Remembering Sister Mary Christine Athans, BVM

I recently learned of the death of one of my seminary professors, Sister Mary Christine Athans. As a teenager, I admired her from afar at my Catholic parish in Arizona.  After many years, I returned to school to study theology, and there she was again, a dynamic professor of church history at — get this long title she used to say — “the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota.”

When Sister Christine retired as a full time professor at the seminary, I was asked to give a talk at her retirement celebration.  She was a pioneering and professional religious woman, and lived through many interesting times in the Catholic church.  Below is a copy of the talk I gave on that occasion.

Ode to Sr. Christine Athans, BVM, by Julie McCarty
May 5, 2002

By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard of Sr. Christine’s new book about the history of this seminary. [To Work for the Whole People: John Ireland’s Seminary in Saint Paul] In reading the opening chapters, I was struck with how pioneering the early Catholics of this diocese were. Out of their dedication to the Catholic tradition, the church leaders were willing to venture into the unknown and endure the harsh asceticism of Minnesota weather, “to boldly go where no man—or woman–has gone before” (well, at least no Catholic).

When I look at Christine, I see a Catholic pioneer.

Pioneers must be creative, because things do not always go the way you plan. When I asked a number of students (both seminarians and commuter students) what they would remember about Sr. Christine, one thing they named was her creativity. They recalled she would do whatever it took to interest them in church history, even if it meant singing songs or shelling out reams of time lines. This led to the discovery that learning and fun are not mutually exclusive.

Pioneers need to build on the past but move into the future. Explorers use their past experiences in new ways when encountering new situations. Christine made sure students learned not only the European roots of church history, but also the history and spirituality of the church in America. One student mentioned his appreciation of Christine’s truthfulness in teaching not only the “good news” but also the “bad news” of church history. Recognizing the human side of the institution is necessary for one committing to a lifetime of church service.

Pioneers also need courage and perseverance “to boldly go where no woman has gone before.” Christine has done a lot of things earlier generations of Catholic women might have enjoyed if given the opportunity, like earn a doctorate or teach seminarians.

When I first met Christine, it was over twenty-five years ago, in my home parish of St. Francis Xavier in Phoenix, Arizona. It was the roaring 70’s and I was a teenager, thrilled with the exciting new things that were happening in the church. I remember the admiration I felt for the BVM[1] sisters in my parish. The BVM’s nurtured my faith with their hospitable ways. I saw them as friendly, devout, and intelligent women serving the Church with gusto.

I will never forget the surprise I felt, when, as a teenager, I opened the parish bulletin and read about this new organization called “The North Phoenix Corporate Ministry.” This was a consortium of five Protestant congregations, two synagogues, and my own Catholic parish, in what was the very beginning of the ecumenical movement in Phoenix. This bulletin insert had photos of five ministers and two rabbis—all men, of course—who were on the Corporate Ministry board ….  and when I looked for my parish priest—OOPS! What was this?—There was Sister Christine, not only on the board, but serving as the full-time executive director.    (It was sort of like the icons you see of the Upper Room at Pentecost: a bunch of male apostles with one fairly important woman, Mary.) You have to remember, back then, my only understanding was that sisters were teachers or nurses: there certainly weren’t any sisters working as leaders at the diocese offices! Christine’s professionalism convinced me that a woman’s place wasn’t only in the home, but also in church ministry.

So much did this impress me, that one Sunday, after Mass, I approached Sr. Christine with a question. Here I was, this little 15 year-old—keep in mind that it was the seventies and all sorts of things were being discussed–and I asked her, “Do you think women will ever be priests?” I can’t remember her exact answer because she replied like the typical theologian: with neither a simple yes or no. Hers was a rather long, careful response. I do recall that she was very graceful, tactful and honest about the whole thing, neither overly optimistic nor bitter.

Finally, pioneers need enthusiasm, or they will not survive the journey. The overwhelming response I got from students when they were asked about Christine related to her enthusiasm, her high energy for education, her friendliness, what one student called her “joyful presence”… I once heard that “joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” It is this “joyful presence,” this enthusiasm, that this community will miss the most.

However, I know that others will benefit from Christine’s enthusiasm for doing God’s work. You see, I’ve noticed that professed sisters never retire, they just shift their priorities a bit, continue the Lord’s work, radiating that “joyful presence” that has its source in God.

Christine, on behalf of all your students—and there were hundreds of us–I wish to thank you, for your pioneering strength and beauty, for the many gifts you have given us, and for your joyful presence. May God bless you. Shalom.

