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God as Sister, God and Sister

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Put “God” in a headline and we can’t help sighting it. Neil Steinberg, columnist in the Chicago Sun-Times did so: “‘Who’s God but us?’ Sister tells it like it is.”
My wife, Harriet, the monitor of syntax and scorner of clichés, who reads the papers over coffee across the table from this “Sighter” might well have questioned the syntax in line one and the cliché in line two.

But she and I would quickly have gotten over any uneasiness as we eased into Steinberg’s column.

He was celebrating Sister Rosemary Connelly, whom he heard speaking at a fundraising lunch. There she said something he’d “never heard spoken before, never mind by a nun.” We’ll talk about her words in a moment.

Steinberg reminded Sun-Times readers that Sister, 45 years ago, was the founder of Misericordia, “the city’s pre-eminent home for those with Down Syndrome and other cognitive disabilities.”

Originally, she was to care for foundlings left by their mothers on church doorsteps but, against the will of the Archdiocese of the time, she transformed Misericordia’s mission and its site.

Steinberg told of Sister’s tale of a heart-breaking moment when she had to turn away a 15-year-old whose desperate mother could no longer lift or care for him. The problem: Misericordia’s beds were full, and the two-year waiting list was 600-people long.

Yet somehow, without violating her self-imposed rules against showing favoritism, Sister was able to help. How is less important than why.

Steinberg and the luncheoners gasped when Sister asked, and then answered her own question: “Who’s God but us? If we don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.”

Jews, Muslims and Christians alike assert that there is no God but God. So Steinberg recoiled: “Who’s God but us? Who’s God but us?”

He did not divulge whether her words were at the edge or the center of blasphemy or idolatry. Instead he contrasted them with all the ways others use “God” to justify their indifference or evil acts.

Then Steinberg imagined what went through Sister’s mind: “OK then, Mr. Lord of the Universe, if you’re going to fail this boy, I guess we’ll have to do the job for you.”

It took two years but Sister raised the money, and the boy has now been at Misericordia for 15 years.

Steinberg: “‘Who’s God but us?’ That’s edgy stuff, Sister, practically sacrilege.” But not over the edge, if you think about what Sister Rosemary Connelly knows and does about priorities in worship and expressions of faith.

I suppose there are more nearly acceptable orthodox ways of approaching what Sister was saying and doing.

My own church body has the motto: “God’s work – our hands.” Every other church body has analogues to it.

But most of us are not much moved by these more cautious ways of expressing the matter while risk-taking Sister takes risks here, ready to face her Maker.

A little theological overreach can be forgiven in a world where indifference usually keeps believers from making a difference.

And I can’t resist adding a word about how “we in the media” often distort the world of religion or religious people by the decisions we make about what makes news and what readers’ or listeners’ or bloggers’ appetites we want to feed.

Conflicts, controversies, stories of abuse deserve to be told and need to be told. But the world of faith and of the faiths also has countless participants who may be less eloquent or capable or dogged than Sister Rosemary.

They are there, quietly working and singing and praying and fundraising and doing and saying “edgy” things that merit attention.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. This article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission.