Sister Briege McKenna, O.S.C., believes in miracles. And she should know.
Born in County Armagh, Sister Briege joined the Sisters of St. Clare when she was 15. In 1970, at age 24, and by then a teacher in Tampa, Florida, she says she was healed of crippling rheumatoid arthritis during the celebration of the Eucharist. More, she says she was given the gift of healing.
The experience, not surprisingly, changed her life. She believes God told her to take her newfound gift and use it to minister to priests. And that she has been doing for nearly 40 years, taking her message of healing to priests throughout the world.
Recognizing her great contribution, the Catholic Leadership Institute of Exton selected her to receive its 2009 Award for Outstanding Catholic Leadership. (She was slated to be recognized Friday, November 13.)
We caught up with Sister Briege just a day after her return from one of her many whirlwind tours. Jet-lagged but somehow still full of energy, she talked with us about her life and ministry.
Q. How do you define a miracle? It sometimes seems that we’re surrounded by them all the time, but don’t recognize them as such.
A. The title of my book is “Miracles do Happen.” (But) I dont believe physical healing is the most important. Many people have perfect health and they’re miserable; others are ill but filled with joy. But a miracle is something that cannot be explained through medical terms. An example: Around last Christmas, a friend of mine brought me a doctor who was very critically ill with leukemia. I think he was a Methodist. I talked with him and prayed with him. (Since then,) he’s been cured. His doctors say there’s no evidence he ever had the disease. That’s a miracle.
Q. What do you think about Christ’s admonition to Thomas, to believe what he can’t see. I sometimes think that, if you need miracles to believe, then that’s not faith. Or is that asking too much of people?
A. Thomas was wonderful. If you think about it, you can see how it would be hard for Thomas to believe. You cannot understand mysteries with your head. I don’t have to see a miracle to believe in the Eucharist. People who believe don’t need miracles. And many people who see miracles still don’t believe them.
Q. Why minister to priests?
A. In 1972, the Lord gave me a five-hour vision in the chapel. He said I was to speak to people about the priesthood as God’s gift to us. He said I want you to speak to priests and bishops (and say that) the priesthood is not a gift just tothem. I remember saying to the Lord, “I can’t do this, I’m a teacher.” And the Lord said, just be obedient. I’ll speak through you.
People say priests are skeptical of a nun, but if something is a gift from God, you don’t have to prove yourself. It’s about them and bringing them to the realization of what the priesthood is.
Q. You’re from Ireland. How much of a change do you see in the Catholic church in Ireland?
A. I see a very big change since I left Ireland 42 years ago. Throughout society, I see a great falling away. Ireland became more prosperous, that’s what’s happening. But there’s great faith still in Ireland. There’s still a lot of beautiful faith in Ireland.
Q. Irish religious have had a big impact on Catholicism in the United States and elsewhere. Do you feel like you’re part of a great tradition?
A. When I came here 42 years ago, practically every sister and priest around here (Florida) was Irish. Ireland is one of the greatest missionary countries. That was up until 20 years ago; now we don’t have vocations. Seminaries have closed down. Worldwide, every place we go, the Irish have left a powerful impact and have sowed the seeds of the Catholic Church. Please God, it’ll come back.
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