There seems to be some debate as to whether our church has gone off the deep end, with my esteemed colleagues pointing to Catholic hospitals coughing up a hairball over the president’s mandate of reproductive health coverage, and Catholic universities barring commencement speakers with views inconsistent with church teaching as evidence.
Now comes irrefutable proof that the Vatican has lost touch with reality altogether.
They’re messing with nuns.
It was recently announced that the Vatican has decided to reign in these powerful women into the fold, ordering the American nuns to hand control of their group over to a trio of bishops because they fear the nuns have lost Rome’s conservative narrative.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose members represent about 80% of nuns in the United States, issued a sharp statement calling the Vatican’s rebuke unsubstantiated and “the result of a flawed process that lacked transparency.”
The nuns said the Vatican’s report has “caused scandal and pain throughout the church community and created greater polarization,” according to widely published statements.
It makes you wonder if our current Pope and the cardinals were educated by nuns themselves; if they were, they would never think about crossing one -- certainly not the ones I encountered in my business career.
I was educated by these gals in Jersey City, a fact I immortalized on a t-shirt that says “you can’t scare me -- I was educated by nuns.”
I’m sure my boyhood imagination amped up the nightmare factor, but I swear the only time I saw any one of them smile or act joyful was when their founder, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, was canonized by the Pope in 1975, when I was in the fourth grade.
I thought I would leave the Irish nuns behind me when I left school and entered the working world, but that was not the case.
I landed a job selling laboratory supplies to hospitals in the Pennsylvania Dutch territory, and I found these veiled ladies at every level of one institution. I remember having to negotiate pricing on test tubes and petri dishes with Sister Jane O’Malley (last names changed to protect the innocent).
My company could never get far with Sister Jane until I had overheard from someone how she had this morning routine of attending Mass in the hospital chapel before hitting the storeroom to check inventory.
Mass started at 6:30 a.m. and I lived an hour away, but I was in the chapel each Tuesday on stockroom order day. Despite being a grown man in a power suit, I would allow a wide berth between myself and the diminutive, stooped woman.
She would shuffle through the aisles, squinting constantly as I followed behind her with an order pad.
Her negotiations were brutal and she employed the most powerful weapon in an Irishwoman’s arsenal -- guilt.
“Sharpen your pencils, young man,” she would croak. “I know everyone has to make a living, but every dollar of profit you take for yourself is a dollar I can’t spend on the poor in this community.”
I grew my business exponentially as I won the old gal over, and I was grateful for the lessons within her keen business sense. I needed her tutelage when I eventually moved up the ranks and into the Big Apple to face Sister Kate, a hospital administrator in lower Manhattan.
In this business setting, she kept the sensible navy suit and sensible shoes. Sister had a keen mastery of healthcare trends, balancing her enormous hospital’s expenditures against the harsh New York reimbursement climate.
The hospital was buckling under the demands of charity care in Manhattan, a situation made worse by the HIV pandemic gripping the city at the time. Though she had ditched the veil long ago, her head was still weighed down with the concern of the poorest of the poor in the surrounding neighborhood.
Of course, she would never show me that passionate side. She had a major axe to grind with pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies that toasted these huge profits in the earnings statements she seemed to have memorized by heart.
Perhaps it was a negotiation ploy, but she ignored the line item about the amount of cash we generated for research and development to continue the high standard of care she expected.
“Just adding bells and whistles that no one needs, young man,” she scoffed.
That’s what it was like dealing with her. I applied my charm and humor on this steely woman but she seemed immune to it.
That all changed the day we came from the cafeteria (where she bought her own stuff so it didn’t look fishy that I was buying her favor with a $3 tuna sandwich) and I said, “That’s something you don’t see everyday,” when I passed an image of a nun in stained glass.
“You know who that is?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes, Sister,” I replied nervously. “That’s Elizabeth Ann Seton. She was the first United States citizen to be canonized and was the founder of the order of the Sisters of Charity nuns that educated me in Jersey City.”
Her stone face cracked a smile, slowly at first, then she beamed brighter than the light in the stained glass.
“You might be one of the good ones after all,” she said. “She founded my order and those ladies in St. Ann’s are my sisters. Now I know why I like working with you so much!”
I’m praying those three unfortunate Vatican bishops catch a lucky break like that during their first visit with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It’s gonna be a tough room indeed!
(Mike Farragher’s book of essays can be found on www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com)