Love and Gratitude for the Sisters

You probably know that I did my graduate studies in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.

You may also know that a sad fact of that history is that the Catholic community in the USA, from the start, has had to counter a deep and pervasive bigotry.

As Richard Schlesinger commented, “Hatred of the Catholic Church is the oldest bias in the American psyche.”

Yet, certain events in our history have softened that prejudice.  Guess what — according to Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, my old professor, himself one of our most acclaimed historians — was one of those events which helped significantly decrease this ingrained suspicion of the Catholic Church?

You might reply that it was the election, in 1960 of John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, as president.  Important, yes, but not the one Monsignor Ellis had in mind.

How about the pontificate of John Paul II, who frequently topped the “most admired list” even among non-Catholics in the United States?

That helped, according to Ellis, but did not have nearly the impact of the event he had in mind.

The episode that most dramatically motivated Americans, who grew-up with only negative perceptions about these ignorant, dirty, backward, superstitious Catholics was . . . the heroic charity of Catholic nuns on the battlefields of the Civil War, selflessly tending to the wounded and dying, both blue and gray.

These brave religious women seemed to be everywhere — Gettysburg, Antietam, Manassas, Vicksburg, Shiloh — unafraid of cannons or bullets, unconcerned about whether a bleeding man was from the North or the South, caring for each with competence, compassion, and faith.

Thousands of them, healed due to these amazing women, returned to their homes with the comment to all who would listen, “Hey, those Catholics aren’t bad at all.  In fact, some of them, those women they call ‘sisters’, saved my life.”

We Catholics love the nuns.  We Americans love the nuns.

Long before women had any executive positions in business, industry, education, or politics, Catholic women religious ran schools, colleges, hospitals, and agencies of charity.  And anybody of my vintage or older knows that the most influential people in the parish were the sisters.

Here in the Archdiocese of New York, we celebrate women such as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Venerable Rose Hawthorne, and Venerable Sister Mary Angeline Teresa, just to name few founders of religious congregations of sisters that serve us still.

The sisters staffed our massive school system, as well as our health and charity infrastructure.  They had sharp minds, soft hearts, radiant souls, and indomitable wills.  In them we saw the two great commandments given us by Jesus — “love God, and love your neighbor” personified.

When the Second Vatican Council urged a renewal of religious life, with characteristic vigor, they obeyed, and perhaps more than any other group in the Church, took the providential council seriously.

Lord knows, that was not easy. Mistakes were made; many left; divisions occurred; controversy was common.  But they kept at it.

Four-and-a-half decades later, they have decreased drastically in number.  An order of sisters I have known for a long time recently sadly announced that they would accept no new vocations  — they hadn’t had one in two decades — and were prepared to fade away.

Yet, they persevere.  Their presence in this archdiocese is ubiquitous.  Their wisdom and spirit continue to guide the apostolates beholden to them.  Some newer orders report a rising number of vocations, and even those congregations shrinking in numbers have a grace and a courage about them that continues to teach, serve, and sanctify as a leaven in our local church.

They have an uncanny charism of sensing where God’s People are most in need, and prod the Church to listen, as did Jesus, to the moans of those at the side of the road.

We Catholics love the Sisters!  Catholics in America do have a “ballot” when it comes to expressing their concern and interests in the life of the Church:  the Sunday envelope! And the most successful second collection in our history is the annual one to support our aged religious.

Contrary to what you may have heard, Rome loves the Sisters!  When you love someone, you show concern.  And, recently, the Vatican expressed some concerns about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a group that represents a lot of Sisters.

That expression of concern contained high praise for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and even higher esteem for all the nuns in America.  The concord between the Holy See (which asked for and initiated the Leadership Conference of Women Religious  half-a-century ago) is strong enough for both sides to ask tough questions.

But the concern is real:  the Holy See loves the Sisters so much they want them as strong, faithful, and influential as possible, and legitimately worries about features threatening their very identity as “daughters of the Church,” to borrow Elizabeth Ann Seton’s favorite description of her sisters.

Some say that Rome is too soft, and should have suppressed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious , because it is heretical; one letter even called them “Unitarians”!

The other extreme claims that the stuffy, oppressive, sexist Vatican is scared of these independent, free-thinking women, and should leave them alone.

But such caricatures hardly help.  All that helps is humility in both partners, and a profession of faith that, in the end, it’s not about one side or the other, not about the grievances of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious or the worries of the Vatican, but it’s all about Jesus and His Church.

If the Sisters can survive the battlefields of the Civil War, they’ll survive the dramatic changes of the last five decades, and the current examination by Rome.

And what is never in question is our love and gratitude for the Sisters!

