Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bump on a Blog

Daughters of St. Paul postulants
With the Memorial Day weekend over, summer has “officially” begun. That means in-and-out for every Daughter of St. Paul, including this one. This week, for instance, I’m not able to devote my usual input of time and energy to Pauline Faithways, because of other commitments. (I’ll tell you more about those later.) Since I don't want you to feel bumped and I definitely don’t want to leave you without your weekly Pauline connection, allow me to introduce you to some of our illustrious bloggers around the U.S./Toronto province.

Nunblog—“Random reflections of a Catholic nun” ( is Sr. Anne Flanagan’s brief daily fare that she dishes up on any number of topics, often centered on the readings from the day’s Liturgy. Its almost 40,000 visitors over the past 17 months attest to its popularity. Count me in!

Let Christ Be Formed in Me—Daughters of St. Paul Postulant Community ( Informative, inspiring, and entertaining, the irregularly posted articles by our young women in formation are very well written and give their perspective on our congregation and their growth in Christ. They haven’t posted anything since May 17, which was an apology for not writing since April 26. They’re “busy.” It’s not much of an excuse, but like me, they promise to explain themselves soon, when they return from vacation. Meanwhile, enjoy their past posts.

Hell Burns—“The Media Literacy & Theology of the Body blog of Sr. Helena Burns, media nun” ( As quirky and faith-filled as its blogger, this page includes movie reviews, plus promotional announcements about little known events and resources on human sexuality. Since she’s also our Midwest vocation coordinator, it periodically tosses in updates on FSP vocational discernment projects. When people tell me they’ve read this blog, they always laugh—at her and at themselves.

Sister Rose’s My Movies Weblog ( Once or twice a week—when she’s not circling the globe lecturing on media literacy—Sr. Rose Pacatte, director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, weighs in on the latest movies, TV programs, and other media products that we all consume, shining a little Gospel light into some of their dark corners. Her bevy of commentators hale from all sectors of the media industry.

Pauline Kids—“A blog for parents, teachers, and catechists” ( At a certain point, even the most active kids and families slump into summer doldrums. The Pauline Books & Media (PBM) editorial and design staff team up with the staff of J-Club, the Pauline school book fair office, to offer educational and fun things to think about and do. Its sailing and fishing motif is drawn right from the Gospel. There’s no better place to spend summer than in the water.

St. Joseph Helps—“A place to share stories and hope” ( Spring and summer are traditionally the “in” seasons for real estate, even in a housing market such as ours. Sometimes it seems that it’s the only time that people give Joseph, the carpenter and foster father of Jesus, a second glance. Once a week or so, Sr. Kathryn Hermes shares her own love for Joseph and gathers stories about his intercession, as well as your prayer intentions—yes, including prayers to sell your home!

See you next week!

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Woman's Touch

This Saturday, the day before Pentecost, the Pauline Family celebrates Mother’s Day. It’s the feast of Mary, the Queen of Apostles, and I’ve asked some Pauline Faithways readers to join me in sharing with you something of our relationship with Mary. (You can read about who they are at the end of the article.) We’d welcome hearing from you, too.

The feast—solemnity, really—of the Queen of Apostles: What a great preparation for the coming of the Spirit, the “birthday of the Church”! Picture it: Following the command of Jesus, the Apostles and over a hundred other disciples gather in their favorite hiding place, not out of fear this time, but in “prayer, along with some women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers” (Acts 1:14). They’re waiting for the Spirit whom Jesus had promised to send, to fill them with life, joy, and enthusiasm in sharing the Gospel.

Mary is Queen of this little group as it prepares to give Jesus to the world—which is what an apostle does. No one had given him to others before her, and no one, not even the Spirit-filled Apostles, would give him with as much love and wisdom as she did. Still, they and all apostles after them would see in her a flesh-and-blood example of the Christian apostolate that Jesus taught them, modeled for them, and commissioned them to follow, even if she never preached a homily, held a conference, or worked a single miracle. This title sums up the purpose of her life: All of her privileges, including her greatest—Mother of God—served this end. Mary bore Jesus to give him away.

You’ve heard from me. Now let’s hear from people who, in practical or poetic ways, tell us who Mary is for them:

What image comes to mind when you think of Mary? Mother? Sister? Friend? Mentor?

