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Sister Sally Sherman

| Wednesday, March 8, 2023

All I could see was the white popcorn ceiling and a bright fluorescent light in the corner of the screen. We were on FaceTime and although I couldn’t really see her face during this call, she wasn’t caked in her normal gorgeous smile and glowing personality. Pain seeped through the screen and shame lined every word out of her mouth.

Summer brings me back to the beginning of COVID in a lot of ways: distant from those we love, unable to provide the hugs we so deeply yearn for and scattered throughout different time zones — which can make it even harder when the people we care so dearly about are so ferociously hurting.

My friend had unprotected sex with a guy. She had to take the morning-after pill. Even worse than the scary run-in with trying to handle the slip-up was the shame and baggage she carried in the weeks since.

She’s someone I look up to a lot; kind, loving, warm, smart and driven. She’s what any parent would dream of their child being and anyone would be overjoyed to share the gift of friendship with her.

I’m not here to have my own doctrinal battle with the Catholic Church’s stances on sex and abortion, though we have many disagreements. I think a more interesting question is how we respond to situations like my friend’s. 

A lot of Christians use their Christianity like a teacher running between folks with a moral measuring stick: telling others how far from the ceilings of Christ they are and how close to the floor and eternal damnation they are.

Many Christians weaponize and attack others, arming parents and families with poisonous words that load a bazooka of shame, hurt and sadness to break apart people in an attempt to “save them.”  

When I tell most people I’m Catholic, they seem to do an algebraic equation because they don’t understand my deep reverence for the faith. I’m queer, I hand out condoms like Oprah hands out cars and my political beliefs are far more progressive than the Church as a whole. 

Salvation and the Church, to me, are about a way of existing in the world. My late great aunt Sister Sally Sherman embodies what I think the Church at its best is. 

Sister Sally Sherman was a Sister of Mercy for 64 years. She is just about the holiest woman I’ve ever met. Sister Sally spent her life jumping into the thick mud of suffering with those on the margins of society. Going to the south side of Chicago to work on racial justice and anti-poverty work in the ‘80s. A fierce advocate against militarism in the early 2000s. And, during the 2010s, a prolific advocate for the radiating love of Christ.

She discussed her discernment of the faith as going back to the roots, “outreach to people who were poor, people who were disadvantaged.” Her faith was action. Her spirituality was meaning-making. 

In her reading of the Bible, Jesus only really asked two questions that determined his actions. One, who is power oppressing? And two, who is religion missing? Then, he went with those people, walked with them, ate with them and fought for justice with them. She saw Jesus as a healer, a reconciler, someone who ran around with hugs and food, not yardsticks and retribution.

In the early 2000s the battles over gay marriage were a political and religious bloodbath and still are today. Priests were being exiled, excommunicated and barred for so much as helping out with a gay wedding — not even presiding. 

When my gay dads came to my great aunt to ask if she could officiate their ceremony she responded, “No question, yes.” Knowing the political climate within the Church, my dad pushed further, asking “Are you sure with all the priests currently being excommunicated for it?” 

“The Church doesn’t let me officiate ‘real’ marriages, so I’d like for them to come after me for performing a ‘sham’ one,” she huffed.

She represents the Church at its best — built on a foundation of love, meeting people where they’re at and fearlessly defending them in the face of oppression. 

My family is a typical midwestern one, savagely dedicated to demolishing each other in card games. Sister Sally was no different. All her mercy, compassion and holiness left when she sat down at the card table for a game of Euchre. In one game of hearts when I was 10, she gave me the queen of spades five separate times.

She knew that love involved some toughness at times but was unlike those within the Church who would argue that toughness should define the majority of our ministry in running between people with our moral yardsticks.

Jesus and my great aunt were tough about justice and righteousness, but they always started with the people. Providing the ministry the person is calling out for and then dealing with the weighty moral questions. Even if they disagreed vehemently with the actions or behaviors. 

My favorite stories in the Bible are when Jesus is eating, talking, walking and working with sinners. Ministry was not the art of being in community with those who were holier than the ceilings, but communing with those on the floor. As Jesus says in Mark 2:17, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

It was always about meeting people in their humanity and then dealing with matters of spiritual matters beyond. Sister Sally taught me to meet people, not pass judgment or assume a moral framework for them. We can guide others based on our ideals, but we shouldn’t push those on other people or turn away a person from help when they are calling out for it.

When I think of my friend I know what Sister Sally would have done — sat on the phone and figured out how to help her. No judgment. No holding back. Rushing into the fires with no regard for anything but being there for my friend. It’s what defined her life and it’s what should define the Church.

Dane Sherman is a junior at Notre Dame studying American Studies, peace studies, philosophy, and gender studies. Dane enjoys good company, good books, good food and talking about faith in public life. Outside of The Observer, Dane can be found exploring Erasmus books with friends, researching philosophy, with folks from Prism, reading NYTs op-eds from David Brooks/Ezra Klein/Michelle Goldberg or at the Purple Porch getting some food. Dane ALWAYS wants to chat and can be reached at @danesherm on twitter or [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Dane Sherman

Dane Sherman is a first year Philosophy major from Seattle, Washington.

Contact Dane