Remembering Sister Mary Elizabeth, who had the bad fortune to have me as a student.
Sister Mary Elizabeth, CCVI, is undoubtedly in heaven now. And I don’t believe I am being immodest in saying I helped get her there.
Sister Mary Elizabeth was my sixth-grade teacher at St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles grade school in San Antonio. Like most of the nuns who taught at St. Peter’s, she’d been born in Ireland and hie’d herself to a nunnery at the tender age of 14 or 15. The religious order she joined sent her to Texas – considered “missionary country” in those days – to fulfill her vocation in the glorious fields of elementary education and spiritual formation. The halls of St. Peter’s rang with the rich and melodic brogues of the many Irish sisters teaching there.
At St. Peter’s students were assigned to a teacher and a classroom, and thus did we pass our days. The teacher – that year it was Sister Mary Elizabeth – taught all the subjects except one. A retired Army veteran hired to teach science wheeled a lab cart from classroom to classroom for one period of instruction daily. Other than that and recess, we were Sister Mary Elizabeth’s charges for the entire school day.
And we were a handful. And again, I do not think I am being immodest in saying that I was probably the most arrogant, annoying little smartass in the class. When Sister Mary Elizabeth was stressed or irritated, she developed a head-bobbing tic, particularly in the afternoons after five or six hours of being trapped with us. No one could bring out the tic with the regularity with which I did, and this always made me feel terrible.
One day, Sister Mary Elizabeth was teaching world history, and told us the inspiring story of Mohandas Gandhi, who had led the crusade to liberate India from the British Empire in the late 1940s. She seemed less interested in his anticolonialism than in the fact that his crusade was explicitly a sectarian one (although not the particular sect into which we were being inculcated). He was a hero, in short, because his inspiration was religious. I did not appreciate this insight at the time, though.
After world history, we had our daily catechism lesson, which usually consisted of a lecture about some topic in the Baltimore Catechism, which was then (and now) the guidebook for teaching young Catholics their faith. That day, she stressed that the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church alone, would be our path to everlasting salvation. (These were less ecumenical times. The ink was barely dry on the Vatican II documents, with all their talk of reconciliation and unity among Christians.) To demonstrate her point, Sister Mary Elizabeth gave the following example: if you and your family attended the Protestant wedding of a neighbor and were tragically killed in a car wreck on the way home, all of you might go to hell.
Well, this was very sobering. And it seemed unfair that my sisters and I, who at our tender ages were taken hither and yon by our parents and had no agency in these matters, might suffer eternal damnation because one of my father’s golfing buddies was a godless Methodist. Besides, wasn’t it possible they were good Methodists, and shouldn’t that matter?
As the implications of this doctrine sank into my mind, I raised my hand. Sister Mary Elizabeth, trepidation in her eyes, called on me.
“Sister, is Gandhi in heaven?”
My parents were summoned to the school. Both my parents worked, so this was an inconvenience. But they’d been called to school about me before, so it was not unprecedented.
Sister Mary Elizabeth thought it impertinent that I’d asked a trick question like that and wanted to caution my parents that they had an incipient heathen, or worse, on their hands. The principal, Sister Annette, was a little more enlightened about these things and took the tack of counseling me to channel my curiosity into more age- and time-appropriate directions. My parents, good Catholics that they were, gave me a halfhearted lecture back home about not questioning religious authority.
Of course, no one answered the question which stirred up the shitstorm in the first place. According to the Baltimore Catechism, a nonbeliever who knows of the Church and its teachings and does not embrace them is condemned to hell. Such was surely the fate of Gandhi, a well-educated Hindu who studied law in London and lived in South Africa for 20 years before returning to India. He was well acquainted with Christianity, and praised Jesus as a spiritual mentor. But under the Church’s rules, he was to be denied entry into heaven because he remained a faithful and observant Hindu, even though he was a transformative figure in world history, which should make him a great "get" for the Catholics.
As far as I know, the Catholic Church still does not have a good answer to the question of whether Gandhi is in heaven. Pope Francis caused a controversy a few years ago by suggesting that even atheists could go to heaven. In a homily he said:
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! 'Father, the atheists?' Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class. We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all.
Headlines proclaimed “Even Atheists Can Go To Heaven,” which compelled the Vatican bureaucracy to, as we would now say, walk back his comments: “Vatican spokesman Rev. Thomas Rosica said people who know about the Catholic church ‘cannot be saved’ if they ‘refuse to enter her or remain in her.’”
Sister Mary Elizabeth was right, in the long run. After 40 years as a serious Catholic (a subject for further discussion sometime), I’ve become an agnostic, which is as good as being a heathen to Holy Mother the Church. I am an enthusiastic, if amateur, student of comparative religion, and count priests, ministers, rabbis, and people of all faiths among my wide circle of acquaintances. Others of my friends are, like me, spiritually unaffiliated, to use the terminology of Ulysses Everett McGill:
I think of Sister Mary Elizabeth now and then, always with the hope that she earned her reward according to the rules she played by, and is in her heaven. Maybe, by those same rules, she is watching over me and trying to coax me, as she did so many years ago, to be a wiser, better person.
I could do worse.