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.
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.