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?

According to the Vatican’s eight-page “Doctrinal Assessment,” the investigation was triggered by problematic addresses given at annual assemblies  which advocated “policies of corporate dissent.” For example, the Holy See said it received letters from nuns asking that women’s ordination be discussed, and that the Church be more open to ministering to gay Catholics. And “radical feminism” had been evidenced by commentaries on the patriarchy of the Church.

The document also complains that while the Conference did a great deal of work “promoting issues of social justice” the nuns had not spoken out enough on right-to-life issues. The Vatican concluded the nuns were guilty of serious doctrinal error.

Bryan Cones, editor of US Catholic, challenges that claim and in fact finds the whole Vatican document “a tissue of misinformation, misrepresentation and innuendo that does a profound disservice to these religious women.” His persuasive analysis makes the actions of the Vatican even more puzzling.

We Catholics (and I’ve been a daily Communicant since my own First Communion) have endured decades of horrific revelations about priests who raped our children while Church authorities covered up their actions and thus condemned more innocents to such torture. As the Cloyne Report on sexual abuse released in Ireland last summer showed, the Vatican frustrated the investigations that did take place “as little as three years ago [if] not three decades ago,” said Ireland’s prime minister, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny, in a no-holds-barred speech. “The report,” Kenny said, “excavates the disconnection, the dysfunction, elitism, the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.” He spoke of the clericalism that “rendered some of Ireland’s most privileged and powerful men either unwilling or unable to address the abuse set out in the Ryan and Murphy reports.

This Roman clericalism must be devastating for good priests, some of them old, others struggling to keep their humanity and even their sanity as they work hard to be keepers of the Church’s life, light and goodness…But thankfully for them and for us this is not Rome. Nor is it industrial school or Magdalene Ireland where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish Catholic world. This is the Republic of Ireland…As a practicing Catholic, I don’t say any of this easily. Growing up many of us here learned to be part of the pilgrim church. Today that Church needs to be a penitent Church.”

The Irish people have taken this brave speech, which should be read in its entirety, to heart and even now are protesting the Vatican’s silencing of five of their most popular priests.
It’s hard not to see that same clericalism, the culture of elitism and dysfunction, at work in this latest crackdown on the nuns.

Still the swish of a soutane can be scary and I was afraid for these Sisters. The Vatican will soon release a report on the Apostolic Visitation that involved more than a hundred congregations of women. Will it have the same harsh tone?

I didn’t want to put any of the Sisters I was with on May 6 on the spot, since they didn’t want to comment until after the Board of the Leadership Conference met during Pentecost week, May 27- June 2. But I saw no panic among the nuns.

They are women of faith who really do believe the Spirit blows where it will. Many spoke of turning to prayer and meditation in the coming days.

We members of the laity are the ones who must speak up and stand up for the nuns. is one website with suggestions. And then there’s always money. A staff member at the Leadership Conference told me that they are getting a lot of donations, which they appreciate, and asked for prayers. We can also give to the orders that taught us and express our support.

When I called one of my friends in the Sisters of Providence she reminded me that Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the order, once had her own problem with a bishop. He excommunicated her for not handing over the deed to the Sisters’ land. The bishop was replaced, his edict overturned.

“When one has nothing more to lose, the heart is inaccessible to fear,” Mother Guerin said.
She was canonized in 2006.

I told my friend the story of St. Brigid (b.453), who is one of Ireland’s patron saints, and what happened when Bishop Mel (later St. Mel) came to consecrate her as Abbess of Kildare. He enjoyed so much of the nuns’ famous beer that he turned the wrong page in the missal and made Bridget a bishop.

“God’s will,” Mel said, and ever after the Abbess of Kildare held the rank of bishop.

So it’s a long road that has no turning. These are the wise women of our tribe. Let’s not let the Vatican throw them under the bus!

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

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