Sarah: Mary's image to me is definitely that of a mother. When I teach about the musical settings of Renaissance Marian antiphons, I stress the importance of studying Mary regardless of one’s religion, because she is “everyone’s mother.”

Pat: Mary’s image, for me, is of an understanding mother who wishes nothing but the best for her son. She is always supportive, and yet reproachful in a “motherly” way—i.e., honestly and with much love.

Jeff: The image that usually comes to mind when I think of Mary [is]
the Queen of Apostles. She is seen holding the infant Jesus, but in a way where she is presenting him to the world. She could hold him close and safe and keep him to herself, but when God asked her to participate in his plan of Salvation, she said, “Yes!”

Mary is a perfect model of love, because she was willing to endure the pain of allowing her Son to suffer, because she wants what is best for all men, women, and children, not just her own Son. How awesomely humiliating to know that God the Father and Mary love me so much they are willing to watch Jesus tortured and killed for me.

I also tend to view Mary in a maternal scarf or veil and dress, rather than a crown and royal robes. I love that she is Queen of heaven and earth, but her role as Mother of Jesus, as Mother of us all, touches me the most. 

I am reminded of a quote by Blessed Father Alberione (which I can only paraphrase at the moment): How can we realize the awesome good news of the Truth of the Gospel and not want to share it with the world? That is Mary, Queen of Apostles, to me.

Frank: My primary image for Mary has always been mother. Being a true mother encompasses the other roles of sister, friend, and mentor. The other image that I identify with Mary is water. I am blessed to live near the ocean and I usually pray to Mary while I run along the ocean. Water communicates all the powerful qualities of Mary: flexibility (working and flowing around obstacles), relentlessness (powerful pounding of waves to reach its destination—the shore), magnanimity (flowing over retaining walls), deep calm (the deepest part of the ocean remains calm even in a storm) and healing (salt water is the best way to disinfect wounds).

How often do you pray to Mary? Do you have a favorite prayer or song?

Me: Many Catholics pray most naturally when they attend Mass. That’s how it is with Pat, for instance. He describes his prayer to Mary as “personal,” yet he’s not at all deterred by the public setting of the Liturgy, where the individual and community can pray in harmony, and where devotion is most authentic as it points to Christ and his salvation. Mary would like that. She would also like the way others, like Jeff who prays the Rosary “while driving to or from work,” fill their moments with prayer, probably as she did herself.

Still others, of course, bond with Mary privately, with unique insight:

Frank: I pray the Rosary as part of an early morning meditation and run along the ocean. I run in silence and then it leads to praying the Rosary. I love praying the Rosary while I am running, because it reminds me that love and prayer are active and not passive activities.

When I meditate on the scenes of Jesus life, I am reminded that Mary is also powerfully present in the scenes in my life. By meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary, I grow increasingly aware that Mary has a role in allowing God to consecrate the mysteries in my life.

Sarah: Being raised Protestant, I was not taught to pray to Mary, and I don’t. However I do think of/consider her often. My favorite song—again thinking of a teacher’s perspective—is an American spiritual, “Mary, What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby?” because of its mournful tone. I link Mary, Mother of Jesus, to the sorrow of the African on U.S. soil—an enslaved woman considering naming a baby born under painful circumstances, or naming a baby that may be taken from her one day, or naming a baby that she’ll be unable to protect if “master” beats it. Mother Mary would totally understand firsthand this anguish like no other mother.

If Mary were alive today—a neighbor, perhaps, or a co-worker or relative—what would be her greatest personal gift to the relationship she has with you? What would she appreciate most in you?

Frank: What I love most about Mary in our relationship is her sense of urgency and her offer of unconditional love even in the most difficult situations. In the Gospels, Mary always acts decisively: rushing to help Elizabeth in her pregnancy or mandating Jesus to change water into wine at the marriage of Cana. I notice that people turn to Mary in the most difficult of circumstances. In 2008 my wife and I lost a daughter two days after a premature birth. While I was holding my daughter for one last time, I remember my wife and friends praying the Hail Mary in their native Brazilian Portuguese. The prayer reminded me that Mary’s love (like the ocean) will break through the fiercest walls of grief.
What I also love about Mary is that she sees the best in me. When I am tempted to wallow in my own failures or shortcomings, Mary will kiss my cheeks and lips like a cool rain. She reminds that nothing can disconnect me from my identity as a proud child of God.

