Tag Archives: Catholic

Dorothy Stang, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a 2 part series.  Read part 1 here.

Enter the villains. The ranchers hire gunmen who shoot her to death on February 12, 2005. Seeing the gun, Dorothy doesn’t run or plead for her life, as most folks would. Fear would’ve been natural and understandable. Instead she pulls out her Bible and reads the Beatitudes aloud. The divine power transcends human limitations; in those final moments, she imitated Christ. She must’ve spent a lifetime preparing for that climax; now she teaches me how to live.

Breathing a deep lungful of piney mountain air, scented with sage, at home in the Rocky Mountains, I recall Dorothy’s joy outdoors. Without much institutional church, she finds God in the green canopy of trees, the cathedral of forest. Dorothy reminds me that when we lose our sacred connection to the earth, we’re stuck with small selves and petty concerns. In film footage, she proudly shows off a tree farm, exulting, “we CAN reforest the Amazon!”

Dorothy has encouraged me to stop eating beef, since intensive grazing requires destruction of the rainforest. I’m learning “green” alternatives to wasteful habits. Like most North Americans, I have enough stuff and now lean towards a simpler life. David explains, “she was so in love with what she was doing, she didn’t notice her dirt floor, primitive plumbing, no electricity.”

“Holy” once meant pious and passive. But Dorothy models how to raise Cain and act for justice. As we baby boomers age, Dorothy is patron saint for slow butterflies and reluctant caterpillars. She didn’t remain captive to her traditional upbringing. She probably could’ve hunkered down into the retirement center, counted her wrinkles and kept careful tabs on her ailments—as some older folk do. Instead, vivaciously, she tried new things, journeyed to new places. Her face is so youthful, it’s hard to think of her as 73. If I want to look that luminous at that age, I too must shed fears and take risks.

I want to love as gladly and fully as she did. It’s easy to get caught up in trivia: social commitments, work deadlines, domestic chores. But is this how we want to spend the precious coinage of brief lives? At Dorothy’s funeral, her friend Sister Jo Anne announced, “we’re not going to bury Dorothy; we’re going to plant her. Dorothy Vive!” If I want that immortality, I should examine what seeds I’m planting now, how I’ll live on in memory.

Dorothy has ruined my easy cop-out: how can one small person offset complex and apparently hopeless wrongs? Dorothy and I are the same height, 5’2”. Yet look what this giant accomplished: her killers’ trials, televised to every Brazilian classroom, have given children hope.

Her family and community won’t pursue canonization, preferring to give the poor the money that cause would require. Many already consider Dorothy a saint and martyr—in the early church, that’s all that mattered. As one biographer said about St. Catherine of Siena, “someone must’ve told her women were inferior. She clearly didn’t believe it.”

Environmental Warrior: Dorothy Stang

In a slightly belated tribute to Sister Dorothy Stang, who died 2/12/05, this essay is reprinted in two parts, from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC.

Dorothy’s brother David is always eager to talk about his martyred sister. “She whacked me around as a kid,” he admits. “A tomboy, she played the best football in the family.” That tenacity carried her through the Amazon, where she became a feisty defender of the poor and the rainforest. After her death, she’s still a role model in the arenas of the environment, aging and women’s roles.

Her story has the attributes of heroic legend, so let’s tell it that way. First, the setting(s). In Brazil, less than 3% of the population owns 2/3 of arable land. When the government gives land to displaced farm workers, loggers and ranchers burn poor settlements, sell valuable timber, then graze cattle (to supply our McDonald’s!) The consequent loss of the rain forest is tragic because it contains 30% of the world’s biodiversity. Some call it “the lungs of the planet.” As it shrinks, global warming increases.

It’s hard to imagine a place more distant from Brazil than Dayton, Ohio. Young Dorothy lives here, her backyard a model of organic gardening, where she learns composting and the dangers of pesticides. In 1948, she becomes a Sister of Notre Dame and teacher. You expect her to become a benevolent nun who dies of old age in a quiet convent, right? That’s where her story gets interesting.

Our heroine volunteers for Brazil when her order calls for missionaries. She accompanies families to Para, bordering the rain forest, to defend their land. She asked the right questions there: not minor matters of narrow denominational or territorial concerns, but “How do we preserve the earth’s treasures? How do we empower God’s beloved people who live upon this land?” Dorothy had the expansive spirit of Roman philosopher Seneca, who declared in 42 A.D., “the whole world is my own native land.”

She organizes people into co-ops: they learn crop rotation, read the Bible and worship with music and dance. (Because priests are scarce, she becomes their “shepherd.” In a contemporary version of Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), it didn’t much matter if she was male or female, ordained or not. What DID matter, burningly, was “no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.”

