A few years ago I happened to be sitting at a conference breakfast next to Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who at that time was serving as director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. — a position of weight, responsibility and connections that might be a terrible temptation to ego in another person. Sister Mary Ann managed to wear it lightly, yet powerfully and to great effect. As we munched on sausages and scrambled eggs, I marveled at her energy and resilience: three days into the conference, I was feeling worn out. She leaned over and said to me, very quietly, “I am going to celebrate my golden jubilee soon, but don’t tell anyone.”
That one sentence, in a way, sums up Sister Mary Ann: a lifetime of service to her Lord, her church and her religious order, lived out in utter humility, uninterested in drawing attention to herself. To a story, or to an important issue, or to the work of others that she thought deserved attention, yes — but not to herself.
In Rome, covering the papal conclave and subsequent first days of Francis’ papacy, she heard that I there and shot me a note from the North American College: “we have a big thing of shortbread cookies and biscotti over here! Come have coffee!”
When I responded that I was holed up in a convent near Saint Peter’s dealing with something a tad dysenteric, she wrote back, “oh, dear. When you are better, come over for no cookies and no coffee.”
It was, literally, the first time I’d laughed in days. What I got from our brief exchanges over the next few days was that she was too exhilarated by the day-to-day proceedings on which she was reporting to feel as tired as she should have been.
The conclave precipitated by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was an energetic one, full of expectation, and the American cardinals, especially Cardinal Dolan and Cardinal O’Malley, were burning past playbooks and captivating the city, and the press, with unprecedented informal chat sessions as they motored back-and-forth to the General Congregations. All of that created a bit more work for Sister Mary Ann — the Cardinals were creating more coverage — but that she was enjoying it was evidenced in her brief dispatches to the USCCB Media blog, which were breezy, chatty and great fun to read. And thorough, too; even the cookies got a mention.In 2014, Sister Mary Ann — who had once contributed a piece to Patheos sharing her thoughts on the future of the church in the digital age — left the USCCB to blog and to file reports on the US Church for America, in print and digital platforms. It was there she revealed in an almost nonchalant way that the breast cancer she had previously thought beaten had metastasized. The topic of her piece was how Catholics underutilized the Sacrament of anointing.
In typical Mary Ann fashion, her illness was merely incidental to the larger story: that we are a church full of treasures and healing — that the church needs to teach it, and we need to know it, and leave no gifts offered by God unopened.
When the Vatican released its long-anticipated report on it’s Apostolic Visitations to American religious, Mary Ann’s take on it was masterfully balanced. As her illness has progressed, she has continued to write, because that is her gift from God, and to the rest of us.
She is in her last days, now, yet still communicating the same sense of placid joy and humility that she conveyed to me over that long-ago breakfast:
Receiving Mercy instead of giving it “is very hard,” she says. “I feel undeserving. I don’t think I’ve ever been as good to people as they have been to me these past few months. But they assure me that I have!”
Indeed. In that lovely piece, Sister Mary Ann says, “Mercy sees your needs before you see them.” That is how she has always come across to me, as an observant and merciful eye, seeing what you need and trying her best to provide it to you, before you even ask.
Please pray for Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, in her final days with us on earth.
We’ll have to get together for cookies and coffee — or the heavenly equivalent — in God’s good time.