I do not see her walking along the main Francis Hall corridor outside my office. For the first of my six autumns at Alvernia, she is not heading to a class, to a campus event, or to lunch in the Sisters’ Motherhouse. For the first time in a half century, Sister Pacelli is no longer with us at Alvernia. We are much the poorer for her absence, but her example and spirit continue to inspire, especially in such troubled and troubling times for our country.
I miss our brief, but lively, chats outside my office, and I regret that my busy schedule kept them all too brief. I miss hearing about what she was reading and, even more important, what she was teaching, or what she would teach the following semester. I miss her interest in my work with its many challenges and her supportive comments: a compliment from Pacelli was the real thing! I miss her insightful commentary on University or world events. Never biting nor uncharitable nor mean-spirited, often whimsical and witty, she nonetheless left little doubt regarding where she stood. She was a “take no prisoners saint,” one admiring colleague remarked to me the day after she died, a holy but no-nonsense woman, firm in her convictions.
I miss the surprising turns in our conversations: Sr. Pacelli’s interests were so diverse, her mind so curious, so open to new experience and perspectives. She was, to be sure, Alvernia’s very own Renaissance Woman.
She had strong, but collegial, opinions. Wit without sarcasm. Wide-ranging interests. Openness to new and divergent views. Compassion. And Charity.
Doesn’t sound much like American politics, does it, or what passes for social commentary on cable television and the various on-line blogs. Perhaps in a democracy and a competitive society in which “winner takes all,” we should not be surprised. Nor can we count on high-minded, reasoned dialogue from much of our media, now that the line between news and entertainment (and the theater of the absurd) appears to have disappeared. Certainly not in an election year — and don’t they seem to occur far too frequently — when polemic and extremist rhetoric are all too often the path to victory.
While her specific opinions were not predictable, it is not hard to imagine Sister Pacelli’s view of the current hysteria and fear-mongering rhetoric surrounding the controversy over the proposed Islamic Center being built in Manhattan near Ground Zero. A woman who, as a young nun at Alvernia, reached instinctively to educate and support students of all ages and religions, she had no use for extremism, intolerance, or narrow religiosity.
But she would have been pleased indeed by three recent events occurring on top of her beloved Mt. Alvernia. The panel on the “Mosque Controversy,” sponsored by Campus Ministry and the Center for Ethics and Leadership, was a model of reasoned and civil discourse. She would have applauded the view, expressed by the Fr. Kevin Queally, our University Chaplain, that when people probe deeply the basis of their religious traditions, they find more, not less, common ground and shared values.
Shared values and traditions, or “threads,” as she once called them, link together the living Franciscan heritage of Alvernia. This year, at the Founder’s Day lecture, Alvernia launched a year-long tribute to the contributions of American Catholic religious women who, like her, have contributed so much to so many, especially through their work in education in this country. So it was only appropriate that we dedicate this year’s event to Sister Pacelli who embodied this work for a half century here at the place she loved.
As her close colleagues know, Sister Pacelli loved the theater. If not a Franciscan, she may well have been an actress. And even as a Sister, she could at times enjoy the stage. She was excited indeed last year by the upcoming renovation of Francis Hall Auditorium into a Theater and Recital Hall. So she was much on our minds on Sunday evening at the inaugural performance, when our singer, Deanna Reuben, a trustee and proud alumna of the music department, closed the concert with a moving tribute to the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters and to the sacred, “holy ground” that is Alvernia.
Note: the Celebration of Sister Pacelli’s life and contributions will occur during Homecoming Weekend, October 9, 4:00 p.m. in the Francis Hall Theater.