It was revealed this week that, for the first time in its history, Harvard University, which had been founded for religious purposes and named for a minister of the Gospel, has admitted a freshman class in which atheists and agnostics outnumber professed Christians and Jews. Also this week, the House and the Senate of California passed a provision that allows for physician assisted suicide in the Golden State. As I write these words, the governor of California is deliberating whether to sign the bill into law. Though it might seem strange to suggest as much, I believe that the make-up of the Harvard freshman class and the passing of the suicide law are really related.
I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that non-believers have come to outnumber believers among the rising cohort of the American aristocracy. For the whole of their lives, these young people have been immersed in the corrosive acids of relativism, scientism, and materialism. Though they have benefitted from every advantage that money can afford, they have been largely denied what the human heart most longs for: contact with the transcendent, with the good, true, and beautiful in their properly unconditioned form. But as Paul Tillich, echoing the Hebrew prophets, reminded us, we are built for worship, and therefore in the absence of God, we will make some other value our ultimate concern. Wealth, power, pleasure, and honor have all played the role of false gods over the course of the human drama, but today especially, freedom itself has emerged as the ultimate good, as the object of worship. And what this looks like on the ground is that our lives come to belong utterly to us, that we become great projects of self-creation and self-determination.
As the Bible tells it, the human project went off the rails precisely at the moment when Adam arrogated to himself the prerogative of determining the meaning of his life, when he, in the agelessly beautiful poetry of the book of Genesis, ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Read the chapters that immediately follow the account of the Fall, and you will discover the consequences of this deified freedom: jealousy, hatred, fratricide, imperialism, and the war of all against all. The rest of the Biblical narrative can be interpreted as God’s attempt to convince human beings that their lives, in point of fact, do not belong to them. He did this precisely by choosing a people whom he would form after his own mind and heart, teaching them how to think, how to behave, and above all, how to worship. This holy people Israel – a word that means, marvelously, “the one who wrestles with God” – would then, by the splendor of their way of life, attract the rest of the world. On the Christian reading, this project reached its climax in the person of Jesus Christ, a first-century Israelite from the town of Nazareth, who was also the Incarnation of the living God. The coming-together of divinity and humanity, the meeting of infinite and finite freedom, Jesus embodies what God intended for us from the beginning.
And this is precisely why Paul, one of Jesus’ first missionaries, announced him as Kyrios (Lord) to all the nations, and why he characterized himself as doulos Christou Iesou (a slave of Christ Jesus). Paul exulted in the fact that his life did not belong to him, but rather to Christ. In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote, “there is a power already at work in you that can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine.” He was referencing the Holy Spirit, which orders our freedom and which opens up possibilities utterly beyond our capacities. To follow the promptings of this Spirit is, for Paul and for all the Biblical authors, the source of life, joy, and true creativity.
All of which brings me back to Harvard and legalized suicide. The denial of God – or the blithe bracketing of the question of God – is not a harmless parlor game. Rather, it carries with it the gravest implications. If there is no God, then our lives do indeed belong to us, and we can do with them what we want. If there is no God, our lives have no ultimate meaning or transcendent purpose, and they become simply artifacts of our own designing. Accordingly, when they become too painful or too shallow or just too boring, we ought to have the prerogative to end them. We can argue the legalities and even the morality of assisted suicide until the cows come home, but the real issue that has to be engaged is that of God’s existence.
The incoming freshman class at Harvard is a disturbing omen indeed, for the more our society drifts into atheism, the more human life is under threat. The less we are willing even to wrestle with God, the more de-humanized we become.
COMING UP: Machebeuf basketball star traded success playing hoops for a solitary life of prayer
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Shelly Pennefather led the Bishop Machebeuf High School girls’ basketball team to victory in every game she played in. It was not surprising to her friends and classmates that she would go on to play college ball for Villanova and then play professionally in Japan. It was not even surprising that she would have a religious vocation.
What was surprising was the order she chose. In 1991, Shelly Pennefather drove to Alexandria, Va., where she entered the Monastery of the Poor Clares. She would become a cloistered nun, living a radical life that included going barefoot out of penance and poverty and praying all of the hours of the Divine Office, even at 12:30 a.m.
This also meant she would not see her family except for twice a year from behind a transparent screen. She would not hug them until 25 years after her profession.