 

[1] Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

 

The Canticle of Creation

It’s Oct. 4, the day many Christians remember the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.  Below is a prayer St. Francis wrote as he was approaching his own death.  One can see the way Francis viewed all of creation as being a gift of Creator God.

I invite you to take a moment from your busy day to pray this prayer.  Read it once to get the feel of it.  Then read it again, as a prayer of your own, giving praise to God.  If you enjoy this prayer, you might enjoy writing your own prayer of thanks for all that God has created.

The Canticle of Creation
By Saint Francis of Assisi

O Most High, all-powerful, good Lord God,
to you belong praise, glory,
honor and all blessing.

Be praised, my Lord, for all your creation
and especially for our Brother Sun,
who brings us the day and the light;
he is strong and shines magnificently.
O Lord, we think of you when we look at him.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon,
and for the stars
which you have set shining and lovely
in the heavens.

Be praised, my Lord,
for our Brothers Wind and Air
and every kind of weather
by which you, Lord,
uphold life in all your creatures.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water,
who is very useful to us,
and humble and precious and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you give us light in the darkness:
he is bright and lively and strong.

Be praised, my Lord,
for Sister Earth, our Mother,
who nourishes us and sustains us,
bringing forth
fruits and vegetables of many kinds
and flowers of many colors.

Be praised, my Lord,
for those who forgive for love of you;
and for those
who bear sickness and weakness
in peace and patience
– you will grant them a crown.

Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister Death,
whom we must all face.
I praise and bless you, Lord,
and I give thanks to you,
and I will serve you in all humility. 

Until next time, Amen! 

 

 

God Creates All Things New

My niece in Arizona had her first day of kindergarten recently.  I was moved by pictures of her first day of school. Such an innocent, fresh, excited look on her face!  Everything around her was new– new clothes, new school bag, new school, new teacher.

One of my favorite lines from the bible is found in the book of Revelation, when God says:  “Behold, I make all things new.” (21:5)  Although the context is about the end of the world and the forming of a new heavenly reality, I think it points to a deep reality about God:  God is Creator.

God did not merely create the earth in six days and then set his creative talent on a shelf until human history comes to the end of the world.  God is Creator, and God is still creating today in many ways. God planted traces of his own creativity in the creation: just look at how the seeds develop and mature, how life continues among animals with the birth of little pups and kittens, how the calendar of the earth time cycles around and begins again.

Our own lives can be instruments of God’s creativity when we try new things on for size.  We may try a new recipe, paint a room a new color, overhaul an engine, or show new skills to a young child.  We may reach out to a coworker and discover a new friend. Perhaps we travel to a new place or try a new way of volunteering.

Sometimes trying something new coaxes us out of our comfort zone. It can feel a little awkward and we may be a little tense (am I doing this right?).  But in stretching us a bit, the Holy Spirit seeks to re-create our lives into something new. We may make mistakes along the way, but that is part of the learning process, God creating new awareness within us.

As we enter into a new season of the year,  let us pray to the Holy Spirit to guide us and to re-new us.  We ask that the Holy Spirit to deepen our prayer lives and show us each how to use our unique giftedness to serve others. Let us pray for one another as we continue to move forward into this new chapter in our faith community. Let us put our hope and trust in God to re-create us.

Hey, is that fair?

Let me be honest: every now and then, Jesus says something that rubs me the wrong way.  I can feel that resistance inside myself that says, I don’t want to hear that right now. Could we just talk about that some other time? 

This Sunday’s readings are one of those times. We hear the gospel parable about the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16). The property owner goes out early in the morning to find people to work in the vineyard.  Once the early birds are working, the owner goes out several times during the day to find still more workers standing around idle (read that: can’t find work), so he hires these other workers as well.

The Late-arriving Workers by JESUS MAFA*

At the end of the day, the early-bird workers are paid the full day’s wages.  But then a surprising thing happens:  the other workers are also paid a full day’s wages, despite the fact they worked fewer hours.

Naturally, the early-bird workers, who toiled long hours in the hot sun, are jealous of the Johnny-come-lately workers. They complain to the owner, who responds, in effect, Hey, what’s the big deal? Didn’t I give you the full day wages I promised you, for your full day of work? Can’t I be generous with my own money if I want, and help these other men feed their families tonight if I want to? 

The parable ends with Jesus saying these now-famous words:

the last will be first, and the first will be last…

The point of the parable is not about how much a person is paid per hour, but rather about the generous love of God. Jesus is speaking about the kingdom of heaven, in which God’s love and mercy are abundant and infinite.  In the kingdom of heaven, the newly converted Christian takes his or her place at the table along side those who followed Christ their whole lives. Those who are of “little account” in the world will have a great place at the heavenly table.

