While some Catholics may not agree with every point in Nicholas Kristof's latest column in the New York Times, it's hard to argue with his words of praise for the many nuns and priests working and living in some of the world's poorest countries. These men and women, dedicated to humbly serving the poor, far outnumber the priests and bishops who committed sexual abuse or contributed to the cover up. Kristof writes with admiration about the clergy and women religious he's met in his travels, including Father Michael Barton, a Catholic priest from Indianapolis, who now lives in southern Sudan.
He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of statewide examinations.
Father Michael came to southern Sudan in 1978 and chatters fluently in Dinka and other local languages. To keep his schools alive, he persevered through civil war, imprisonment and beatings, and a smorgasbord of disease. “It’s very normal to have malaria,” he said. “Intestinal parasites — that’s just normal.”
Father Michael may be the worst-dressed priest I’ve ever seen — and the noblest.
Anybody scorn him? Anybody think he’s a self-righteous hypocrite?
On the contrary, he would make a great pope.
In the city of Juba, I met Cathy Arata, a nun from New Jersey who spent years working with battered women in Appalachia. Then she moved to El Salvador during the brutal civil war there, putting her life on the line to protect peasants. Two years ago, she came here on behalf of a terrific Catholic project called Solidarity With Southern Sudan.
Sister Cathy and the others in the project have trained 600 schoolteachers. They are fighting hunger not with handouts but with help for villagers to improve agricultural techniques. They are also establishing a school for health workers, with a special focus on midwifery to reduce deaths in childbirth.
At the hospital attached to that school, the surgeon is a nun from Italy. The other doctor is a 72-year-old nun from Rhode Island. Nuns rock.
Sister Cathy would like to see more decentralization in the church, a greater role for women, and more emphasis on public service. She says she worries sometimes that if Jesus returned he would say, “Oh, they got it all wrong!”
She would make a great pope, too.
There are so many more like them. There’s Father Mario Falconi, an Italian priest who refused to leave Rwanda during the genocide and bravely saved 3,000 people from being massacred. There’s Father Mario Benedetti, a 72-year-old Italian priest based in Congo who fled with his congregation when their town was attacked by a brutal militia. Now Father Mario lives side by side with his Congolese congregants in the squalor of a refugee camp in southern Sudan, struggling to get schooling for their children.
Kristof points out, as we did in our recent editorial, that the Catholic Church is larger than the Vatican. He concludes with a bit of advice for those quick to scorn the church as a whole: ...[U]nless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church.
Check out his accompanying video here.