As we breathe a sigh of relief to have left 2020 behind, we know that neither a new president nor a COVID-19 vaccine will heal the divisions that split across our country over the past year. Even before the horrific events in D.C. and the predictable fallout — disagreement over basic facts, finger-pointing, social media flare-ups — that ensued, I knew that I wasn’t alone in discovering the rifts that lay dormant in many of my relationships.
Just before Christmas, I reached out to an old friend in a convent: Sr. Anna Rose Ciarrone, TOR. In the course of our friendship since college, she has remained one of the most insightful, fair, and compassionate people I know. Our conversation quickly became vulnerable as we discussed how the wounds of 2020 — loneliness, suspicion, and tribalism, to start with — have manifested themselves in our very different lives and crept into our own Catholic communities. (As it turns out, not even semi-cloistered religious sisters can escape political discord — something I find strangely hopeful, as a reminder that we can never outrun the beautiful, challenging call to community.)
We lamented our frustrations and pain at seeing a country and Church divided, especially among women, who, despite falling into the same partisan camps as others, can still find ourselves intimately knit together through the sharing of events like childbirth, miscarriages, marital struggles, and health crises. Sr. Anna Rose and I kept coming back to the idea of the feminine genius, the term coined by St. John Paul II to describe woman’s unique, God-given gifts that enliven the world.
Are there ways in which women are naturally suited to bring sorely-needed healing?
How can we feel capable of that work when we’re dealing with our own wounds?
Why has it felt so much harder to love someone I disagree with than it has in previous years?
Below are five highlights from our conversation — but first, I’d like to begin with this caveat from Sr. Anna Rose: Far from making sweeping generalizations about one gender, there are as many ways for the feminine genius to manifest itself as there are women.
“Wherever you are, do it with the femininity the Lord’s given to you,” she said. There are many places and means to bring healing.
1. Your Femininity Is a Strength in These Times. Let It Flourish.
“It’s always hard to speak in generalizations, but I think there is something built into us [as women], the way the Lord made us with a particular capacity to be attentive to the other person — an awareness to not just things and facts but other persons,” Sr. Anna Rose said. “And where there’s so much brokenness, it’s unsurprising that women would be feeling that.”
Even a simple gesture of companionship — “just by our presence, to communicate with another that it’s good you exist, and I’m with you” — can resonate in a time of intense isolation and loneliness.
Even a simple gesture of companionship can resonate in a time of intense isolation and loneliness.
2. Cling to Christ, Especially When Wounds Come From Within His Church.
“There are wounds in all of us, and I think we’re in a place where our wounds are brushing up against one another more,” Sr. Anna Rose said, carefully reflecting on the fraught atmosphere not just in the wider culture but also in our parishes, families, and intimate circles. “We’re in a time that is very difficult, and sometimes, those wounds get exacerbated more, and it hurts more when those wounds come from people and institutions we instinctively think we should trust.”
We talked about how the past year’s tensions seemed to go deeper than basic political disagreements. Whether stemming from the wildly disparate responses to COVID-19, the agonizing turmoil over racial injustice, or the brutal election on top of it all, both measured debates and internet screeds plunged down to more fundamental and, frankly, terrifying questions: Whose way of life is worth preserving? Whom can I trust for basic information? Who’s in my way? Whom should I be afraid of?
Even — or especially — in Catholic circles, realizing, “I thought we all kind of agreed on a basic level about some things, but maybe we don’t” can be shaking, Sr. Anna Rose said. But “ultimately, who was I leaning on in the first place? If [it] wasn’t Christ, I’m going to start feeling shaky really fast.”
“Who was I leaning on in the first place? If [it] wasn’t Christ, I’m going to start feeling shaky really fast.”
What’s the way out? “It’s only by looking to Christ, and looking at how He’s loving me and working in me, that I have the courage to face my wounds and the wounds of others, however they’re interacting on any given day.”
He is our hope of restoration.
