By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 1Cor 12,26
Saint Paul’s majestic testimony to the organic unity of the Church, the Body of Christ in this world, foretells the pain and sorrow, the gratitude and hope that have poured forth since the tragic murders of Sister Paula Merrill of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and Sister Margaret Held of the School Sisters of Saint Francis of Milwaukee, on Thursday, August 25 in Durant Miss. We are all hurting in the wake of their horrific murders; yet we are all rejoicing over their life-long loving service, and the legacy of their lives.
In recent years the Sisters’ lives were about healing and hope for the vulnerable on the margins of life who came to Lexington Clinic where they worked as nurse practitioners. Prior to their current work, they had been part of the landscape of the Diocese of Jackson and the state of Mississippi for many years, on mission from their religious communities, and in close collaboration with them, in their various assignments. Their faithfulness to the crucified and risen Lord as religious sisters, coupled with their extensive experience in health care and pastoral ministry, empowered them to care for the residents of Holmes County and beyond in a compassionate and professional manner. Sadly, with the passing of each day, it is becoming increasingly more obvious how much they will be missed. Their deaths open up a gaping hole in health care services to the poor where they served.
When we pause to reflect during these sad days, we realize that there are many people whose lives have been affected. Naturally, the members of their families of origin are grieving, supporting one another, and struggling to make sense of their loss. They came from across the United States to be a part of the funeral services. Likewise, the Sisters of their respective religious communities, their families through faith and vows, are sorrowful over the loss of their friends and coworkers in the Lord’s vineyard, relationships that go back 50 years. The small and tightly knit parish community of Saint Thomas in Lexington where Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret had been active parishioners are reeling over the loss of their parish family members. Also, their co-workers at the Health Clinic, numerous residents of Lexington, and other communities in Holmes County, and beyond, encompassing ever widening circles of friends and benefactors, and people of good will, and the far reaching impact of their violent deaths becomes obvious.
An enormous lament has descended upon us, and it will not dissipate any time soon. Yet, already the healing hand of the Lord is at work in our lives. We recall how true are the inspired words from the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament as we continue to wrestle with this harsh reality.
The Lord’s loving kindnesses, indeed, never ceases; they are new every morning. Great, O Lord, is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3, 22-23)
During the Vigil Service at Saint Thomas Church in Lexington on Sunday evening, and during the Memorial Mass at the Cathedral of St Peter the Apostle on Monday morning the faithfulness of the Lord was evident. People from each branch of Sister Paula’s and Sister Margaret’s lives gathered to pray, to meet one another, to console one another, to recount personal stories of the slain sisters, and to hear once again the story that restores us in healing and in hope, the life giving death and resurrection of our crucified Lord. As Christians we return to the foot of the Cross because this is who we are.
At the foot of the Cross we know the mercy of God who has forgiven us for our sins and failures to love. At the foot of the Cross we recall that our dying Lord entrusted his faithful mother Mary, and his beloved disciple John to one another, embodying his words at the Last Supper that we are to love one another as he has loved us. During this past week the Lord’s presence poured forth like the blood and water from his side on the cross in the care, compassion, and consolation that people were extending to one another in the shadow of death. At the foot of the Cross we see the broken and mangled body of the Lord, and we hear his words addressed to God the Father on behalf of his executioners, Father forgive them for they know not what they do. When we too stand at the foot of the Cross the Lord reveals his mind and heart to us, which we believe is God’s loving will revealed in the crucified one. The gift of mercy we have received is to be given as a gift. The love that we know in the Lord Jesus is to be the visible sign of his presence in our love for one another. And, yes, we are to love even our enemies as we know from the Sermon on the Mount and the blood of the Cross, evident in the forgiveness we extend to those who persecute us, hurt us, or even kill us.
This is true for Rodney Sanders, currently facing charges, and whoever else may have perpetrated such a devastating crime. Justice must be enacted, society must be protected, but the violence must not be perpetuated by demanding the death sentence for these capital crimes. A great prophet cut down in his prime in our modern society gave eloquent testimony to the non violent wisdom of the Cross in his words and by his own blood.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Body of Christ is indeed suffering in the aftermath of Sister Paula’s and Sister Margaret’s death, but we are rejoicing over their lives and legacy poured out in loving service, two lights who overcame the darkness.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz