On March 7, Maryknoll Sister Janice McLaughlin passed into the fullness of life with God. I have been so inspired by the extraordinary life of this faithful servant. Like many other remarkable Maryknoll missioners, Sister Janice had a heart for mission, leaving an indelible impact on the lives of those she accompanied.
Sister Janice spent the vast majority of her life as a Maryknoll missioner in Africa. In her early years as a missioner, she was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for her documentation of government oppression and massacres of the people of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. In an experience that would break most of us, she turned to prayer and scripture, allowing it to deepen her solidarity with oppressed and impoverished people.
Solidarity and accompaniment would eventually define her life as a missioner in various parts of Africa, through the kinship she developed with people living in poverty, and as a leader in the Maryknoll Sisters.
I never had the privilege of meeting Sister Janice; yet, surprisingly, as I learned about her life through the many tributes and reflections that followed her death, I discovered my Lenten journey deepening. Her death also came near the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown in the U.S., a draining year of maintaining appropriate physical distance and one in which so many of us experienced extraordinary loss. I gratefully found her life offering a profound witness of hope amidst this global experience of loss and mourning.
Henri Nouwen writes in his book Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring that our two greatest joys are our discoveries of being different from others and being the same as others. Referring to the latter, he describes this joy as “being the brother or sister of all people … the joy of being a part of that vast variety of people — of all ages, colors and religions — who together form the human family.”
Accessible but not obvious to all, Nouwen believed few truly know this joy. When we discover this joy, it transforms both our living and dying. “The great gift hidden in our dying is the gift of unity with all people. However different we are, we were all born powerless, and we all die powerless, and the little differences we live in between dwindle in the light of this enormous truth.”
Sister Janice lived this truth. Her life of mission left a mark because she discovered the joy of belonging to God and belonging to each other, especially by entering the brokenness and powerlessness of others. Her passing was a celebration of unity. And why not? As Nouwen reflects, “If we grow in awareness that our mortality, more than anything else, will lead us into solidarity with others, then death can become a celebration of our unity with the human race … It can give rise to new joy; instead of simply ending life, it can begin something new.”
The solidarity that Sister Janice lived through to her death led to something new — hope, resilience, newfound courage, communion and much more — in the lives she encountered.
For me, her living example is also offering a new understanding of resurrection. God raised Jesus, not to offer some certainty about a heavenly place for us down the road, but as a declaration of God’s solidarity with us in the here and now. The good news of the resurrection is that Jesus breaks through all our attempts to separate, maim and even kill, and still comes back to us in our vulnerability and brokenness offering healing, compassion and, most of all, loving presence.
Joy and new life rise up through Jesus’ standing with and strengthening us. Joy and new life rise up when we do the same for each other.
That was the joy of Sister Janice. That is the joy of mission. May it be our joy this Easter season.
- Books by Henri Nouwen: A chronological listing of his books by the Henri Nouwen Society
- Read more about the life of Sr. Janice McLaughlin:
- Remembering Janice McLaughlin, the Maryknoll sister who found freedom in the struggle for African liberation by Robert Ellsberg – America magazine
- Janice McLaughlin, Nun Who Exposed Abuse in Africa, Dies at 79 – New York Times obituary
- Obituary of Sr. Janice McLaughlin by the Maryknoll Sisters
- Read Sr. Janice McLaughlin’s book: Ostriches, Dung Beetles, and Other Spiritual Masters (Orbis Books)
- Listen to Sr. Janice McLaughlin’s reflection on the Epiphany on Catholic Women Preach