I think some of us are reluctant to dig deeper into this parable because it challenges our status quo.  We who are the “early-bird Christians” might secretly feel we are better than the newly converted Christian.  The people whose families have been in the United States for generations secretly (or not so secretly) despise the new Americans. Those who are heterosexual may have trouble accepting people who are in same-sex relationships. People working long hours may resent those who receive government assistance.

Jesus’ parable reminds us today that God’s love is far more abundant and far-reaching than we can imagine. We may be jealous of others, or secretly think we are better than others–and therefore more deserving of God’s attention and love–but to this Jesus says we are wrong.  God loves those “other people” just as much as God loves me or you. God’s generosity, mercy, and compassion are without end and for all people–much more than we can begin to fathom.

And if God is loving, merciful, and generous towards all people, doesn’t that mean those of us who claim to follow Christ should do the same?

 

*Artwork credit:
JESUS MAFA. The Late-arriving Workers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48296 [retrieved September 22, 2017].

 

Hope in God

O Lord, we wait for you, 
our God who helps and protects us.
In your presence we discover joy. 
We entrust ourselves to your care. 
Pour your faithful love upon us 
as we place our hope in you.

(Psalm 33:20-22, my paraphrase)

As we transition from 2016 to 2017, I am given to thinking about the past year and looking to the future. What were our best moments and greatest challenges? Where are we headed in 2017?

movingHistory will remember 2016 as the year of Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump, but in our home we will also remember it as the Year of the Great Move. My husband and I spent most the year transitioning from the Twin Cities area to a less populated, more rural place in west-central Minnesota. We gradually sorted our belongings with an eye for what was really needed, prepared and sold our home. This process made us think about our dreams and goals for the next chapter of our lives.

In the midst of the long transition, I was looking for part-time work in some form of pastoral ministry. As it turned out, there was a small Christian community whose pastor had just left, and they needed someone to lead worship.  Because of our move, I could not become their pastor, but I did lead worship a number of times–and the community ordained me as an ecumenical minister of Christ.

And so it is, I write to you now as your sister in Christ and one who has been commissioned to serve others as an ordained minister.  This idea of “women priests” or women ministers is something I had wrestled with internally for many years, often doing my very best to resist and deny my own calling (!).

ordination-even-smaller-copy

Now 2017 is just beginning after a year-long transition to a new place and a deepening calling to minister to God’s people. I have rented a new office in Alexandria (MN) and will be continuing the spiritual direction ministry there (and on Skype). I will also be continuing writing and painting in the studio portion of my office.

As for the rest, I cannot see the future, but I believe that God will use my ordination for a divine purpose. I love the area I’m now living in. For the next few months I will be listening and learning about the needs of people here.

The new year holds much promise, but also a lot of fear for many Americans who are feeling nervous about the transition of leadership and about the direction our country might take in the future. I’ve been trying to think how to approach this new situation (it feels new to me) and I don’t have a magic wand to wave over the situation.

The thought I have today is that no matter what happens in the world, God is still with us. We might ignore God or turn away from God’s wisdom, love, and mercy, but God is still present, witnessing our struggles, sharing in our pain (as Jesus did), encouraging us to make wise choices, and watching over us with loving care.

44dcfc01a695be50b1f0edcd3ec3c2e0-hope-in-godAs we begin 2017, I choose to hope in God and to do what I can to make the world a better place.  I do not expect that everything will be easy or fair or successful or even peaceful.  Although there is much good, beauty, and love in the world, there is also selfishness, greed, cruelty, hate and any number of evils.  We humans are simultaneously both saints and sinners (thank you, Martin Luther), myself included.

Because humans are fallible creatures, we place our hope in God. 

The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope.  –Romans 15:13

Until next time, Amen! 

 

 

 

 

 

My sheep hear my voice, says Jesus

I’m working on a sermon for Sunday, and pondering these words of Jesus:

Bon_pasteur_BnF_Ethiopien_389_fol_1v-large--Good Shepherd--Vanderbilt

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.”
                                                                      –Jesus (in John 10: 27-28a)

I know almost nothing about sheep. They give wool and go “baa..” Children play sheep in Christmas pageants. I may have petted a baby lamb at the zoo sometime, maybe (I’m not even sure!).

