Category Archives: Women Religious

Celebrating women religious as visionary agents of change

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.  Mahatma Gandhi

As noted earlier on this blog March 8-14 was National Catholic Sisters Week. At random moments during the week I struggled to think of how to write something about the week and about the role of women religious, their history, their contributions, their leadership the challenge to achieve social justice in so many fields. Try as I might I couldn’t focus on a general theme that encompasses the enormity and complexity of the narrative – or that expresses my personal experience. The common thread, I’m finally beginning to realize, is the ability and willingness of the women religious I’ve known to embrace change. Thus, post -National Catholic Sisters Week tribute:

The change among women religious that everyone remembers is the shift that most community members made from restrictive habits to modern dress indicative of their worldly role. While memorable, that change is but a clue to the substantive change within the minds and hearts of the Sisters.

What the visible change indicated, in fact, was manifestation of a far more profound change in the role of women religious, a change credited in a 2011 “Essay in Theology” by Richard McBrien, Professor of Theology at Notre Dame University.   In his essay on “Women Religious’ embrace of Vatican II change commendable” McBrien notes the several changes happening in the Catholic Church during the 50’s and 60’s; he specifically cites “abolition of outmoded customs, the modification of habits and increased attention the professional education of sisters.” As a consequence, McBride observes,

Vatican II urged religious communities to return to their biblical roots and their founding charisms and to develop a greater measure of engagement with the modern world. Women religious, however, responded with more energy, creativity and enthusiasm than church officials anticipated, to the chagrin of more traditional nuns and ultra-conservative Catholics – the very type of both constituencies that applauded, and even instigated, the recent investigation of U.S. sisters and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious….”

While McBrien focuses on the impact of Vatican II, my experience is far more personal and actually pre-dates his post-Vatican II reflections. What follows is a stream-of-consciousness collage of vignettes that remind me – and I hope illustrate — my story of a lifetime of experience with women religious who, as individuals and communities, have not so much responded to change but have taken the lead to make change happen.

Some personal memories and observations may illustrate a common theme:

  • As a wet-behind-the-ears freshman at the College of St. Catherine in the early 60’s my first major assignment was to write a paper-of-consequence on the topic “The Idea of Progress”, a mighty challenge. Though I’m sure the paper was painfully naïve, it shaped my frame of reference for life.
  • Later in my college years, still in the early 60’s, I recall a professor heading a bus tour to St John’s University to hear the controversial theologian Hans Kung, whom we found not only inspiring, but very handsome……
  • In my first grown-up job I led a national Catholic college student organization that joined the struggle for civil rights at the federal level, a role that involved hordes of youth in the struggle for equal rights. There it was often the Sisters who supported not only the cause but us ardent young protesters – of every denominational persuasion – who knew little of the how’s and why’s of the movement.
  • Again, during the 60’s I spent endless hours learning about the techniques of educational technology. It was not until I saw a brilliant Sister using computer assisted learning for a long-distance discussion of the depths of Thomas Merton’s writing that I understood the possibilities.
  • I had the same experience when I observed the leadership of women religious in revamping the health care delivery system. Women religious took a visible lead in the advance of alternative medicine, personal health responsibility, home and hospice care and other evolving efforts in the health care arena. Consistently, their focus was not so much on techniques but on human needs and possibilities.
  • More recently, as a staffer for a national open government advocacy coalition my job has been to reach out to other like-minded groups working in agriculture, environment, food, climate, health, to grapple with cataclysmic change. Whether it was sustainable agriculture or hunger, immigration or climate change I found women religious not in the headlines but in the trenches, seeing each issue as it relates to social justice.
  • Today hope for progress in a global context much of that hope is directed to the Millennium Development Goals. Again, women religious stand out as a united network committed to understanding and working to achieve those goals locally, nationally and globally. The quest for justice has inspired women religious of all ages and religious communities to share their knowledge and experience in the slow and steady struggle to make real the vision reflected in the MDGs.
  • Finally, as I have come to know the rank-and-file advocates of change in so many sectors, I have observed just how colleagues were educated by the Sisters and inspired by their willingness to assume personal and institutional responsibility as change-makers in the relentless reach for progress.

These are simply personal memories of the Sisters I have known as teachers, colleagues and visionaries, just a few facets of a beautifully complex history. Still, the lesson I learned many decades ago is that there are many paths to progress. As Martin Luther King reminded us, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

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