Elizabeth Donnelly passes on the faith to her three daughters

Elizabeth Donnelly

Elizabeth Donnelly

Age: 58

Who she is: Catholic writer and speaker; former Maryknoll Lay Missioner; trustee of the Pittsburgh-based Mary J. Donnelly Foundation

Lives in: Belmont, Mass.

Sr. Camille: Elizabeth, an article you co-authored with your husband Dr. Phillip Pulaski in the Oct. 22, 2012, issue of America magazine, described your efforts to ground your three daughters in faith. You described driving the youngest of them to Baltimore to begin her freshman year at Loyola University. Her two older sisters had attended Georgetown University and were discerning their way forward.

NCR_2-9.jpgEnjoy what you are reading? Subscribe to NCR.

At the time, you reported that although the institutional church in some ways failed to inspire them, they continued to explore and wrestle with their Catholic faith. Despite its shortcomings, you suggested that you believed that the church had helped form them into the thoughtful, caring women they are now are.

Please describe the manifestations of their faith.

Donnelly: Sr. Camille, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to check in formally with Marya, Tessa and Natalya and get their input for this interview!

As we indicated in the America article, each of our three daughters has demonstrated an interest in a faith that does justice and extends mercy through action and encounter, both by working directly with people and by policy advocacy. They have interned or worked at a Catholic Worker house in Boston's South End, with Phil at Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, Catholic Charities, McLean's Hospital, the ecumenical anti-hunger group Bread for the World, Woodstock Theological Center, Refugees International, the Brookings Institution's Project on Internal Displacement, and Children's HealthWatch.

All three relished participation in alternative spring break trips, during which they listened to and learned from migrant farmworkers in Immokalee, Fla., human rights activists in San Salvador, and people working with immigrants on the border in Arizona.

Our two older daughters served as freshmen retreat leaders at Georgetown; Marya helped to organize Jesuit Heritage Week there her senior year. Natalya just finished an internship at Catholic Charities in Baltimore, working in a diagnostic classroom for children with mental health challenges.

While this list gives a sense of the range of their interests and commitments, more essentially Phil and I are very proud of the thoughtful and generous way they treat people with whom they interact on a daily basis.

Your family lived in Boston during the sexual abuse crisis. Were they aware of it and did it have an effect on them?

While our daughters were a bit too young to be fully aware of the scope and gravity of the sexual abuse crisis when it broke in 2002, they have since expressed disgust at the church's handling of it. Our middle daughter Tessa recently spoke with us about it after seeing "Spotlight," the film about The Boston Globe's coverage of the crisis. She said she was "sickened to see how the church's culture of repression led to the abuse of many marginalized children," and that she was particularly shocked by the condoned silence around the issue prior to the Globe breaking the story.

When your daughter Marya was 12, she was asked to speak at a Boston College event. What was that about and what insights did she have to share?

A friend of ours who teaches pastoral ministry at Boston College asked Marya to speak on a panel on the role of women and girls in the church. With the candor of a twelve-year-old, she expressed confusion and frustration over the lack of leadership opportunities for women in a church that had so positively influenced her, wondering why women could not do more. She asked why there are six sacraments for girls and seven for boys. She suggested that the church have more kid-friendly homilies that tell the stories of women and girls of faith, like Jean Donovan and Dorothy Day, who could serve as role models.

Have your daughters remained in the Catholic church?

Yes. Marya attends Mass with us fairly regularly at St. Peter Parish in Cambridge and enjoys the community and dynamic homilies. She deepened her faith through her course work in Georgetown's theology department, taking courses from "Faith, Social Justice, and Public Life" to graduate-level Buddhism courses. She said she is fascinated by both the tangible and intangible elements of faith life, and that she has been able to deepen her engagement with Catholicism by learning how to put it into action in both ordinary and more vocational ways, and by engaging deeply with other faith traditions. Above all, she said she loves the Catholicism that acknowledges the great mystery and gift of our existence here.

While Tessa has struggled with her faith at times, she remains invested in the Catholic church because of her understanding of social justice. Two priests at Georgetown who Tessa said helped her to understand her faith are Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., who specializes in social welfare policy in Latin America, and Fr. Raymond Kemp who focuses on racial justice in the U.S. Tessa said they helped her further realize how the church, Catholic theology and the Catholic community can be a base for radical social transformation and love that can transcend other political and economic barriers.

During her senior year, Tessa spoke at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice about her experience leading a pre-orientation program through Georgetown's Center for Social Justice. She is most excited at having recently been asked to be the Catholic sponsor for her little cousin Hazel, and is energized to show her the sometimes hidden, progressive side of the church.

Natalya has told us that she enjoys attending Mass every Sunday, either at Loyola's primary chapel or at another 10 p.m. service. The latter offers a more intimate environment in a small student lounge that is converted into a place of worship on Sunday nights. The space is filled with students and candles lit around the room. She said that the Mass is always led by a Jesuit who reflects on current topics in society to which students can relate. Students are also given the opportunity to volunteer during the Mass, such as choosing music that is reflective of the Gospel for that day.

