South Hampton’s typical hollow chatter to an abrupt halt last week. Well, not altogether. It just switched subjects, but the subject these pampered mandarins turned to was quite unusual – a nun. Sister Jacqueline Walsh had been struck and left dead by a hit a and run driver of an SUV as she was walking in front of the retreat house where she was spending some time. So very tragic. Especially when one of God’s own is taken from us when there are so few.
Even more tragic was what Sister Walsh had become. Let’s start with the press photo. It must have left most readers scratching their heads. Sister Walsh was in no way identifiable as Sister Walsh. In her street dress she blended very nicely into any ordinary crowd as simply one of the crowd. Nothing special. Nothing unique. Of course, her consecration as a Sister of Mercy some 44 years ago set her aside as extraordinarily unique. She was wedded to Christ and His Holy Church with the privilege of being able to stand out amidst a crowd. Odd, that Sister Walsh would want to surrender that high dignity by trading her stately religious habit for a Kmart party dress. In desperately trying to fit in, she ironically shut herself out. The religious habit made her a magnet for souls hungry for signs of God’s love in a starved secular world. Souls thirsty for transcendence find a veritable fountain in a nun’s habit. The veil covering the head of the religious is equally a cover for man in escaping the pelting rain of our culture’s lies.
Though some Catholics may take this as an eccentric perspective of some by-gone day, it is the constant teaching the Church’s Magisterium. Thus Pope St. John Paul II at St. Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland:
To you… religious: I say: Rejoice to be witnesses to Christ in the modern world. Do not hesitate to be recognizable, identifiable, in the streets as men and women who have consecrated their lives to God… Believe that contemporary men and women set value on the visible signs of the consecration of your lives. People need signs and reminders of God in the modern secular city, which has few reminders of God let. Do not help the trend towards ‘taking God off the streets’ by adopting secular modes of dress and behavior yourselves.”1 October 1978
The Saint returned to the subject of the religious habit once more in a major address to Mothers General in Rome:
… a special witness is… that of a religious garb. It constitutes, in fact, an evident sign of complete consecration to the ideals of the Kingdom of Heaven… It is also a sign of definitive detachment from merely human and earthly interests; it is a sign, furthermore, of poverty lived joyfully and loved, in confident abandonment to God’s providential action.”30 November 1979
Not content with two major mandates to retain the religious habit, the same Pope St. John Paul II returned to it again. Since frequency of repetition invests greater force to magisterial commands, no doubt should exist in any Catholic mind as to the Church’s definitive charge on the wearing of the religious habit:
The modern city, where the sense of the sacred is considerably diminished, needs to find people who are inspired by faith and love; it is not indifferent to a message that is clearly identifiable. Therefore, do not be slow to show your consecration in a visible way, by wearing your religious habit, simple and poor; it is a silent but eloquent testimony.”2 February 1987
Perhaps Sister Walsh was distracted when these pontifical directives were promulgated? Maybe she thought them ambiguous? Open to many interpretations? Any of these benign interpretations seems to stretch credulity. One is only left with the conclusion that Sister Walsh was directly defiant of the wishes of the Roman Pontiff. Truth to be told, Sister Walsh was not alone in the contumacity, it spread like a brushfire through almost every one of the two hundred and fifty-three or so religious congregations in North America. As with any wildfire, the flames of their disobedience left the faith of many souls scorched and forever disfigured.
Once the good sisters departed from the exquisite drama of the religious habit, all manner of anomalies rushed in. Some were epitomized in the reportage of Sister Walsh’s long religious life. One of the more disturbing episodes was reported in the press. Sister Walsh assisted in St. Edward the Confessor (Syosset, NY) as a “pastoral associate”. Try finding “pastoral associate” in any official document of the Holy See, and you will search in vain. It is another one of those dead concepts that rose from the carcass of the ‘spirit of Vatican II’. While it has no true Catholic substance, it nonetheless acts as a toxin to any true Catholic parish, and it is almost always a progressive nun. Sounds rather laudable. After all, for time immemorial Holy Church has depended upon the good nuns and the generous faithful to carry out her Divine work. But this is not what the “pastoral associate” was up to: the “pastoral associate” was the camel’s nose under the tent. It soon became a perfect vehicle for effectively eroding the office of the priest.
To the surprise of no one, this has been the leitmotif of progressive nuns for the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. Not that priests were unwilling hostages. Many of these self-loathing clerics consorted happily in their theological emasculation. Triumphantly standing side by side and hand in hand with priests, the “pastoral associates” could almost taste the realization of their revolutionary dream of women priests. With the greatest caution, they walked a kind of juridical tightrope, carrying out as many duties as are not strictly priestly ones (and, not infrequently, some of those as well). Though not as egregious, the same purposes were being effected by the proliferation of so-called ‘ministers’ littering the landscape of nearly every parish. The net result of all of this was devastating. Slowly, but most surely, the faithful fell like toy soldiers right into the groove methodically planned for them. This whole new Brave Catholic World was embraced as a new normal. By the time the laity awakened to the deformity, it was too late. As Lenin reminded us, tell a lie often enough and the people finally accept it as the truth.
All of this is ample evidence of the slow war of attrition the Catholic Left has waged over the past half century. And, sad to report, they have nearly won. What concessions they could not arm-wrestle from the Holy See, they cleverly won by legerdemain, gaining what they wanted without ever having to call it what it actually is. This has been the record of the past forty years: what begins as a scandalous rupture with the Church’s teaching is slowly accepted as mainstream convention. Cas in point. Sister Walsh was described by one parishioner as organizing parish festivals and “dancing up a storm.” Organizing parish festivals is perfectly wonderful, but a consecrated religious “dancing up a storm”? Hmmm.
All of us felt the jolt of Sister Jacqueline Walsh’s untimely death. Sadly, we have also suffered the jolt of her unseemly conduct as a religious. More sadly, she, and all religious like her, has left a spiritual wreckage of such magnitude that it will take an army of saints dozens of years to repair.
May God be merciful to Sister Walsh. But bruised Catholics like us will not find it easy to show mercy. Not because we are heartless, but because of the heartless ways that she new Nuns have so deeply wounded the Church we so love.
Blows to the Church from her enemies are expected, but blows to the Church from her own are unbearable.