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.