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Pep talks and prayer mark public sessions, as nuns make plans in private

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 9, 2012 - Don’t expect elected leaders of U.S. Roman Catholic nuns and sisters to issue a radical statement or shoot off fireworks Friday about how to respond to orders from the Vatican to reform their leadership network.

The 900 participants conclude their Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ four-day annual national assembly meeting Friday night at the Millennium Hotel downtown. 

“We don’t have a leaning (about what to do), but we know we are to honor God’s process and not predict,” said Sister Mary Pellegrino, a Sister of St. Joseph of Baden, Pa., at a news conference after Thursday’s opening session. “We want to avoid fragmentation.” 

In closed session, they have responded to topics and questions handed to them. They call it discernment. One of the religious leaders offers her own definition of discernment. “It’s muddling through,” said Sister Mary Waskowiak, a Sister of Mercy who is director of Development and Fundraising for the Mercy International Association in Burlingame, Calif.

“Where do we sense God’s call? What we hope for is not a clear avenue of action, we are asking God to show us together the best step forward.” 

The Vatican issued a doctrinal assessment in April and put the Vatican-founded network under direction of Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain. He has brought in Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., whose central Illinois diocese reaches to the Mississippi River, and Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio. Blair headed the investigation into the Leadership Conference. None of the three has been present at the meeting. 

Avoiding a split

For three days, these sisters, who lead 80 percent of American nuns, have been struggling to find a way to respond to the mandate to change.

The officers of the Leadership Conference have been said that the assessment included inaccurate charges. And sisters at the meeting noted that videos of past annual meetings are always for sale in exhibition tables.

But tensions between the men and women who do the work of the church are not new. In the middle ages, two nuns -- Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Sienna -- stood up to popes and brought about papal reform. And well-educated nuns who work directly with the sick, in schools and universities have long expressed themselves on the direction they believed their church should take. So all of this, some noted, is much less shocking to educated Catholics than to outsiders.

“We have to figure out how to work with this (mandate) and don’t want to risk further splitting our church,” said Sister Donna Markham, an Adrian Dominican sister who is vice president of Behavioral Health Services in Cincinnati, Ohio, at a news conference.  

Important numbers

1964: Most women making vows were in their 20s.

1966: There were 179,954 U.S. Catholic religious sisters.

2011: There were 55,944 U.S. Catholic religious sisters and nuns.

2012: Average age of those represent by the LCWR is 74.

Average age of incoming sisters making permanent vows is 39.

Source: Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate

The participants opened Thursday morning worship lifting their well-trained voices in the hymn called “Surrender.” Its lyrics show more strength than the title: “Surrender now. Surrender here, into the Source of all Being. Let go of fear. Fall into Love. Open your heart to what is.”

For their morning meditation the sisters watched an excerpt of the 2010 award-winning Xavier Beauvois film “Of Gods and Men.” Actors portrayed a true story of nine monks in the Trappist monastery in Tibhirine, Algeria, who had long lived in peace among their Muslim neighbors until outbreak of the 1996 Algerian Civil War. Over the objections of younger monks who warned of danger, the community voted not to flee but to remain. As the monks ate in silence, music plays from the scene in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” in which the swan Odette dies. The monks’ faces varied from fear, contentment and one smile. The clip stopped before radical Islamists kidnapped the monks and murdered seven. 

Occasionally at each session over the past three days, a bell rang indicating a few minutes of silent prayer or table discussion. Then, just as in an old-fashioned classroom, it rang again to move ahead.

The 900 participants sit at round tables for eight to facilitate discussion. The questions set for Thursday morning discussion were: “What is this cup we are being asked to drink? What dying is being asked of us? What transformations are we being invited into?”

Each table shared a cup of Welch’s grape juice. Many sisters had tears in their eyes.

Encouragement from speakers

Tom Fox, publisher of the National Catholic Reporter, the lay-run Catholic a weekly non-profit newspaper based in Kansas City, was one of three panelists Thursday morning who talked about the future of Catholic sisters. He looked out to the 900 women, virtually all of whom have advanced graduate degrees, many with two or three, and said that this was the most prayerful, most professional most democratic gathering of women to sit under one roof.

“I feel totally enveloped by your love,” he said. “This is the Pascal mystery of our time, and you need to recognize that some men really do get it.”

He challenged them to share their unique insights, experience and love and wisdom with Catholic religious sisters around the world.

“They are very vulnerable; they are more vulnerable than you,” he said adding that while the American sisters represent only a small fraction of Catholic religious around the world they contain “most of the experience, knowledge and wisdom. Younger sisters living on the margins need your help and encouragement. Your responsibility is not only to sisters but the whole church.”

Another panelist, Jamie Manson, a lay Catholic woman from Kansas who writes for Fox’s paper, suggested that “many young Catholic women have theological degrees and are committed to doing a variety of social justice work but are “hungry for community.”

She faced the room full of white- and gray-haired women mostly over 60 and told them they might invite young people to live and share community with them, even married couples, even if they don’t take vows. Most religious orders have lay Catholics called associates who meet with them and attempt to take their Gospel charism to the world. They should have votes and not be part of a two-tiered community, Manson said.

Wednesday keynote speaker Barbara Marx Hubbard, though not a Christian, peppered her talk with many quotes from Catholic thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Beatrice Bruteau. 

“You are the best seed bed I know for evolving the church and the world in the 21st century," Hubbard said. Playing off of her own name, she invited the sisters to put together hubs of people who seem very opposite -- lawyers and gang members, for example -- and watch how they can dialogue and change.

Much of her talk was an encouragement to bravely talk to the bishops who she said were behind the sisters in evolutionary ways. "That may be a surprise for the world, but new things always happen from unexpected places."

No one is taking on the record about the conversations in closed executive sessions. No votes will be taken, saud LCWR president Pat Farrell, a Franciscan sister.

LCWR leaders believe confidentiality is so key to the success of any eventual discussion with the three bishops that their own invited guests, speakers and the press are excluded from the five executive sessions.

Farrell spoke firmly to her members before the first closed session on Wednesday, imploring them to not attend if if they could not keep what was said at the sessions in confidence. The group traditionally endorses transparency, but she wants the sisters to have the freedom to say what is on their hearts and minds, she said. It is a struggle, many said.

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.