Spiritual Leadership for Challenging Times

In April 2012 I attended Celebration Publications’ Eucharist Without Borders immigration conference in Tucson, Arizona. There I met sisters who worked as midwives and health promoters, community organizers and advocates, lawyers and activists. I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase after flying home to Virginia when the news broke that the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) had finalized its doctrinal assessment and imposed a mandate on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). The CDF’s call for “necessary reform” due to “serious doctrinal problems” felt impossible to understand in light of the sisters I had just met in Tucson – not to mention the countless others I have called mentors, teachers, friends and colleagues over the years.

Fast forward to the 2012 Call To Action national conference in Louisville, KY in where the LCWR was granted the Call To Action Leadership award for its courageous, honest, yet loving response to the doctrinal assessment and ensuing mandate. The award was received by Pat Farrell, OSF, the acting president LCWR. Of all the people who took the stage at the conference, Sister Pat – a gentle, soft-spoken Iowan with decades of ministry and mission experience in both the US and Latin America – was the most compelling. She challenged each of us gathered to a deeper spirituality in the face of violence, conflict, and division wherever it is to be found in the church and in the world. “When there is not a clear way forward, the only way is down, to drop a plumb line down into the deep abyss of God’s love,” are words of Sister Pat’s that I copied into my journal that day. I have returned to them and prayed with them many times since. Continue reading

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Litany of the nuns

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents eighty percent of American nuns, concluded their annual meeting last Friday by announcing they will continue dialogue with church leaders. Rome recently decided to “reform” LCWR for, among various perceived offenses, a “prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

However, the sisters signaled that dialogue does not mean infinite elasticity. According to a statement read aloud by LCWR president Sr. Pat Farrell, OSF: “The officers will proceed with these discussions as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.”

I haven’t written about the nuns yet. Shame on me for not doing so. But I’m doing it now, and better late than never.

As with all my social justice causes, I support LCWR as much because of people I know as because of principles I hold. I came late to my appreciation of religious sisters: I went to public school for the first eight grades, and the convent at my parish has always been office space during my lifetime. But I wouldn’t be who I am without several very important women who have extra letters after their names.

Sr. Mary Roselle Orso, OP. High school English teacher. Sr. Roselle told me I was a “born writer.” Fifteen years later, my memory of her words keeps me blogging, keeps me coming back for more, and helps me “speak the truth, even when my voice shakes.”

Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, OP. High school principal, high school religion teacher. Sr. Paul’s class on “Jesus of History, Christ of Faith” was the first time I ever experienced what they call “breaking open the Word.” She had us read Mark straight through in one night, start to finish, helping me understand something new: how each Gospel author would craft a coherent portrait of Jesus for a specific community. (Incidentally, Mark’s Jesus was perfectly pitched for a high school sophomore: a mysterious and lonely Messiah, usually misunderstood, always restlessly on the move.) After that, I spent years on a biblical studies kick. Sr. Paul also gave me the green light to interview Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George for our school paper. That interview was a delayed catalyst for my Catholic writing career.

Sr. Teresa Marron, OP. High school campus minister. Sr. Teresa skillfully directed all our retreats, including an overnight retreat I attended as a senior. Going on that retreat was the first of several critical spiritual choices I made (and sometimes fell into) over the next several years that radically opened me up and saved my faith.

Sr. Jamie Phelps, OP. College theology professor: Christology. Another sophomore year, another class about Jesus, yet another Dominican sister, and another milestone. Dr. Phelps introduced me to Christ the Liberator, someone who actually meant that whole thing about the kingdom being on earth as in heaven. We had readings in black liberation theology and mujerista theology and womanist theology, passages from James Cone and Jon Sobrino. I looked through the eyes of people of different genders and colors and saw a different Christ. At the time I was kind of overwhelmed and really didn’t know what to do with any of it, but it gave me a frame of reference I needed later.

Sr. Wendy Cotter, CSJ. College theology professor: Parables of Jesus. After studying all those weird stories Jesus told, stories about the last being first, the lost being found, and the self-righteous being humbled, it slowly dawned on me that I was learning the very worldview of God. And God’s worldview is particularly pungent when explained in Dr. Cotter’s marvelous accent, Canadian by way of Ontario.

