The Jubilee Year of Mercy that Pope Francis first announced in March 2015 will come to an end this November 20th on the Solemnity of Christ the King. It will also bring to a close FutureChurch’s Women Witnesses of Mercy series which has been celebrating the extraordinary witness of women throughout the year.
Announcing the Jubilee Year of Mercy in a March 2015 homily, Pope Francis said, “I have often thought about how the Church might make clear its mission of being a witness to mercy. It is a journey that begins with a spiritual conversion. For this reason, I have decided to call an extraordinary Jubilee that is, to have the mercy of God at its center. It shall be a Holy Year of Mercy. We want to live this Year in the light of [Jesus’] words: ‘Be merciful, just as [God] is merciful (Lk 6:36).’”
Following the announcement, FutureChurch executive director Deb Rose-Milavec and I sat down to discuss how FutureChurch would celebrate the Year of Mercy with Catholics worldwide. We thought it appropriate to highlight women who do exactly what Pope Francis wants to accomplish: to “make clear” the Church’s “mission of being a witness to mercy.” And so I returned to a definition of mercy that I learned in graduate school from Jesuit theologian James F. Keenan. In The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism, he writes, “Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.” And so, for the next several weeks, we set out to identify contemporary Catholic women who truly give witness to mercy by entering into the chaos of our world and the most vulnerable with whom we share it.
It was a nearly impossible task. Not for a lack of women, but for an abundance of courageous women who have done and are making the Beatitudes visible in our world; women who really are showing the face of God’s mercy in this world that needs it so much. How could we choose just twelve? But eventually we did decide on a list of women to profile – one woman or group of women for each month. And in November of 2015, FutureChurch announced our Women Witnesses of Mercy:
December -- Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel, martyrs who ministered to victims of civil war in El Salvador
January -- Helen Prejean who ministers to death-row inmates, their victims’ families, and seeks the abolition of the death penalty
February -- Antona Ebo who was the first African-American nun to march for civil rights
March -- Simone Campbell who works with NETWORK to ensure economic justice for all
April -- Dorothy Stang who lived the message of the encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, long before it was written and was martyred in the Amazon because of her work on behalf of the environment and the poor
May -- Dorothy Day who launched the Catholic Worker Movement
June -- Norma Pimentel who works at the southern border to uphold the dignity of immigrants
July -- Karen Klimczak, an advocate for peace and non-violence who was murdered by a resident of the home she had established for men transitioning out of prison
August -- Elizabeth Johnson, the theologian whose quest for God has revealed the importance of inclusive language in the pursuit of justice
September -- The Leadership Conference of Women Religious who continue to provide moral leadership and guidance to U.S. Catholics
October -- Jeannine Gramick who founded New Ways Ministry to minister to the LGBTQ Catholic community and work for a more inclusive Church
November -- Sister Christine Schenk, who co-founded FutureChurch to seek the changes that would allow all Catholics to participate fully in Church life and leadership
What we could not have known in the summer of 2015 as we were putting the calendar together was just how chaotic 2016 would turn out to be and just how much our world and nation would need the voices and witnesses of these women in the coming year. We could not have known, for example, how increased instances of police violence against persons of color would reveal just how desperately we need to address the racial injustices that infect our society and structures. We could not have known that deadly mass shootings throughout the country would uncover just how much we as individuals and a society need to commit ourselves to the ways of peacemaking and non-violence. We could not have known how inflammatory political rhetoric would call us to stand up for the dignity of each human person. But here were these women – these extraordinary witnesses of mercy – entering into this chaos with us, sharing their wisdom, their insight, their faith, and their example with us.
Over the course of this past year it has been my job and true honor to learn more about these women and to put together resources that reveal just how they show forth the Church’s “mission of being a witness to mercy” in our world. Some of them I knew of before this project. Others were unfamiliar to me. But each of them said and revealed new things to me, especially as I lived through this Year of Mercy and chaos. In a real way – thanks to these women -- this Year of Mercy has been, as Pope Francis hoped, a journey of spiritual conversion for me. I have been inspired, made righteously angry, brought to tears. I have learned new things about the world in which I live, I have learned about myself, and I have come to know just what we human beings are capable of if we root ourselves in God’s love and commit ourselves to “entering into the chaos of another” so as to be the face of God’s mercy in the world.
