SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This spring the University of Notre Dame will honor Mary Ann Glendon and Missionary of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel, whose lives illustrate what St. John Paul II described as “the genius of women.”
Glendon, the accomplished Harvard professor, international human-rights advocate, former ambassador and champion of the unborn child in international law, will receive the Evangelium Vitae award from Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture April 28. Sister Norma, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, will receive Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal May 20 at Notre Dame’s commencement exercises, in recognition of her service at the border in organizing the care of migrants and refugees fleeing horrific levels of violence and poverty in collapsing Central American countries.
Both women have drawn praise from those who have known or worked with them closely as models of a holistic commitment to the Church’s entire social teaching in their advocacy for the life and dignity of the human person in all circumstances — including with those who disagree.
Formed by Small Towns
Glendon, 79, grew up Catholic in Dalton, a town with a population of a little more than 6,000 set in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. She told the Register that formative influences on her life’s work include Martin Luther King, with his vision of the “Beloved Community, a community that embraces everybody, including those at the fragile beginnings and endings of life,” and Pope St. John Paul II, whose encyclicals and example were “enormously inspiring and encouraging for me, as for so many others.”
But the “most important influence” on how she thought about a culture of life — and how to make it happen through civic engagement — came from seeing life up close in Dalton. “[It was] a town so small that everyone had the opportunity to see and learn from people as they dealt with life’s challenges: illness, disability, age, birth, death and various family crises,” she said. ”You got to see how decisions made at crucial moments play out over a long period of time.”
Growing up 2,000 miles away, Norma Pimentel, 64, experienced a similar sense of close-knit community.
The Texas-born daughter of Catholic Mexican immigrants, she had family on both sides of the Rio Grande. Experiencing life going back and forth in those small towns between Mexico and Texas helped Sister Norma see human beings “all as one family.”
Her parents were “good Christian people” who showed her the importance of going to church and helping other people. Her grandmother’s quiet example of praying on her knees every night before bed left a deep impression. During college she joined a young-adult group and experienced her Catholic faith more intensely as a deep, living encounter with Jesus Christ, later deciding in 1978 at 24 years old to enter the Missionaries of Jesus, a diocesan-approved community based in the Diocese of Brownsville.
Sister Norma’s vocation and relationship with Jesus was profoundly shaped by her superior and mentor, Sister Juliana Garcia, who gave her an example of how to trust completely in God and come to him in prayer. When Sister Juliana was troubled, she would spend time praying before the Blessed Sacrament to entrust her worries to Jesus. Sister Juliana also taught her those who stand for something “cannot run away when things get difficult.”
“I learned my lesson that when you believe in something, you cannot run away. You have to learn how to accept it,” she said.
Restoring Human Dignity
Both Glendon and Sister Norma also have drawn admiration for their courage and grace under fire in championing the Church’s social teaching.
John Klink, who was part of the Vatican delegation to the United Nations during the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women, told the Register that Glendon took on the unprecedented role of leading the Vatican delegation to the United Nations at the same time that Hillary Clinton was heading the U.S. delegation and leading the charge to enshrine abortion as an international human right.
“Mary Ann’s immediate acceptance of the Pope’s request was a courageous move that foreshadowed her dedicated future service to President Bush and her ongoing service to John Paul’s successors,” he said.
Sister Norma has characterized her work with migrants and the border as a concrete way of “restoring their dignity,” and that has had an impact on the people of McAllen, Texas.
Mayor Jim Darling told the Register that the relationships Sister Norma built for years in McAllen, with both the city and the Border Patrol, have been evident. He has had “no pushback” from the community about the city’s partnership with Sister Norma and Catholic Charities to take care of the unauthorized migrants and refugees that began arriving with the first group of 35 families in 2014. He said they were proud when Pope Francis recognized Sister Norma for her work during a virtual audience hosted by ABC News shortly before the Holy Father’s 2015 visit to the U.S.
“She brought light on our community and turned what could have been a huge negative into a huge positive.”
Those who know Sister Norma and Mary Ann Glendon remarked that each woman has opened hearts and minds because they do not lose sight of the human dignity of those who disagree with them on such critical issues.
“I’m not trying to convince them. I’m just trying to tell them why I do what I do,” Sister Norma explained.
Richard Doerflinger, former executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-life Secretariat and Evangelium Vitae Medal recipient, noted that Glendon also provides a compelling example of how to address divisive issues in a scholarly way that rejects the polemics of today’s tribal politics. He first became aware of Glendon in 1987 through her book Abortion and Divorce in Western Law, when she laid out the case for why elevating “personal autonomy” to the highest civic good inevitably undermines a rule of law based on objective human rights.
“People read [that book] who otherwise would not have read a blunderbuss attack on Roe v. Wade,” he said.
Glendon notably declined the Laetare Medal in 2009, because Notre Dame was honoring the newly elected President Barack Obama with an honorary doctorate. Doerflinger observed that Obama ended up disappointing Catholics not only on abortion, but other areas of social teaching involving war, immigration and freedom of conscience and religion.
Glendon’s decision to decline, he said, may have prompted Notre Dame to begin a serious re-examination of its commitment to the entirety of the Church’s social teaching. While not perfect, the university has shown advances in its pro-life character since then, Doerflinger said.
Inspiring a New Generation
Both women have inspired Catholics, particularly Catholic women, to follow their example and footsteps. The respective Evangelium Vitae and Laetare Medals are expected to elevate their inspiring witness further.
Ashley Feasley, the director of policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, told the Register that Sister Norma has been a mentor for her, particularly in keeping close with the persons the Church is serving.
Sister Norma, she said, showed this in a particular way by bringing a large portrait she had painted of a migrant woman and her son to give to Pope Francis when he came to the United States in 2015.
“It was really important to her that he have this image of this woman … that he see this migrant woman’s face,” she said.
Helen Alvaré, an accomplished professor of law at George Mason University and participant at the Vatican synods on the family, told the Register that Glendon has been a mentor and hero for 30 years because she shows how to live life as a Catholic academic and mother, with commitment to all the Church’s pro-life and social-justice teachings, even at Harvard.
“To see all of that in one person — I knew what I wanted to do and work toward, from that time,” Alvaré said. Glendon has been a guiding light for Alvaré about what things are most important: When Alvaré declined to represent the U.S. for St. John Paul II’s funeral because she had to attend her daughter’s piano recital, the White House was incredulous. But Glendon told Alvaré she did the right thing — and to make sure she never missed a graduation either.
“Because of her, those things are less singular than they were. More women want to be like that, and more women are like that.”
Notre Dame’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, in statements provided to the Register, expressed his gratitude the university could honor both women this year.
“Mary Ann Glendon is certainly among the most accomplished women in the Church today and a worthy recipient of this year’s award,” Father Jenkins said, thanking the Center for Ethics and Culture for bestowing on her the Evangelium Vitae Medal for her “impressive service to the Church and to life.”
Likewise, he praised Sister Norma for giving her life “to welcoming Christ in the immigrant and refugee.”
He said, “In awarding her the Laetare Medal, Notre Dame celebrates her witness of seeking and generously serving Christ in the most vulnerable.”
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