Pope Benedict should not throw nuns under the bus


Read the full story: The Last Word: Stand With the Sisters from Irish America Magazine.

I am shocked and heartsick at the Vatican’s action to censor the nuns. I know a lot of nuns, I was one myself for six years. Nuns are the wise women of our tribe. We cannot let the Vatican throw them under the bus.

I wrote about a visit to the Mother-house of my order, the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana, in the April/May 2011 issue of Irish America. As I was walked through row after row of white crosses in the cemetery and read the names – Sister Marcella, Grace O’Malley; Sister Marie Denise, Hannah Sullivan; Sister Mary Olive, Olive O’Connell – I remembered how millions of Irish and Irish-American women gave their lives to the Church, and to us, while many still serve today.

And now, through serendipity and providence, on Sunday, May 6, two weeks after Rome announced a crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of the 56,000 Sisters in the United States, I was sitting in with about 30 nuns from various congregations.

The nuns, members of the Partnership for Global Justice, were gathered in New York City to present their annual Justice Award to the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, a group of women elders native to North, South and Central America, Africa, Asia and the Arctic who travel the globe working and praying for “Mother Earth and all her children.”

I had been involved with a documentary about the grandmothers, For The Next 7 Generations, produced and directed by my friend Carole Hart. I was delighted at the confluence of grandmothers and nuns at the Partnership’s award presentation, and realized how much they had in common as keepers of wisdom and nurturers of the next generation.

I introduced myself to some of the nuns and mentioned my time in the convent. They all nodded. Their communities too had witnessed a boom in vocations in the 1960s from young women, many of whom later left religious life. I’ve always had great respect for the women who stayed the course, adjusting to changing times and finding ways to follow the gospel by serving those most in need under great financial constraints.

Many people don’t realize that most congregations of religious women get no money at all from the Church. And because the parishes where nuns taught for so many years did not pay into Social Security, the orders themselves had to sell their most valuable properties to make a large lump sum payment so their members could be eligible for Medicare, an absolute necessity as nuns age and their health declines.

Various orders of nuns devote more and more of their resources to the care of retired Sisters while still carrying out their mission of “ministering to God’s people through works of love, mercy and justice,” as the Sisters of Providence website puts it. The orders depend on the salaries of younger working nuns and on donations.

Last year I brought Marine Gen. Martin Berndt and his wife, Diana, to St. Mary-of-the-Woods. General Berndt was extremely impressed by the efficiency of the operation: the nun teachers at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, the retired Sisters who staffed the food pantry and the Sister nurses who ran a free clinic. He was also very surprised at the lack of Church support and wrote a check for $1,000 then and there.

And now three of the Indigenous Grandmothers had come to accept this award. Beatrice Long Visitor Holy Dance is an Ogala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Mona Polaca is Hopi-Tewa on her father’s side and Havasupai, the people of the blue-green water from the Grand Canyon, on her mother’s.

Grandmother Agnes Pilgrim-Baker, whose native name is Taowhywee, Morning Star, is the oldest female member of the Roque River Indians in Oregon and chairs the Grandmothers Council. The three prayed with the Sisters and spoke of how heartened they were to receive this award. One of the nuns read from the citation “Your lives are a deep message to the entire world that living your vision of hope and healing is the only option.”

Hope and healing. I’m sure these Sisters could use a dose of that right now. I thought, if I was upset about the Vatican’s action, how must they feel? Their general superiors belonged to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had just ordered to reform under the direction of Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other bishops.

These men have complete authority to preside over the revision of the Leadership Conference’s statutes, plans and programs and publications. All future speakers at assemblies must first be approved by the Archbishop.

What caused such a sweeping takeover of an organization that has been working with and for the American bishops and the Vatican since its founding at Rome’s request in 1956?