The Leadership Conference of Women's Religious (LCWR) has gone through a difficult year. The organization is under the cloud of a Vatican doctrinal study; meanwhile, U.S. women religious communities are in the middle of a three-year Vatican investigation, officially called an Apostolic Visitation, into the quality of life in their communities.
It's been a bit of a tough go for Women Religious in the Roman Catholic Church. Just last May, LCWR, along with a number of other Catholic organizations, split with the U.S. bishops in their assessments on health care legislation.
The women religious supported the legislation, saying it would bring needed health care to 33 million; the U.S. bishops opposed the legislation, saying it allowed federal funding for abortions, an interpretation of the bill that LCWR did not share.
Then, of course, there was the case, in November, 2009, of Sr. Margaret McBride, Vice President of St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, AZ, who was excommunicated by her bishop, Thomas J. Olmsted, because she approved the abortion of an 11 week fetus of a 27 year old mother of four in order to save the life of a mother.
As I said, it's been a particularly tough year for Women Religious in the RC Church. Then again, being an Roman Catholic Nun in a male-dominated, hierarchical system is an impossible vocation.
I have said it before, will say it again, and will continue to say it with my dying breath: I am the priest I am today because of the nuns of my youth.
Oh, I know the horror stories. Kids shamed and physically abused by nuns. I do remember some of the kids in my First Communion Class who were left-handed having their left hands tied to a chair so as to force them to learn to write "the right way". Some of the nuns told us that left-handed kids were 'sinister' - from the Latin 'sinistr', meaning something that threatened 'evil'.
Oh, I got smacked by a nun as a child. Once. Hard. I was six years old. Sister had just asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said, "I'm going to be a priest." After sternly warning me that "girls become nuns, only boys become priests." I said, "Well, I'm going to be a priest."
I went home and told my mother who said, "Well, what did you expect? If you ever say that again, you'll see the back of my hand, too."
It was a very different time, back in the day.
I'm not offering any excuses, but many of these women - or, their parents - were right off the boat from "the old country" who became "brides of Christ" because their parents couldn't afford to care for them or they refused to be "married off" they way they would have in the old country.
I know one, nice Italian family. Three girls. It was the Depression. "Father" came over to the house one afternoon to "help". The next day, all three girls - then ages 14, 15 and 17 - found themselves in the local convent. All three were told that they were to become "brides of Christ."
One left the convent in her early 30s, married a former RC priest, had three children and is now an Episcopalian. One left shortly after he sister, married a widow and helped to raise his children. The third is still in the convent - and, happy about it, as near as I can tell.
That's not an uncommon story among women of that generation.
One of my aunts was a nun. She's now 81 years old. She worked in an orphanage where living conditions could be generously described as "bleak". They "did their best", she says, but "sometimes, when there wasn't enough food, we always made sure the children ate."
Whenever she talks about her convent days, she always says, "I had to leave. I had anemia, TB and got really close to a nervous break down. The doctor said I had to go. I just wasn't cut out for that kind of life." She lowers her eyes and her face burns with shame as she adds, softly, "It's a high calling. I just couldn't take it. I was weak."
It breaks my heart every time I hear her say that.
Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. You know. The female equivalent of the Jesuits. Where the Kennedy and Shriver girls went to school. Oh, yes. And, Lady Gaga. But, back then, she was enrolled as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.
Obviously, Ms. Conroy's experience was much, MUCH different than mine. Well, most of us, in fact. Had to change into her Jonathan Meyers suit and white gloves to go to dinner in the evening. Like that. Suffice it to say, she got an excellent eduction. I think she's done them proud.
The nuns of my youth were women in leadership in a male dominated church hierarchy. They were strong, feisty, independent, passionate women who dedicated their lives to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
They often stood up to "Father" in defense of the children of the church. Unfortunately, too many looked away when they knew - in their gut - that something was wrong, something was very, very wrong, about "Father" and "his boys."
From what I hear from my friends who are RC nuns, that's the very reason the Vatican is after them.
It's their land, you see.
Many Women's Religious Orders own property. Very valuable property. Some of it in prime real estate locations, located in pristine, bucolic country settings. Or, on the ocean front.
