In Praise of Difficult Women

I have been the altar boy at many a funeral, and time does not decrease the frequency of such happenings, but yesterday was a particularly graced moment; I had the good fortune to assist at the funeral of Sr. Mary Milligan, RSHM, at Loyola Marymount University. I was reminded during the ceremony that I have been blessed to spend my life in the company of nuns like Sr. Milligan (I know, I know, they’re technically actually Sisters; shut up).  My father’s sister is an RSHM (Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary), Mary’s order, and they are also one of the sponsoring orders at Loyola Marymount University, the alma mater for myself and for six of my siblings.  Throughout my life, these women have been for me the definition of what it means to serve the church, and have been examples of creative fidelity to our faith—intelligent, joyful, no-nonsense women who called a spade a spade.  I cannot imagine a heaven where they are not in charge.

Mary spoke four languages fluently; she served on Vatican commissions on religious life; she was Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Loyola Marymount University; she was provincial of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary; she was a reserved, tactful, classy woman who always had time for young students in her office; she was also in her later years a seminary professor, teaching Scripture to men at St. John’s Seminary outside Los Angeles.  She was also a student—she and I took New Testament Greek together one semester at LMU, she as a muted expert and me as a loudmouthed arriviste.  She had that certain combination of learning and grace that allowed her to mentor professors and lead institutions while also showing special care to the little guy.  The Marymount sisters use as their motto a phrase from the Gospel of John, “that all might have life,” and Mary epitomized that charism.

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How will we replace her?

I do not mean this just for Loyola Marymount, just for the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, just for her family and friends, but for the entire church.  Where is tomorrow’s Mary Milligan?  Who will replace her and a hundred thousand other women religious in the United States?

One of my theology professors earlier in my training made the following point again and again in a course on American Catholicism: the real sea change in American Catholic life in the next decades will not be the loss of vocations to the priesthood, but the loss of vocations to women’s religious orders.  There was a moment yesterday when I watched Sandra Schneiders, IHM, bless Mary’s coffin, where it occurred to me that we will never see the likes of these women again—women who gained doctorates, ran institutions, cared for the neediest among us, instructed American Catholics from the first grade through their graduate educations, taught generations of Catholics not only their faith but how to understand it critically.  Between Mary Milligan and Sandra Schneiders, there is not an insight into Scripture or an insight into life that anyone short of Christ himself could find.  And these women did it all on pennies, did it all in a church that can seem oftentimes like a boy’s club.  Don’t think so?  Take a look on the Internet at what many Catholics (some of them priests) say about women religious in the United States.  Figures like Mary scare the pants off men who can’t deal with intelligent, assertive women who have the habit of not shutting up.

There are something like 70,000 women religious in the United States still.  When we lose them, we will be less as a church and less as a nation.  I think of Mary, of Peg, of Betty, of Margaret Ellen, of Madeleine, of Bea, of Joanne, of a thousand other Sisters who have been exemplars of the Christian life in my own short existence, and remember how blessed I am and we are to have them.

Jim Keane, S.J.

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Michael Milligan
6 years 5 months ago
Fr. Jim...

Thanks for your lovely comments about my sister, Mary Milligan, RSHM.  I don't think she'd mind me saying that ''she was all that and a bag of chips.''  I can tell you that the unity of spirit and love that we felt inside Sacred Heart Chapel at LMU during her Vigil and Funeral Mass was overpowering.  It is our hope that our sister's life will inspire others to take the next step forward.

paz and blessings,

Mike Milligan 
6 years 6 months ago
Thank you for recognizing ''difficult women'' (your words).  Would that more of your gender do the same!  Oh yes, There are many more of them....they just haven't been noticed yet!
Katherine Lawrence
6 years 6 months ago
beautiful. reminds me of the nuns u knew growing up. 

Once again, I think the problem resides in the unfortunate sexism of the Church. Today's women are used to be equal to men in organizational charts and at home. On this issue, the Church should evolve with contemporary times. 

Why do Jesuits talk about social justice and equalities of outcome in the external world but not about the same ideas within the Church?
Anne Chapman
6 years 6 months ago
Thank you, Fr. Jim.  You have expressed what many of us who were fortunate enough to have known Sr. Mary also know.  She was exceptional - a truly remarkable woman - not only brilliant, but, as you note, ''classy,'' ''tactful'', and especially, a woman of ''learning and grace.''
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
6 years 6 months ago
'Take a look on the Internet at what many Catholics (some of them priests) say about women religious in the United States.'

It is not only recently that priests have expressed their dislike for nuns.  Fr. Roger Kasprick, OSB, editor of Sisters Today from 1963 - 1975, said in the magazine in January, 1979:  'I had never gone to a Catholic grade or high school, so I had never gotten those prejudices against sisters that some priests seemed to have in earlier days.'

RIP, Sister Mary Milligan.
David Harvie
6 years 6 months ago
@ Kate... While the Jesuits sure can do a better job defending themselves than I ever could, check out the recent post about unions and Gergetown.  Our church has at times been woefully anti-union and inconsistent in its employment practices.  It is great to see the Jesuits at Georgetown doing the right thing in paying their workers a living wage.
Matt Donlan
6 years 6 months ago
Kudos, Fr. Jim! Great post. I think it's undeniable that our church has a ''boys club'' ethos. In my opinion, it's deeply unchristian and a great drain on our vitality.
PHYLLIS ZAGANO
6 years 6 months ago
I was there, and you were a grand acolyte. The problem, as you so rightly point out, is not with the women of the Church.
ANNE EGGLESTON MS
6 years 6 months ago
THANKS JAMES-FOR WRITING THIS; FOR STANDING UP AND SPEAKING; FOR RECOGNIZING THE DEPTH AND WISDOM OF A WOMAN WHO IS NOW ''HOME''. SHE WILL WIDEN THE VISION FOR ALL OF US AND EXPAND THE MINDS AND HEARTS THAT REMAIN CLOSED AND/OR SKEPTICAL. AGAIN THANK YOU!
jane eggleston
Molly Roach
6 years 6 months ago
I don't think it's the women in the Church who are difficult.   

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