In memoriam: Robert McClory (1932-2015)

On Good Friday, I boarded the Metra Electric train to the Chicago Loop. There, I represented Call To Action at the annual Good Friday Walk For Justice, which is sponsored by the 8th Day Center For Justice.

The walk is a modern-day Stations of the Cross that examines contemporary social issues at each station. Each station has a different organization presenting it. With CTA program director Ellen Euclide, I read for the Fourth Station, “Helped In The Struggle.” It focused on the struggle for justice within the church.

Other Call To Action folks were there. They included our colleague, retired chapter liaison and development director Bob Heineman. As Ellen and I completed our station, near the Chicago Board of Trade, Bob looked grim. He told us he had a new message on his voice mail. He needed to check it now.  Continue reading

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Of Habits and Hobbits

“I was expecting, you know…hobbits.” My friend Valerie said this to me with surprise and perhaps a touch of disappointment after she spent time with Catholic Sisters.

Hobbits?” I asked, immediately imagining Bilbo Baggins and his ilk running through the chapel and dining hall of the motherhouse. “Wait, do you mean habits?”

She caught herself and realized that she had inadvertently confused the term for the traditional dress of women religious with the humanoid Middle-Earth residents of Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (In Valerie’s defense, she made this slip before her morning cup of coffee!)

This is one of many conversations I have had since moving in with a community of women religious. I’ve fielded questions from friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, taxi drivers, bank tellers, and near-strangers. Some questions are funny and off-the-wall – often related to portrayals of sisters in pop culture like the movie “Sister Act” or the reality TV show “The Sisterhood.” Other questions are poignant and thoughtful; they lead to great explorations of big topics like community, justice, feminism, spirituality, ministry, human sexuality, and everything in between.

One question I have been asked more than once is: “Do you live with real nuns?”

At first, the question was confusing. What did this mean? Do people think I live with “imposter” nuns? What would render a sister fake? I wondered. I’ve come to realize the question they are really posing is if I live with habited sisters. The Sisters of the Humility of Mary modified their dress in response to the Vatican II document Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis).  They moved to a simple blue suit without a veil. Now they wear contemporary dress with a ring and a medal as a sign of their vowed commitment and membership in the community.

There are women religious – from postulants to jubilarians – who are attracted to the habit and I don’t challenge their desire for distinctive dress. Some believe the habit gives a powerful, visible public witness to a sister’s identity as a consecrated woman in the world and opens the door to ministry. Others find that the habit separates women religious and leads people to put them on a pedestal which negatively impacts their ability to do ministry. Sister Susan Rose Francois’ Habits of Love or Sister Sophia Park’s Beyond Habits and No Habits (both on the Global Sisters Report website) explore the habit question. There are valid reasons for both sides of the habit argument and it’s not something I seek to hash out here.

What I do challenge is the idea that what women religious wear marks the authenticity of their identity as consecrated women. A nun or sister is not more or less committed, faithful, or prophetic based on her choice of dress. From the full habit to a simple pin or cross there are many ways that women religious today choose to externally present themselves. What dress will allow women to best serve the people they seek to serve? What will facilitate their ministries? What will communicate the message they seek to communicate about their way of being in the world? These are the questions that guide individual sisters and congregations. Especially during this Year of Consecrated Life, it seems more relevant than ever to stress that religious life is not a fashion statement.

As a keen observer of contemporary women’s religious life and a guest in many convents and motherhouses, I have concluded that what women religious wear is the least interesting thing about them. The sisters of Giving Voice, a national organization of younger women religious, echo this observation in their February 2010 letter in which they state “our clothing is the least significant part of our lives, yet receives so much attention.”

The preoccupation with the habit question seems to me an application of the ubiquitous sexist rule that what matters for men is the substance of what they do, whereas for women it is how we look while doing it. It’s clearly present in the entertainment industry where singers, actresses, and other performers are subjected to constant and intense scrutiny about their dress, weight, hair and makeup – just glance at the covers of the magazines in the checkout line. Commentators are more likely to focus on female politician’s pantsuit collection, hair accessories, and makeup than they are on her policies and ideas.

Is our hang-up with habits just a religious application of this same principle? If so, the response should be a strong, unequivocal emphasis on the full human dignity of all women whose identity is infinitely more than their physical appearance and wardrobe and whose gifts must be named and celebrated.

What women wear – whether we are nuns or world leaders, nurses or grandmothers, CEOs or gardeners – does not define us. I have been blessed to meet and develop relationships with women religious who have spent decades as teachers, spiritual directors, police chaplains, counselors, pastoral ministers, academics, artists, activists, administrators and more. Their fidelity to God, commitment to mission, and passion for service would make them “real” sisters in anyone’s book – whether they are wear a coif or a cardigan.

So if you come to the motherhouse where I live – or to many other motherhouses around the United States – expecting to see habits (or hobbits, for that matter!) you won’t find them. But if you come to find “real sisters” – that is, consecrated women striving to live lives of service and prayer in community, animated by their charism and vision of God’s kin-dom, committed to God and to one another – you will not be disappointed.

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary (real nuns!) at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

Next up for beatification: Paul VI, the “Hamlet Pope”

Pope Paul VI (Photo: PA). Accessed at CatholicHerald.co.uk, May 18, 2014.

Pope Paul VI (Photo: PA). Accessed at CatholicHerald.co.uk, May 18, 2014.

In my heart, I maintain a very special category of person. I call these people “Popes I Would Like to Have a Beer With.” I’ve already written about one of them, Pius XI.

But while I am charmed by the blustery, scholarly Pius, I feel a deeper kinship–indeed a brotherhood–with Paul VI, one of the two Vatican II popes. His life and mine have followed parallel tracks.

