One blessing of being a journalist is the people one meets. There’s quite a range: some stand out wonderfully, while others seem to live only to be difficult, but most do their level best to make themselves and the world a little better.
As a Catholic journalist, one also meets saints. There are “small letter” ones (faith-filled followers of Christ) still on earth — working in schools, parishes and countless areas of ministry at little or no charge (though often at great cost to themselves). Some of these “small letter” saints are no longer with us. But they left behind shelters and food pantries, churches, hospitals and the memories of countless hours given to children, the poor, sick and elderly. All because they loved God and loved spreading the Good News.
Wisconsin has been fertile ground for official saints — the “capital letter” ones with names enrolled in the canon of the church. Just this month (Nov. 8), the Vatican announced that Christian Brother James Miller will be beatified as a martyr. Br. Miller, a native of Polonia near Stevens Point, was martyred in 1982 in Guatemala while serving as a missionary. He was 37.
As a child, I attended Mass with my grandparents at St. Joseph Church in Appleton, where Fr. Solanus Casey (born in Pierce County) celebrated his first Mass on July 31, 1904. The same altar he used was there then. Thirty years ago, my mother gave me a Fr. Solanus relic that she received at the now-closed Monte Alverno Retreat House in Appleton, run by Fr. Solanus’ Capuchin friars. A year ago, on Nov. 18, 2017, Fr. Solanus was beatified in Detroit.
Each of us has met “small letter” saints and, perhaps, even encountered “capital letter” saints.
However, in Catholic journalism, once in a while, you get to interview someone you just know will be a “capital letter” saint.
For me, one was Sr. Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration (based in La Crosse). Her sainthood cause was approved by the U.S. bishops on Nov. 14 and officially opened Nov. 18 by Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson, Miss., the diocese where she lived and worked.
I interviewed Sr. Thea in October of 1987. She was in De Pere as keynote speaker for the Total Catholic Education Congress sponsored by St. Norbert College and the Diocese of Green Bay. She was already suffering the cancer that would claim her on March 30, 1990.
Anyone who ever heard Sr. Thea speak can attest to her power and energy. She was truly what one thinks of as a preacher. She used story, song, personal experience and a true Southern Gospel-style to share her message.
And, yes, she had an edge. We don’t always think people who become “capital letter” saints have an edge, but many do. And she did. Just study the video of her address to the U.S. bishops not long before her death in 1990, about being black in the Catholic Church. You’ll see it.
But as I recently reviewed notes of my one-on-one with Sr. Bowman, what struck me most was how relevant her words are 31 years later. She spoke as a former teacher, condemning the pressures students suffer: “That teacher, that administrator,” she said, “who can hear the child, who can hear the pain, who can hear the loneliness, who can hear the uncertainty, who can hear the disbelief, who can hear the goal, the dream, the ambitions, the desire to be somebody. … That is power.”
This message speaks to teachers of today who still see children bullied and suffering low self-esteem.
Bringing an eerie echo to the constant news of disunity in our country in 2018, Sr. Thea also said, “We need to be cooperative. Your gifts become my gifts. Your talents become my talents. Your light becomes my warmth and my salvation.”
As if she foresaw the divisions of today, she added, “If I start ridiculing you, I’m ridiculing myself because I’m not teaching very well.”
Words to live by, both in 1987 and in 2018. Perhaps the Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman, through her intercession, can help our country again find the road that leads toward unity.