e-mail us

Inside NCR

McCaffrey not average, and neither was Patrick

When a national newspaper calls a nun a “slumlord,” it’s fair to assume she’s no average nun. Last Sept. 26, NCR called Sr. Margaret McCaffrey just that. A member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, her slum holdings included Hospitality House, Mother Stewart House, Katy House and several other places to serve the poor down and out in Shreveport, La.

For nearly 30 years she offered most kinds of service the urban afflicted need. After all that experience of hardship, there she was on our cover laughing a big, hearty laugh. You’d never guess she was dying.

“She is less concerned about death from her relentless lung cancer than she is about the survival of the Christian Service Program,” the article said. She was searching for a successor.

She died Feb. 23.

Since the illness took her to the hospital in mid-December, the staff has kept her charitable empire alive. The board of directors is still searching for a successor. There is a mighty challenge here for someone with whatever it takes -- sanctity perhaps, for starters, but more than that, some genius for bringing out the best in the lives you touch.

In our Feb. 6 issue we launched a new feature we called The Examined Life. The title was my own doing and no one else’s: I did not realize there was a column by the same name in the magazine U.S. Catholic, written for many years by Robert E. Burns, who, it turns out, was associated with NCR in its early days.

Socrates had a mighty fine idea when he allegedly remarked that the “unexamined life” is not worth living, and people have been paying him homage ever since with variations on his theme. Two columns with the same name, however, is one too many.

We have decided to call the column, which is scheduled to appear monthly, Illuminations. This mellifluous tag hints at the occasional inspiration that, if we are lucky, sheds its light on us from above and beyond.

This week the subject is Jane Redmont. The author is -- again -- Arthur Jones, but this does not mean the versatile and prolific Jones will be the only scrivener; others are standing by to pen other memorable lives. We repeat our earlier appeal for suggestions of people who make a good story and combine rumination with illumination.

It would have surprised the daylights out of St. Patrick had he been told that his Confession would be republished by Doubleday late in the 20th century.

“I am Patrick, yes a sinner, and the simplest of peasants, so that I am despised by the majority of men,” the Confession begins. It is a very short tract. Even with the addition of “A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” the (probably apocryphal) “Breastplate” and a couple of prefaces, it is still a slender volume. Yet is has made its mark century after century, touching some chord of the imagination.

After recounting his miserable beginnings, Patrick is soon fired up with divine zeal and puts humility on the back burner as follows: “Even if I am imperfect in so many ways, nonetheless I want my brothers and my family to know my mettle, so that they may clearly recognize the set of my soul” (this new translation is by John Skinner).

There is irony all around. Some say St. Patrick never existed, some scholars say there were two or more Patricks. Whatever his name -- and Patrick is good as any -- someone sat down and wrote this little book during the turbulent fifth century. And now it’s out just in time for Paddy’s Day -- the day we are all Irish and ebullient and wearing green and, God help us, having a drop of the creature. And Patrick is grinning craftily in some snakeless, shamrock-strewn heaven because, whatever he was, he wasn’t Irish, except perhaps by adoption.

The Confession ebbs and flows, from sinking self-pity to high-flying exaltation. It survived because it is somehow timeless and universal. It’s easy to see how the Hispanic Irish, the black Irish and the Jewish Irish could equally claim Patrick on Patrick’s Day.

Our cover story this week tells a similar universal story. Christianity is at last a world religion. A black Holy Family is as authentic as the blond, blue-eyed Jesus so many of us grew up with. Bob McClory’s story of St. Sabina’s Parish is a tale not told often enough about the diversity of Catholicism in America.

The extraordinary sculpture carved by Jerzy Kenar expresses the exuberance black Catholics bring to religion -- an exuberance, incidentally, that the allegedly exuberant Irish seldom demonstrate in church.

African-Americans and Irish-Americans could equally say with Patrick: “I am sure in my mind of one thing: that before I was brought low, I was like some great stone lying deep in mud, until he who is power came and in his mercy lifted me up. Yes, that’s how it was, he did indeed raise me up, for he placed me on the very top of the wall.”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to Irish persons of all races, creeds and colors.

National Catholic Reporter, March 13, 1998