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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Stubborn Hope

American Nuns are - have been - under siege.

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.

Ms. Conroy, on the other hand,  was educated by the "Les Mademe" -  Religieuses du Sacré Cœur de Jésus or 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'.

On August 13, Leadership Conference of Women Religious president, Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration Marlene Weisenbeck, delivered her last address as head of organization. She said:
“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 an 'impossible vocation'?

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.


whiteycat said...

Like you, Elizabeth, I owe a tremendous gift of gratitude to the Sisters who instilled in me a great love for the Scripture, the sacraments and a life of prayer. Ultimately these aspects of the spiritual life led me to TEC when I experienced the unique gifts of women priests some twenty eight years ago.

Thanks for keeping the Sisters in your prayers.

Malinda said...

My mother's aunts were Ursuline nuns who road the barge down the Ohio River to plant a home in what then must have seemed the most remote place to start a teaching mission (Kentucky). But that wasn't far enough for some of them, one great aunt in particular who went to the desert of New Mexico to teach "the children". And she kept it up until in her nineties. Strong women - which the Catholic Church could recognize them as priests.

susankay said...

I didn't begin as a Catholic but somehow learned to venerate strong women. There is a novel, "Grass" by Sherri Tepper which is about a woman who is (in the future) an "Old Catholic" and who does good works rather than question why men have made the good works necessary. She changes, and much to the horror of her husband and also of her confessor, the "Old Catholics" change as well. Pray that the "Current Catholics" and all the religions that claim to love God will open themselves to change.

Malinda said...

Arghh - the typos! Wish there was a stream of consciousness check up there with spelling and grammar.

Hope the idea is there if not the correct wording. :)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Whiteycat, I hope you are praying for the Sisters as well.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Malinda, you absolutely HAVE to write down those stories and share them with the rest of us so WE can recognize them for the priests they were.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I've now got "Grass" on my reading list, SusanKay. And, a hearty 'Amen' to your prayer.

rick allen said...

"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?"

Because, perhaps, the vow of obedience is one of the three central features of consecrated life?

No Christian need enter an order, or stay there. I certainly haven't, and probably couldn't, keep vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. But that is the heart of the religious vocation, and it is expected of both male and female religious.

Personally I'd be surprised if anything more came out of the present visitations than exhortations to improvement. And I have no doubt that everyone will be more gently handled than if St. Teresa of Avila were overseeing things.

JCF said...

"Obedience" (what is vowed) is NOT the same as submission, rick.

Obedience means to listen to. One can attentively, faithfully listen to what the Pope (for example) says to do . . . and then do precisely the opposite. Without having in any way violated one's vow. [This ain't just an RC thang. I wish the Archbishop of Canterbury would understand this distinction, vis-a-vis TEC, also!]

okay, so Lady Gaga is not exactly a shining example

IMHO, one could do a lot worse! ;-/

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Prayers is the only thing I can offer from afar... And I do!

Unknown said...

And the vow of obedience that one takes is to the Order, not the Pope, Bishops or any other outside person. Pretty naive to think that their intention is harmless

whiteycat said...

Whiteycat says "Yes, Elizabeth, I do pray that the Sisters will have the support and courage to continue spreading the Gospel message."

Anonymous said...

Asking JCF about the Catholic vow of obedience is like asking Hugh Hefner about chastity-- what the heck does he/she know about the subject?

Neither the American military nor the Catholic Church accepts JCF's laughable definition of obedience. Thank God.

Stick to something you know, please.


Anonymous said...

Isn't the vow of obedience to God?

The RCC does not have the authority to give an unlawful order or an order not in accordance with God's law and expect for it to be followed.

Put another way, the sisters are required to be obedient to the church provided the order is in accordance with God's law.
Correct me if I am wrong.

Is the property in the name of the church or the sisters?

Yes, I am praying for the sisters too.

Anonymous said...

The Code of Canon Law (canon 601) defines is as follows:

"The evangelical counsel of obedience, undertaken in a spirit of faith and love in the following of Christ who was obedient even unto death requires a submission of the will to legitimate superiors, who stand in the place of God when they command according to the proper constitutions."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You know, you might have a bit more clout if you actually signed your name to a post about "obedience to authority".

Or, is that you, Fr. Michael?

If it is, please stop taking pot shots at JCF. He's a friend. You are entitled to your opinion but not pot shots at my friend.

Apologize, please.

nacinla said...

Right on, Elizabeth. What a coward "Anonymous" is: pretending to seek the truth but not honest enough to put a name to his/her posts. No surprise that the poster has to resort to canon law. Whew!

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