When her people are attacked, she tells them brusquely, “quit crying; start rebuilding!” Her old VW Beetle wobbles over bridges with rotting planks—while her passenger David makes a nervous sign of the cross. Dorothy takes the peoples’ case to the government. When officials deny receiving her letters, she burrows through their files ‘til she finds them. Persistently, she asks for protection of poor farmers, but nothing is done. Amazingly, she keeps this up for 38 YEARS. Dorothy starts fruit orchards with women and projects for sustainable development with 1200 people. The Brazilian Bar Association names her “Humanitarian of the Year” in 2004.

To be continued…

A Tribute to Sister Mary Helen Rogers, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series.  Read part one here.

Fast-forward to “Granny’s” 98th birthday. For the event, several of us traveled to the motherhouse in Indiana where she’d retired with many of her friends. Even in old age, they were still remarkably gracious ladies. Within minutes of our arrival, a cart appeared with sandwich fixings, cold drinks and beer. (They’d never been overly pious, these veterans of tough missions.) One sister spoke fondly of her work with H’mong refugees, who in gratitude had given her a H’mong name which translated to “Sister Umbrella.” The umbrella not only symbolized their new life in the U.S., but also her kind protection, shelter in a strange place.

May aunt was almost totally deaf, but she didn’t let that isolate her. At the slightest provocation she’d launch into hysterical stories, like her puzzlement when a poor family in San Antonio had gratefully brought the sisters a live chicken. Or the time the bishop, thrilled with his new television, invited the sisters to share the wealth. Unfortunately, their little town didn’t yet have a channel, so they tried to sit appreciatively through snow on the screen and static in the air.  Later, when he’d watch his cowboy shows upstairs, her job was distracting visitors for an hour, trying to convince them he was praying, and disguising the thrumming of horse hooves overhead.

A frequent refrain when she described her many kinds of service: “it was such a privilege.” Never a complaint, when there must have been plenty of irritations, frustrations and tragedies. She quoted a hymn which might sound cheesy now, but which fit her perfectly: What more could Jesus do? How many more blessings could there be? Many of her friends had died, but she reveled in the present moment. Even in her walker, she gave us a tour that exhausted the young folk, and made sure we had our afternoon snack of cookies and Cokes. Bent over with osteoporosis, she nevertheless bent even further to touch the arm of a sister whose mind was fine but whose body was almost paralyzed. As she made a “date” for a chat later, she was the portrait of compassion.

The large campus which the sisters run is noted for its hospitality. In cooperation with Lutheran Services, they offer retreats for women veterans returning from deployment. How peaceful it must be, I thought, after Iraq or Afghanistan: these gardens, beehives, ponds and grasslands. Each sister, living or dead, has a tree with her name hanging on a small plaque on the trunk. For Arbor Day, local schoolchildren identify the wide variety of trees, hike through areas set aside for conservation, and take home their own sapling. Their labyrinth is open to all and many have entered this form of moving meditation that dates back to medieval cathedrals. The morning I walked it, grass, leaves and pine needles were gleaming with tiny drops from a recent rain. Each branch, each step bejeweled: it must have been an image for the life of grace, the kind of lives these sisters had so gratefully embraced.

To look back over 98 years with obvious joy and appreciation must be a great gift. Always the Irish storyteller with perfect timing and cadence, Granny loved to embellish precious memories and entertain a new, youthful audience. She even bragged about the Babe Ruth autograph she’d gotten on a baseball, waiting outside the ballpark as a girl. But the story she told most proudly was of a small, shy boy, asking her to be his grandma. Now 37, he got misty-eyed, as did his wife, who was hearing it for the first time.

A TRIBUTE IN TWO PARTS to Sister Mary Helen Rogers

Sister Mary Helen Rogers, OLVM died January 13 at the age of 100. This tribute to her is reprinted from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC.

Sister Grandma

It all began over forty years ago, when after service as a Papal Volunteer in Belize, I knew I couldn’t return to start the graduate program at University of Chicago I’d planned. After a year of living with poverty, I needed a more gradual transition back to the wealthy U.S. Fortunately, my aunt, a Victory Noll sister, ran a Center in one of Denver’s worst neighborhoods. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty had provided funding for a summer program for children, which my cousin and I offered to direct. It was a match made in heaven!

Our aunt and her community happily introduced us to the neighborhood, the local attractions, and best of all, the mountains. Although they worked daily with grindingly difficult situations, violent gangs, drug and alcohol addictions and suffering people, they were a remarkably cheerful and upbeat bunch, celebrating everyday miracles. Dinners with them were always fun, with dessert an essential, and the table often decorated. Perhaps because they’d given me such a warm welcome, or because I loved the mountains so much, I stayed in Denver, completed the graduate work, and married.