This is my litany of nuns, religious women who have intersected with my life and decisively shaped my heart and intellect. In some ways they could be any nuns of any era, ministering and teaching as has been done since at least St. Scholastica and St. Brigid.

But, to steal a phrase from St. Augustine: “ever ancient, ever new.” Sisters today, including those I highlight here, bring to their ministries the life experiences, openness, and spiritual and intellectual sophistication encouraged since Vatican II. LCWR has much to do with cultivating and promoting such riches.

Therefore, remembering my litany, I stand with the sisters. Obliged by my litany, I stand with the sisters.

How We Must Respond to the Inquisition of the Twenty-First Century

Although many have anticipated it, I could not fathom such a setback taking place. My Piscean hope and optimism impelled me to believe that the Vatican would never take such a bold, pointed step, displaying that it was intent on stifling any sort of objective or progressive way of thinking that was taking place within the church. Yet, last week, the institutional church of Rome announced that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious – the nation’s largest coalition of professed nuns –  would be undergoing a “reform” to ensure that its statutes and mission were in greater conformity with official Catholic teaching. Many sisters openly support a more nuanced, thoughtful approach when it comes to an array of issues dealing with the realm of human sexuality. This greatly troubled the pope and the bureaucratic apparatus of the Holy See.

Because of their consistent and zealous dedication to contemplate issues such as the morality of abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and women’s ordination the sisters have had the integrity of their faith, as well as their religious apostolate, placed under scrutiny. Archbishop Peter Sartain, the leader of the Archdiocese of Seattle, and a vocal foe of civic efforts to legalize marriage equality, has been tasked with overseeing the implementation of this “reform.”

In light of these revelations, it must be stated that such efforts in no way constitute the conditions that the word “reform” demands. This is nothing less than a modern-day Inquisition. It isn’t coincidence that the Vatican committee from which this indictment stemmed (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose former head, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Bishop of Rome in 2005) has previously been known as the “Holy Office of the Inquisition.” During the European Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in the days of the Enlightenment that would follow it, this entity bore the sole responsibility for the suppression, and attempted eradication, of any instance of provocative questioning that challenged the conventional wisdom that had been established by the institutional hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Joan of Arc, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Frs. Hans Küng and Charles Curran are just a few notable subjects who have borne the brunt of this assembly’s assault on the cognitive process throughout history.

As I digested these realizations, I asked myself, out of despair and pragmatic concern, “Can I remain a credible member of an institution that stands for such blatant manifestations of homophobia and misogyny?” For some time, I seriously pondered the notion that so many have suggested before to myself, and other progressively-inclined Catholics – to join the Episcopal Church. For me personally, such a move would be coming full circle in spiritual terms. I am a former member of the Anglican Communion. In my later teenage years I felt compelled to enter into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and in 2007, was confirmed and received during the Easter Vigil. However, since that time, my thoughts and attitudes about a variety of theological and political topics have changed completely.

The foremost of these ideological evolutions was my own spiritual and emotional journey of discovery regarding my own sexuality. After coming to terms with, and accepting the fact that I was a gay man, created in the image of God, just as any other human being is, no longer could I view any segment of Scripture through a rigidly literal lens. Although I now accept my orientation as holy, and God-given, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church does not. In stark contrast, at least in the United States, the Episcopal Church openly affirms and welcomes LGBT persons completely for who they are. They are not required to live celibately, in order to satisfy the dictates of interpretations and theological regulations that have been concocted by fallible men. Instead, they are allowed to fully express themselves as the persons they were created to be – regardless of who they are attracted to, or who they happen to fall in love with.