3. Look at Your Brother or Sister as a Whole Person, Not as a Representative of an Ideology.
We’ve quickly come to identify people based on one “part” — a supporter of this candidate or an example of the reasons behind the pandemic’s stress. Sr. Anna Rose said, “We reduce people to ideology, and yet the feminine genius works against that in its nature, because [women] have the capacity to see people deeper than that.”
“We reduce people to ideology, and yet the feminine genius works against that in its nature, because [women] have the capacity to see people deeper than that.”
In his recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to expand our notion of who our neighbors are: “[Jesus] asks us not to decide who is close enough to be our neighbour, but rather that we ourselves become neighbours to all” (80).
Drawing from that statement, Sr. Anna Rose posed a challenge: “Can I step back from the ideologies I hold as a shield, and can I see you? That requires quite a bit of vulnerability and the humility to not choose who deserves mercy or deserves to be listened to.”
If the new year comes with a post-2020 examination of conscience, perhaps this restored vision of the whole human person should be at its heart: How do we encounter others? Is our approach human at its core?
4. Don’t Believe the Lie That Your Efforts as a Woman Don’t Matter.
Sr. Anna Rose confessed that early in her life with her religious community, she wrestled with the question of whether her work was enough. The sisters’ main apostolates are providing campus ministry to college students and ministering among the poor. She grew to find beauty in its simplicity, though — “We do a whole lot of being with” — and the slow litany of “one meal, one clothing assist, one conversation at a time.”
“We’re not necessarily changing social structures, we’re not doing ‘big things,’ but we’re walking with a college woman and helping her grow closer to the Lord in prayer, or listening to students say, ‘I’ve never told anyone this, but I feel I can trust you,’” she said. “It’s a very feminine way of healing, because it’s focused on the person — it’s that capacity to see, to welcome, to nurture.”
Still, it’s easy to succumb to despair (“That person is going to go back and use again, drink again”) and believe the lie that our efforts are futile. Don’t fall for it. Sr. Anna Rose said, “I’m part of the body of Christ, and therefore, every single little thing I do matters. Every single time I choose love and choose forgiveness and choose mercy, it’s bringing Christ to life more fully … It’s making that act of faith that Christ is there. I can’t think of any other place to start to heal, because everything else will be too big or impractical.”
“Every single time I choose love and choose forgiveness and choose mercy, it’s bringing Christ to life more fully.”
5. You Need to Receive Mercy in Order to Bring Mercy to the World.
Sr. Anna Rose’s community, the Franciscan Sisters TOR of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother, looks to the image of crucified love and mercy as its main charism — the very moment of Jesus’ broken body on the Cross, pouring healing out to the people underneath.
“Healing for each person, each woman, starts there,” she said. “Can I receive His mercy in myself and hear Him say it’s good that I exist?”
She said she was recently struck by how the sheer ugliness of that moment — Christ’s open wounds and ravaged body — is the pathway for our own healing, especially when we feel too damaged to ask for it. Meditating on those wounds “can be a prayer, even if it doesn’t feel very pious or pretty,” she said. “On the Cross, He looks like me, He’s wounded and messy.”
“It’s so easy to look at the problems in the people around us, but can I look at myself and accept the fact that I need healing?” Sr. Anna Rose said. “Lay that bare before the Lord and go from there. And then, I can more authentically show the Face of Mercy to my sisters.”
That mercy has inherently feminine characteristics, something that’s been recognized for thousands of years. It comes from the Hebrew root rehem, or womb, and in the Old Testament, it’s the word used to describe the Lord’s maternal tenderness and patience toward His people. In his writings on mercy, Pope Francis consistently gives it the actions of a nurse or mother: “mercy caresses,” “mercy binds the wound,” “mercy leans down to lift up the afflicted.” By its very nature, the work of incarnating mercy to a broken world lends itself to the feminine genius.
Mercy has inherently feminine characteristics, something that’s been recognized for thousands of years.
And it starts at the Cross, with a receptive heart open to her own healing.
“That’s where it needs to begin,” Sr. Anna Rose said. “And hopefully, the Lord will use that so I can be an agent of healing.”