Sometimes, to prove how authentically Catholic my family is, I’ll mention my aunt who is a nun and my uncle who is a priest (they’re brother and sister.) My earliest memory of my aunt Marian, a Sister of St. Joseph, was when I was five years old and asked my mother if Marian could come over to play after a holiday reunion. My mom was happy to comply, but she did pull me aside before Marian came home with us, instructing me that I was not to say anything around Marian about how I thought going to church was boring. I was not to say anything negative about church or religion at all.
I remember playing card games with Marian that night, carefully watching every word that slipped out of my mouth to ensure it was controversy-free.
Fast forward about ten years, and I’m a young teenager. I no longer find church boring; in fact, I’m more engaged in my faith than I ever have been before. But for the past four years, I’ve been angry — mostly about the injustice of barring women from the priesthood.
I don’t remember daring to mention my “beef” with the Catholic Church to Marian, but word somehow got out to her.
That’s when she gave me her copy of She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. As I stood in the doorway of my kitchen with her, the book in my hands, I realized something amazing: she had devoted herself to God; she was officially affiliated with the Catholic Church; and she agreed with me.
Although I started the book, it was a little over my head at age 14, and I put it aside after getting about one-third of the way in. Still, it was enough to know that such a book existed, and that I wasn’t the only one asking these questions. Many years later, I ran into my aunt Marian when I attended my first CTA-sponsored event — Reverend Regina Nicolosi’s first Mass. Although we hadn’t known we’d find each other, we sat together and I cried tears of joy and gratitude throughout most of the service. Marian and I attended the National CTA conference together in 2008, and while I was between the ages of 14 and 30, we had many conversations about Church reform and social justice. She became something of a spiritual and activist mentor to me, as well as an example of what it looked like when justice ideals were fully incorporated into the way one lives her life. Although I still haven’t gotten around to finishing She Who Is, around it has sprung up a collection of dozens of similar books by John Shelby Spong, Robert McClory, Joan Chittister, and others. As I got to know my aunt Marian better, I came to see that she was a far cry from the stereotypical nun my mother had once mistakenly thought she was, poised to take offense at a little girl’s frustration with forced church attendance.
Marian wasn’t the only one who encouraged me to keep asking the hard questions — about the Church and about the world. I was also blessed to have parents who acknowledged, “You’re right, it’s not fair,” rather than try to change my mind, and it was a Sister of St. Benedict from my alma mater who sent me to Regina Nicolosi’s Mass. But I remember Marian in a special way now because she completed her walk on this earth last Friday. Although my heart is breaking, all I have to do is look at She Who Is on the bookshelf, surrounded by its many compatriots, and I’m filled with gratitude for the gifts she gave me before she left: the first book in my now-extensive progressive spirituality collection, a listening ear, and a willingness to engage each and every question.