If the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is punishing religious sisters for exploring and celebrating such a mindset, will there come a time in the future when the doors of all Catholic parishes will be slammed shut, as far as LGBT persons are concerned? Statistically, the climate within the church only seems as if it will trend in an increasingly more conservative direction. The men that Pope Benedict has been appointing as bishops have proven to be consistently conservative and reactionary on all matters theological and political. In an even more discouraging assessment, most younger men who are currently in seminary, or who have been ordained to the priesthood within the past two decades, are overwhelmingly more rigid in their approach to most doctrinal and pastoral questions compared to their counterparts who may have been ordained immediately before or shortly after the Second Vatican Council, which took place in the 1960’s. This was made evident recently when a very orthodox priest denied Holy Communion to a woman who happened to be a lesbian, living openly in a relationship with another woman, at her own mother’s funeral. Although this priest was later reprimanded, and subsequently suspended from the Archdiocese of Washington, such an incident, drenched in vertical judgment and lack of compassion, serves as a frightening portal into what the future of Catholicism could be.

I’m very blessed to have been directed by the Holy Spirit to an extremely welcoming, vibrant, and diverse parish here in Baltimore. The pastor is a wonderfully accepting and courageous man, formed in the innovative consciousness of the Second Vatican Council that was inspiring to so many. But what happens in the future whenever a new, younger priest might be assigned? I could very clearly envision what my fate would be then, especially if I happened to openly be in a committed relationship with another man.

These questions and potential scenarios were what drove my heart to deep despair, dismay, and dejection as I mulled over what  the implications of last week’s news meant for my life intimately, and the Catholic Church in the United States as a whole. With the purposeful direction that the pope and the hierarchy are taking, it seems that Catholicism, despite the efforts of many, will become nothing more than a cult as time passes. Gone will be the sacramental vision that reveres and celebrates the Sacred present in every man, woman, child, life experience; extending to all aspects of creation. The only recognized mediators of holiness will now be the pope, the bishops, and the all-male priesthood, who are the exclusive vehicles through which Divine revelation is interpreted.

If this is indeed the future of the Catholic Church, why remain? Such a vision is the exact opposite of the dynamic, inclusive Reign of God which Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed as the cause of His being, and would ultimately forfeit His life for. Perhaps, being a Catholic is no longer in keeping with my conscience?

As I wrestled internally with these questions, my mind was suddenly swept back to Call to Action’s national Conference of 2010. It was there that I had the life-altering opportunity to be in the presence of Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister and global advocate on a variety of issues, most notably, those of justice, peace, and women’s rights. She had long been a spiritual hero for me. It was her prolific writing that helped me begin to approach my faith in a new manner, not merely accepting “divinely revealed truths”, but insisting on asking questions. In this way, I would come to realize, our faith was actually deepened and confirmed. At the Conference, Sister Joan was conducting a book signing. I eagerly brought a book of hers I had been reading on the trip to Milwaukee with me to the event. As the time came for me to approach her I was overcome with joy, and I have to admit, was somewhat starstruck. To ease the high intensity of that moment, I remarked that several months before I had written her a letter thanking her for the profound inspiration that her own works had meant for my spiritual life. I had also recounted my own struggle of coming to terms with my sexual orientation, as well as some daunting financial straits myself and my mother were undergoing. It was a very difficult period of my life in which I had trouble envisioning with certainty what the future would look like. I never expected Sister Joan to remember these facets of my personal life, but she surprised me by saying, “I remember your letter.” She continued, “Know that just you’re being here means something. Even in the valleys and the deserts of your life know that you are not alone. We are with you, all of us are with you!” These powerful words of encouragement will remain cemented upon my heart forever.

As I was leaving the Conference I had another chance encounter that would leave my life indelibly changed. On the return flight to Baltimore, by coincidence, I happened to be seated next to Sister Jeannine Grammick. Sister Jeannine has been a champion for years of the moral legitimacy and equal dignity bestowed by God to persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. For three decades, she has operated New Ways Ministry, a Catholic organization dedicated to affirming and welcoming LGBT individuals in the life of the church. As we chatted, I conveyed to her my gratitude for the wonderful and profoundly meaningful work she has done on behalf of gay Catholics. As our plane continued along its course, Sister Jeannine inquired about what parish I attended in Baltimore. At the time, I was attending the cathedral parish where I had been received into the Catholic Church. I mentioned that the solemn, choral liturgy was my main reason for worshiping there, rather than any sense of real belonging that made me feel as if I was an indispensable part of the community. Sister Jeannine proposed to me that I investigate other parishes that actively welcomed and supported individuals regardless of their background or sexual orientation. The parish I attend today was one of those she recommended to me.