Some eight years later, our oldest son was feeling his lack of grandparents. His only living grandfather was in another city, but his sister, my aunt, had always been a joyful presence in his life. He approached her shyly: “would you be my foster grandma?” She of course was delighted, and scooped the kindergartener into her arms. “Of course! I’d be thrilled!”

The other children quickly assumed that my aunt was Granny; it didn’t bother them that she was also “Sister.” One day, they were leaving her office as a client entered. “’Bye Granny!” each called sweetly. She apologized for the interruption to the woman who said graciously, “Oh Sister, you be with your grandchildren!”  Over thirty years later, slight embarrassment crosses my aunt’s face as she tells the story. “She didn’t quite get the concept of nuns. So I told her this was my niece and her children before any rumors could get started.”

Granny had a knack for gifts and notes on each child’s birthday, candy for the “major religious feasts,” which included Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, and root bear floats. “Royalty were never treated as well; no child was ever cherished as much as we were,” one daughter remembers. Faithfully, despite blizzards, she’d attend First Communions, Confirmations and graduations. Now engaged in their own work with nonprofits, the children see her as a model of how to live with compassion and treat all people with a profound and gentle respect. From her they learned that justice is about making love tangible in ways large and small.  To be continued…

Feasting on Thanks, Part 2

Thanks in Unlikely Places

Some may feel that they don’t have a lot on the list to be grateful for.

But as Paul told the Thessalonians, “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18). No matter how desperate a situation may seem, there’s always room in it for thanks—or a scavenger hunt to find something good there. A few examples, probably from worse times and places than ours:

• In the letter to Philippians, “joy” and “rejoice” appear 16 times, despite the fact Paul wrote from prison, awaiting a trial which could’ve led to his death.

• Corrie ten Boom, author of THE HIDING PLACE and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp was grateful for the fleas, because their presence meant the German guards would leave prisoners alone.

• “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into grateful joy,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who remained grateful even until his execution by Nazis, despite having to tell his fiancée goodbye.

• Those who survived the terrible tragedy of 9/11/01 in New York City were more resilient and less prone to depression if they could somehow find gratitude in the ruins. While a mixture of positive and negative feelings seems natural, it’s heartening to read remarkable relief despite terrible circumstances. One who was in the World Trade Center that morning said: “Each day that I stay as a guest on this green Earth suddenly seems like outrageous good fortune.”

Practical Steps

So how does a busy family fit shared meals into a packed schedule? Most families can spin out a litany of reasons why they can’t eat together: soccer games, meetings, choir practice, travel, work, etc. etc. But forgiving the pun, table the excuses. They all seem pretty flimsy when held up against the studies done by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Their surveys found that the more often a family has dinner together, the less likely their teen is to smoke, drink or use drugs. Each time the family dines together reduces the risk of children’s substance abuse. Nothing in the reports suggests it must be a five-course meal; macaroni and cheese is fine. What matters is telling the stories, chewing over the day, being nurtured together.

Can gratitude be incorporated into a tight calendar too? Many reasons to do so come from Robert Emmons. His book THANKS! says multiple clinical studies have proven that a regular practice of gratitude can elevate what psychologists call the “set point” of happiness. Though a devastating spinal cord injury can dramatically decrease happiness, and winning the lottery increase it, most people over the subsequent six months will adapt and return to the “set point.”

Grateful thinking helps people extract the most possible enjoyment from their circumstances. It prevents adaptation (returning to the “set point”) and improves mood because people don’t  take blessings for granted.

To receive these benefits, giving thanks beyond one day in November must become a deliberate habit. Thus, Emmons recommends a regular practice such as keeping a gratitude journal, naming the three best things that happen each day, writing a letter to or visiting someone we appreciate. A family can do this together, drawing or writing blessings on a big piece of newsprint hung jauntily on the refrigerator. Or make placemats from paper. In the center write THANKS, then surround the word with drawings or names of gifts: My dog. Music. Naps. Hot soup. (Laminate so they’ll last a while.) These practices can cascade throughout the month, becoming an avalanche of thanks by the feast itself. Seeing so many blessings, most people would want to continue every month. Bon Appetit!

Profile of Bridging Hope in National Catholic Reporter

Kathy Coffey recently profiled Bridging Hope in the September 28-October 10 issue of National Catholic Reporter.

Bridging Hope is a nonprofit founded by Franciscan Sister Sen Nyguyen.   The article profiles Nguyen’s journey from Vietnam, to Denver, Colorado, where she became a Franciscan Sister, to her return to Vietnam in 1991, which motivated her to start Bridging Hope.

“Some bridges are hard to negotiate, but this ministry is a significant start. Many feel overwhelmed by world poverty, yet finding a direct, trustworthy way to alleviate it is the first step on the bridge. Even one small, practical action restores hope.”   To read the entire article, visit: National Catholic Reporter: “Franciscan sister’s nonprofit aims to create bridges between U.S., Vietnam”