Tags: , ,

28 Responses to “Love and Gratitude for the Sisters”

  1. MaryGr says:

    The LCWR are modernists. What does the Lord tell us when there are no vocations? That modernism is fatal. The Vatican is offering these women the sacrament of the sick. If that fails, in mercy, we should bury the dead.

  2. Marge Edwards says:

    Thank you for this tribute to our nuns. Indeed, BOTH groups, bishops and nuns, must demonstrate humility in meaningful DIALOGUE (something the nuns keep calling for). The Church is sexist and this is coming from a devout, not radical Catholic woman. I pray for the sisters and other participants at the LCWR gathering this week.

  3. Colleen Comito says:

    I know that the Catholic Church is sexist, and I quess there was a time in my life that I cared.

    I love the Sisters, and I will continue to love the Sisters. The Holy Spirit will guide us all.

    I am proud to be a passionate Catholic, married women in the Holy Catholic Church, and whatever changes need to be made will, in God’s time, by God.

    In the meantime, I love Jesus and Mary and I live for Holy Mass and I love our priests, Bishops and Sisters.

    Trust….Trust Jesus and if we women model ourselves after Mary, our Mother..we will never go wrong.

  4. As a public school boy I was in great awe of the Sisters. Now that I am 66, I still love to be able to say: “Good Morning Sister”!

    The orders of nuns which are growing the fastest are the most traditional, the real sisters in habits, who live in community, and pray together. Mother Theresa’s Sisters and Mother
    Agelica’s, two name but two. Those who don’t like their habits, and don’t care to live in community probably did not really want to be nuns in the first place.

  5. This seems to argue on one hand that the sisters possess “wisdom and spirit…to guide the apostolates beholden to them….They have an uncanny charism of sensing where God’s People are most in need, and prod the Church to listen, as did Jesus, to the moans of those at the side of the road.”

    On the other hand, this argues that the sisters are not sufficiently “strong, faithful, and influential,” and that their “very identity as ‘daughters of the Church’” is in jeopardy.

    This is not what the Gospel means about one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. This doesn’t add up to the conclusion His Eminence reaches.

  6. Chris says:

    Great post, Your Emminence. Thank you. I suppose the Church is sexist insofar as there are roles properly reserved to particular genders. I count that a good thing, because it means the Church, unlike so many “modern” institutions actually believes and teaches there are fundamental differences in the sexes!

  7. Maria Barrientos says:

    The LCWR don’t need a dialogue. Everything they want can be found in the Episcopal Church. They can join them.

  8. Victor says:

    (((I know that the Catholic Church is sexist, and I quess there was a time in my life that I cared.)))

    (((But such caricatures hardly help. All that helps is humility in both partners, and a profession of faith that, in the end, it’s not about one side or the other, not about the grievances of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious or the worries of the Vatican, but it’s all about Jesus and His Church.)))

    Peace

  9. Mary Sturm says:

    If the Holy Spirit is not guiding the bishops, and the authority of the Catholic Church does not rest with the bishops, then we have ceased to be the Catholic Church.

    It saddens me that authority (in almost any setting) is seen as a undesirable.

    I’m not saying that bishops are perfect, but the Holy Spirit is still guiding our Church through them.

    This is writtnen with love and prayers that the bishops remain strong and always active in the love of Jesus…

  10. Jim Rellihan says:

    Balanced and joyful and yes we do love our Sisters. Yes, to all your words but especially the words of your very last line.

  11. Walt Shandrowsky says:

    Thank you Your Eminence for this opportunity to offer my view as to why I see this conflict as troublesome.

    I believe that the primary goal, the ultimate prize if you will, in doing the doing the work of the Lord should be the unification of Christianity throughout the world. I think you would agree with that, and indeed efforts toward that end are ongoing at the Vatican and probably locally in every diocese in the world.

    Fairly or unfairly, there seems to be a rather sizable segment of the faithful, as well as those observers outside the Church who might otherwise be inclined to join us, who perceive that there is a “My way or the highway” mindset at the Vatican as well as in most members of the hierarchy.

    The LCWR matter only adds more to the mounting body of evidence that gives credence to this perception. It is only the latest example of the Vatican’s determined crackdown on writers, theologians, professors, and anyone else who dares offer a thought contrary to the views of the reigning pontiff, whomever he might be at the time. No matter the incident, the result is always the same, “Conform, be silent or leave”.

    But this isn’t just a post Vatican II phenomenon, it’s been the case throughout our 2000 plus years as free thinkers such as Galileo and Martin Luther found out all too well. No doubt you’ve heard these arguments before, Your Eminence, so you get my point.

    Addition by subtraction rarely works. How do we entice new people to join us when we seem hell bent on throwing people out, or marginalizing them, or decertifying them?