Pat: Mary would be an utterly honest and amazingly accepting friend/neighbor to men/women of good will. She would support me as a father who tries to influence his children’s Christian lives.

Sarah: I would seek her out for authentic, appropriate maternal care, even though I am now an adult. She would seem as the elder wise woman, who models for me how to grow old, how to mentor community. I would hope she would appreciate most in me my emulation of her compassion toward others.

Jeff: If Mary were alive on earth now, I picture her helping unwed mothers and young women in crisis pregnancies prepare for the awesome gift of life God has created within them. I could see her washing and cooking and cleaning and helping with all the motherly tasks she performed for Jesus when he was a boy. When she speaks, I hear her talking about her Son, Jesus, the Divine Master, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. All around her would be filled with joy, because to know Mary is to know Jesus. That is her purpose, and that is what brings her joy!

What contribution do you think she would make to the society she would be part of and to the Church? How would she, as St. Paul says, live justly and devoutly in this age, as she awaits her savior Jesus Christ?

Me: Without making her into our own image and likeness—very hard to avoid!—we tend to at least see in her the best of what we want for our society, our Church, and ourselves. As Frank observes below, Mary “cannot be understood apart from our history.”

Pat: I think Mary would happily accept her role in today’s society as living against what consumes us today: greed, immorality, the emptiness that comes from pursuing only temporal things. She would serve to remind us that this life is only fleeting!

Sarah: For me, Mary would model a devout and just life by serving her family, community, and Church without seeking earthly affirmation of being correct/right on political or social grounds. She would model stability in this polarized society, by resisting the urge to be pulled into ridiculously emotional “absolutes” about things we really can't be sure of.

Frank: I think it’s important to remember that Mary lived during one of the most tumultuous periods in human history. The political, religious, cultural, and social fissures were staggering, and I imagine that it would have made a deep impression upon the heart and mind of Mary. She cannot be understood apart from her history and she cannot be understood apart from our history. My favorite portrayal of Mary is by Caravaggio, The Madonna of Loreto or Madonna of the Pilgrims. What I love about this painting is that Mary is depicted with soiled feet. She has walked the difficult path of the pilgrims who are praying to her. Mary is immersed in the world.  She does not operate apart from the world. When problems, issues, and questions are thorny, Mary is most present. This is a powerful message to the world and is a reminder of the spirit of Vatican II, as we prepare to commemorate its 50th anniversary.

Do you want to share anything else about her or about your relationship with her?

Pat: Mary loved her only Son, and accepted his mission. I think of how Mary must have felt watching her Son die on the cross, her agony. I think of Jesus looking down from the cross and seeing his mother weeping, and knowing there was nothing he could do to console her—and also seeing that among his followers, it was his mother only who was with him until the end. She is such a wonderful example of total support and love for our children.

Sarah: I think that the complexities of Mary—both as a person and as her role in Christianity—offer rich insights for those of any faith who would take time to study her through the ages.

Frank: I see Mary as a powerful woman and advocate and not passive and quiet. I would imagine that Mary’s personality was similar to that of Mother Teresa. After I read her journal and letters (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light), I was struck by how tenacious she was in establishing the Missionaries of Charity (another example of the ocean at work!) I would imagine that Mary had to exercise that same relentless approach in helping to establish the first Christian communities.

I believe that Mary is the most powerful symbol for our day. Like the world of the first century, our world is being torn apart by violence and division. Mary’s daily “yes” to enter our chaos is a reminder of the daily “yes” that we all need to embrace. I see Mary as the mother of healing. I imagine her bringing healing to the divisions within our Church and the world. Mary will always have soiled feet because she knows that the fruition of love is found in the complex, and sometimes maddening, matrix of our humanity.

Frank DeVito, is a husband and a father of two from Lynn, MA. He goes by the intriguing descriptive of “Catholic wisdom teacher” and is the founder and president of FENIX, INC. 

