I cannot remember the exact date, but I know this. It was at the time of my 20th anniversary as a priest, and to celebrate the occasion, I was in Rome. One day, I was at lunch with Sister Mary Ann Walsh, then part of the Rome office of Catholic News Service, the U.S. bishops’ news agency.
She had no easy job. She had to know not only the thinking of the Church but the “ifs” and “ands” of developments in the Church, all the while functioning in the large, at times clumsy, human apparatus that is the Vatican.
I distinctly remember saying, “Sister, you are a professional, and you love the Church.”
Now, I repeat these words as a tribute to Sister, who died on April 28 after a long illness of cancer. God, be good to her, as her Irish ancestors, and mine, would say.
From Rome, Sister Mary Ann eventually came home to serve in the CNS headquarters in Washington, and then she was invited to join the staff of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as its liaison with the media.
This job with the bishops’ conference was more demanding than anything in Rome had been. As spokesperson for the bishops, Sister not only had to be thoroughly familiar with Church positions on a host of issues, from female altar servers to immigration, but every day she had to face reporters who usually were on deadline, in a frenzied competition to get the story first and most completely to the public, and who always seemed at least slightly to assume that anybody representing the Church was concealing something, especially if the issue was controversial, as it certainly was when the Church faced instances of child sexual abuse by clergy and the handling of such cases by bishops.
Over the years, I attended so many news conferences when Sister Mary Ann spoke for the bishops, when reporters, at times as predatory as any lions who once charged Christians in Roman arenas, asked their questions.
Always, she was poised. It was not calmness, however, that won for her the respect and trust of the press. She knew the facts, and she knew the background. She knew how to explain an issue. If she did not know an answer, or if she had been instructed not to divulge this or that detail, she said so as a matter of fact.
Beneath it all, she understood the great role of the media, to make known to you and me and everyone in the society the facts that affect our lives.
The media sensed that she realized this high objective, and that she intended to accommodate it. Being forthright, for Sister Mary Ann, meant more than being forthcoming with news releases. If a reporter or commentator made a mistake about the Church, she corrected her or him then and there.
One famous such moment was when a well-known television commentator said something untrue about nuns. Sister Mary Ann stopped him in his tracks. She was that way.
All of us in the Catholic press knew that she was there to help, with information as to when Pope Francis was born or how many priests will be ordained next year, and I knew Sister at this professional level for over 30 years. I was one of those writers who relied on her for genuine facts.
Remembering her now, I think most, and most dearly, of knowing her at another level. I a priest, and she a religious, we spoke the same language in so many ways. We understood and shared those ideals and hopes, and that special love of the Church, that compel priests and nuns.
She was a dear friend, always loyal, funny, encouraging and occasionally correcting, sharp as a tack, so principled and so good.
God, be good to her.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.