By Sister Judith Ann Zielinski, OSF
Franciscan ministry never fails to surprise. Without even trying, I encounter people of all backgrounds, stories, personalities, and histories in my regular days’ work. These folks never fail to inspire me, touch my heart, make me laugh or make me weep.
Several weeks ago I attended a Gospel Mass at an African-American parish. Years ago these Catholics tried to attend Mass at neighboring white parishes and were blocked (by racist attitudes) from doing so. So they purchased a plot of land on the poor side of town and built their own simple church. Today the congregation remains strong and its liturgies–arguably among the best in the diocese– attract the core African-American members as well as white, suburban, university-affiliated people. Some have actually enrolled as members, but all are welcomed without question! After Mass, I observed some parishioners– who looked like they might be eligible for help themselves– sign up to donate holiday turkeys, canned goods and food staples to fill baskets for those in need. As I looked over the list of pledged donations, one woman said to me, ”You need help, honey? Don’t be shy to ask for it!” (And I thought I had somewhat “dressed up” for Mass!)
Two days later, I interviewed high school students at an elite Catholic private school in northeastern Ohio where tuition costs $32,000– a year. International students from China and other nations join American teenagers from affluent families studying in a “Socratic climate” where students and teachers consider themselves “scholars and peers” in classes such as Mandarin and robotics. Students pursue voice and ballet lessons with private tutors; enjoy skating on the school’s two indoor ice rinks; and participate in summer internships at places like the New York Times. However, one junior from India who sings operatically confessed to me that she worries about her mother, a former professional who now cannot work outside her Ohio home due to a pending hearing on her application for US citizenship– now dragging on for over 13 years. With tears in her eyes, she confided, “I feel guilty moving on in my life while she lives imprisoned.”
Three days after that, I found myself on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, listening to stories from elderly Lakota Catholics retelling their experiences at residential Catholic schools of years gone by. By government order, they were taken from their parents, had their hair cut, their given names changed, their Native language forbidden; their culture and traditions crushed. An 84-year-old man recalled his sexual abuse by a cleric when he was 9. “Even today when I hear the slow, quiet s-s-s-s-s-s of a door closing, my stomach tightens,” he said. “That meant a boy was taken from the dorm after lights-out.” A 65-year-old Native woman recalled her entire 2nd-grade class being lined up for punishment when one boy spoke in Lakota and angered the German nun in charge; each child stood with palms up and was rapped sharply with a rod till their skin turned pink. “They told us the Christian God was a God of Love,” she said. “But they were cruel and hurt us, so I never believed them.”
Ministry sends all of us all kinds of people–strangers, friends, family and neighbors, and each person carries a collection of stories, worries, fears, joys and struggles. When people share themselves with us, we usually can’t erase their pain, change their feelings or wipe away all the tears and hurts. That is God’s task. We only need to be present, understand, weep or laugh, and listen.