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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I Heart Nuns

     Mumble-mumble years ago as an eighteen-year-old fresh out of high school, I traveled to Europe basically alone. The world was not nearly as violent a place then as it is now, but it was not as safe as we like to remember either.
     Baader-Meinhof still terrorized German cities. A year earlier, Palestinian guerrillas had marred "Mark Spitz's" Olympics. The student uprisings of the 1960s, which we now know were over and done with by the Summer of 1973, threatened to re-erupt, as the war in Vietnam dragged on. And on.
     If all that were not enough, Richard Nixon's Watergate saga had grabbed the U.S. by the throat and bred distrust across the country. Distrust which showed up in Europe as disdain. Among Europeans unaware that Willy Brandt's own version of Watergate, the Guillaume Affair, was about to unfold.

     For all those reasons, plus the insecurity of being an eighteen-year-old in a strange land, solo train travel proved to be a bit unnerving. I quickly learned a trick that I practice to this day: I looked for a small group of nuns waiting for my train and attached myself to them. Not for conversation or special favors, but because I knew that even the most impious European would not dream of assaulting nuns. That "fear of God" thing...
     While nuns initially provided only safe haven, in 1979 I learned to respect them. The student president of the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde in Augsburg had become a good friend. He and some of his fellow theology students were about to be "Ratzingered" - that is, kicked out of Augsburg's seminary for daring to question (not challenge, just question) Catholic doctrine. They saw no good reason for mandatory church tax, infant baptism, or celibate male-only clergy, and believed those were three things their church needed to re-examine and re-define.
     Although (or perhaps because) I was not Catholic, this fellow and his eleven buddies - aka the twelve disciples - talked frequently about their struggles, and why they were willing to be kicked out of seminary rather than kowtow to an eminence that presumed to replace God in their lives.
     When they invited me to tag along to the Carmelite cloister at Dachau, I therefore gladly went with them.
     That cloister is one of three "memorials" at Dachau, established to help returning survivors of that concentration camp deal with anger and grief. [Note: The Russian Orthodox memorial did not exist in 1979.] The Lutheran and Jewish memorials were not manned 24/7 like the Carmelite cloister, so the nuns often found themselves serving and listening to former Jewish and Lutheran, as well as "socialist" and gay, prisoners who needed a place to vent.
     These women - at least the nuns who peopled the cloister in 1979 - took their "ministry" seriously. The Mother Superior told us they were working to make Dachau relevant, because they felt if the Holocaust became too much a historical moment, its lessons would be lost. To that end, they were petitioning for an addition to Dachau's museum complex, an addition that would document contemporary genocide and human rights violations. At the time, their efforts were being thwarted by the Russian delegate to the Dachau memorial.
     An older man who had tagged along with the student group (likely so he could get a glimpse of the normally-off-limits cloister, since we were allowed the run of the place), one of those German men who had probably worn the NSDAP Party pin proudly, interrupted our intense conversation with the Mother Superior. "I think all this is nonsense," and his face grew red as he talked. "What's past is past. Forget it. Move on. Why should we remember?"
     As long as I live, I will never forget the student with scraggly beard and long blond hair as he leaned forward. "We must remember," he said passionately, "because if we don't, we will assuredly repeat the mistake." When the older man started to argue, the Mother Superior cut him off.
     This Mother Superior and her devout crew took on this challenge - the challenge of living every day at "ground zero" where the horror of concentration camps began - as few in the Catholic church did at the time. In 1979, the Vatican had not even begun to deal with closed archives or papal inaction during the Holocaust.
     And yet these women faced hard truths every day. They opened heart and hearth to all who suffered. Perhaps imperfectly, because they lay no claim to divinity or infallibility. They tried, they did their best to right historical wrongs in the here and now. While the men of their faith largely did not.
     I thought of these nuns last week when 65,000 American nuns risked the wrath of Mr. Ratzinger by declaring their open support for health care reform in these United States. As the Carmelite nuns of Dachau had done before them, these women risked a great deal to rock the boat. They saw injustice, they saw pain, they saw unfairness, and they decided it was high time to speak out.
     Eugen Grimminger, he who financed the work of the White Rose, surely got it right when he said, "Women make the best anti-Fascists." Regardless of the garb Fascism wears in any particular era.

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