NEW YORK — “Pope Francis’s favorite nun,” at least in the United States, will receive the highest honor in the American Catholic Church.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and one of the nation’s strongest champions of immigrants, will be awarded the Laetare Medal, the University of Notre Dame announced on Sunday.
She will receive the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic award at the university’s commencement ceremony on May 20.
During a 2015 virtual papal audience broadcast by ABC’s “20/20,” Francis singled out Pimentel to praise her work of welcoming immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I want to thank you,” said Francis, “And through you to thank all of the sisters of religious orders in the U.S. for the work that you have done and that you do in the United States…is it appropriate for the pope to say this? I love you all very much.”
Following that occasion, Pimentel has been unable to escape the moniker of being one of Francis’s favorite women in religious life.
Since 2008, Pimentel — a religious sister of the Missionaries of Jesus — has overseen the diocese of Brownsville’s charitable operations. In 2014, she served as point person for organizing the emergency response to the surge in Central Americans crossing the border to seek asylum.
In her capacity as executive director of Catholic Charities, Pimentel is responsible for programming that includes pregnancy care, housing assistance, and emergency food and shelter programs for four countries in the Rio Grande Valley.
“Jesus said, ‘When I was a stranger, you invited me in.’ Sister Norma Pimentel has given her life to welcoming Christ in the immigrant and refugee,” said Father John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. in a statement announcing the decision.
“In awarding her the Laetare Medal, Notre Dame celebrates her witness of seeking and generously serving Christ in the most vulnerable,” Jenkins said.
Pimentel was born in Texas and raised along the Mexico-U.S. border. She is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, but grew up crossing back and forth from Brownsville to Matamoros, Mexico — the very location where she now dedicates her life’s work.
She holds degrees from Pan American University, St. Mary’s University, and a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Loyola University Chicago.
Pimentel told Crux that she found out that she would receive the Laetare Medal on New Year’s Day, and was both shocked and humbled.
“I never imagined that the work we do daily would be given a wider platform to bring forth the cries of the suffering for the world to hear. It helps us all realize the importance of witnessing as a Catholic Community to Christ’s suffering in the suffering immigrant,” said Pimentel.
“While I am so honored and humbled to receive this honor, I also know that it reflects the larger community’s witness to honor God’s glory by welcoming our immigrant brothers and sisters,” she added.
Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville told Crux that the decision to recognize Pimentel is an honor for all of the Rio Grande Valley.
“Sister Norma has dedicated her life to being a living sign of Christ Risen responding to Christ Crucified in our midst. This is the way of Christ, and it must be the way of the Church,” said Flores.
“I consider Sister a great friend and source of encouragement. She is a servant who invites others to join in the joy of serving. In that sense she exemplifies how, by always working together, a poor church can serve the poor. And in this way she expresses what is especially beautiful about the enculturation of the faith in the whole Rio Grande Valley. By the grace of the Savior, this is a good and generous people,” Flores continued.
“The immigrant, the flood victim, the young person needing counseling, are not statistics, for Sister they are real flesh and blood persons with great dignity; they are Christ. She sees and she responds, and she helps us all see and respond,” he told Crux.
The Laetare Medal is announced each year on the fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Laetare Sunday. The University of Notre Dame established the award in 1883 to serve as the American counterpart to the Golden Rose, a papal honor that goes back to the 11th century.
The award has a rich history in American Catholic life, with previous recipients including President John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Day, Vice President Joe Biden, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, though it has not come without occasional controversy.
When Notre Dame awarded it to Harvard professor and former United States Ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, in 2009, she turned down the award in protest of the university’s decision to bestow an honorary doctorate to then newly elected President Barack Obama citing his support of abortion rights.
At this year’s ceremony, Judge Sérgio Moro, an anti-corruption activist in Brazil, will deliver the 2018 commencement address and will receive an honorary doctorate.
The Laetare medal bears the Latin inscription, Magna est veritas et praevalebit (“Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail”) and recipients of the annual award are honored for their distinguished work “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”
While the award is recognition of one individual’s accomplishments, Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the USCCB’s Office of Migration and Refugee Services, told Crux that the decision to honor Pimentel serves a dual purpose in acknowledging the Church’s longstanding commitment to immigrants and refugees.
“Sister Norma being this year’s recipient represents a larger theme as well—it signals an acknowledgment of the tireless Catholic service providers on the ground who help welcome and accompany immigrants and refugees every day,” said Feasley.
“What makes Sister Norma and the Humanitarian Respite Center so remarkable is the community response that she was able to inspire. The Rio Grande Valley is a community in formation to serve and care for arriving refugee and immigrant families, and Sister Norma and the Catholic Church have been the central and unifying element of that effort,” Feasley told Crux.
“She is a leader by example and action,” Feasley said.