The first time I ever visited the United States it was to the state of Louisiana in the deep south. Unusually for the south of the US, Louisiana has a relatively healthy Catholic population with some 26% of residents identifying as members of the Church. Other states in the ‘Bible Belt’ like South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee and West Virginia all have Catholic populations of fewer than 10%. In Mississippi just 4% of people are Catholics. You get the point.
So, here I was, an impressionable teenager in a swamp. Imagine my surprise, then, as I was walking through the city of Lake Charles on a blistering hot day when I saw two nuns waiting to cross the road. As I approached, I was even more surprised to hear that they were speaking with Irish accents.
It turns out that they were elderly Irish sisters working in a local hospital. They had gone to the US in the 1950s to work in providing healthcare in vulnerable African American communities in an era of savage racial discrimination.
One sister told me that she had never seen a black person before, but she saw in each and every person she ministered to the face of Christ. What struck me was the ease with which the sisters told stories about how they got so much more out of their vocation than they feel they put in. It was clear to me that they saw the people they worked with not as subjects of charity to be pitied, but cherished sons and daughters of God endowed with dignity by their Creator.
They were but one small example of the reach of Irish missionaries who have gone to every corner of the globe. I have been blessed to travel over the years to some troubled parts of the world where the daily achievement of the people is survival. From Latin America to West Africa, there is one thing in common: I have encountered men and women religious living their lives alongside some of the most vulnerable people in the world. What is remarkable is the fact that these priests, brothers and sisters are not passing through, they have incarnated their ministry with the people that the rest of the world has chosen to forget.
They are often on the frontline in the fight against extreme poverty and exclusion. They bring the light of the Gospel and fresh inspiration to communities who had long since given up hoping for a better life. In short, they are the hands and face of Christ.
One such example honoured for her work last week is Loreto Sr Orla Treacy. Like most of the religious I have met, she is not keen to bask in the limelight, preferring to continue her ministry and accepting the award on behalf of those girls she works with.
Priests and religious have gotten a bad press in Ireland in recent decades. God knows, some of it has been justified. The story of religious life and ministry in Ireland hasn’t always been covered in glory, but it hasn’t been all bad either. We need to reclaim and proclaim the positive legacy of what the Church has done – and is doing – for people all over the globe. Sr Orla is but one part of a vast network of priests, religious and lay pastoral workers. They deserve our prayers, support and our appreciation.
l Every week The Irish Catholic features people (lay, religious or clerical) who are making a difference in their local community in the ‘personal profile’ section of the paper. If you would like to nominate someone for inclusion please email Chai Brady: firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Kelly is co-author of a new book with Austen Ivereigh How to Defend the Faith – Without Raising Your Voice – it is available from Columba Books.