Natalya also said she greatly enjoyed participating in a Loyola-sponsored AMDG retreat and last year's Ignatian Teach-In. Through these and her community service with Catholic Charities, she has developed a deeper understanding of what it means to live out Jesuit values and how she can put her faith into action. Natalya hopes to spend a year after graduation in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or a similar program.

All this being said, we are acutely aware of the many, especially millennials, who are walking away from the Catholic church. Our daughters agree with us that one step in the right direction would be for the church to ordain women as deacons. If women were deacons, they could regularly preach at Mass, officiate at weddings and funerals, and baptize. It is simply not credible for most U.S. Catholics that talented, theologically educated, and faith-filled women are excluded from leading in sacramental ministry by virtue of their gender. The pastoral needs are great, and the whole church would benefit if the church more fully engaged women's gifts.

The only time the word deacon is mentioned in the New Testament associated with someone's name is in Paul's Letter to the Romans, Chapter 16, in which he commends our sister Phoebe, deacon of the Church at Cenchreae: "Please welcome her in the Lord, as saints should. If she needs help in anything, give it to her, for she herself has been of help to so many, including myself."

Church-going Catholics will not hear of Phoebe in the Lectionary, Year A, B or C, not even on a weekday. I hope your readers will take a look at the female disciples Paul mentions in Romans 16, including Junia the apostle.

What values have you been able to transfer to your daughters?

We would hope solidarity and empathy -- an attentiveness to the aspirations, views, struggles and needs of others, especially people who are in some way marginalized. Pope Francis has been eloquent in calling us all to a more profound understanding that we truly are one human family, daughters and sons of one loving and merciful God. How transformational would it be if we honestly treated particularly the poor, the refugee, members of other faiths, as our sisters and brothers?

We also think that our daughters have developed an attentiveness to the reality and delight of Grace -- in their lives and in the world around them, a sense that all that we have is gift. They notice things, and regularly express delight, gratitude, and the desire to give back to others and not be consumed by material possessions and petty concerns.

And finally, as we discussed in the America article, they are quite comfortable in connecting with the communion of saints, those beloved family members and friends who have gone before us. They grew up watching their extended families care -- with persistent humor and deep affection -- for two aunts and an uncle who battled with different forms of cancer, and their two grandfathers in their final years. Our daughters -- and most in our two families -- have a vivid sense of having intercessors among the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. We call on them for help and refer to them regularly.

What and who provided inspiration and direction for you as a child and young adult?

I grew up in Pittsburgh, the second of seven children blessed with exemplary parents, who themselves had been raised in observant Catholic families. They had both, as teens, lost a beloved sibling; I think that bound them more closely.

My mother Marilyn Pfohl Donnelly is now sadly diminished by vascular dementia, but she was a gifted poet and radiant personality. She had studied in the early 1950s at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, and she and her best friend there Sally Appleton (Mom gladly served as godmother when Sally became a Catholic) determined that they would leave graduate school to work with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker in New York. My grandfather would hear none of that! So Sally left and Mom stayed; Sally went on to spend over ten years working on a better translation of Teilhard de Chardin's The Human Phenomenon.

Mom devoted most of her married life to caring for us with incredible humor, generosity and grace -- our friends would want to come to our house to spend time with her! She always kept a felt-tipped pen and yellow legal pad nearby, and we were extremely pleased when, in the midst of all of us coming to terms with her disease, her first book of poems, Coda, was published and well-received.

My father Tom Donnelly (the subject of Mom's many love poems) was orphaned at age three; he and his younger brother and sister were adopted and raised by their beloved maiden Aunt Mary. Dad studied and worked diligently, and when he became a successful securities lawyer he gave back, prodigally.

As my siblings and I indicated in his 2011 eulogy, the two dominant themes that he lived out were gratitude and stewardship: He gave generously of his time, talent and treasure to many Catholic institutions, especially in service to the Pittsburgh Sisters of Mercy who had educated him, his siblings, and those of us in the next generation.

Having been formed and treated as a critically thinking young adult at the University of Michigan's Newman Center, Dad was especially passionate about excellence in Catholic campus ministry. He was also particularly proud of his support of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's Catholic Common Ground Initiative to encourage respectful dialogue among Catholics with different viewpoints on crucial issues confronting the church.

Mom and Dad were emblematic of a generation of Catholics animated by Vatican II. They read and discussed articles in America, Commonweal, and what Dad affectionately called, the Non-Catholic Reporter. May such passions continue!

As I alluded to earlier, we grew up watching them care for our youngest brother Peter, who lived courageously for 40 years with the effects of a childhood brain tumor, with consistent and infectious good humor and integrity. In Dad's eulogy we described their 55-year marriage as an ongoing sacrament: it was an outward sign of God's grace and love that imparted such grace and love on the rest of us.

Please talk about the influence of Maryknoll and Maryknoll Lay Missioners.

