The Sisters of Life are no strangers to readers of the Human Life Review. But they pretty much were to me before my Bishop invited one of them, Sr. Virginia Joy, to speak to the clergy and lay ministers of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. I had no idea what I had been missing.
Viewed from a certain angle, Sr. Virginia Joy should not have been a big hit. Her lessons for the ministers might be described as “Pastoral Communications 101,” of the sort that have been routinely taught to seminarians over the past three decades:
- “Listen actively.”
- “Only when necessary, ask open-ended questions.”
- “Echo back to your interlocutor what you perceive to be his or her emotional state.”
- “Don’t be too quick to insert your own advice or parallel experience, no matter how much you might feel you’re identifying with the speaker.”
Yes, yes, I’ve heard all that before, and many times over.
But Sister’s application of her teaching—to first encounters with mothers in the sort of distress that leads them to solicit abortions—was indeed a revelation to me. She told us stories of how her listening led to moments of true vulnerability, when mothers preparing for abortion shed their defensiveness and indignation and instead opened themselves to mercy and help from others—thus saving not only their babies, but arguably also their souls and those of the people nudging them toward abortion. Sister’s stories reawakened in me an awareness of the awesome potential of authentic compassion: Because God wills that we learn to truly love one another, the actual practice of loving others acquires a power to stimulate conversion—which no amount of argument or pressure can ever do.
Not all my brother priests were so moved. One complained that listening is for females; true leaders are more about action than talk. Another resented that the non-ordained would presume to instruct the ordained. Three claimed they were absorbed in administration and couldn’t be bothered with such topics, and a few more insisted they’d already learned these lessons in seminary.
None of the complainers seemed to have tempered their criticism with any consideration of Sister Virginia Joy’s impact on their fellow clergymen. In that respect they remind me of Jesus’ lament about the scribes and the Pharisees of his day, who were too often more concerned with their own prerogatives and scholarly status than with the effect of their religious regulations on the typical Jewish household:
For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen.
For Sister did indeed have a saving impact on so many of the other clergymen. For a few, who had grown very cynical in response to the exploitation of the abortion issue in politics, Sister became a reminder that the pro-life position remains the position of true compassion for both mother and child. For a few others, the basic listening skills reviewed by Sister became an invitation to renewed hope and vigor—in the words of one cleric, a salutary warning that loving people does not mean we are cooperating with the evil they may do.
And for still a few others, Sister herself was an invitation to a deeper conversion toward Jesus in pastoral charity: “How can I become more like Sr. Virgina Joy?”
Like those complaining clergymen, prolifers may sometimes be tempted to prioritize their own accomplishments over the good of the cause they claim to advance. Whatever our role is in advancing the pro-life cause, let’s make it a point to remember that our movement is strengthened, not weakened, as our colleagues mature. Even when we don’t need to learn the lessons they still need to learn—even when those lessons come in imperfect ways—let’s not get in the way of converting others to the cause, people who may one day come to the aid of mothers and children!