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.

Of lunchtime, doing time, and the Vatican report on the sisters

Sr. Megan Rice, one of three arrested for breaking into a nuclear facility in Tennessee in 2012. She was 82 at the time. Photo by Shawn Poynter for the New York Times.

Sr. Megan Rice, one of three arrested for breaking into a nuclear facility in Tennessee in 2012. She was 82 at the time. Photo by Shawn Poynter for the New York Times.

A nun at my lunch table described a “shakedown.” A “shakedown” is when the prison guards raid your cell block to search for contraband. They might rummage through your bedding, turn out your pockets, conduct outright strip searches, the whole nine yards.

It took a moment, but I realized she wasn’t talking about a story she’d heard, or a show she’d watched. Nor was it something she knew through prison ministry. The sister had served time. She had gone through “shakedowns.”

I was eating with several sisters who worked in social justice fields. I found that most if not all of them had gone to jail for civil disobedience. One mentioned the name of a prison. She asked the nun next to her: “That was your prison, right?” Her neighbor confirmed that it was, in fact, her prison.

Another sister related how she was part of a group of defendants. They gathered to receive their sentences: jail time and a several thousand dollar fine. The judge said he would waive their fines, but they had to promise to never trespass again. All of them, including the sister, refused. They all paid.  Continue reading

Reality vs “Reality” of The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns

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The cast of “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns.” (image: http://www.mylifetime.com)

Though I rarely watch TV, as a millennial in a motherhouse, I couldn’t resist tuning in to the “docu-series” about young women discerning religious life.  The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns aired on the Lifetime Channel in November and December and followed five twentysomethings (Christie, Eseni, Claire, Francesca, and Stacey) to convents in New York, Illinois, and Kentucky.  The title was my first clue this show would be inaccurate since there is a  difference between the terms “nun” and “sister.”

An ominous voice over announces at the beginning of each of the six episodes: “At the end they’ll face a choice…follow their calling and become nuns or go home.” The (patently false) implication is that if someone decides not to enter religious community, she has “failed” at discernment.  This creates the tension needed to keep viewers tuning in; however, it misrepresents the discernment process.  Discernment is listening to that still small interior voice and, as Daughter of St. Paul Sister Rose Pacatte wrote in response to the show, is “individual, personal and private.” By its very nature discernment is internal and mysterious – between one’s soul and God.  Having such an intimate process filmed feels weirdly voyeuristic and even exploitative.  Discernment is not a competition and certainly not something that can fit neatly into a six week series.

 “The Sisterhood” delivers plenty of meltdowns, crying fits, and (to use the term employed by several of the girls) moments of “bugging out.”  One of the girls hyperventilated.  Another one stalked off announcing that she wanted to “punch somebody in they (sic) face.”  Conflicts are magnified with camera angles, background music, and intentionally scheduled commercial breaks.  To the surprise of the girls and the chagrin of the sisters, Eseni’s boyfriend is brought back by the producers in one episode to stir the drama pot even more.  During a commercial break, my viewing buddy – a Franciscan Sister of over fifty years – said, “Don’t you think this kind of melodramatic?”

Sister Lisa nailed it: “The Sisterhood” – like all reality TV – is about drama.  In contrast, religious life is about inclusion, generosity, service, welcome, and love.  Don’t get me wrong – those values aren’t lived out perfectly. Convent life is not free from tension or disagreement, but it is a far cry from the constant histrionics we see displayed on the show.

“The Sisterhood” overall has a feeling of being scripted and contrived.  The conversations about chastity take place as the girls and one professed sister are sitting around a pool in bathing suits, and another one happens out in a bar when two of the girls have rolled up the skirts of their “discernment habits.”   An exchange between an older professed sister and one of the girls about twerking feels obviously staged.  The handing over of the cell phones to the mother superior each time they arrive at a new convent is a fake stunt to create tension.  The argument that the girls need to “unplug” to be free from distractions and focus on God rings false when they are being followed around by a phalanx of cameras 24/7.

Some have expressed disappointment that the communities portrayed are conservative and habited.  The show offers a portrayal of Catholicism which is not representative of that practiced by most lay and religious US Catholics today.  For example, at the archives of the motherhouse in Chicago, a hair shirt and first class relic from the archives are presented in a sensationalized way.  Focusing on these more obscure elements of Catholic religious practice is pandering to a secular audience with things that seem exotic and unusual.  Then there is the overblown romantic language about marrying Jesus which makes the show seem like the bizarre religious analog of “The Bachelor.”  Those unfamiliar with Catholicism would walk away from the show with a definitely pre-Vatican II understanding of our rich and varied faith tradition – not entirely false, but far from the whole truth of contemporary Catholic religious identity in the US.

Beyond this, my larger concern is the portrayal of the girls’ service.  From serving in a Chicago soup kitchen to cleaning up the yard of a home bound woman in rural Kentucky to praying bedside with a woman in a hospice, the girls participate in service challenges at each convent.    The girls appear to be thrown into the service experiences without training before or processing afterwards.

