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Lessons of Faithfulness
Clare Shaw (1950-2019)
Clare (also known as Cookie) had already graduated from Siena Heights College by the time I started there so, as strange as it might seem, we first got to know each other at Mass. As often as her work schedule allowed, she attended afternoon Mass in the college chapel. Most days, I struggled with going but something deep within still called me to be there. Knowing I’d see Clare helped motivate me to make the slog across campus at 4:00 each weekday afternoon to attend church.
Our college chaplain, Father John Keefer, played a part in drawing us both there. He was a rare breed among Catholic clergy. He believed in women’s equality and did everything he could within the bounds of his Dominican order to promote the role of women in the church. Clare and I relished the bubble he created that allowed us to experience a Catholicism where all people were treated as equals. He kept me coming back to Mass at a time when very few other priests could have.
Clare and I both wrestled with the male-dominated Catholic church, yet we had not yet given up hope for the Church’s salvation. We believed that someday it would recognize and correct its error in devaluing women and would embrace our ecclesiastical role. That’s why on weekday afternoons we often found ourselves attending Mass in the college chapel. I was struggling to reclaim a faith that had started slipping away, especially after Little Kimmy’s death, and Clare was struggling not to lose hers.
The first time Clare and I received communion from one of the Adrian Dominican Sisters at that Mass—and not from a male priest—we both felt the earth shift. I was sure the twinkle in Clare’s eyes would blind anyone who looked her way. Today, we would both be mouthing OMG, as, out of respect for the sacrament, we would try to contain our exuberance.
Back then, we showed respect too, at least until the Mass had ended and Father Keefer instructed us to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
Not a second later, Claire raised her arms to the heavens and shouted as loudly as she could, “The kingdom has come!” Her voice echoed through the rafters. I let out a “WOO HOO!” in response. We hugged each other and fell to our chairs laughing.
Other Mass-goers, including the nun who moments earlier had placed the body of Christ on our tongues, looked at us as if we’d gone mad. We didn’t care. Without even having to say it to each other, Clare and I knew that nothing could stop the ordination of women now.
We were too naïve to know that this first big step was into quicksand. Almost fifty years later, in January 2021, Pope Benedict declared that women could be officially installed as lectors to read Scripture and serve on the altar as eucharistic ministers. Father Keefer was a man long ahead of his time. If Clare were still alive, I’m sure she would have reenacted her reaction from so many years before, “Well maybe now, the Kingdom has come!” she’d exclaim.
Clair never lost her faith in the Church, and especially in God. Not like I did. For her, incremental changes, even decades apart, still showed progress. She practiced her faith even as she traversed a difficult cancer journey and deserved to have everyone’s attention focused on her. Instead, she made room for her friends and family to share how they were feeling and comforted them when she sensed their grief. Her spiritual center never seemed to waver as she trusted that God would embrace her upon her entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
Clare died with as much dignity as she lived, filled with compassion, empathy, hope, and love. She showed me the power of faithfulness through her belief that change will come even if it takes much longer than you imagine.
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