Rosemary Lynch: A Franciscan in the Nuclear Age

Sister Rosemary Lynch

Rosemary Lynch, a Franciscan nun beloved by many, died the January 9, 2011 at a hospice in Las Vegas, Nevada, four days after having being hit by a car that was backing out of a driveway. She was 93.

After retiring from work at the Franciscan headquarters in Rome, Rosemary accepted an assignment in Las Vegas working with refugees and the poor. Once there, she quickly became deeply engaged in organizing resistance to nuclear weapons and war, as a result of which she became a co-founder of Nevada Desert Experience. Over the years, she was often arrested at the Nevada nuclear test site for participation in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.

I came to know her in 1985 when we co-taught a course at the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

by Jim Forest

When I think of people I have known who have shown extraordinary love and courage as well as a deep commitment to conversion, one of the people who springs to mind is Sister Rosemary Lynch, a Franciscan sister since she was seventeen. Until her death in January 2011, age 93, she and a fellow Franciscan, Sister Klaryta Antoszewska, lived in Las Vegas. Their Las Vegas wasn’t the familiar gambler’s mecca of bright lights and roulette wheels but a neighborhood without street lights where people live who clean hotel rooms, work in laundries, clear tables and wash dishes.

Those who met Rosemary were invariably impressed with her radiant smile and the interest she took in others, no matter how minor their position in life. She tended to call people “Honey.” Though preoccupied with some of the most troubling problems in the world, I have rarely met anyone over the age of ten who was so free of anxiety, a trait she credits to her parents. She recalls that, as a child, she misunderstood the words of a certain hymn. “The hymn started off, ‘O Lord, I am not worthy,’ but for years I thought the words were, ‘O Lord, I am not worried!’ And actually, in our home, that was our attitude toward the Lord and toward life. We weren’t worried — not about the Lord or anything else.”

Saint Francis inspired her from an early age. “He was almost a member of my family. In our home we had an understanding of that marvelous universality, that cosmic love, that integrity of creation that are at the heart of Saint Francis. While we didn’t fully understand how radical Francis was and what a reformation he started, in our home Francis hadn’t landed in the bird bath.”

In 1985, when Rosemary and I were teaching a course entitled “Making Peace, Serving Peace” at the Ecumenical Institute near Jerusalem, I asked her if seventeen hadn’t been too young an age to commit herself to a religious community.

“Not at all,” she assured me. “In those days we started just about everything younger. We took responsibility in our teens. It’s a pity that nowadays we seem to be developing a culture of permanent immaturity, permanent dependency. You find university students who haven’t the remotest idea what they want to do with their life. But when I was young, people had a goal that they were going toward. And this is what you still find among the refugee children.”

Rosemary said the most important educational experience in her life began in 1960 when she was elected to serve at her congregation’s headquarters in Rome, her home for sixteen years. “That’s where I lived, but actually I was traveling a lot, months at a time. I would be visiting the different places where our sisters were working — Europe, North America, Mexico, Africa, and Southeast Asia. I began to look at the world with different eyes. One of the life-changing events was my first encounter with starvation. I happened to be in Tanzania during a drought. For the first time I was surrounded by starving children. It was a conversion experience — the realization that things were terribly out of place in the world. For months afterward I could hardly enter a store in the consumer society of Rome and see all those nonessentials and all the people buying them. I wanted to scream out loud, ‘Doesn’t anyone know that I saw a child die of hunger — and you are buying false eyelashes!'”

Rosemary and Klaryta’s worked in Las Vegas centers on refugees, immigrant families, prisoners, and peace.

“We try to do these things on two levels, to combine immediate, necessary work in the community and work to change structures that cause suffering. Working with refugees, we have tried to change the notion of the State Welfare Board, which was denying refugees financial help. Visiting prisoners, we have worked for a pre-trial release program. Working for peace, we not only try to get rid of nuclear weapons but also to help victims of Nevada’s many nuclear tests. We don’t want just to apply band-aids, but neither do we want to lose contact with people by becoming too abstract.”

In the years when nuclear weapons were still being tested in mine shafts beneath the desert, Rosemary spent hundreds of hours standing in prayer on a highway adjacent to the nuclear test site and many more hours meeting with test-site employees. She helped initiate Desert Witness, which each Lent brought thousands of people to fast and pray at the nuclear test site until the explosions finally stopped. Time and again she crossed the property line and was arrested.

Despite her many arrests, Sister Rosemary won the respect of people who were among the most law-abiding citizens. In 1985 the governor of Nevada and the mayor of Las Vegas honored her with an officially proclaimed Rosemary Lynch Day. (However, not all the responses to Rosemary’s efforts were so appreciative. In February 1988, following another arrest at the nuclear test site, she lost her job with a social service agency. “I have observed that the more deeply a person enters into this endeavor of peace-serving,” she wrote the agency’s director, “the more the cost of discipleship goes up. For me to abandon my hours of prayer and fasting in the desert would be a betrayal of my own conscience.”)

