Cardinal Stafford librarian celebrates two decades of service

Lyn Cotton and her fellow staff members at the Cardinal Stafford Theological Library will never forget the summer the library’s smoke alarm went off.

Perhaps it was the cause of the alarm that etched the incident into their memories. As it turns out, seminarians at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary were dusting the books and shelves in the library basement, said Cotton.

“They raised such a cloud of dust that the smoke alarms went off,” she said, cracking a smile.

Cotton, a library assistant at Cardinal Stafford, has truly seen it all.

And although she will retire in May — just one month before her 20th anniversary at the library — her dedication will continue as she serves as a weekly volunteer.

“The fact that she wants to come back says a lot about the kind of place that we are, but also the kind of person she is,” said librarian Tamara Conley.

“Some people would close the door and get out of here,” she added. “They wouldn’t want to see it again. [Cotton] cares about this place, and she cares about the people here.”

Library director Stephen Sweeney is grateful for Cotton’s service and looks forward to the next 20 in her volunteer capacity.

“The library has an amazing, dedicated staff that work to serve the needs of the seminary community while being available to the larger archdiocesan community and the public who find us,” said Sweeney.

“Lyn has been here at the library since before St. John Vianney Theological Seminary was instituted in 1999, which gives her a unique perspective on our history,” he added.

For Conley, working with someone as loyal as Cotton is an immense help.

“The continuity is amazing,” she said. “To know that she’s seen things from the beginning projects to end is really, really beneficial for us. You can’t put a price on that.”

Many features of the library have kept Cotton coming back each year.

“The place itself is just gorgeous,” said Cotton. “The library is the gem of the seminary and the chapel is the jewel.”

Cotton is a member of the Protestant Church, which has made working at a Catholic library unique, she said.

“I really didn’t know much about Catholics when I started,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about the Catholic faith.”

Between the library’s faith-based atmosphere and the people she works with, Cotton has always found that the positive experiences outweigh the challenges she’s faced over the years.

“I first came in as a part time archivist,” said Cotton. “At that time when I first got here, we had one computer.”

Besides the technological advancements that have occurred since 1998, Cotton has also taken on a variety of roles at the library.

She has experience working with archives, cataloguing, and managing volunteers who come in each week to help with a multitude of tasks.

Whether she’s covering a book or helping a volunteer, Cotton makes the library run smoothly, said Conley.

“She sits quietly in the back and holds everything together,” she said. “She does a million things. I couldn’t even tell you all the small things she does.”

Through it all, Cotton has built a relationship with the seminarians who pass through the library’s doors each day.

Some of them come back years down the road to say “hello,” and others end up working at the seminary, she said.

“That is really fun to have them go all the way through and then come back to us and help out,” said Cotton.

“I don’t know the ones now as well as I didn’t when we first began because there were a lot fewer then,” she added. “But they’re all very polite and good guys.”

For Conley, the thing that makes the Cardinal Stafford Theological Library special is also what might inspire someone like Cotton to volunteer after retirement.

“I think the sense of community that we have here — all bonded by a love for Christ — is what keeps people coming back,” she said.

Cotton admits she’ll continue to look forward to coming to the library as a volunteer each week.

“I’ve just had so much fun,” she said. “It’s just been a pleasant, holy place to work.”

COMING UP: We should have listened to Pope Paul VI

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Happy Humanae Vitae 50th Anniversary!

I don’t know about you, but for me it’s been a whirlwind.  Parties, parades, some great fireworks shows.  Oh, and did you see the Hollywood All-Star Tribute to Pope Paul VI?

OK, maybe not so much.

It’s a shame, really. If everyone had somehow, miraculously, listened to Pope Paul VI back in 1968, the world could be a very different place today.  Heck, we might not even have a need for the #MeToo movement.

Allow me to explain.

Up until the 1960’s, it was pretty universally recognized that sex between people of childbearing age came with the distinct possibility of the aforementioned childbearing.  Birth control methods up to that point were somewhat rudimentary and unreliable.  Procreation was an inherent part of sexual activity — part of its meaning.  So respecting a woman meant not putting her at risk of a pregnancy she wasn’t prepared for.  And she in turn had a clear-cut, universally recognized reason to be indignant if a man was pressuring her.

But The Pill changed all of that.  Young people (and a lot of older people, too) figured that, without that pesky fear of pregnancy, they could indulge in sexual activity whenever, and with whomever, they chose. It would be fun, they thought.  Sex feels good, they thought.  Why not have more of it, with more people, they thought.

And then Pope Paul VI said “no.”  In Humanae Vitae, he essentially said that Pill or no Pill, birth control was still not morally licit.

The young people of the Free Love Generation were not disappointed by this news — only because I would imagine they were too busy making love and not war to notice an obscure, 23-page theological document released by a celibate guy who was way older than 30.

But, had they been smart, they might have paid attention to the following passage from that obscure theological document:

It can also be feared that the man who becomes used to contraceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman, and no longer caring about her physical and psychological equilibrium, come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion. (HV 17)

Does that sound at all familiar?

The problem came because, as much as the generation of the 1960’s wanted Free Love to really be free, it isn’t.  They figured removing the risk of pregnancy would remove the “strings,” and everybody could just consensually enjoy everybody else’s body with no ramifications.

But there is a saying: “Nature bats last.”  Sexual activity was designed by God, not by us.  And he, in myriad ways, designed it to be a profoundly, deeply, inherently meaningful act that touches the very core of the human psyche and spirit.  Everything about it — physically, chemically, emotionally and spiritually — is built around the fact that it is a profound act of self-giving love that places the couple in the context of entering into and cooperating with him in his most sacred role — as Creator of the miracle that is a new human person. Sex speaks a language, and the possibility of procreation is an essential part of that language.  It says “I give myself to you, and to the new life that may come forth from my gift.”

And as hard as we might try, we can’t change that.

I think women, being the ones who conceive and bear that life, are more naturally sensitive to this meaning.  We can’t always articulate it, but it’s there. And hence, we are more reluctant to play with it carelessly.

When the sexual revolution attempted to sever sexual activity from the possibility of procreation, they were essentially attempting to render sexual activity meaningless.  They were saying “from now on, this is just something we do with our bodies.  It can mean as much or as little as you want it to mean.”

This is wrong on so many levels.  For one, it takes away women’s power.  When we recognized that sex is powerful, meaningful and life-altering, a woman had the backing of her family and her culture in saying “No, I will not place myself or my future children at that risk, and if you don’t respect that, you clearly don’t love me.”

Now, women are more or less on their own in fending off the male sex drive — which, for good or for evil, could probably be considered one of the most powerful forces in the world.  If sex is meaningless, then why in the world would she object?  He wants it, and it might be fun for her too, so why wouldn’t she be nice and acquiesce?

It takes a very strong, very well-formed and dare I say holy young woman to have the courage to say “I believe that God created sex with an inherent meaning, so my final answer is no” and watch him walk out of her life forever.  For the vast majority of young women, who can’t articulate what they inherently sense about the sacredness of their bodies, it’s a lot easier just to go along with the program and try to keep the guy.

And then it moves from acquiescing to keep the boyfriend, to acquiescing to make the powerful man happy so that I can get the job, or keep the job, or get the role in the movie, or whatever.  The world becomes one big quid pro quo arrangement whereby we are expected to trade on our bodies to get what we want or need.

And the woman becomes “a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment.”

The hard lesson we should have learned from Humanae Vitae is quite simply that our bodies have meaning, that sexual expression has a meaning, and that God is God and we are not.  And that when we start tinkering around with that meaning, people get hurt.

We should have listened.