This past week in Orlando, over 3,000 Catholic leaders were educated, inspired, and sent to the peripheries of the world. The occasion for this commissioning was a convocation called together by the U.S. bishops to echo the call of Pope Francis, who has repeatedly summoned the church to the peripheries.
Of the many points made in Orlando, and one that was stressed by Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, is that Jesus is already at the peripheries. The only question is whether he’ll be there alone. Will his followers join him?
As we enter a time of mutual action and discernment, it might be helpful for us to look at some of the holy ones in our Christian tradition. It could be encouraging to see how some of the saintly members of our faith have gone to the peripheries and brought about a great service to the faith and to the human family.
Each of God’s holy ones stand with their own story. We can see the narrative of a saint who loses her son, suffers through a husband’s alcoholism, sees her marriage fall apart, struggles with faith, and yet continues to pour out her life in service to others. And this brief summary is the heroic life of Rose Hawthorne. She is currently a “Servant of God,” which is one of the first steps in the process of becoming a canonized saint.
Rose was the daughter of the Puritan writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of such works as The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Fawn. Rose grew up, therefore, around literary elites of New England, London, and Florence, and was highly cultured.
As a young woman, Rose married the author, George Lathrop. It began as a happy marriage. In 1891, both converted to Catholicism. It was an act that killed their social status since Catholicism was the periphery of that day. It was the religion of the immigrants and the undesirables of society at that time. And so, because of their conversion, Rose and George lost their network of support and many close friends.
The couple, however, soon had a son, whom they named Francis. Tragically, at the age of five, Francis died from diphtheria. The death of her son shook Rose’s life and led her into deep sorrow. It is said that the smile of her son was before Rose’s memory throughout her entire life.
Rose struggled to find meaning in her faith. It was not easy. She wrestled to understand God’s loving care of humanity and fought diligently to keep despair from her soul.
George turned to alcohol to soothe his grief. It was a misguided solution but one that brought him momentary escape. The alcohol quickly became a problem and caused severe problems for the couple. Rose tried to heal her marriage but eventually she and George separated.
In her darkness, Rose chose to serve others and she went to the periphery. She fell on her faith in Jesus Christ and believed that “sorrow builds a bridge” (which would later be the title of her biography) and she turned to others who needed help. The sorrowful-yet-determined woman of faith began to see cancer patients and chose to care for them. In her day, cancer was an untreatable condition that was considered a type of leprosy by society.
Rose went to the forgotten and suffering and she let her sorrow build a bridge of compassion and selfless service to others. By this way of life, Rose’s faith was able to give her comfort and consolation.
When George died, Rose became a religious sister and eventually founded her own convent of Dominicans. The group would join Rose in her work. And, after her death, the “Hawthorne Sisters” would continue an active service to those with cancer and terminal illnesses. This ministry continues today in the church with the good sisters still in the periphery with the sick, suffering, and dying.
The Servant of God Rose Hawthorne was an ordinary person, like each of us. She suffered and mourned, like many of us. Rose, however, did not choose self-pity, resentment, anger, or get stuck in any type of self-absorption, where darkness wins.
Rose stepped up and stepped out. She went to the peripheries and looked for others who were hurting like herself and she sought to be a bridge. In her search to understand her pain and faith, she was led to the peripheries. And there she found, not only those who were sick, but also the presence of God.