We were both extremely shy kids who talked like we had swallowed the dictionary. We both came to prefer cats to dogs, to loathe the telephone, and to have the same bad knee (the right one). We would both feel caught in some way between “new church” and “old church.”

In our youth, we both edited student publications. (Mine was called The Megaphone. His was called The Slingshot.) We both puzzled over whether to pursue a journalistic vocation or some sort of religious one. We both struggled with major decisions, period. How do you explain to people not just all the things that can go wrong, but your ability to see all of them at once? I know what it’s like. So did he.

Suffice it to say he is somebody I think about a lot. And now I will think about him even more. Pope Francis recently announced his intent to beatify Paul VI–make him a “blessed,” one step below saint–on October 19, 2014, exactly one week before my thirty-first birthday.  Continue reading

The Word in Peace, Divine Mercy Sunday: It is in community that we see to believe

Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)

As I mentioned in a recent post on the CTA 20/30 blog, Good Pope John XXIII is a special saint to me. As I was a lapsed Catholic adrift in a spiritual Nowhere Land, the Italian pope with a big belly and an even bigger heart taught me the much of the good that is to be found in our faith tradition. So it was something of a no-brainer for me to decide to visit the newly rededicated St. John XXIII (until today Blessed Pope John XXIII) parish in South Fort Myers to join the celebratory mass.

Both this parish and its patron saint embody that crucial component of Christian conduct: a sense of community. St. John welcomed the world with open arms, reaching out to Jews, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, even those “godless” communists. He was not posturing; the pope’s actions showed that he really saw the people of the world as his brothers and sisters.

St. John XXIII parish does much to live up to this commission. There is a dynamic pastor, numerous ministries and, most importantly, an enthusiastic congregation.

It is in fellowship with others that we as Christians have the chance to live out our faith. The First Reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that the Church first establishes itself and performs its “many wonders and signs” (2:43) through communal living, sharing possessions, caring for the sick and needy of the community, and joining each other at the table (vv. 44-46).

Thomas the apostle provides us with an example of belief emerging from community in the Gospel reading. When he was away from the other disciples, Thomas is, as most of us would be, skeptical when he learned of the resurrection (John 20:25). But notice that Jesus does not go out to find Thomas to validate himself. He waits until Thomas returns, giving the apostle the opportunity to see and believe among other believes. It is at that moment that he makes that great confession of Christ’s divinity, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28)

As the Second Reading tells us, we believe even though we have not seen Jesus (1 Peter 1:8). But that does not happen on its own. We must see the image of God in every person that we encounter if we are to truly live in union with God. And we can’t do that by staying home every day. Even hermits communicate the Good News with others from time to time.

Empty Christmas Masses

My last scheduled post was on Christmas Day, which I didn’t come through on, partly because I didn’t have a great Internet connection where I was staying, but partly because I felt an awful lot of pressure, posting on Christmas.

Yet, here I am two weeks later, and it’s Christmas that’s on my mind. In particular, how different Christmas Mass was this year than what I’ve grown used to.

I attended Christmas Mass out near Rapid City, with my husband’s family. I was anxious about leaving with plenty of time, expecting parking lots and pews to be full for the 9 am service. When we arrived, we found quite the opposite — plenty of space in the lot, and lots of gaps in the pews. My family has traditionally gone to the Christmas Eve services, where we try to arrive half an hour early to get a parking spot and a seat, where my mom mutters under her breath about people who “only go to Church on Christmas and Easter,” and where we’ve ended up standing through the service on several occasions. I wondered, was 9 am just too early for people?

But then my husband’s relatives who had gone to service the night before reported the same thing — a relatively empty church, and very little Christmas fanfare. When I celebrated Christmas with my side of the family the following weekend, they reported the same phenomenon for the Masses they had attended. My mom said, “I’d be surprised if there were any more than 30 people there.”

As I wondered aloud what was going on, my mom said, “A lot of people stopped coming to church with the new translation of the Mass.”

I told her I wasn’t thrilled with the new translation either, but that it didn’t seem sufficient reason to leave (similar to outdoor weddings). But she said, “I think there were so many people who were already dissatisfied, and this was the final straw.”

That, I understood.

While empty churches at Christmas saddens me, at the same time I wonder if this might be the wake-up call the Church needs — similarly to how I feel a bit of begrudging satisfaction when gas prices get especially high. Although it inconveniences me, I hope it will be the wake-up call the rest of the culture needs to start agitating for less dependence on oil as a fuel source — and more judicious use of their personal transportation.

Several months ago, I attended a session about the Vatican II council at a local church. The deacon leading the session talked about how parishes wishing to offer the Tridentine Mass had to get special permission from Rome — but that Rome often grants this permission because it wants to “bring back” those who drifted away from the Church due to dissatisfaction with the changes made after Vatican II.

Which leaves me wondering — when will the Church offer alternatives to “bring back” those who have left because of non-inclusive language, because they or their loved ones were not accepted as GLBTQ individuals, because the entire power structure is decided by celibate men, right down to who is allowed to stand on the altar at an individual service? I’m not holding my breath on any of these offerings from the institutional church — but I, like many others, have discovered that Church as the People of God are already providing them. And while none of these alternatives are available where I live (although the Tridentine Mass is), I feel hope in knowing that it’s not just about empty Christmas services — that there are house churches and alternative Catholic churches that are being birthed, growing, and thriving. Every time I’ve visited a radically progressive Catholic Church, the place has been absolutely packed. And until the institutional church opens its doors to those who hunger for a more inclusive spirituality, it might have to accept sparsely populated pews — while the pews in alternative churches become ever-fuller.