Friday, January 29, 2010


When women religious first arrived in America in the 1700s, they often lived in log cabins, crisscrossed vast territories in small groups by waterways, covered wagons, steam engines, horseback or by foot. They nursed on battlefields, assisted travelers on ships or in wagon trains, cared for victims of epidemics, founded schools for native Americans, welcomed people of all colors or backgrounds, and served soldiers, miners, pioneers, criminals, and women of “ill repute.” They rarely discriminated between Catholics or non-Catholics. Their life and ministry was deeply rooted in their faith, but not confined to Catholic institutions.

An example of that pioneer spirit was Sister Alfred Moles from Luxembourg who eventually arrived in Rochester, Minnesota to start a school for immigrant children. When the town was devastated by tornados, she and her companions converted their classrooms into a makeshift hospital to care for the wounded. She was aided by a local doctor, William Worrell Mayo, and his two physician sons, all Episcopalians. Eventually this effort blossomed into St. Mary’s Hospital and the world-famous Mayo Clinic.

The huge wave of Catholic immigrants in the mid 19th century alarmed many Americans, and, conversely, the heavily Protestantized public schools and other social institutions alarmed Catholic leaders. So the church launched an “alternative universe” composed of its own schools, hospitals, orphanages, settlement houses, and colleges which needed nuns to staff them. Hundreds of immigrant girls responded to that need, entering large convents, wearing distinctive religious garb, becoming nurses or teachers, and leading highly
sequestered lives. Movies such as “Going My Way” or “The Bells of St. Mary’s” captured that era.

However, the experience of World War II, the election of President Kennedy, and the Second Vatican Council, all signaled the mainstreaming of American Catholicism. Many women religious recaptured the spirit of those pioneer nuns, emerging from the immigrant oriented institutions to serve the broader needs of society, living in smaller groups, and wearing contemporary clothing.

Sister Sandra Schneiders, a prominent theologian from the Jesuit School of Theology in California, chronicles all of this in five remarkable essays (published online from January 4 through 8 at ) as a commentary on the Vatican’s investigation of American nuns. She observes that, while some lay and clerical Catholic traditionalists may find it difficult to imagine “real Sisters” anywhere outside of Catholic institutions, contemporary American women religious are not only recapturing the spirit of their predecessors of the 18th century, but also the even more ancient prophetic, service-oriented ministry of the early Christian communities. Like Jesus himself, they reach out to the least of
the brothers and sisters. And like the Lord, they are sometimes criticized by the more “respectable” people for keeping company with outcasts.

Sandra Schneiders recommends that the Vatican investigators, prior to launching their inquisition, take time to view the superb traveling museum exhibit entitled “Women and Spirit” which the Leadership Conference of Women Religious has launched to tell the story of four centuries of women religious here in America. Perhaps then the Vatican will replace the current cloud of suspicion with an outpouring of gratitude and appreciation which the nuns so richly deserve. In the meantime, each of us can express our personal admiration and support for these extraordinary women.

Friday, January 15, 2010


On Christmas day over Detroit, a Nigerian suicide bomber’s attempt to blow up a commercial jetliner was foiled because of his own ineptitude coupled with the decisive action of his fellow passengers. Whatever the challenges or foibles of the security officials on the ground, these ordinary travelers recognized the danger in the air and responded immediately and vigorously, thus saving their lives, as well as possible victims of falling debris.

Something similar seems to be happening in the Catholic church as some hyper-conservative bishops, priests and laity attempt to blow up Vatican II Catholicism by their attempts to “reform the reform” as they call it. However, many Catholics are no longer willing to act as compliant sheep being led to an ideological slaughter. The old idea that “Father, or Bishop, or Pope knows best” has been profoundly eroded by the hierarchy’s miserable performance in the clergy sex abuse scandals here in America and around the world, most recently in Ireland. Just as airline security is too serious to be left to authorities alone, so too one’s authentic relationship with God is too important to be left to the ebb and flow of ecclesiastical politics on all levels.

Last year the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that 10% of Americans are now former Catholics, a figure which would be even larger were it not for the influx of new immigrants. Many Catholics struggle to find ways to continue to practice their faith despite the deficiencies of their official leaders. So, while we celebrate the decisive action of those passengers on Christmas day over Detroit, let us also recognize these examples of decisive action by ordinary Catholics in their parishes and local communities.