Patrick Hitchcock, married and the father of two teens, is the ever-busy and ever-upbeat president of Hitchcock Rosenfield Investment Group in San Francisco, CA. In today’s economy, “upbeat” says something, especially when you’re successful and honest.

Jeff Mathews, M.D., is a gastroenterologist from St. Louis, MO, and a Pauline Cooperator, a lay person associated with the Pauline Family—which just might explain how he knows Blessed James Alberione better than most.

Sarah Schmalenberger teaches music history at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN. She is married to David. Oh, by the way, she happens to be my cousin.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Sounding Silence

If the Church’s social teaching is our best kept secret, the runner-up has to be our position on media. Within such a classified report is hidden a sub-secret: Every May for the past 45 years, the Catholic Church has celebrated World Communications Day, and we’re about to do it again on May 20. Will we never learn?

This year’s theme is on silence and the word  in sharing the Good News. Whenever I give a presentation on media even to Catholics, nobody ever guesses that the Church believes the media are “gifts of God.” That’s been the secret teaching since 1936. Christians have become adept at camouflaging it with campaigns and boycotts, drawing public attention away from our good news about media and effectively riveting attention on the offending message. Do some messages need protesting? I say yes, but I’d like to see it organized along the lines of the Anti-Defamation League. Then maybe someone will take us seriously.

But that’s a topic for another day. Pope Benedict is suggesting silence as this year’s theme, not because communication is not good, but because it is. We need silence, he says, to sift through what we see and hear to uncover what’s real:
“[P]eople today are frequently bombarded with answers to questions they have never asked and to needs of which they were unaware. If we are to recognize and focus upon the truly important questions, then silence is a precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive.”
The average American (Is there such a creature?) is hit by approximately 3,000 ads per day. Internet, TV, and radio commercials, newspaper, magazine, and church bulletin ads, billboards, t-shirts, and logos, coupons, product packaging, and product placement in movies: When we tally it all, what first seems like an exaggerated claim takes on the possibility of truth. And that’s just ads. Through various media, words, images, and sounds invade our most cherished spaces and moments, from a dinner date to a church service. In January, the director of music at the New York Philharmonic, for the first time in its history, stopped a performance of the meditative final movement in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony to insist that a cell phone be silenced, after repeated interruptions that could be heard in the back balconies. Besides the consummate annoyance caused by that blessed phone, such lack of consideration on the owner’s part tells the world that others’ need to step away from chatter and clatter is subordinate to at least one person’s drive to stay wired. What Benedict wrote about digital access applies to social gatherings in general: 
“Attention should be paid to the various types of websites, applications and social networks which can help people today to find time for reflection and authentic questioning, as well as making space for silence and occasions for prayer, meditation or sharing of the word of God.”
Silence helps cement our relationship with God because it opens the way to listening and love. We need to build the inner receptors that enable us to distinguish true communication from static. As one of our chaplains said recently, we learn to separate “what is coming at us from the outside, misguiding us, from what our true inner voice is saying to us—a voice which is trying to keep us focused and on center.” He added:
“There are many voices out there that can only distract and scatter us. They really don’t care how or where we end up, or whether we are going around in circles. Perhaps we have paid too much attention to them in our lives.

“There’s much to maneuver as we journey through life. There are big and small decisions to make along the way, some of which can alter our lives and have long-term effects. The question is: What and who will help us make these decisions? Where do we turn for clarity and consistency?

“The voice of the shepherd, Jesus tells us, wants to gather us. He wants to give us rest from futility, vain pursuits, and wasted energies. His voice can help us keep our wits about us in an often misguided world” (Raymond Collins, C.Ss.R.).
Actually, isn’t that what silence between human beings is supposed to do, too—grow our relationships?
“In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible” (Benedict XVI).
Genuine silence has nothing to do with that stony, sullen brooding that’s calculated to punish or manipulate another. That’s born, not of God, but of a competitive spirit, in the destructive sense of the word. In addition, the mere absence of talk is no indication of rich interior reserves of silence within. Some of us are naturally loquacious, but we need just as much moderation as those who can’t seem to put two words together. Once when I was a novice, I was spouting off at lunch about who-knows-what. My novice director got up, walked to where I sat, planted herself directly behind me, and jolted me with, “Sr. Margaret! You could give a two-hour dissertation on a blade of grass!” It drew nothing but a giggle from me and relentless teasing especially from one co-novice (What else are they for?)