“I was shocked that she chose a cloistered order,” said Annie Mcbournie, graduate of Machebeuf in 1984 and a friend of Pennefather’s. “I was not at all shocked that she chose a vocation.”
Her story was recently featured on ESPN, who recounted how Pennefather gave up being the highest-paid women’s basketball player in the world in 1991 to live a life in service to the Lord as a Poor Clare.
Pennefather took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. This past June, Sister Rose Marie celebrated her 25th anniversary of her solemn profession: the long-awaited moment to greet her family from outside the screen, not to happen again for another 25 years.
Villanova teammates, friends, Machebeuf classmates, and family were all in attendance. She hugged her 78-year-old mom for what will probably be the last time.
Mcbournie was not able to make it but will visit Sister Rose Marie this fall. Since she’s kept up with her via letters, she is permitted to visit the monastery.
Pennefather attended Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver from 1980 to 1983 before transferring for her senior year due to her dad’s military job. She left Machebeuf with a 70-0 record.
“Her entire high school career, she never lost a basketball game,” Mcbournie said.
Mcbournie was a cheerleader and friend of Sister Rose Marie in high school, but a deeper friendship began 10 years after graduation. Sister Rose Marie’s brother Dick called Mcbournie before World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 since Mcbournie was still in the area.
Sister Rose Marie had just joined the Poor Clares and Dick and McBournie met up and spoke about the mourning process the family was going through, McBournie said. Dick mentioned to her that they could write Sister Rose Marie as many letters as they wanted, and one day a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany, she could write back.
Shelly Pennefather, pictured here in this photo from the Archdiocese of Denver archives, always exuded a deep spiritual life, her former Bishop Machebeuf classmates said. (Photo by James Baca)
“From that year on, I have been writing her every year,” McBournie said. She gives Sister Rose Marie updates on life, pictures from their high school reunions, and prayer requests.
“I have witnessed her journey through these letters,” McBournie said.
When Sister Rose Marie’s dad passed away shortly after entering, she was not able to leave the monastery to go to the funeral. McBournie saw how difficult these sacrifices were for her, especially in the early years of her vocation. But the letters show Sister Rose Marie’s joy.
“The last 5 to 10 years, I could just see her say, ‘I’m so blessed to be able to do this’,” McBournie said. “She’s so joyful.”
A fellow Machebeuf classmate asked McBournie for Sister Rose Marie’s address in order to have a little fun. He sent her a $20 bill with a note saying he thought she could use a smoke and a bottle of wine.
Sister Rose Marie did not miss a beat and in her yearly letter, she responded, “I bought incense, and I drank from the chalice,” McBournie recounted.
Shelly Pennefather (#15) had a 70-0 record playing basketball for Bishop Machebeuf in the 1980s, and went on to play for Villanova and then professionally in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Villanova Athletics)
But this letter sparked a friendship. This classmate has continued to write letters and even attended the 25-anniversary jubilee.
“Her letters are still hilarious, still very sarcastic,” McBournie said.
She remembers Sister Rose Marie being reserved and quiet in high school, focused more on school and basketball than anything else. Her father was in the military and the family was very disciplined, but they had a good sense of humor and quick wit, McBournie said.
“Her spirituality permeated her existence from the time she was young,” McBournie said.
David Dominguez was a few years ahead of Sister Rose Marie at Machebeuf but remembers her discipline and her talent. He called himself her cheerleader.’
“If it was really tight, we would start yelling, ‘Shelly, Shelly!’” Dominguez said. “It was one of my favorite cheers.”
Dominguez exercised at the Air Force base gym where Sister Rose Marie would train and play basketball with her dad and brother.
“I knew she had incredible skills,” Dominguez said. “It was kind of magical to watch.”
Sister Rose Marie recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of her profession of vows with the Poor Clares. She was able to hug her friends and family for the first time in 25 years. ESPN was there to cover the occasion. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Bonacci)
Dominguez also knew she was different.
“She was living for a different purpose than everyone else,” he said.
Sister Rose Marie’s devotion and personality remain the same, though she has traded in her jersey for a habit.
Although Sister Rose Marie can only write one letter a year, and can seldom have visitors, her friendship and influence reach far beyond the monastery walls.
Mcbournie said that their yearly letters have brought them even closer than they were in high school.
“I look forward to her letter every year,” Mcbournie said.