Rosemary sees her peace activities as a continuation of the renewal of Christianity associated with Saint Francis. “Not only were the brothers and sisters forbidden to have weapons or to use them for any reason,” she often explained, “but so were the lay people who followed the rule he wrote for those living a family life.”

In 1989 she and several co-workers decided to focus more intensively on nonviolence as a means of personal and social transformation, founding a group that took its name from a phrase often used by Saint Francis: Pace e Bene (peace and goodness). “Even if nuclear weapons were abolished,” Rosemary pointed out, “unless we defuse the bombs in our own hearts, the human family is quite capable of finding other even worse means of destroying life.”

The refugees Klaryta and Rosemary received in the days when the United States was geared for war with the Soviet Union was a young Russian couple and their son. They had been given permission to leave because they had Jewish family backgrounds, though they were not active in synagogue or church.

“The man was a sculptor and graphics artist,” Rosemary recalled, “the woman a restorer of icons and an illustrator of children’s books — skills not in demand in Las Vegas! In the man’s case it seemed Sister Klaryta was lucky — she found him a job in a graphics studio, but all we could get for the woman was a job as a ‘bus person,’ clearing tables in a casino restaurant. It was a humiliating job for a sensitive woman and skilled artist. She accepted it, but it was very hard.

“We had found them a small apartment, but they often knocked on our door. We would make a pot of good strong tea and talk for hours. For both husband and wife it soon became obvious that they couldn’t continue with their jobs. It turned out that this ‘art studio’ wanted the husband to make posters for pornographic movies. But for him art is a sacred thing. This violated the nature of his being. We told him he had to stop.

“In his wife’s case, the crisis was caused by a state law requiring that bread left on the table must be thrown out, even if no one has touched it. She came home one night completely broken, in tears, saying, ‘They make me throw away the body of Christ!’

“That night I finally understood something basic in Slavic culture. They understand that all bread is holy, all bread is linked to the body of Jesus, not only bread consecrated on the altar. I’m sure our ancestors knew this too, but in the degenerate society that we now have, we no longer see this. We can easily throw bread into the garbage. But our friend could no longer violate her heart and her spirit by throwing away bread. So we told her, ‘You have to stop immediately.’ And she did. Finally Klaryta arranged for the family to go to New York, where there is a large Russian community and a much better chance to work as artists and icon restorers. It has never been very happy for them, but at least it’s better than it was.”

Rosemary regarded her activities not as making peace but as being in “the service of peace.” As she said, “None of us can make peace. Peace is God’s gift. But we can serve God’s peace.”

Nuclear weapons and warfare were not at all in her thoughts when she moved to Las Vegas. “But in Nevada, where so many nuclear weapons have exploded, you can’t not think about what a nuclear war would mean. Thank God so far there has been no World War III, but we have many victims of the preparations for World War III. They are all around us. Some are the people working at the testing site, where the cancer rate is much higher than the national average. Many employees have been radiated in nuclear accidents. In addition there are all those soldiers who were close to ground zero when there were above-ground tests. Many have died already, and many have had defective children — the greatest sorrow. There are also the ‘down-wind victims’ who were in the path of fallout clouds.”

Rosemary’s primary focus was always on people, not weapons. “Of course we hope our efforts make it more likely that the day will come when there will be no more testing and no nuclear weapons, but what we are doing has another, deeper meaning — the recognition that we too, not only those making and testing weapons, are in need of conversion. Our motto has always been, ‘Convert!’ What we are doing concerns conversion. We need to convert our own hearts. As long as the bombs are exploding in our hearts, we have little hope of even understanding what is going on in the world around us. We hope not only for our own conversion but for a conversion that will lead our whole society in a new direction. The desert is a place linked to conversion. The desert has always been the classical place of spiritual solitude. The prophets of old searched for the voice of God in the desert. This is true for us too. So we go out to the desert to fast and pray. In the winter it is often windy and frigid, but in the warmer seasons it comes to life. You should see the desert at Easter time!”

Rosemary developed a profound sympathy for those who work at the test site, many of whom she came to know personally. “They are hostages of the bomb, just as we are,” she commented. “Many friendships have taken root, especially with guards and police. Many people working at the site wave to us. I remember one worker who brought us a box of fresh donuts. He said, ‘I may be on the other side, but I have to admire your perseverance.’ Sometimes I am asked to help with very complex personal and family problems. There are people involved with nuclear weapons who have called me late at night with some personal crisis they needed to discuss. I have had sheriffs and military officers cry on my shoulder.”

“Isn’t there the danger of abusing people’s vulnerability in such situations?” I asked.

“I never say to them, ‘You should quit.’ I don’t have the right,” she responded. “This is something you have to come to on your own. With the economic situation in the country so bad, many are glad to have a job, no matter what it is. Even so, some have left the test site, even at the cost of a lot of personal and family sacrifice.”