People of biblical times, however, would have been familiar with sheep, shepherds, and the sheep-herding process. Their meals included sheep cheese and lamb. Their clothing and blankets were woven from the sheep’s wool. The lamb also was a symbol of God’s deliverance during Passover, and associated with other religious rites.

Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice…” and the sheep follow that voice.  In those days, as the shepherds grazed their sheep, the sheep from various flocks would intermingle while the shepherds chatted or lunched at the watering hole. When it was time to return home in the evening, each shepherd had a special way of calling or whistling to his sheep, and they would quite naturally separate into the right groups.

Below is a video of a modern-day shepherd, calling to his sheep. Notice how the sheep magically appear out of the hillside mist. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and come running:

Here is another current-day shepherd. She has her own way of calling her sheep. Notice how the sheep are reluctant to cross the little patch of water, but her constant calling reassures them it’s safe:

When Jesus calls us, where will he be leading us?  We might have to come down off the mountainside to be feed in the meadow. We might have to jump over little puddles or even walk through the “darkest valley” (Psalm 23), but even then Jesus is with us, leading us beyond, to a better place.

Jesus knows us well, each one of us individually. This knowing is not a mere intellectual knowing, but an experiential knowing  from being with us, and loving each one of us, all along the way of life’s journey. Jesus is lovingly present in our midst at all times, so he knows our special talents, challenges, past joys and future hopes.

Jesus calls to you, and to me:  Come here, my beloved… Come!

Where is Jesus leading you (and me)  today?  That is, what might Jesus be inviting you to do in your life?  Anything new? Anything needs changing in yourself?  Any way you might assist another?

Dare you go where Jesus leads? Will you trust that the Good Shepherd will be with you, lovingly, through thick and thin?  (I’m preaching to myself here…)

Amiens26-large--Good Shepherd image-- Creative Commons licence--Vanderbilt Library

 

Will you follow?

 

 

Image credits: 

Top image: Unidentified. Jesus as shepherd with the lost sheep, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55688 [retrieved April 15, 2016]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bon_pasteur_BnF_Ethiopien_389_fol_1v.jpg.

Bottom image: Le Breton, Jacques ; Gaudin, Jean. Jesus the Good Shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51560 [retrieved April 15, 2016]. Original source: Collection of Anne Richardson Womack. 

Carrots, Lent, and New Life

In Minnesota, winter has been easier than usual this year, but despite that, last week the gray skies got to me a few days. I was sick of everything, and for no particular reason. I read about how people in the days before electric light slept long hours in the winter–and I thought, that’s me: I want to crawl into a cocoon and sleep until spring.

Then the weekend came, and we were out of carrots for making lunches, when I remembered something tucked away in the coldest part of our basement. I brought it up to the kitchen, opened up the box, and suddenly their was a lovely burst of the scent of … are you ready for this? ….  SOIL!

Box from cold, dark storage
Box from cold, dark storage

Before I lived in the Upper Midwest, I did not realize what a treasure this is… In the March/April thaw, one of the most pleasant fragrances, often at an unconscious level, is the scent of the soil drifting on the warmer spring wind. The ground is no longer completely frozen, and this scent of soil brings to mind thoughts of gardens and flowers and mowing and sweet corn–and the heart skips a beat with excitement.

Soil: catch the scent in winter!
Soil: catch the scent in winter!

However, there was something else, there, too. Something we had packed away in the sandy soil last October. We dug out these messy-looking cylinders, scrubbed them up, and voila! Fresh carrots!

Yummy carrots!
Yummy carrots!

We think of winter as a time when “nothing is happening” in that soil, when everything is “dead”… and indeed, there is a lot of death happening–but not all is lost. The soil is rejuvenating itself.

Ancient peoples in northern climes must have been in awe of spring returning, a kind of miracle of sun and warmth. The seeds sprout and the cycle of life circles around again.

It’s no wonder Lent, Passover, and Easter are celebrated at this time of year. Indeed the word “Lent” means “springtime”… and all those Easter eggs, baby bunnies and lambs are symbolic of life renewing itself, once again, in the springtime.

Our souls, indeed our whole persons, undergo many transitions and “spring times” in life. We seek inner growth and deeper healing from old wounds. We may deepen current relationships even as we form new relationships. We search for new meaning and fresh ways of loving and serving others.

Will you pray with me?

O God,

When the darkness of winter is on us,
inspire us to hope in your springtime.
When the snow becomes drab and muddy,
remind us that new life is just around the corner.
When our hearts are “old” and “dusty,”
plant your seeds of love and
bring us to life once again.
This we pray in the name of Jesus
and in the communion of the Holy Spirit, 

Amen!