* After the pastor of a university parish was transferred before his time, a new priest arrived with instructions to straighten things out. Initially, the people tried to work with him, but after reaching an impasse, they deluged the diocese with complaints. He left, acknowledging that he was “a square peg in a round hole.” Fortunately, his successor is now doing a superb job, but who knows what might have happened if the authorities had not relented.

* When the well loved pastor of a suburban church retired, parish leaders met with his successor, whose priorities didn’t coincide with the mixture of excellent liturgy, music and social justice which had characterized their community. The people pushed back, and the new priest quickly opted to decline the assignment. The next appointee stayed a year, but eventually concluded that he’d be more comfortable elsewhere. The third try produced a priest who is on the same page as the parish, and all is well. (Similar scenarios have occurred in a number of other places during times of transition when new pastors have been assigned who disregarded the history and dynamics of vital and vigorous parishes. Sadly, the newcomer doesn’t always step aside.)

*An urban parish planned to produce a play written by a widely respected parishioner. It wrestled with the religious, political, personal and familial dimensions of abortion. Word got to the bishop who forbade the performance. Hearing about the controversy, a nearby Lutheran church offered its sanctuary as an alternative site. The resulting publicity insured both large audiences and insightful discussions after each performance. (Similar scenarios have occurred in other parts of the nation when bishops forbade certain speakers to use parish property. In those cases also the subsequent publicity resulted in much larger crowds at the alternative locations.)

*When a pastor surprised his flock with an announcement that he had decided to close the parish school, people began to look into his handling of church finances. After discovering many irregularities, they went to the bishop who was unresponsive. They then contacted civil authorities, who initiated a thorough investigation. As a result the priest was tried, convicted and incarcerated. A new pastor worked with the people to insure the continuation of the school. (Again, unfortunately, this is not a unique story in recent years.)

* Five years ago, proponents of women’s ordination would write letters to the hierarchy, hold meetings, or conduct silent protests at ordination ceremonies. Today, we see an increasing number of underground ordinations of women priests. Internationally, there is an online seminary system to prepare future candidates. Many women strive to follow the example of the early Christians described in Acts 2:46 who continued to meet in the Jerusalem temple, while also gathering for the breaking of the bread in their homes. They keep one foot in their old religious practices in their parishes, and another in their new feminine liturgies in homes and apartments. As one woman put it, “I’ll be dead a century or two before the hierarchy moves ahead on this, so I’d better do it myself. I’m sure our gracious God understands.”

* In Rochester, New York, a dying inner-city parish was invigorated by a dynamic young pastor who focused on liturgy, homilies, lay leadership, women in ministerial roles, and outreach to alienated people, especially gays and divorced Catholics. Prompted by the Vatican, the local bishop eventually replaced the pastor with a man who was supposed to shape things up. After a stormy period, the people invited their former pastor to return. The bishop resisted this, so the bulk of the parishioners voted to start an independent parish, which now meets in a large basilica owned by a music institute. It is thriving with additional outreach programs in third world countries. (Similar independent parishes have been founded in two Minnesota parishes where progressive pastors have retired, and were replaced by men who had no tolerance for the parish dynamics.)

* A missionary priest in Latin America makes a month-long circuit of the villages in his immense parish. Because he can’t celebrate Mass more often than once a month in most places, he has trained lay catechists and women religious to conduct Sunday Communion services in his stead. These are often very powerful spiritual experiences for the people. He knew they were effectively nourishing people’s hunger for God, when one old man told him, “I love it when you come to our village, Father, but I must confess that I enjoy Sister’s Mass even more than the ones you say.”

Stories such as these are likely to multiply in the future for a number of reasons. First, the Catholic faith is deeply imbedded in people, while the credibility of the hierarchy has seriously eroded. Second, the shortage of priests seems to be intensifying, while official strategies to deal with it seem to be ineffective. Third, while there are many wonderful young priests, there are also large numbers of the so-called JPII variety who are rigid, legalistic and judgmental. Fourth, the Pope has recently appointed Archbishop Raymond Burke, formerly of St. Louis and notable for declaring people unfit to receive Communion, as a new member of the Vatican Congregation which recommends new bishops. He joins Cardinal Law, formerly of Boston and pedophilia fame, and the very conservative Cardinal Stafford, formerly of Denver, as the American representatives. Thus, we can expect future bishops in their image and likeness.

The bottom line is that decisive action on the part of both passengers and parishioners is likely to be the “modus operandi” of the future. So be prepared.