    In the eyes of Our Lord, all of us, from the Holy Father all the way down to me, fall short. But I know He understands. He’s given us a tall order that is tough, if not impossible to humanly fulfill. I’m sure He would prefer a unified Christianity full of happy though imperfect people, with varying degrees of commitment, than a fragmented Christianity of which the Catholic Church is perceived by many as a stilted corp of people demanding more of their members than Our Good Lord Himself does.

    Your Eminence, please don’t let the Vatican, or the USCCB, “love” the sisters into oblivion, especially for the sake of achieving some nuanced acceptance of Vatican orthodoxy that really isn’t understood or given much priority by the simple faithful that they serve. They are the world’s greatest commercial for the joys of being Catholic and doing the Lord’s work on earth.

    Finally Your Eminence allow me to apologize if this comes across to you as preachy, simplistic, or audacious. There is an old joke which you’ve no doubt heard, that goes: two things happen when a priest becomes a bishop. The first is that he will never again be served a bad meal, and the other is that no one will ever again dare to speak the truth to him. I don’t presume apply the second thing to you, but I thought you should hear at least my humble views on what’s happening in our Church.

  12. Irene says:

    I admire our Catholic sisters, very much as well. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a Muslim country where proselytizing was illegal, the only missionaries who came to work in my city were Catholic sisters. The sisters were there- doing what they do- helping those most in need, providing a Christian witness by their presence alone.

    I think all of the other People of God, clergy and laity alike, can learn a lot from the sisters.

  13. Irene says:

    Let’s show our appreciation in practical ways. The NY Times today wrote about an order of sisters (Sisters of St Francis of the Neumann Communities) in Westchester who had to close down their home for retired sisters and send them to other area retirement/nursing homes.

    The Archdiocese of NY should sponsor nursing homes/retirement homes for those sisters who have served the diocese so well and whose own orders are no longer able to care for them. I would contribute to that fundraising appeal.

  14. Joel says:

    Cardinal Dolan, hopefully your kind words about the Sisters will help the Leadership Conference for Women Religious to accept the decisions of hierarchy of our Catholic Church. Their remaining in existence could help rebuild the Sisters so that future generations can receive an excellent education as I did over half-a-century ago from the Sisters.

  15. Mary says:

    Your eminence, I have personally witnessed such things as New Age practices and radical feminism. Sisters often have very visible roles in the Church. They teach religion in seminaries, facilitate parish RCIA, are guest speakers at parishes and elsewhere. As you know only too well, when someone enters religious life they take vows. The vows the sisters took in the LCWR are no different from the vows any woman religious would have taken. One of the vows is obedience. Sisters who have chosen to live in in private residences or abandoned a community way of life have become almost unrecognizable as women religious. It takes a great deal of humility to be good at most anything and religious life is one of those vocations where it is absolutely essential. I commend the charitable work the sisters have done and continue to do but frankly I am very concerned and disturbed by the large number of women religious who have abandoned humility and replaced it with pride. None of us should ever put ourselves in a position where we have removed much of our Catholic identity because we know better than the Magisterium. There are a number of religious orders that are cropping up with young women who are entering who are joyful and happy to wear a habit and serve the Church and God’s people. These orders are bursting at the seams. They are the hope of the future. If the LCWR continues to disobey they have only themselves to blame for their demise.

  16. Danielle says:

    The majority of LCWR sisters are not the faith-filled, Christ-centered sisters of my great-aunt’s (Sr. of 70+ years) generation whose lives and beliefs were according to Church doctrines. There’s not an ounce of humility in most of the LCWR sisters.

    They’re little more than New Agers with their association with the Church beginning and ending with their titles. If they didn’t want to come under the leadership of the Pope and the Magisterium, fine. They should have pursued other vocations. It’s time for them, as well as other “cafeteria” Catholics, to stop poisoning the Church from within.

    The “thinking” espoused on the following YouTube video, featuring the LCWR’s keynote speaker for its current assembly, is the sort of idiocy they advocate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ohQWuZcFxek

    As far as I’m concerned – and I am an independent, middle-aged woman with a graduate degree – the CDF has been too lenient.

  17. Johnno says:

    But which sisters are you referring to your grace? Certainly not the LCWR who are so far outside of Catholic theology and morality that we couldn’t even label them as Protestants as that would be an insult to the Protestants. They behave more like the gnostics. Certainly we can’t paint all of them that way, but it’s clear to everyone with eyes and ears that many are perverting the faith, pushing immorality and calling such evils ‘good’ in order to justify their ends. The Church has given them 10 years to rectify themselves and been soft and gentle with them. But it’s only gotten worse.

    And anyone who thinks the Church is ‘sexist’ as if to say it treats women as ‘inferior’ is dead wrong. The Catholic CHurch is the only Church that acknowledges that genders exist, and both sexes are unique and have their roles, and whereby women don’t have to imitate and idolize the role of men in order to be perfect.

