To our national and individual shame, the nation’s protracted presidential campaign has been short on dealing with many major concerns. Billionaires have been getting more than their deserved share of attention. So, too, have lying politicians and elected crackpots spewing ignorance and hate. Even one of the signature stars of “Sesame Street” has embarrassingly become a major talking point. But what of this nation’s moral core? What of our shared responsibilities one to the other? What about the commitment that flows to each of us via our birthright of citizenship? The commitment to care for “the least of these?”
I’m a confirmed protestant whose had several personal and somewhat difficult encounters with Catholicism. It would be accurate to say my relationship with most things Vatican-sponsored is a strained one. But I have recently been introduced to an aged face of the Catholic Church that is refreshing and exciting. Her name is Sister Simone Campbell. The wise and very intelligent leader of “Nuns on the Bus.”
In April, the Vatican’s doctrinal office made both a strategic – and doctrinal – mistake. A big one. Rather than speak its criticism through normal church channels, it went vary public and loudly charged nuns – especially American nuns – have been outspoken on issues of social justice, but silent on other matters the Church considers crucial: abortion and gay marriage.
The nuns, led by Sister Campbell, had an immediate and equally public response: “Nuns on the Bus.” They hit half a dozen states with a full contingent of international media in tow. They stopped at soup kitchens, service centers for protestant as well as Catholic churches, toured low rent housing, visited homeless shelters, stopped on skid rows and did interviews about what they were doing and seeing. Lots and lots of interviews. It was “in-your-face” time for the Vatican. And for many American bishops who were actively stirring up opposition to what they believe have been President Obama’s efforts to “violate religious freedoms.” The ladies with the wheels one-upped them. And they still are.
Sister Simone, an attorney by education, responded “We’re doing this because these are life issues. And by lifting up the work of Catholic sisters, we’ll demonstrate the real need of the very programs and services that would be decimated by (Paul Ryan’s) budget.”
She noted financing for Catholic social services increased “significantly” under the Obama administration, adding “We’re celebrating the religious freedoms we have.” And she roundly rebuked the Ryan budget – near and dear to the hearts of congressional Republicans – because it would eliminate nearly all government programs for the poor at a time when the economy is hurting the most Americans in decades.
She cited a study by “Bread for the World” – an acknowledged nonpartisan group advocating on hunger issues. To make up for just food stamp cuts in the Ryan budget, the group found every church in America – again, EVERY church in America – “would have to come up with $50,000 dedicated to feeding people.” And do so every single year for the next 10 years!
Asked the Sister, “Can government walk away like this? Can we realistically expect our houses of worship to pick up such a tab?
Have the nuns been effective? Have they gotten a nation’s attention? By any measure, yes! And they got at least Cardinal Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn to speak up. And publically support them.
It appears the nuns and most of the bishops have found common ground on proposed budget slashing directly affecting the poor. Along the bus route, Sister Simone and the others are publicizing letters the bishops have sent to Congress protesting the Ryan plan. Bishops in dioceses along the way are showing up when the bus stops. Not all bishops. But an awful lot of ‘em. Lay leaders, too. Lots of ‘em. And many, many Jews and Protestants. And Hindu’s and Muslim’s. And the unchurched.
The Vatican had previously criticized the nuns for challenging bishops it referred to as “the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” Well, seems some of the bishops have read that ol’ letter, reconsidered what terrible impacts the Ryan budget would have, totaled up how much more resources their churches would have to pony up to offset the loss of government support, repeatedly looked at the bus on their television sets and watched the overwhelmingly positive public reaction to the nuns and their message. Even for a bishop, that can make Vatican criticism seem much smaller and awfully far away.
Sister Simone does not wear a nun’s habit publically. She dresses in civvies. Aside from a small, tasteful cross, she looks like most other professional women in their 60′s. But her appearance is very disarming. Because, when she talks in any forum, she does so with a mastery of fact, figures, a bit of theology, excellent logic and sentences laced with the word “love.” She makes her case in every situation I’ve watched. And she includes charm and wit in her arsenal.
Though Sister Simone and her entourage represent the Catholic Church in their mission, it’s not possible for me to think of her as just a socially active person in one faith being effective in serving others. If you read the responses from all over the world that appear on the website, “Nuns on the Bus,” that mission has crossed all traditional lines separating religious thought. Colors and languages, too.
Though “Nuns on a Bus” are traveling only a few miles in only a few states, the phenomena has produced an ecumenical outreach worldwide. Makes me remember Christ’s travels were less than a hundred miles. But his message was world-changing.
Caring for the poor. Being keepers for our brothers and sisters. Respect. Love. The messages do seem very, very similar.Share on Facebook