Even as I went through the process of formally entering the Catholic Church a very dedicated School Sister of Notre Dame had helped facilitate and make the whole endeavor one of warmth, joy, and ease.

I must admit that my contact with religious sisters has been infrequent, compared to most Catholics who may have been raised in their presence, constantly being enriched by their guidance as teachers, catechists, or parish coordinators. But the aforementioned experiences I’ve been blessed to enjoy have greatly impacted my own personal growth, both spiritually and psychologically.

For numerous American Catholics, the sisters have remained the legitimate moral leaders of the church. In contrast, the institutional hierarchy has become ever more concerned with the legal precision of the expression of various doctrines, and the maintenance of the medieval vestiges of ecclesiastical power – all to the detriment of those who occupy the furthest margins of society. When an epidemic wave of bullying drove numerous LGBT individuals to see taking their lives as the only way they could be delivered from such relentless torture, what words of encouragement did our nation’s bishops offer to ease the pain of this tragic phenomenon?

Absolutely nothing.

It was the National Coalition of American Nuns that condemned the outbreak of suicides amongst many of America’s LGBT youths. This was done primarily out of a heartfelt obligation to do something, given that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had been notably silent on this pressing and deeply disturbing occurrence.

As I ponder these facts, and many other ways in which America’s religious sisters have helped sustain and edify the faith of the Catholic Church in the United States, I am greatly saddened, as a discouraging paradigm seems to be taking hold of the church so many of us love and regard as our spiritual mainstay.

Although many may legitimately no longer be able to find their spiritual nourishment within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church I do not see it as my task to leave at this point. First of all, this is not the attitude and the character that formed the mission and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus never backed down from anything. His very life was animated with unbridled passion for pursuing justice, mercy, and peace. Impelled by the Spirit, these virtues sustained His cause even through the onslaught of suffering, and finally, as He emitted His last breath, in His final act of love upon the wood and shame of the cross. Even though the religious and political authorities of His day sought to extinguish Jesus’ impact on society because they saw Him as a subversive threat to all that they held dear, this never deterred Him from living out His mission of communicating the Divine to an unsuspecting world.

In the same spirit, I see myself called to remain in solidarity with the sisters who have offered to the world another, more maternal, image of God than those exemplified by their counterparts in the echelons of power. I am called to stand with Joan Chittister, Jeannine Grammick, Elizabeth Johnson, Catherine of Sienna, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Mary MacKillop and all religious women of conscience throughout the centuries who have remained within the walls of the Catholic Church and stood firm for their convictions, instead of letting the status quo of unchecked patriarchy hold sway.

As Sister Joan emphasized to me that all those who were dedicated to the cause that Call to Action stands for I could rely on for spiritual and emotional solidarity, so I must remain in unity, and unwavering support of these courageous women who are responsible for building and vivifying the Catholic Church in the United States as we know it today.

Two Scriptural passages seem to grant hope to all who may be experiencing feelings of uncertainty and despair with these most recent developments.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christian community is presented as experiencing persecution from both the secular authorities of Rome as well as the religious leaders of Judaism. As Peter and other apostles are being interrogated in front of a panel of Jewish religious authorities, a respected Pharisee interrupts the proceedings, and says, “In the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” -Acts 5:38-39

If the cause of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is truly Spirit-driven there is nothing that the powers of men will be able to do to extinguish it, even if it is necessary for it to be transformed into an entirely new manifestation.

In the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the author of John depicts Jesus as stating, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father. And I lay down My life for the sheep…For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” -John 10:11-15,17-18

Just as God has blessed us with genuine, attentive, pastoral shepherds in the ministries and examples of so many religious women here in the United States, so we must remind these valiant sisters that even in these dark days of despair and uncertainty hope is not lost. The Good Shepherd has gone before us, and continues to lead us in love, generously caring for all those entrusted to His fold. Even as the ‘hired hands’ of an institution have continued to flee from the implications that the signs of this age may be offering, Christ the Good Shepherd continues to lead His Church through unpredictable pastures. We shall fear no evil, for He remains always with us.