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Nuns group professes hope for talks, stands firm for their religious life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 10, 2012 - The next step for the leaders’ network of most of Catholic sisters and nuns will be to to talk with the Seattle archbishop whom the Vatican appointed to oversee the group. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious ended its annual meeting in St. Louis with plans for its board to meet with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain tomorrow in "civil, respectful dialogue." Since April when the Vatican issued its mandate to reform, its board has had no official discussions with him.

“The members expectation is that open and honest dialogue may lead not only to increasing understating between the church leadership and women religious but also to creating more possibilities for the laity in particular for women to have a voice in the church.“ LCWR President Pat Farrell said in news conference Friday afternoon. She also said the organization will reconsider discussion if it gets to the point that its integrity is compromised.

The board released a two-and-a-half page statement, which was approved after what Farrell, a Franciscan sister, called “three days of sustained prayer and dialogue” with 900 of their 1,500 LCWR members.

The Vatican has given Sartain five years to reform the leadership group, Farrell said. The sisters want dialogue to continue as long as possible, she said.

If down the road respectful dialogue proves a dead end and the sisters’ leadership group is “forced to compromise the integrity of its mission," the board will have to reconsider. It likely will return to the full body annual assembly for further directions, Farrell said at the news conference. She said not all alternatives discussed were in the statement released.

“The assembly articulated that religious life, as it is lived by the women religious who comprise LCWR, is an authentic expression of this life that must not be compromised,” Farrell said. “The theology, ecclesiology and spiritually of the Second Vatican Council serves as the foundation of their form of religious life - while those who live it must always be open to conversion – this life form should not be discounted.”

Random interviews with sisters as they hurried to the assembly’s final Mass were all positive.

“I am so proud of the LCWR for their fidelity to the concepts of Vatican II, “said Sister Helen Garvey, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was a LCWR president and on its presidential teams from 1986-89.

“I am pleased with the statement, we had to state who we are and affirm our love of Christ,” said Sister Marjorie Klein, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame leadership team at the Ripa center in Lemay.

Farrell expects that both Archbishop Sartain and they will learn from the discussion which makes it true dialogues.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith began a secretive assessment of LCWR after Catholic lay and religious theological conservatives complained that the American nuns' group held secular ideas. The Vatican reprimand called a “doctrinal assessment” said the organization had long tolerated dissent at its national assemblies and included “radical feminist” responses to the all-male priesthood and tolerance of homosexuality. It also said the group was not vocal enough in standing with the church against artificial birth control and against abortion.

The LCWR statement was crafted without a vote but with nuanced discussions over three days.

“They don’t take votes,” said St. Louisan Helen Hitchcock, a Catholic lay woman who leads and edits the Catholic periodicals “Women for Faith and Family” and “Adoremus.” She did not attend the meeting and was disappointed that Archbishop Robert Carlson welcomed the group to his archdiocese. “It tells you everything, that its leadership just decides. Not voting on this. I know many members who are not happy in general with the way the group has been going.”

LCWR president Sister Pat Farrell whose term ended Friday gave her farewell presidential address. She was composed, smiling and ladylike, wearing a pearl necklace and black polka dot dress. She told the 900 sisters assembled that the church of the 21st century can learn from the communal listening, dialogue and decision making that most sisters’ and nuns’ orders, congregations, and institutes use now. Before the Second Vatican Council the style was for Mother Superior to make the decisions and give orders.

American sisters took the bishops’ statements from the Second Vatican Council to heart. She said that it is “amazing” that they have evolved from such “rigidity.” Today most sisters use communal discernment and decision making as their “faithful form of obedience in community."

“Sisters’ leaders are constantly challenged to honor a wide spectrum of opinions. We have learned a lot about creating community from diversity and about celebrating diversity. We had come to trust diverse opinions as powerful pathways to greater clarity. Our commitment to community compels us to do that, as together we seek the common good.”

This collaborative leadership is a model that “may very well be the gift we now bring to the Church and the world.”

At one point, while talking about the sisters’ work with the poor and marginalized, her voice wavered with emotions. She was showing photos of men removing barriers the day after peace was struck in the civil strife in El Salvador where she served for many years. She also worked in Chile during its dictatorship.

The last few months have reminded her of an encouraging saying Chileans used: “They can crush a few flowers but they can’t hold back the springtime.”

With that, virtually all of the 900 sisters, all elected leaders of Catholic orders and congregation stood and applauded Farrell.

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.