A dear mentor and friend died unexpectedly last week, and I was very sorry to be unable to attend her funeral yesterday. For 22 years that included my young adult and parenting stages, Rosemary Conrad was the director of religious education at Bellarmine Parish. Our relationship began with a simple invitation, from her to me, to be a sponsor for an adult seeking initiation into the church in the RCIA program. Intrigued and flattered to be asked, I started showing up on Thursday nights and quickly became immersed. As a child of the immediate post Vatican II era when catechesis was shifting quickly and hadn’t yet arrived anywhere substantive, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about my church, and I loved learning in the communal setting. I did sponsor someone, which got me to my first-ever Easter Vigil service the following spring, and it was life changing. The readings, the rituals, the euphoria, the resurrection. Alleuia!! Jesus Christ is Risen Today. The Vigil became instrumental to my life and then our married life after I got Joe in on it. At Rosemary’s encouragement, we later brought our kids starting when they were in grade school, so it was a family tradition. They resonated with the liturgical drama also and especially loved the fun of staying out past midnight snarfing down brownies and meatballs at the party afterward.
During my RCIA time, the subject of the communion of saints captivated my interest, and Rosemary directed me to further resources. Then, much to my surprise and delight, a few years later she invited me to be the presenter on a Thursday in early November for the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Who, me? Yes. Rosemary was an easygoing, cheerful person who laughed and smiled all the time, but her face took on a solemn expression when she spoke with intent on a serious matter, such as telling you that you could take on a role you never thought you’d be able to do. In these moments, her heavy lidded eyes looked straight at you, conveying gravitas, as did her subdued tone of voice and economy of words.
I remember this so well too from a conversation we had about the timing of our daughter’s first communion. Born in October, Kieran had started school later, so she was seven years old in first grade, and we wondered if she could go ahead and make her first communion that spring rather than waiting another whole year. I felt totally comfortable approaching Rosemary about it, and right away she said yes, I think she’s ready, nodding her head, looking at me in that serious mode. Nothing more needed to be said. We were in sync. She knew our child. The rules or customs were not an impediment to doing what was best. A few months later I attended the parent night regarding first communion preparation. Kieran attended a private Catholic Montessori school at the time so was not enrolled in the parish religious education program (the parish does not have a school). This was a common occurrence, so Rosemary offered a homeschool option. She presented the materials, offered some suggestions and then passed out the booklets, offered help if needed, but the underlying assumption was that we knew what to do or could certainly figure it out. Trust yourself, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. She didn’t have to say it a lot, because her actions spoke so loudly.
Rosemary approached training leaders for Children’s Liturgy of the Word with the same empowering style. She provided materials and orientation, and she emphasized: This is worship, not craft time or school. You are presiding at worship. You are preaching the word to these children. They have the right to hear it in words they can understand. You can do it. Her trust in me allowed me to trust myself.
This weekend I was on the road, first in northern Indiana for a retreat with an ecumenical group called Christian Feminism Today, and then Milwaukee for my nephew’s graduation from Marquette on Sunday afternoon. It’s just too long of a drive to make late at night to return for a Monday morning funeral, but in that ephemeral way of saints, Rosemary was profoundly present to me during this time. Rather unconsciously, I added two liturgical music CDs to the collection I was taking in the car and began the trip to the familiar lyrics and tunes of Bobby Fisher’s One Breath. I was immediately transported to Bellarmine in my 30’s and 40’s and got choked up remembering it all – singing at mass, belonging to a vibrant community, and re-experiencing the ways that Rosemary was important to me, the things she taught and empowered.
The focus of the retreat was the Gospel of Mary, one of the many extra-canonical texts from the first two centuries after Jesus that have been re-discovered in more recent times. As two CFT members presented background and history, I might have been once again on the second floor of the Bellarmine parish center, learning with Rosemary, knowing the thrill of connecting dots and discovering new interpretations in the company of others which I have not felt toward my tradition in a long time. On this particular day, a slide listed all the extra-canonical writings from the early Christian period that have come to light. It filled three columns on a landscape page, but only 27 of them are in the New Testament. One presenter noted that the term Christian may even be anachronistic for this time period. Jesus followers or something might be more appropriate. They are stories of people and how they related to Jesus. That really struck me. I have now completed a whole year of not attending Sunday mass, not even Christmas or Easter. Like menopause, I’m a year without church, so perhaps I’m officially post-Catholic. Clearly I’m no longer canonical, but maybe there’s a place for me in relation to my faith origins.
Rosemary. I felt her standing off to the side, nodding her head, encouraging, with that serious expression on her face. She retired about ten years ago, and recently I’ve seen her infrequently. I never talked with her or even told her when I stopped attending church but she probably knew. Deep down, I always felt that if we had talked about it, Rosemary would not have judged me or made me feel guilty. I’m certain she would have said that she and the community missed me. On this day, I felt her wanting me to always know that I belong.