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Superheroes? None compare to our heroic nuns, the first frontline feminists

Date

Nicholas Kristof

Sister Megan Rice who is serving a prison sentence of almost three years after breaking-in to a nuclear complex in Tennessee, aged 82.

Sister Megan Rice who is serving a prison sentence of almost three years after breaking-in to a nuclear complex in Tennessee, aged 82. Photo: Getty Images

In an age of villainy, war and inequality, it makes sense that we need superheroes. And after trying Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, we may have found the best superheroes yet: Nuns.

‘‘I may not believe in God, but I do believe in nuns,’’ writes Jo Piazza, in her forthcoming book, If Nuns Ruled the World. Piazza is an agnostic living in New York City who began interviewing nuns and found herself utterly charmed and inspired.

‘‘They eschew the spotlight by their very nature, and yet they’re out there in the world every day, living the Gospel and caring for the poor,’’ Piazza writes. ‘‘They don’t hide behind fancy and expensive vestments, a pulpit, or a sermon. I have never met a nun who rides a Mercedes-Benz or a Cadillac. They walk a lot; they ride bikes.’’

One of the most erroneous caricatures of nuns is that they are prim, Victorian figures cloistered in convents. On the contrary, I’ve become a huge fan of nuns because I see them so often risking their lives around the world, confronting warlords, pimps and thugs, while speaking the local languages fluently. In a selfish world, they epitomise selflessness and compassion.

There are also plenty of formidable nuns whom even warlords don’t want to mess with, who combine reverence with ferocity, who defy the Roman Catholic Church by handing out condoms to prostitutes to protect them from HIV.

One of the nuns whom Piazza profiles is Sister Megan Rice. She earned a graduate degree and then moved to Nigeria in 1962 to run a school for girls she had helped establish in a remote area with no electricity or running water. After returning to the  US, she began campaigning against nuclear weapons.

In 2012, at the age of 82, she masterminded the break-in of a nuclear complex in Tennessee, to call attention to the nuclear threat. As she was handcuffed by armed security guards, she sang This Little Light of Mine. She is now serving a prison sentence of almost three years.

I don’t approve of breaking into national security compounds, and I think nuclear doctrine is more complex than Megan probably does. Nonetheless, I admire someone with such commitment to principles.

Another remarkable nun is Sister Jeannine Gramick, who, while working toward a doctorate in mathematics, met a gay Catholic man who asked for religious help. She organised a home service for him that grew into a regular liturgy for gay Catholics in private homes.

In 1977, she helped found New Ways Ministry to support gay and lesbian Catholics. The Vatican tried to suppress her, and her order, the Loretto Sisters, was instructed at least nine times to dismiss her. It passively resisted.

At a time when much of Christianity denounced gays and lesbians, Jeannine was a beacon of compassion and struggled to educate the church she loved.

‘‘People always emphasise sex, sex, sex,’’ Jeannine told Piazza. ‘‘And it isn’t about sex. It is about love. It is who you fall in love with that makes you lesbian and gay. Love is the important thing here, not sex.’’

All this has led the Vatican to investigate and clamp down on nuns in a harsh crackdown that has been referred to as the Great Nunquisition. In 2012, the Vatican reprimanded a group of American nuns for promoting ‘‘radical feminist themes.’’

Piazza quotes a nun who said a friend put it to her this way: ‘‘Let me get this straight. Some priests committed sex abuse. Bishops covered it up. And so they’re investigating nuns?’’

Pope Francis, so far, has continued the crackdown, but he seems more enlightened than his predecessors and maybe he’ll understand that battling nuns is hopeless. Nuns are iron women - and sometimes that’s more than a metaphor.

Sister Madonna Buder, nicknamed ‘‘the iron nun,’’ took up running at age 47 and has completed 366 triathlons. She set her personal best at age 62, and, at age 82, she became the oldest person, male or female, to complete an Ironman triathlon.

In the course of her races, she has broken her arms eight times, her hip twice, her ribs countless times. She runs to and from church, in long pants suitable for Mass, and foregoes a coach.

‘‘My coach,’’ she explains, ‘‘is the Man Upstairs.’’

Forgive us for having sinned and thought of nuns as backward, when, in fact, they were among the first feminists. And, in a world of narcissism and cynicism, they constitute an inspiring contingent of moral leaders who actually walk the walk.

New York Times

12 comments so far

  • I am sure there plenty of people who have very unpleasant experiences of being mistreated by nuns at catholic schools or in catholic orphanages...

    Commenter
    Uncle Quentin
    Date and time
    August 20, 2014, 8:34AM
    • And I think you'll also find that the churches response to those sort of incidences was a stark contrast to the way they handled the priest matters.

      All in all I hasve found some older nuns more strict and disciplinarian, but even this is a aarity and they are usually quickly closeted in some cloister.

      Commenter
      ltl
      Date and time
      August 20, 2014, 2:31PM
  • Piazza quotes a nun who said a friend put it to her this way: ‘‘Let me get this straight. Some priests committed sex abuse. Bishops covered it up. And so they’re investigating nuns?’’
    Says it all.

    Commenter
    Ferrari25
    Location
    Coffs harbour
    Date and time
    August 20, 2014, 8:38AM
    • Its about time nuns were recognised for all the good work they do - quietly - unlike the men at the top of the catholic church hierarchy. They live in splendour in the vatican and in their local parish church properties prancing around in their fancy dresses while the nuns do all the grunge work of actually administering to the catholic masses.
      As usual its the women who do all the unlovely work while men collect all the accolades......so whats new?? Same in all religions.
      Alia

      Commenter
      Alia
      Location
      Sydney Australia
      Date and time
      August 20, 2014, 9:39AM
      • The church is a patriarchy and you just cited the evidence.

        Commenter
        Maxy
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        August 20, 2014, 1:56PM
      • There is a pretty good case for the same comment (men getting all the credit) to apply to society in general, not just religions.

        Commenter
        peter
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        August 20, 2014, 11:22PM
    • And it's good to see some nuns being arrested in Australia for taking a stance about our cruel treatment of asylum seeker kids in in migration detention centres.

      These nuns have joined with other Christian leaders, pastors and lay people at pray-ins, in some minister's and MP's electoral offices,

      Commenter
      Jans
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 20, 2014, 10:00AM
      • The farmers, the doctors, the miners, the builders. These and millions more just like them are the real heroes.
        The nurses, the factory workers, the school teachers, the single parents. The list is endless but certainly does not include any politicians or religious leaders.

        Commenter
        Graham
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        August 20, 2014, 11:47AM
        • No graham.... heroes are individuals not groups...hell there maybe a graham that is a hero too. Strive to be a better man, to do good. If we do that - we just make it. Be thankful there are some nuns that are heroic. We need hero's.

          Commenter
          Badlesmere
          Date and time
          August 20, 2014, 8:52PM
        • So... are you saying that there are no good politicians or religious leaders? And that all farmers/etc are heros? I think you have blinkers on - there are good and bad in every group.

          Commenter
          peter
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          August 20, 2014, 11:24PM

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