Bearing down on the Sisters
I still remember the Maryknoll Sisters. I still remember them walking around the Maryknoll campus in Loyola Heights, in their black-and-white habits with the peaked cap and large rosaries hanging from their waists.
Most of them were Americans, and there was even a rumor circulating that one of the prettiest nuns had won a beauty contest in her home state before she heard the call. They never seemed to age. But a friend, who also grew up among religious women, explained: “Of course they never aged. All the parts that reveal a woman’s age—neck, forehead, hair, knees and hips—were concealed!”
The Second Vatican Council took place just before I stepped into high school, and pretty soon the forever-young nuns in their black-and-white habits were no more. In their place we saw old (or aging) women, their graying hair finally exposed, the monochromatic habits replaced with decorous dresses albeit in colorful prints, but the ugly shoes (or utilitarian sandals) still remained.
What didn’t change was the nuns’ spirit—a combination of daring and openness, even with hard-headed young women, and a devotion to serving the poor and the needy. Maybe this was why before I graduated and left the green and idyllic campus, the nuns had already left the college, choosing to serve the poorest communities in rural areas, and leaving the education and formation of cosseted girls from middle-class homes to the capable hands of lay teachers and administrators.
The move would have a profound effect on me, for the Sisters’ bold move to chuck their comfortable world in Loyola Heights to pursue their calling amid poverty and uncertainty taught me lessons about womanhood and the necessity for authentic living.
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Recently, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement saying it was appointing a bishop to oversee the affairs of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which gathers most of the major women’s religious congregations in the United States. The reason? The nuns’ alleged refusal to “toe the line,” issuing statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” More on this last statement later.
Anyway, the American Catholic columnist Garry Wills, reacting to the Vatican’s action, wrote in his blog for the New York Review of Books: “The Vatican has issued a harsh statement claiming that American nuns do not follow their bishops’ thinking. That statement is profoundly true. Thank God, they don’t. Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless. Nuns have preserved Gospel values while bishops have been perverting them. The priests drive their own new cars, while nuns ride the bus (always in pairs). The priests specialize in arrogance, the nuns in humility.”
My sentiments exactly.
At a time when thousands of Catholics in different parts of the world have left the church or have been deeply disillusioned over such issues as clergy sexual abuse, anti-women rhetoric and sanctions especially over reproductive health, and the extreme right turn the hierarchy has taken on social issues, the Vatican has chosen to sanction the one group within the church almost universally admired and loved for being outspoken and authentic.
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And are the bishops necessarily the church’s “authentic teachers of faith and morals?” Those who’ve viewed “The Borgias,” a TV-movie dramatization of the reign of Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI (a son was appointed Cardinal), shows us how fallibly human (and sinful) the leaders of the church are, and how wrong they could be on issues of precisely “faith and morals.”
The precipitating action that may have sparked the Vatican crackdown, some LCWR leaders believe, was the group’s open letter to US President Barack Obama supporting his health reform initiative, which the American bishops opposed. Obama has said the nuns’ letter was the “turning point” in gathering political support for the measure. The bishops may have been incensed by what the nuns did, but they have yet to explain how they could be opposed to moves to provide healthcare for the poorest Americans.
In the view of several local pro-reproductive health groups who issued a statement in support of the LCWR, the Vatican’s heavy-handed move is simply part of the church hierarchy’s “wider campaign to silence the public voice of women both within their church and outside of it—locally reflected in the actions of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).”
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“We value the LCWR’s commitment to social justice and their right to take a conscientious position against a religious leadership that has shown to be both out of touch and outright hostile to the very idea of women taking a greater role in society,” the statement concluded.
News reports say the reactions of American women religious have varied from “stunned” to “defiant.” Sr. Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby group associated with LCWR, told a wire agency that it was “painfully obvious” the Vatican leadership was “not used to having educated women form thoughtful opinions and engage in dialogue.”
That’s telling ’em, Sister! I don’t know if Sister Simone is a Maryknoll Sister, but what she said is entirely in line with the training and spirit imbued in us by the Maryknoll nuns of fond memory. Forming “thoughtful opinions” and “engaging in dialogue” were certainly the core of my Maryknoll education.
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