It's home. Phil's uncle Joe Pulaski was a long-serving Maryknoll priest in Japan and Hawaii. When I grew up in Pittsburgh, Maryknoll Fr. Vinnie McConaghy would come over to the house, play the piano and tell of his work in the Altiplano of Peru. Sr. Rose of Lima Robinson would stay at our house when she was raising funds in Pittsburgh, relentlessly planting herself in CEOs' waiting rooms until they would see her. Phil and I met in August 1980 at Maryknoll's headquarters in Ossining, N.Y., he having just finished a three-and-a-half-year term in Cochabamba, Bolivia, as I was just setting out to work in Lima, Peru. My orientation semester there in fall 1980 was foundational, including a graced and searing conversation with Jean Donovan five weeks before she was murdered.

During the two-plus years I worked in Peru, I learned much from the commitment of the young catechists and other friends I made in the shantytown where I lived. And having witnessed the effects of the economic crisis on my friends and neighbors, it strengthened my resolve to research, write and speak about the Catholic church's contribution to the movement to relieve the external debts of low-income countries in order to free up money for health and education.

Do you remember the Jubilee Campaign? Bono handing his shades to Pope John Paul II? Hopefully more Catholics around the world can be similarly galvanized to action to combat climate change, especially after Pope Francis' compelling encyclical, Laudato Si'.

Have you been able to practice faith as a family?

Yes, by attending Mass together, praying and discussing things at meals, expressing gratitude for one another, and supporting each other through tough and happy times.

How and with whom do you worship?

We attend St. Peter Parish in Cambridge, Mass. I enjoy serving as a eucharistic minister there. We are very blessed to have several Jesuits who teach at Boston College help out with Masses there, and the homilies are consistently excellent and challenging. Our pastor, Fr. Lenny O'Malley, is very much in the mode of a humble servant leader who calls forth the gifts of all.

Are there specific rituals you enjoy?

Ever since the girls were little, before dinner we hold hands and take turns saying a prayer. During Advent, before the prayer we first light the candles on the wreath and sing a verse of Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.

When I visit my mother at her nursing home, it is hard to know the state of her interior life, as now she rarely speaks or opens her eyes. So often after chitchatting about the latest happenings and who has asked me to say hello, I take her hand and recite an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. I also enjoy reading aloud to her from the excellent daily prayer book, Give Us This Day, especially Robert Ellsberg's exquisite brief portraits of saints and others who inspire us.

Do you have any other favorite seasonal rituals?

Everyone on the Pulaski side of the family loves and looks forward to Oplatek (pronounced Oh-pwah'-tek). As part of Christmas Eve, we gather in Phil's parents' living room before dinner. It used to be Phil's mother at the piano, now his sister at the violin, who gather us in singing "Away in a Manger" as the youngest children carry Baby Jesus to the crèche. Then the oldest folks distribute sheets of unleavened, white Communion-like bread embossed with a nativity scene that has been blessed in a local Polish parish.

All around the room brief individual conversations then take place between two people (you try to get to everyone before dinner). Each breaks off a tiny piece of the other's bread, you eat it, and the older of the two begins the conversation. You review your relationship over the previous year, ask pardon for any possible offense, and wish them well for the coming year.

So if you and I were to break bread, we would usually begin the conversation: "Camille, I wish you health and happiness in 2016!" Then it's something like, "You have been such a great sister-in-law. I appreciate X about you and am so happy that you X'd this year. I wish that we had more time together; let's work on it next year. I hope that next year is a joy- and grace-filled time for you!"

After both have talked you exchange a kiss or hug and move on to the next person, looking around the room for who's free -- although I must admit that some conversations do run long!

It's an extraordinary, honest and joyous time that has also provided a structured opportunity for reconciliation. I have to say that all of the Pulaski grandchildren -- boys and girls alike -- have developed an un-selfconscious ability to express their thoughts and wishes without reservation. Lots of humor and boxes of tissues offered!

 Is there anything else you would like us to know?

I would hope that our church could be more intentional in its warm embrace of LGBT Catholics and their families. I am proud to say that this includes my own extended family.

We are living through very dangerous times. People's fears and anxieties -- and the anonymity of social media -- are making it easier to demonize, label and exclude those not like us as Other.

The world desperately needs more prophetic witnesses to the goodness and mercy of God and our creator's desire that all people lead lives of dignity and plenty, reconciled with each other and the rest of God's extraordinary creation. The Catholic church at its very best bears such witness: Of course Pope Francis comes to mind for both his words and deeds, but also think of (and pray for!) the countless women and men around the world tirelessly and usually anonymously working to enhance the dignity of the most forgotten and maligned; nourished by the Eucharist, the example of the communion of saints, and the compelling principles of our social teaching.

Phil and I are among the many Catholics who would love to see our church as a whole become a more credible and effective witness to the good news in the eyes of our daughters and younger generations. To do so it is essential that more of the church's leaders extend the synod process that Pope Francis is courageously seeking to restore: listen to and include the laity. Listen to and use more fully the gifts of women in sacramental ministry and other leadership roles in the church's governance.

Thank you, Sr. Camille. Warmest wishes for a grace- and joy-filled Lent and Easter season.

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemptionis available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

Support independent reporting on important issues.

 One family graphic_2016_250x103.jpg


Looking for comments?

We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.

Advertisement