In February, we highlighted Sister Antona Ebo, who became the first African-American nun and one of the first nuns to march for civil rights when she arrived in Selma, Alabama, on March 10, 1965. She was working as a department head at St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, when news of the violent attacks of Bloody Sunday spread across the country. She remembers telling her coworkers, “If I didn’t have this habit on, I would be down there with those people.” The next night she received a phone call her superior, who asked her if she would be part of a 50-member interfaith delegation to Selma from St. Louis. “No,I wouldn’t like to go to Selma,” she responded at first. “I know I do a lot of fussing but I don’t feel bad enough to want to go down there and be a martyr for somebody’s voting rights,” she continued. But eventually Sister Antona, who lives her life by the spiritual “I’m gonna do what the Spirit says do” says “God called [her] bluff” and the next morning she was on her way to Selma. And Sister Antona, who was one of the first three African-American members of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, became a civil rights icon. And she has continued to work for racial justice since. Her witness and her willingness to “do what the Spirit says do” is instructive for all those, including me, wh otoo often find themselves sitting on the sidelines in the fight for justice.
In June we lifted up Sister Norma Pimentel, who works on the nation’s southern border to defend and uphold the dignity of immigrants. Since an initial surge in the summer of 2014, tens thousands of immigrants – many ofthem unaccompanied minors and young women with children – have crossed into the United States through the Rio Grande Valley. The majority are from Central America, particularly Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Fleeing horrific gang violence, trying to rejoin family members, and looking for a way to make a living, they immediately surrender themselves to U.S. Border Patrol hoping that the legal system will allow them to stay. Border Patrol releases hundreds of individuals and families a day with bus tickets and a ‘notice to appear’ at an immigration hearing. “They were just being dropped off at the bus station in heartbreaking conditions,” says Pimentel. Knowing there was more that could be done, in early June 2014 Sister Norma requested permission to set up a way station for immigrant families to receive the physical, spiritual, and emotional care they so desperately needed. “We welcome them with joy and care,” Pimentel says. “My role and my only interest is for the person, the dignity of the human being,” she adds. She has taken her message to the White House and the United Nations in addition to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission--always focusing on the need for humanitarian aid and kindness. Sister Norma Pimentel reminds us that the people who stand next to us – immigrant or not – are not political issues, numbers, or statistics. They are human persons with a right to human dignity and kindness.
Sister Karen Klimczak was our July Woman Witness of Mercy. A summer of volunteer ministry with inmates elicited in her a profound sense of sympathy for people who had spent time in prison. After her experience in prison ministry, Sister Karen returned to her native Buffalo, New York, inspired to develop a ministry for men after their release from prison. In 1985, Sister Karen opened HOPE (Home of Positive Experience) House in an old convent. She also started the Peace Prints campaign to challenge people to commit themselves to non-violence. Sister Karen was tragically murdered in 2006 on Good Friday by one of the former inmates she was trying to help. Fifteen years earlier, after having a premonition of how her life would end, Sister Karen wrote a letter to her killer. It read, in part, “Dear Brother, I don’t know what the circumstances are that will lead you to hurt me or destroy my physical body….I forgive you for what you have done and I will always watch over you, help you in whatever way I can…” Sister Karen’s commitment to non-violence -- even when faced with her own violent end-- is a challenge to a world that too often responds to violence with more violence.
The monthly series contains a biography of the women, a prayer service, connections to Catholic Social Teaching, and practical suggestions for living as a witness of mercy in the world today. FutureChurch commissioned Erie, PA artist Marcy Hall to create beautiful new paintings of each woman. The series, which continues with new releases through November, is being used regularly by many faith communities. Many others have celebrated the witness of at least one of the women. To learn more or purchase a subscription or individual packet visit www.futurechurch.org/womenofmercy.