There is a dead nun buried in a church in Tocoa, Honduras.
This is the first time I can ever recall seeing such a thing. I’ve been to a lot of churches, but never seen a nun buried inside a Catholic church. I’ve seen bishops and cardinals. I’ve even seen women who have founded religious orders, and women who are saints buried inside Churches, but never just a random nun.
I didn’t record her name, but I talked with one of the parishioners to discover that she had been a nun who worked in the parish of St. Isidor el Labordor for over thirty years. She was so deeply loved by the community that she was buried inside the church, next to the altar. I captured a picture of her tomb and the parish which you can view if you have downloaded Google Earth onto your computer. Once you have done so, click here to view the images.
What a beautiful way to represent the gift of self, given to others in through her very life, now remembered in death. It is the first tomb time I had seen anything like it, but with the state of religious life as it is, I also had to wonder if it would be the last?
“Oh no! Gringo girl got it wrong. Dis dress go’n look muy nicer wit sum lace on it! She go’n thanks Maria.” One of the volunteers says, mimicking the accent of a local Honduran chica.
Everyone in the back of the truck started laughing, as I have yet another absurd conversation with the United States volunteers of Finca del Nino. This time I am talking with mostly the women volunteers.
One of the favorite conversations of post graduate women that I know seems to be the giddy hope of marriage. These young ladies are no exception. The difference with them is that they have a strange preoccupation not only with marriage, but also with social justice. The previous statement was made after one young women proposed a nifty idea, “Wouldn’t it be great to hire dressmakers from Honduras to sew the bridal gown and bridesmaids dresses for your wedding?”
Everyone agreed, not only that it was a good idea, but also that the Honduran women would probably dress patterns the gringos sent “spice-up” the dresses according to their own, very unique tastes.
“Hey!” I interject, “I know Catholics in Sierra Leone. I could have them help us get involved in the shipping of a diamond to make sure that it was legitimately mined, the workers were fairly compensated, and treated with integrity.”
“That’s it… we’ll start a whole business of wedding planners for the socially conscious nuptial.”
“Right! We’ll call it ‘How Would Jesus Wed?’ or HWJW for short!”
It is a somewhat awkward conversation for me to be having amid a group of single American women from the United States. It is even more awkward because when I see these women, I keep seeing the facial structures and voice patterns of nuns that I have known in the past.
“…She looks like Sr. Mary Thomas… she looks like Sr. Joan….”
It is interesting, but disarming. Yes. They remind me of religious women, but here they are talking about marriage.
I know that part of their preoccupation with the marriage conversation comes as a reaction from the atypical choice they have made about relationships while living in Honduras. The community of volunteers has “no-dating policy” which means that volunteers come to Honduras accepting the knowledge that they cannot date each other. When you live on the back stretch of nowhere, it is difficult to find other peers to date, so it basically means that volunteers who come to the Finca del Nino postpone their romantic interests for two years, save for the few who are married and/or engaged.
Such a contrived reality, along with my mind continually mistaking the identities of these young women as nuns that I know, led me to ask many of them “Why are you here, and not in a convent to become a nun?”
Their answers amuse me.
“I just don’t feel called.” “I might still like to have a family.” “Obedience is important and all, but I also don’t want to lose my freedom.”
I get a lot of excuses when I ask the question, but I don’t get a lot of reasons. So my supposed powers of analysis has been trying to extrapolate a reason “Why these girls are not in religious orders?” from the conversations I have had.
When I asked a group of novitiates in India why they were becoming nuns, the novitiates told me, “Because we want to serve others.”
When I ask a group of American post-graduate volunteers why they volunteer, they say, “Because we want to serve others.”
Both responses fascinate me. The answers are the same, but the variable is the society from which they came.
It should not be a great epiphany to say that the culture of the United States is different from the culture of India, and really from than the rest of the world. Americans have this obsession with freedom and independence that defines the greater part of who we are, a deep suspicion that no commitments ever really last, and the resistance to make life long choices when our life expectancy over doubles the life expectancy that it was a hundred years ago.
The culture of the Church in the United States is different too. Roman Catholics in the United States have this unhealthy preoccupation with sexual ethics, while simultaneously having exposed the scandal of numerous cover-ups of sexual impropriety within our clergy. The power and corruption within the church, played out in the press, has disappointed hundreds of thousands of church goers. To become a part of that system as a young person, whether to become a priest or a nun, gives others the impression that the candidate is either truly inspired, or grossly disturbed. (I tend to subscribe my beliefs to the former rather than the latter, which either makes me naive, or very hopeful.)
These things are signs that the culture of the Church in the United States has really changed.
Fifty to Sixty years ago, if a woman in the United States had any substantial hope of becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a head of a University, or head of a hospital, if a woman wanted to serve others, some of her best opportunities were found in the structures of the Catholic Church. Such a reality is still the case for many cultures throughout the world, which is one reason why the Indian novitiates gave the response that they did. In the United States however, if the intelligent, ambitious, faithful women, who are working at the Finca del Nino wanted to seek the same positions, they would probably feel somewhat limited by religious life. They can achieve the same dreams without binding themselves to an institution. In fact, they already are achieving the same dreams without binding themselves to an institution.
Let’s look at things in a very matter of fact way. I’m living on a Honduran beach in which amazing young women are giving the gift of themselves to serve orphans. They gather in prayer twice a day, they live in poverty, they live in community, they support one another, and they’re happy. In my conversations with them, I’m trying to find substantial differences between what they do, and what women and men in religious orders have done in the past, and all the differences seem superficial – lack of trust in scandalized institutions, personal autonomy, desire for continued discernment – mere variables which can be better attributed culture changes rather than disregard for God’s calling in their life.
The most radical interpretation of recent history in the Church in the United States is to say that religious congregations of women are a thing of the past. Vocation counts are down. Congregations all over the States are making exit strategies, consolidating resources for retirement, and planning nursing homes in which their remaining members will die. For many religious congregations in the United States, there is growing resentment about the funds poured into recruitment that are showing so little return, and prayer groups in churches pray for vocations with the dissonant pang of desperation.
Why are we panicking?
Do we really believe that God doesn’t provide for the Church? Do we really believe that the God who could take torture and death on a cross and turn it into resurrection doesn’t know how to adjust to the social realities of the twenty-first century? God has worked with the changes of social systems and cultures for several millennium, is there any good reason to think that God doesn’t know how to guide the Church now after doing so for so long?
Society has changed and is changing, and with those changes, the expression of religion has changed and is changing. If we know where to look, and are humble enough to take the time to look, we might notice that there are absolutely amazing things going on in the Church. There are hundreds of women and men, like the ones serving at Finca del Nino, who are serving the Church, but in their own unique way. Sure, these men and women are not exactly the same as the brothers and nuns of past generations, but they are not that different either.So I’m not worried. That tomb in the church is not an allegorical representation of the death of religious life. It is not the last tomb of a woman who has given her life in the service of the community that I expect to find in a church (in a Jesuit parish no less). There is a future for the Church, for the people of God, that exceeds the great deeds of the past and our broadest imagination of the future. It is a future in which bold women and men will serve with everything they have, and even ask delightful questions like, “How Would Jesus Wed?” and follow the answers that they discover, with joy in their hearts.