Apostolic acts of service are at the heart of religious life. They are opportunities to meet God in human beings who are poor and vulnerable, and therein to find our own poverty and vulnerability.  These experiences challenge us, stretch us, grow us, and convert us.  Great care must be taken to protect the dignity of those being served and not objectify them – something that is virtually impossible when accompanied by a camera crew. When the girls were on the Chicago streets handing out bag lunches to people who are homeless, the goal was not to have genuine and respectful interactions of mutuality but rather to “win” the challenge of handing out their bags the fastest.

I found myself wondering:  How must the woman with a disability who had her trailer cleaned by the girls feel when they describe how bad her house smelled?  Did the family members of the woman in hospice with whom the girls prayed the rosary give their consent for their mother, grandmother, aunt, to be filmed in her hospital bed in final days?  Why are the adults with intellectual disabilities described as “kids” by one of the professed sisters?  The treatment of the people served in the show is insensitive at best and ethically seriously questionable at worst.

Furthermore, the girls gave details about their pasts that seem more appropriate for sharing in confidence with a spiritual director than with an entire viewing audience. Though I’m a member of the over-sharing Facebook generation – marked by constant self-disclosure through a variety of media – but on-camera disclosures about experiences of sexual assault or struggles with a serious eating disorder cross the line and make me wonder if the girls felt exploited.  In the producers’ defense, this level of deep sharing on camera is the norm for reality TV, so it fits well within the genre.

More than once over the six episodes professed sisters would sternly say to a camera operator, “Don’t film this!” before having a conversation with one of the girls.  I found myself cheering from my armchair that the sisters had the sensitivity to hold the girls’ deep sharing with protection in at least some cases.  Many times the girls speak about – and are shown on camera – having panic or anxiety attacks. It’s another case of inappropriate painful-to-watch over-sharing. It also makes me question how they would fare in the psychological testing required before entering religious community.

Overall, “The Sisterhood” disappoints – not a surprise since I have fairly low standards of network TV.  However, the value of the program is that it has provided much material for conversations among women religious and discerners.  As religious congregations seek to be relevant to and reach out to my generation, we can thank “The Sisterhood” for giving them something against which they can push back.  Lively conversations on social media as well as in mainstream and religious media have been spurred on. While far from presenting the reality of religious life and the discernment experience, we can be grateful for the conversations sparked about vows, service, community, faith, vocation, and discernment.

In the words of my friend Eilis, a candidate with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary: “Overall, it’s not a  realistic portrayal of the discernment process…I think the best part is following the live tweets by other sisters/communities/A Nun’s Life Ministry. People are sharing their own stories and reactions. So, in that way, the show is ‘succeeding’ because it’s bringing religious together and showing others that we exist. If some discerner googles “The Sisterhood,” she might come across these tweets and/or blogs, realize the show isn’t completely realistic, and also realize that there are still people entering religious life.”

For me as a “motherhouse millennial,” “The Sisterhood” and its commentators leave me intrigued by the unorthodox approaches religious communities are taking to engage with young adults through pop culture and social media – and also very grateful that the convent where I live is camera-free!

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(image: Annmarie Sanders, IHM – http://www.lcwr.org)

 

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 at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

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

What weight will America’s exceptionalism carry for future generations?

Today, the Catholic Church throughout the world is engaged in a fierce struggle to define what its long-term identity will be for outside observers. Here in the United States, this ecclesial tension has reached a tumultuous boiling point. Women religious, who were the main players in erecting the American church’s primary contributions to society at large (education, healthcare, charities), now face a predicament that embodies this ideological strife in very real and personal terms.

In the decades following the Second Vatican Council, few took the Council’s exhortation to read the “signs of the times” and to be the People of God more seriously than religious sisters did. Emerging from the cloisters of convents, casting off the obscuring garb of a bygone era, American women religious embarked on their mission to live the Gospel sincerely and radically – as the charisms of their respective orders intended. When accepting and confronting “the signs of the times” meant questioning long-established theological norms and doctrines these courageous women did not waver in their commitment to following Christ. Even as they critiqued and pondered the relevance of various pronouncements and regulations, they did so in the same spirit of justice, mercy, and peace that animated the whole duration of Jesus of Nazareth’s public ministry.

As U.S. women religious throughout the nation face the prospect of being “reformed,” (or rather, put in line with Vatican-thinking) many American Catholics consider the values that have impelled these sisters for centuries to be much more central to their faith than those espoused by members of the episcopacy and the bureaucratic apparatus of the Vatican. Nevertheless, the institutional church of Rome continues to do all in its power to create a Catholic Church that stresses unquestioning adherence to doctrine, a static uniformity of theological opinion, and, in our uniquely American context, a firm alliance with the political and cultural right – for the sake of pursuing its own agenda.
With the country approaching yet another presidential election, it becomes apparent that not only are domestic issues at stake, but rather, our fundamental identity as the Land of the Free is the equation voters will be given to evaluate as they cast their ballots in November.

