work at Birthright to try to give unwed mothers a positive alternative to abortion. She didn’t complain, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work. The brown scapular she wore was pinned out of sight – no one knew it was there but her. She did not flaunt her religiosity.
In my teen years I remember sleeping in on a Saturday morning at their home in Pasatiempo when I heard the Ford creep down the long driveway and out onto South Circle Drive. She was off to 8am Mass. That wasn’t required, and I preferred my warm bed. Later I asked her why she went to daily Mass and her reply was simply “because I can“. Cook explained that when she was raising her family or working, daily Mass wasn’t an option. But as a retired person, she had the freedom that enabled her to go to Mass daily, and she was delighted that she could.
Cook also aged gracefully and graciously, like her sister Ria did; she would joke that “growing old is not for sissies” and chuckle, “look out, here comes the old lady!” when zipping through the hall with her walker. She took herself lightly.
These two amazing women were only a couple of the many great role models our family enjoyed (and still do today). We were so blessed to have them and they have been hugely influential on me, my brother and sister, and my cousins – we are a grateful generation.
It saddens me when I hear stories about the opposite kind of experience – the “bad nun” or “bad priest” or “bad Catholic parent” or similar story – and that, as a consequence, someone says that he or she is no longer Catholic. Years ago I was a religion teacher in three different Catholic high schools (and also served as a part time youth minister in one parish locally but clearly that was not my calling – that story in another post on another day), and I hope & pray that I have not been a cause for anyone’s alienation.
Yes, as a church, we have good and bad. The bad segment has had a lot of press in recent years, and rightly so. And I’ve bumped into my share of the ugly underbelly too. Luckily, when that’s happened, it didn’t rock my faith in either God or the Church, even if I did become pretty angry, upset or disillusioned at times.
Just like we want married people to behave, we want our diocesan priests and religious priests, brothers, and sisters to behave. But perhaps we expect more of the diocesan priests and the religious. Part of it may be that we want heroes. Maybe we want to think that those who commit their lives full time to God’s service in the church are better than we lay people are, that they won’t mess up like we do. So when they fail, maybe it bothers us more than when another lay Catholic fails. Do you agree?
I used to hear about a nun whose family gave her a new Cadillac to drive every year (she was a beloved former teacher of my mother in law) and for some reason, that story just drove me nuts. I know so many people who take the vow of poverty seriously, but this idea of a nun driving a brand new luxury car every year just upset the heck out of me. All of us fall short of what we are supposed to do. But that behavior was just so visible that I couldn’t understand how it was tolerated by her or her community or her superior.
If she had been the only nun I’d ever known, or the only Catholic I’d ever known, I’m not sure how I would have coped, or how my faith might have fared.
Each of us can work to be the best Christian God calls us to be. What we may never know is how helpful that is to others, or if we don’t do it, how it may weaken another’s faith.
I’m grateful to my Aunt Ria and to Cook and to so many other relatives for their faithful Christian discipleship. They helped me to not loose faith when people whom I thought should have been heroes sometimes disappointed me. And they impressed upon me that every Christian who loves God and tries his or her best to live life as God wishes can be a channel of Grace.