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!