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.