  18. Kathleen Schatzberg says:

    How sad that the Roman Catholic hierarchy cannot learn the lessons about bigotry that it saw when Catholics were oppressed, and accord all women, including women religious, the same respect, dignity and inclusion that is accorded to men. You can LOVE the sisters, Cardinal Dolan, but if you love them as if they were children, you are not giving them the same respect and inclusion that Jesus did.

  19. John Hinshaw says:

    There can be no question that the saintly service of the American Nuns gone down to history is the biggest reason that the current (aging) corps has escaped serious correction until now. Their decision to seek “relevance” through politically correct activism has decimated their ranks. The Vatican showed great depth in their report on the LCWR, examining closely their words and actions. The Conference’s silence on the loss of abortion is augmented by the inability of their current president to acknowledge the Defense of Life in unambiguous terms. Church history is, unfortunately, littered with Catholics (including Religious) who seek approval of the governing class at the expense of “the least of these”.

  20. MaureenMCarthy says:

    Thank you, Cardinal Dolan, for this powerful reminder/perspective on the
    work of religious women in this country. Let us pray for the day when their
    numbers will rise again with new energy, grace, vision to evangelize all parishes/institutions in the Heart of Jesus.

    Blessings on all YOUR undertakings, Maureen

  21. Phil swain says:

    The Cardinal may be quoting Richard Schlesinger, but then Richard got the quote from Arthur M. Schlesinger.

  22. joe pace says:

    The Church is not doing a good job explaining why the Vatican is investigating the LCWR. How many know that a nun was photographed escorting a woman into i a clinic to procure an abortion? How many know that a leadership meeting the LCWR stated that they are “beyond Jesus?
    How many know that a nun at a Catholic funeral for a lesbian in which most of the congregation was hostile toward the Chuech were all encouraged to receive the Eucharist when this nun knew well that there would be desecration of Christ’s body

    The liberal media is enjoying what they do best- disparage the Church.

  23. Rob says:

    I love the Church because Christ founded it Your Emminence. This is a grace God has given. If I have love for priests or nuns it is because they are faithful to Christ’s Body. If not faithful, where is the love?

  24. renee harris says:

    any sister who has been faithful to the gospel and the church of Jesus Christ will not be intimidated by any suggestion from Rome. The faithful sisters I know who served the church all their lives would not be affected by any investigation into their lives because they are not guilty of anything so they need not fear.

    God bless those who serve Him faithfully and fulfill thier vows to God in love, faith and purity of soul.

    rh

  25. Marty says:

    Overlooked in this controversy is the conference of sisters that is faithful to the teachings of the Church – The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. The sisters in orders that belong to this conference can often be recognized because they wear religious habits. They are young, happy and proud to be faithfful Catholics, as opposed to the bitter, aging dissidents of the orders that belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. When asked by a religious order for contributions, Catholics should determine which conference the order is associated with and act accordingly.

  26. joshua says:

    Stay the course. Even our enemies will respect us for not giving up our principles. Look at these churches that seem to follow the wind of trendy values. Protest this and protest that. Wear the latest fashions. Cut your hair like this or like that. Those with any kind of honor flee these churches. They know that they have failed and have fallen. They know that there is no future in these churches. Stay the course I say. In the end, when you look back and see behind you the mayhem that the devil has caused, you will be safe in following the one true Roman Catholic Church and our Blessed Pope. As human and imperfect as he may be. He is our Rock. The Rock does not flail with the wind. The Rock stays grounded. It’s amazing. Our Lord Jesus Christ knew there would be these moments of uncertainty. He called Peter the Apostle the Rock for a reason. Upon this Rock I will build my Church he said. We are witnessing a prophetic miracle happening. Our Lord has given us the Rock to keep us grounded and safe. The rock is like an anchor on a ship without a sail in rough waters, you know you are not going anywhere. You know you are safe. You know that when this earthly life is over for all of us, we will look back and see the Rock still there for those that we love and remain here. Is it not re assuring to know that? God Bless our Church and our beloved Pope.

  27. Kate Parker says:

    What unmitigated gall, ordering the nuns to cease and desist Jesus’ work, making them kneel before mere mortal men, with no superpowers, to be flagellated for misbehavior. And truly believing, apparently, that any human, of any gender, is going to simply submit to that!
    How bizarre with all the problems the church has with male clerics that it should at this moment in time attempt to silence the lambs. I think the Holy See could better utilize allotted time and resources to improve the image the church has suffered due to years of coverups and deceit.

  28. timothy canezro says:

    Love catholic sisters religious! Praying for the priests, monks, and sisters that give their lives in vocation to Holy Mother Church! We need Unity in our Universal Church! Amen