A bit of background: While I was on retreat last week, immersed in silence, the world lumbered on, and numerous concerns on which others were focused made their way into our masses in the form of prayer requests. One day early in the week, the presider offered prayers for the LCWR in the face of the CDF's newly released critique, and expressed his solidarity with the sisters. Huh?
Clarification came when the next day's presider explained the the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (known in earlier centuries as the Inquisition) had issued a report criticizing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for its over-attentiveness to issues of poverty and social justice and for its failure to focus on the Vatican's priorities in the areas of right-to-life and human family and sexuality issues. The CDF has established a panel of men (?) to oversee the sisters' organization for the next five years.
There has been extensive coverage of this issue online, some of which raises serious questions about the integrity and competence of the oversight panel. If you are interested, all you have to do is google "American Catholic sisters." For today, my focus is on a twitter campaign launched by James Martin, S.J. , "What Sisters Mean to me," which I read about over at my friend Fran's place. Twitter is not a part of my own communications arsenal, so I'll proceed with a blog post, per usual, and offer some observations about the profoundly Christlike presence of the women religious I know best, the Ursuline Sisters of Brown County, Ohio:
1. They traveled from France in 1845 to what was then the wilderness and is now the edge of Appalachia in southwestern Ohio, and quickly established a school for girls, where I received my 7th-9th grade education 120 years later.
2. They have been teachers, counselors, partners, ministers, supporters, encouragers, consolers, and I'm sure many other things I don't know about to countless of the people among whom they live, including my own family, for 167 years.
3. Ursuline sisters taught my great-grandmother to play the piano in the 1890s, conducted or participated in the funerals of my grandfather (in his living room), my grandmother (in their chapel), and my stepmother (in a funeral home).
4. A few decades ago, having concluded that their massive 19th century convent and school building was exhausting funds that could be better used elsewhere, the Ursulines engaged in one of the few great and unheralded acts of prophetic vision and courage which I've been privileged to witness. They knocked that beautiful, energy-guzzling edifice down, moved to more modest and efficient quarters, and focused on ministry to people rather than to buildings.
5. Today, the college that one of the sisters launched in the 1960s so that young nuns did not have to postpone their educations during the early years of their religious lives, years in which they were not at that time permitted to attend local universities, serves the entire region. It provides a warm and friendly setting in which farmers, laid-off workers, homemakers, high-school dropouts, and many others who would never otherwise have been able to imagine the possibility of college are able to earn degrees and embark upon new lives.
6. While they are busy changing the world through education and attentiveness to those pesky issues of poverty and justice, the sisters are also present to the small but critical moments in the lives of those they care for. Ursuline sisters have made the ten-hour round trip between their house and mine on several occasions: to bring my grandmother to see her brand-new great-granddaughter, to mourn our son with us, to celebrate an ordination with us.
I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Let me just add the following:
New friends sometimes express astonishment that my then little agnostic-Methodist self spent three years in a Catholic girls' boarding school. Their general sentiments might be summarized as, "Didn't that ruin you?"
Well, yes: I did spend those formative years there, in a community of women who ran a convent, a school, and a farm. Women who throw their entire lives of prayer, education, expertise, presence, intelligence, and humor into the world in service to others. Women whose every move offers an example of how to live with grace and goodness.
I guess they did kind of ruin me. They ruined any capacity I might have had to accept the status quo, to follow conventional rules for women, to ignore the needs of the impoverished and uneducated. They ruined any possibility that I might have failed to realize that an 80-year-old woman might launch a new community ministry, or that a teacher of Italian and music might bring communion to the dying, or that ecumenical friendship is a priority of the highest order.
Now, what is it exactly that the Vatican does not see?