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With prayer and iPads, Women Religious consider response to Vatican

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 8, 2012 - Nearly 900 leaders of Roman Catholic nuns assembled at the Millennium Hotel ballroom Tuesday evening with copies of a Vatican mandate on their iPads, laptops or in their suitcases.

The Vatican document, made public April 18, demands that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious place itself under the direction of the Seattle Archbishop Peter James Peter Sartain to reform the group and bring it, especially its annual assembly, in line with church teachings on several issues.

Tuesday evening the LCWR annual assembly began with the whole body singing the hymn “Something New,” which includes the line “clearly something new is being born in our midst.”

“This is a moment of grace,” LCWR president Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell said, adding that she felt the energy in the room of Catholic women leaders.  

She asked the sisters to “open their hearts and spirit, realizing that we are not here for ourselves but for our congregations, our church and the world.”

With a wide smile she said, “I suspect that we are in for a lot of surprises and a lot of rich moments together.” 

She announced that after the meeting ends the organization’s board members would meet with Sartain and begin a dialogue. He headed the investigation of the group ordered by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and is charged with overseeing implementation of the mandate to tighten the group administration so its annual meetings are in line with church doctrine.  

Last week in a news conference Farrell said, “One of our concerns is that questioning is seen as defiance. That is not healthy for the church.”

Tuesday she told the sisters that what they decided to do in response to the Vatican is up to them. By Friday, they may find a next step, several next steps or they may come to no decision.

The critique of LCWR, called a doctrinal assessment, accuses the group composed of elected leaders of the organization of U.S. sisters of promoting "radical feminist" ideas, a disregard for church doctrine, not prohibiting artificial contraception, not condemning homosexual relations and not doing enough to protest abortion. The mandate is not directed at U.S. nuns in general or at specific orders of institutes or orders of U.S. sisters but at this umbrella organization LCWR of elected leaders. Several older sisters, former presidents, said that bishops have been tugging and critiquing the nuns' leadership group for many years in small meetings.

In June after the LCWR’s Farrell and executive director Sister Janet Mock, a Sister of St. Joseph, met at the Vatican with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, its national board announced its assessment was inaccurate and the information had not been gathered openly and transparently.

The comfortably dressed sisters, wearing the crosses or hearts of their orders and religious institutes, sat facing each other at circular tables for eight. The configuration is traditional at LCWR meetings to encourage group conversation during regular discernment breaks. When they arrived at the tables, letters of encouragement and support from priests and lay men and women were in the center of all tables. Many notes gave examples of how the writer was taught, guided or helped by sisters.

“We read them and passed them around, wonderful really for people to do that for us,” said an Ursuline sister who declined to give her name “on orders of silence.”

Elected leaders of 80 percent of the nation’s 57,000 Catholic sisters and nuns form the membership of this canonical organization, which was founded at the suggestion of the Vatican. Guests representing similar Vatican canonically approved sisters’ networks from South American countries, Canada and Australia attended, as did sisters from France, Italy and Belgium.

The two-hour opening session was laced with prayers.

As the spiritual leader of the host archdiocese, St. Louis Archbishop Robert J. Carlson cordially welcomed the sisters. Applause greeted him when Sister Suzanne Wesley’s introduction noted he had won the Today and Tomorrow Foundation’s Sister Mary Ann Eckhoff Award. It is named for the late school Sister of Notre Dame, who once headed the St. Louis Archdiocesan schools.  

In turn, Carlson praised Wesley, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, for her leadership with the elderly poor and those in need of housing at Cardinal Ritter Senior Services. He extended warm words of gratitude and praise for 1,425 sisters in the St. Louis Archdiocese, calling their list of good works “endless.” As examples he mentioned work with the St. Patrick Center downtown and with the St. Vincent de Paul Society helping “the homeless, in counseling the troubled, feeding the hungry, assisting the deaf.”

Carlson’s typical dry humor alleviated any tension when he said his kindergarten teacher, a St. Joseph Sister of Carondelet, wrote him after his ordination: “Most of the time, I’m happy that you passed out of kindergarten.” The audience, composed of hundreds of sisters who are or once were teachers, broke into laughter. Then he turned serious.

“I realize this is a most important meeting for you and I pray that the dialogue between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and LCWR is not politicized but a dialogue, worked out within a community of faith,” Carlson said.

The church’s first century difference of opinion and tension between St. Paul and St. Peter was resolved peaceably at the First Council in Jerusalem, he recalled. He is praying for a good outcome at the meeting, he said. He is seeking special help from the first St. Louis nun, the 19th-century pioneer nun who lived, founded a convent and school, for many years a few blocks south of the hotel at Convent Street and Broadway. 

“I ask for the intercession of St. Philippine Duchesne, a pioneering religious woman who opened the first school for young women west of the Mississippi in 1818.”

It might be interesting to note that Mother Duchesne wanted to work with the Indians while her bishop ordered her to set up "a paid school for white girls in St. Charles." According to missouriwomen.org,"Philippine, with her characteristic stubbornness, negotiated a bargain: she would open a free school, and charge only those who could pay.  Also, one day a week would be reserved for teaching Indians."

Two years ago, the U.S. Catholic bishops elected Carlson as chairman of its committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. In that role he has worked closely with LCWR representatives. In the hallway afterward, Carlson told the press that he was not involved with the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment. And the archdiocesan website notes that he was not involved with arranging speakers, programs or other arrangement for the meeting in his archdiocese. 

Near the end of the session, Farrell talked about “walking into the future in solidarity.” She directed each participant to write on peach-colored paper their fears for the meeting and to write their hopes for the meeting on blue paper. She instructed them to fold each paper four times then drop them into collection baskets.

“That’s your offering,” she said.

“Such a joyful beginning," said Sister Deborah Humphrey, a New Jersey Sister of Charity after the first session. “We shared in Spanish with sisters at our table from Cuba, Peru and missionary sisters.”

Irish-born Sister Rosaleen Harold, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word, said she was impressed with the warmth of the first session: “Now, we hope we listen to God.” 

Guest speakers who have given the assembly’s annual keynote addresses caused issues in the Vatican assessment. Often as is true again this year, they are not Catholics. Wednesday futurist Barbara Marx Hubbard, who promotes a New Age-style worldview called "conscious evolution" is the keynoter. She is a leader of a Dec. 22 event aiming to unify 100 million people “in co-creating a planetary shift in time to birth a new, evolved era and universal humanity.”

Older nuns who had protested the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s were more interested in the fact that she is the sister-in-law of Daniel Ellsberg who in 1971 provided the revealing Pentagon Papers to newspapers. Their publication intensified efforts to get out of Vietnam.

After Hubbard’s two sessions, the hard work of determining the LCWR response to the Vatican mandate begins in closed sessions. Sisters have been asked to say nothing about that issue until late Friday.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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