Can you take any more bad news about the Catholic Church right now?
I didn’t think so. The Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse and the cover-up by church officials, the disgrace of the former Cardinal McCarrick, the confusing letter by a disgruntled former papal nuncio to the U.S. in which he urged Pope Francis to resign — in my lifetime, I’ve never seen so much terrible news about my church.
Around the time of this late summer disaster, a young woman out here in my neck of the woods (as they say in the Midwest) was discovered dead in a cornfield after a monthlong search. This, too, was very sad news indeed.
But the life of Mollie Tibbetts, and her late August funeral Mass held in a small-town Iowa gymnasium, gave us a moment to thank God for all that remains good and wholesome in the faith we love and the people who espouse that faith.
I was initially stunned by the national attention paid to Tibbetts’ disappearance and death. I live in eastern Nebraska, a stone’s throw from our Iowa neighbors. So it wasn’t surprising that when the University of Iowa student was reported missing after going for a run in the little town of Brooklyn, Iowa, where she lived, and where she was housesitting for her boyfriend, it was big news in Omaha.
Driving through Iowa, I saw “missing” posters for Tibbetts at every rest stop. When a sign on the interstate indicated Brooklyn was somewhere nearby, off beyond the rolling green cornfields, something in my heart sank.
And when she was found dead, and her suspected murderer was discovered to be an undocumented Mexican worker, it was a double jolt. Added to this tragedy would be hatred unleashed against a group of people for the criminality of one.
It took barely hours for some politicians to use her death as an example of immigration problems and to tar yet again Mexican people.
But then something wonderful emerged. First, members of the Tibbetts family went on social media and decried any attempt to use her death to impugn immigrants.
Then, the bishop of Davenport, Iowa, presided over her funeral Mass, a ritual full of the spirit of hope and resurrection.
According to Catholic News Service, her parish’s director of religious education talked about Tibbetts growing stronger in her faith and her desire to be a child psychologist.
“She always had something good to say about somebody,” the director said.
Her small-town pastor gave the homily and compared Tibbetts, according to CNS, as not just a mustard seed, “but as a full-grown bush” full of many seeds.
He compared her to St. Therese of Lisieux, who also died young but left a “legacy of faith and inspiration.”
The pastor emphasized not the horrible sorrow of a young life cut short, but instead, “Who can say what good will come of what Mollie has already given the world? … Look at the good God is working among us here today.”
To me, his words evoked the classic Catholic embrace of the grain of wheat dying, then yielding a rich harvest. That mysterious Christian concept is one we might pray over during these days of sorrow in our church.
Finally, I laughed warmly at the words the Des Moines Register quoted from Tibbetts’ father. These words help explain where Mollie Tibbetts received her good-natured grounding in grace and faith.
“The Hispanic community are Iowans,” said Mr. Tibbetts. “They have the same values as Iowans. As far as I’m concerned, they’re Iowans with better food.”