December 9, 2012
The song started as a sentence in Sister Kathy Sherman's head.
Love cannot be silenced.
That was last April, and the Vatican had just publicly reprimanded the country's largest leadership organization of Catholic women religious, accusing the sisters of being radical feminists and dissenters, out of step with church doctrine and in need of discipline.
Love cannot be silenced.
In the widespread agitation that followed the rebuke — the media reports, the arguments among lay Catholics, the grief and confusion among the sisters — those words kept playing in Sister Sherman's mind.
Love cannot be silenced. It never has. It never will.
She sat down at her long, black piano at the Congregation of St. Joseph's ministry center in La Grange Park, and within a few days she had written a complete song, which, over the next few months, among the sisters and people who love them, turned into a hit.
Last week, in a story on Sister Sherman, The New York Times called "Love Cannot Be Silenced" an anthem.
"Not just for the nuns," the story said, "but also for laypeople who turned out for vigils in front of churches and cathedrals across the country this year to support them."
The day the story appeared, it was one of the most popular on the paper's website, so on Friday, curious about the song and Sister Sherman's sudden celebrity, I went to see her at the congregation's center in La Grange Park.
She's a tall, white-haired woman of 60 with a ready smile and impressive posture. We sat in her upstairs music studio, down a dormlike hallway past a couple of small art studios and the room where a nun in her 80s teaches Suzuki violin.
"The things I feel most deeply about," she said, "I've always put into songs, since I was 14 years old."
Sister Sherman grew up with four siblings in Chicago's South Shore in an era when neighborhoods were still identified by parishes — hers was Our Lady of Peace — and many Catholic girls imagined life as a nun. She played piano and guitar, and she sang.
"Music was like breathing in our house," she said.
She came of age on '60s folk music, and later, after she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph, music became part of her ministry. She has played at weddings and funerals and the bedsides of the dying. Public events have often inspired her to write songs.
Fifteen years ago, when a black boy named Lenard Clark was beaten into a coma by three white kids in Bridgeport, she went to the hospital to tell his mother how terrible the sisters of St. Joseph felt. His mother invited her into Lenard's room to sing. On the drive home, she thought about the boys who beat him, and the line that ran through her head that night turned into her song "So Much Like You."
It was only natural that the Vatican's rebuke this spring move her to write a song — but not, she wants to make it clear, a protest song.
"I was angry," she said, quietly. "We were all angry. It was sad. It was hurtful. But what do you do with that? Where do you want the response to come from? The culture's looking for 'fight back' to set things up as 'us versus them.' That's not where we come from."
In the past few months, she said, as the sisters struggled to understand what the Vatican report portends and what to do about it, they've learned things. They have felt a new solidarity with one another and huge gratitude for the lay Catholics who stood up for them.
They've also looked at themselves.
"What it called all of us to do is embrace the reality of who we are and to stand firm in that, which is not antagonistic," she said. "It's helped us to name more clearly who we are, and to claim our own truth, in love."
After she recorded "Love Cannot Be Silenced," a novice at the congregation — a civil rights attorney with an aptitude for social media — put it on YouTube, overlaid with photos of demonstrations in support of the sisters. It spread.
Since The New York Times story, it has spread even more.
Last week, Sister Sherman heard from an Episcopal church in Seattle asking to do a choral arrangement. A man who works with the poor in India wrote to say it would give them hope. A self-professed atheist wrote to say the song resonated even for him.
Not all the online response was enthusiastic.
A blogger fulminated against the "singing lefty nun." Some online commenters sniffed at the quality of the song.
"Love can be silenced," sniped one commenter. "But apparently heresy cannot no matter how hard the Vatican tries."
"There really are people who don't want to see women, especially women religious, involved in issues that are political," Sister Sherman said, mildly. "I just think there's a very strong connection between what happens in the world and in my faith."
That's who she is.
Before I left, she sat down on her piano bench and played what she calls a song of affirmation, not protest, singing in a clear soprano voice:
Rise up, sisters, rise up
And stand with your heads held high
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