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. As the annals of history are examined, numerous circumstances can be found to attest to how our country would not exist without the phenomenon of immigration. Think of how our very founding was made possible, at the hands of British colonists who sought to live unencumbered lives characterized by liberty and freedom of expression. Or, on a more somber note, consider how many countless souls, mired in cloaks of uncertainty and robbed of their inherent, human dignity, were brought to these shores against their will. In a general sense, call to mind all those who have fled their native countries, seeking in America a beacon of hope, promise, and opportunity. These individuals comprise the foundation of what we know as the possibility of the American dream. In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a verdict in a case involving the state of Arizona’s law (S.B. 1070) that had been created to deal with the issue of undocumented immigrants crossing over its shared border with Mexico in great numbers. The Court ultimately invalidated most of the components of S.B. 1070 (which would have made it a criminal offense to hire, house, shelter, or transport undocumented persons). However, the most alarming provision in this legislation was curiously preserved by the Court. The “papers please” clause allows law enforcement officers to stop anybody who they reasonably suspect to be in the country illegally, demanding that they show documentation proving their citizenship. In almost all circumstances, such an action would be warranted solely based on the external, physical characteristics of the individual in question.
The right to vote is one of America’s most precious treasures. Yet, in many states nationwide, extremely onerous steps have been taken to curtail the ability of, or make it highly difficult, for certain segments of the population to exercise their most fundamental civic duty – undoubtedly, for purely political reasons. Since 2011, forty-four separate state legislatures have introduced some form of restrictive law that could potentially disenfranchise major swaths of the electorate as next month’s presidential contest approaches. In eight of these states (Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire), possessing a current form of photo-identification has been written into law as a mandatory condition for exercising one’s right to vote. Such a provision may seem to be legitimately aimed at preventing abuses or fraud from taking place at the polls. However, a realistic portrait of those who would be negatively impacted by such infringements must be taken into account when analyzing the long-term durability of these collective pieces of legislation. By and large, those who are hit directly by these repercussions are usually persons living in situations of poverty, people of color, or the elderly and disabled. For these individuals, actually getting to a local department of motor vehicles service office may be no small feat. Some may not have their own means of transportation. Especially when these offices are situated in rural or remote locations it would be nearly impossible to travel there to obtain a valid ID. The troubling aspect to this scenario is that most of these mentioned individuals would traditionally be expected to cast their ballots for Democratic candidates. All of the states that have chosen to pass these types of laws contain legislatures that are controlled by the Republican Party.

With such a plethora of threats to the very core of who we are as a democracy, it’s hard to comprehend that there could be anything else that could spell further trouble for the ideals that distinguish us, uniquely, from other countries. Yet, another recent Supreme Court decision could potentially, irreparably, alter the very ethical and civic playing field that has been faithfully maintained in our country for nearly three-centuries. In a closely-watched 2010 ruling, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court held that any monetary donation by an individual to a political campaign ought to be considered an exercise of “free speech” guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, the Court reasoned that under this interpretation, it was unconstitutional to ban organizations or corporate entities from giving unlimited amounts of funds to various campaigns of their choosing. The consequence is that it has now become legally sanctioned for corporations, and a slew of newly crafted autonomous political entities, (“Super PACs” – Political Action Committees) to unleash as much money as they humanely can towards the candidates of their choice. In this circumstance, one’s vote theoretically no longer carries any value. No matter how many people might vote according to their heartfelt convictions, the outcome of an election could ultimately be determined by who was able to spend the most money on behalf of their candidate. Even former Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, characterized this as the high Court’s “worst decision ever.”

As frustrated Catholics, whose voices have been noticeably ignored, and utterly silenced, by the powers at be amongst the institutional hierarchy of the church, perhaps a very clear path lies before us in these uncertain and disheartening times? All of these above-mentioned initiatives that hang in the balance as America contemplates another election offer a pressing array of questions to all of us as Catholics and citizens of this nation. Who are we as a nation? What sort of values and sense of ethics do we cherish? For what purpose do we exist as the global superpower we are today?

Affirmatively answering these questions is the task that has been entrusted to each one of us as Catholics who are concerned for the fate of our church, along with that of our country. Now, we may be called upon to exercise an unforeseen role in the immediate future. Partnering with Americans of all political allegiances, who are anxious about the civic direction in which our nation will move, it will be up to us to stimulate dialogue, and work through any means possible to instill social and conscious enlightenment. Let us not shirk from this new responsibility! Only if we truly believe, and work ardently for it, will we be able to keep alive the definition of America that has withstood the test of time for nearly three centuries, and offered hope to so many beleaguered souls, the world over.

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.