Some of the nuns I know believe that their order will be forced into doctrinal belief systems that will be impossible for them to live with. If they don't "comply" and "submit" and are "disobedient", they will be forced to close down.
Why on earth would the Roman Catholic Church do that? The way my friends see it, it will be done so the Vatican can take over their property.
They will sell it and use the money to bail out dioceses that have had to declare bankruptcy in order to settle the hundreds of thousands of law suits brought about by victims and survivors of sexual abuse suffered at the hands of priests.
It's ironic, but not such a far-fetched theory. There are many, many diocese that have already declared bankruptcy. I know bankruptcy proceedings have happened in the Archdioceses of Spokane, Davenport, Portland and San Diego, and last week, a judge lifted the one year delay of the proceedings in the Diocese of Wilmington, DE.
There are probably more. These are the ones I know of in this country. Other dioceses around the world - Ireland and Australia come immediately to mind - are also facing bankruptcy.
Hey, it's nothing personal. Certainly nothing theological or doctrinal, much less having to do with the "quality of life" in their religious communities. It's just business - or, more specifically, business-as-usual. The millions of dollars gained from the sale of prime real estate will provide a quick and necessary infusion of cash into a severely depleted system.
I know. Sounds really crass and jaded. A very low opinion of the very lofty position of the "Princes of the Church". Well, if you begin with the sexual abuse of children, there's really no where left to go but down.
Except, these women have a 'stubborn hope'.
“Let us remember, however, that we will be known more by what we affirm than what we deny. Our whole being tends toward what we hope for. But we also know that the prophet, who is always concerned about a better future, is not known for nuance. Its two greatest enemies are conformity and comfort. Grounded in a sublime principle of the Second Vatican Council, we wait in stubborn hope for truth to impose itself by virtue of its essence as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”Her words are the best example of the kind of nuns who educated and trained me in the Gospel of Jesus and "raised me to the full stature of Christ" in my baptism.
It's the reason I have a "stubborn hope" in my soul about the church.
I pray for my Sister Religious every day in my morning prayers. I do believe they hold the key to the future of the Roman Catholic Church. And, I'm not talking about the value of their property to bail out bankrupt dioceses.
As long as they continue to educate our youth, they will continue to produce young adult men and women who know about justice and mercy. They will continue to inspire leaders in the church - even if that means young men and women must leave the Roman occupation of their souls in order to fulfill their vocation.
They will continue to instill a love of Jesus in the hearts of the young and a fiery passion for the gospels in their souls.
They did it for me.
And, Ms. Conroy.
Um . . .okay, so Lady Gaga is not exactly a shining example, but, moving right along . . .
In her closing speech in Dallas, Weisenbeck called upon the women to express hope as prophets, artists, healers and lovers.
• Speaking of prophecy, she said that it is necessary to discover the art of touching the heart and holding the hand of victims of injustice while also calling to truth the authors of scandal.
• Speaking of art, she said that any artist will tell us that making art can be an analogy to the experience of spiritual transformation. “When doing one’s spiritual work or creating a piece of art, a certain abandonment of the self is important,” she said. “Likewise, the artist offers herself to the creative impulse and worries not what is given the soul to reveal.”
• Speaking of healing, she said: “Today the big ecclesial questions are about who has power and authority over sacraments, governance, and how the crisis of abuse is handled. Yet these are not the central questions about deep longing that reside inside and underneath the elemental human experience lurking through our worries and complaints. Under all this are our holy longings for healing and wholeness, an ache for the infinite , and a yearning for love.” No one, she emphasized, “should come into contact with us without receiving mercy.”
• Speaking of love, she said: “Religious life must be founded on a love relationship with Christ, first and foremost. If this is not the bedrock of our life form, nothing else will have efficacy – not community life, not social justice, nor any other effort at renewal or ministry that we take on."
See what I mean about a 'stubborn hope'?
Please join me in keeping these women in your daily prayers. Especially Sr. Mary Hughes, incoming President of the LCWR, and Sr. Pat Farrell, elected VP who will become President the next year.
Of your mercy and kindness, please 'drop a bead' or two for these amazing women of faith.
Even though their faith is wonderfully alive and their hope is marvelously stubborn, they are going to need all the help they can get.