When I asked how she justified breaking the law, she replied: “The real evil is perfecting methods of killing people and destroying God’s creation. Breaking a trespass law — crossing a white line in a road miles from the test site — respects the essence of civil law and is obedience to the higher law. Sometimes the law needs help. Of course, you have to have a certain amount of openness and patience with people who don’t see this and you must be willing to go to jail, which gives you a chance to ‘visit the prisoner,’ as Christ told us to do. But civil disobedience isn’t for everyone. It is a call, a vocation. I would never say to anyone, ‘You should do this.’ But I ask others to respect the force of conscience that compels us who commit civil disobedience.

“We always practice openness with the police and everyone concerned about what we are doing. One consequence of this is that the police have always been gentle and courteous with us. They have even had a sense of the joy of the occasion. They try not to hurt us when they put on the handcuffs. They assist us getting into the police buses. It’s remarkable.”

Rosemary always urged those who commit acts of disobedience to respect those who may feel threatened or be inconvenienced by such actions and to carefully avoid sarcasm, abrasive words, or rude gestures. “It is our policy never to have the kind of blockade where people go limp and thereby compel the police to have to carry us away. We don’t want to call forth hostility in other people. Sometimes people kneel down in the roads to pray. Sometimes we hold up the cross. But when they ask us to stand up, we do so.”

I asked Rosemary what she had learned from her years of talking to people whose life’s work is linked to weapons. She responded:

“The main thing is not to fear approaching anyone. We need to learn to approach those whom we or others regard as our enemies, whether people in another country or the White House or people anywhere in positions of political or religious leadership — people who have authority and power which could be used for the welfare of the human family. We need to think about the manner in which we approach them. If we can possibly imbibe a little of the spirit of Saint Francis, it will help. He always approached his opponents — even a wolf — in humility but also perfectly confident that he should go. He had a very great simplicity, something that we tend to lack today. We are far too complicated. We need to approach those we are trained to hate or resent or fear, and to do it on a very human level, in a loving way, seeing them, as Francis saw the sultan, as a brother given to him by God. If we can do that, what can we not accomplish?”

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Rosemary Lynch and the Wolf of Gubbio

One of St. Francis’s efforts as a peacemaker concerns Gubbio, a town north of Assisi. The people of Gubbio were troubled by a huge wolf that attacked not only animals but people, so that the men had to arm themselves before going outside the town walls. They felt as if Gubbio were under siege.

Francis decided to help, though the local people, fearing for his life, tried to dissuade him. What chance could an unarmed man have against a wild animal with no conscience? But according to the Fioretti, the principal collection of stories of the saint’s life, Francis placed his hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, master of all creatures. Protected neither by shield or helmet, only arming himself with the sign of the Cross, he bravely set out of the town with his companion, putting his faith in the Lord who makes those who believe in him walk without injury on an asp . . . and trample not merely on a wolf but even a lion and a dragon.

Some local peasants followed the two brothers, keeping a safe distance. Finally the wolf saw Francis and came running, as if to attack him. The story continues:

“The saint made the sign of the Cross, and the power of God . . . stopped the wolf, making it slow town and close its cruel mouth. Then Francis called to it, ‘Brother Wolf, in the name of Jesus Christ, I order you not to hurt me or anyone.’

The wolf then came close to Francis, lowered its head and then lay down at his feet as though it had become a lamb. Francis then censured the wolf for its former cruelties, especially for killing human beings made in the image of God, thus making a whole town into its deadly enemy.

“But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will not be harmed by you any more, and after they have forgiven you your past crimes, neither men nor dogs will pursue you anymore.”

The wolf responded with gestures of submission “showing that it willingly accepted what the saint had said and would observe it.”

Francis promised the wolf that the people of Gubbio would henceforth “give you food every day as long as you shall live, so that you will never again suffer hunger.” In return, the wolf had to give up attacking both animal and man. “And as Saint Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in Saint Francis’s hand as a sign that it had given its pledge.”

Francis led the wolf back into Gubbio, where the people of the town met them in the market square. Here Francis preached a sermon in which he said calamities were permitted by God because of our sins and that the fires of hell are far worse than the jaws of a wolf, which can only kill the body. He called on the people to do penance in order to be “free from the wolf in this world and from the devouring fire of hell in the next world.” He assured them that the wolf standing at his side would now live in peace with them, but that they were obliged to feed him every day. He pledged himself as “bondsman for Brother Wolf.”

After living peacefully within the walls of Gubbio for two years, “the wolf grew old and died, and the people were sorry, because whenever it went through the town, its peaceful kindness and patience reminded them of the virtues and holiness of Saint Francis.”

Is it possible that the story is true? Or is the wolf a storyteller’s metaphor for violent men? While the story works on both levels, there is reason to believe there was indeed a wolf of Gubbio. A Franciscan friend, Sister Rosemary Lynch, tells me that during restoration work the bones of a wolf were found buried within the church in Gubbio.

[extract from The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life by Jim Forest]

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