Better Person

The journal is small, lined, with a glossy black cover and a small image of the St. Peter’s Basilica there on the front.  The lined pages are covered with tiny ballpoint script, each brief entry meticulously dated over a two year period.  Each one documents a desire to become a better person, acknowledges those moments of having hurt others, of taking things too personally, of wanting to be a better person, serve others better.

It belonged to a diminutive, 80 year old Marist missionary who spent twenty years in Fiji, and thirty years in the American South, in Memphis, and it covers her final days and months.   She had been working with Sacred Heart Mission and in particular with AIDS patients.  She had told a younger colleague that the thing she never expected to have to do was to explain to a grown man how to  use a condom.  At barely five feet tall, she handled the cases of canned goods at the food pantry.  She was the eulogist for her close friend, and she spoke on the phone every day with her younger biological sister chronicling her days and activities and, towards the end, explaining how very tired she felt.

Every eulogy at her funeral testified to the power of her integrity, the strength of her ideals, the courage of her convictions, and the consistency of her sense of justice.
There was no glossing over of the controversies she encountered, of her dislike of clericalism, of the way she could call people to task.  But there was laughter about her driving, smiles about her stories, admiration for her fidelity to her purpose, her dreams.

She died after heart surgery holding the hands of her closest friends.  She had touched the lives of so many:  the patients she counselled, the ones she delivered food to, the families she provided Christmas for,  the woman she met at daily Mass, the cops who gave her tickets, and the families she celebrated James Joyce with, even the priest she would not call “Father” because she was too old and he was too young.

Her life demonstrated that commitment to becoming a better person, to adapt at each stage of life, to serve others before self.  But she made room for forgiveness of others, for forgiveness of self, for challenging convention and deepening faith.   In her very person, she embodied the tension that characterizes so much of contemporary Catholicism: the institution vs. ideal, the rules and rhetoric v. the reality of human experience and compassion.

Her name was Sr. Noelita Betteann McDermott.  Her  life demonstrated that there are many, many ways to be “Catholic”.  Her deep sense of respect for others, for appreciation of those she worked for and with, her unremitting desire to make a positive difference, was documented in that tiny scrawl and in that incredible funeral.  Becoming a better person, being the better person,  believing that better is even possible….that is the journey the Gospel and Catholicism invites.




Heart and hands

imageNewly minted NYPD partners  knelt beside a heart attack victim on a Manhattan street.  Gripped by the pain, the elderly man begged for the Last Rites.  The rookie of the pair sprinted two blocks, rapped on the rectory door, told the tale.  The priest was curt.

“Not my parish.”

“He is dying…”

The door slammed shut.  Bent on doing the right thing,  a Catholic himself,  the young cop ran blocks more  to the next parish where the curate responded immediately.

It was an instance where the clergy failed, and it is also an example of one of the many times where the reality of Catholicism, the strength of the practice and the faith, did not rest in consecrated hands.  Instead, the courage, compassion, and strength was found in the hearts and hands of the laity, in living the faith they believed.  It was in the sense of respect for one another’s faith and in the determination to provide comfort and caring.

Catholicism has its rich tradition of centralized structure and layers of clerical status,  characteristics of many institutional structures.  But it is not all about that. Catholicism in its truest form belongs to the people who live it as best they can on a daily basis.  It belongs to the old ladies who go to Mass every morning, to the mothers who pray with their children before bedtime, to the middle aged parents struggling over educational costs and planning career moves, to the elderly  who volunteer at food pantries,  to young parents peering into a nursery, and to everyone who is struggling to do the right thing.  Because in so many ways, Catholicism is really about community: creating and  re-creating it with one another in a myriad of different ways in  a multitude of unique contexts.

There is a small parish, upstate, threatened with full closure by the Archdiocese of NY, that has visibly renewed its life through the commitment and strength of ordinary people.  They revived organizations, addressed community needs, shared a terrible time and stood up firmly for what they believed in.  They have weekend Masses now and are a mission church, part of a larger parish, but still intact.  Like the determined rookie cop, ordinary people made it happen.  So while the visible face of Catholicism is often the clergy, the reality is that Catholicism is alive in the hearts and hands of ordinary people who find a home and in some way fashion that home for  one another.






Frailty and Forgiveness

We were standing in the middle of high school cafeteria overflowing with teenage girls on a noisy weekday lunch period, a Doctor of Divinity and a social studies teacher.  It was Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi.  Amid all the chaos, the Doctor recounted a bit of Francis’ story: rejecting his father, stripping naked in church, and then she stopped.  “Not exactly rational behavior” she noted.

And there it was again: the juxtaposition of human frailty and forgiveness, weakness and strength, extremism and mainstream choices.  Francis’ life overflows with lessons for the ordinary person: his experiences and relationships, questions and choices are rooted in historical context yet mirror so much of contemporary experience.

That proximity of human failure, the reality of the need for mercy and for forgiveness, the impact of choices and decisions….all that is visible in so many of the stories, the narratives that animate Catholic tradition.   Those remembrances told and re-told over centuries weave warm tapestries that embrace  all the varied elements and facets of human experience.  Historical contexts shift, but the human journey continues.  Catholicism offers possibilities, reference points, even inspiration at times in the living out  of the human journey.

There are thousands of such stories, and each reminds us that no one of us is alone in grappling with the mystery of relationships, the challenges of problem-solving, the definition of purpose.  Being immersed in life itself is difficult at best, and the stories like Francis’ are reminders of that. Alongside that is a second and vivid truth: the individual  story of each person does matter.  Even now.  It  matters what we do, how we do it, and why we do it, who we choose to become and to be members of the human family and global community.

The stories of Catholicism, of individuals frail and determined, scorned and broken, beloved and forgiven, are worth exploration and reflection.  They create a home, a context,  for 21st century experiences, for grappling with doubt, uncertainty, tragedy and hopes and dreams.

Faith is a term that defies dictionary strictures and animates so much human experience.  It has sharp edges for some; goading memories for others.  It is also lived out in private, daily choices and decisions thousands of times a day.  Faith is not about the magisterium of the Church or even about the institutional structures. History points to both the failures and resilience of each of those, and that history reveals much more.  Faith does not erase or resolve human frailty and failure.  But it does offer the opportunity for forgiveness, the chance to grapple with fault and wrongs and process experiences with a keen focus on reality.  Faith offers the chance to forgive self and others and to strive to become a better person.  Faith recognizes that there are realities beyond personal control and coping with those means grappling with challenge.  Faith accepts that life is difficult at best and faith offers shelter, harbor and hope.

There are innumerable stories of the human person, experience and journey in Catholic tradition, and each is based on individual human beings and his or her challenges, choices and changes.  Within all that, the experience of fragility and forgiveness become part of the faith story and can offer a sense of home for those who search.





There is a small chapel in a small Connecticut town that is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  And in so many ways, it epitomizes a reality that transcends the stereotyping, frustration and discrimination that characterizes contemporary life.  Because in those quiet hours, the persons who appear for a taste of the quiet, for a moment of sacred space, for comfort or celebration, defy a single simple description.  Young and old, rich and poor, each kneels in the stillness. Ethnicity and language, race and gender yeild to the definition of “catholic”.   There are styles of prayer among them: couples holding hands, the elderly cradled by the middle-aged, teenagers with rosary beads,  some with arms outstretched, others prostrate before the tabernacle.  Deeper than difference is the hope, the faith, that draws each one or the space.  And to the observer, the quiet message is that somehow this is a home for all who are willing to visit.