God "speaks through the mystery of his silence."
Silence and word, the yin and yang of communication, are essential for life and the mission of evangelization. When we can speak with God we find that we can speak about God. Prayer, silence with God, is a prerequisite for witnessing to God and sharing his Good News with others. In this prayerful exchange, the Lord conditions us and teaches us to recognize opportunities to share him with others and reach out to them. Then the Spirit of God graces the encounter, so that effectiveness in ministry depends less on technique than on union with the Spirit nurtured in silence. “Silent contemplation immerses us in the source of that Love who directs us towards our neighbours so that we may feel their suffering and offer them the light of Christ, his message of life and his saving gift of the fullness of love” (Benedict XVI).

The Pope wrote exclusively about silence as it relates to interpersonal communication and the sharing of “advice, ideas, information, and answers,” especially with respect to evangelization. He could just as easily have included entertainment. In fact, entertainment now constitutes one of the most frequent uses of media overall. One source claims that 100 million video clips are viewed on YouTube every day. Can we abstain here and there? We seem to guzzle much of what comes our way: food, commodities, sexual and social interaction, and media. Even naturally speaking, occasional abstinence from these sharpens the appetite, refines sensibilities, and increases pleasure. Chronic and indiscriminate indulgence, instead, dulls them and increases the risk of dependence. I was intrigued by the number of my Facebook “friends” who gave up the networking site for Lent. I would be interested in what they thought of their experience. Mere abstinence doesn’t bring us closer to the Lord, but when this “silence” is filled with the Word of God in one way or another, it can prepare us to search for God in our media experiences and integrate them with Gospel values.

We flee silence, afraid perhaps of what will surface if we don’t keep the lid on. If we have a little courage, though, we just might discover how liberating it is. Stubborn character flaws, solutions or answers that have eluded us, problems in relating to others, and distracted, scattered, living and praying all get a makeover during a regular appointment with silence.

Why not start slow: five minutes a day, same time, same station. Just sit. No structure. Listen to the sounds around you. Be aware of what you hardly ever notice. Or repeat a word of faith and peace for as long as it feeds you. Sometimes a simple prayer or a verse from Scripture can cultivate the inner life in surprising ways for those who persevere. When you’re ready, and you’ll know when that is, you can increase it or add another five-minute segment to the day. You’ll find your own pace. God will meet you there: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13) May we revel in the mystery of God’s silence.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Centered Living for the Polar Positioned

Eight years ago I picked up a magnificent CD in Rome, entitled Canticles in the Cloister: Music from the Convents of 17th Century Bologna. An hour long, it consists of a small selection of a much more vast repertoire of intricate sacred music that cloistered nuns composed or transposed, played and sang for their own inspiration and for the enjoyment and inspiration of the nobility, who flocked to their frequent concerts. The Daughters of St. Paul would have felt right at home.

There’s a fly in the honey, though. The Bolognese bishops were not pleased and over the course of more than a century imposed restrictions on the nuns, who did not take kindly to having their artistry invalidated and their sources of revenue dammed up. Their cat-and-mouse “games” with the local hierarchy included threats of excommunication, open rebellion, and an encounter with the Inquisition. Guess who won.

The women were not all cut out for religious life. In fact, even though Church officials took measures against noble families that dumped their pre-adolescent girls at the convent door to avoid pouring their wealth into dowries, the nobility did it anyway. The result was a reclusive life turned inside out by talent and education that needed an outlet. Women of at least nominal faith were square pegs forced into round holes and perhaps saw little value to their lives beyond their art. The bishops were clearly concerned for the integrity of religious life, yet perhaps were threatened by talent they either didn’t understand or felt they had to control. Hampered by cultural mores, apparently neither side was free enough to listen to the other’s legitimate grievances or regard each other as participants in a conversation, nor creative and motivated enough by love of God to work out a solution.

Fast forward three centuries and span an ocean. There are enough points of convergence between their story and ours to make us all squirm. The point of divergence between the sisters of the U.S. and the nuns of Bologna is first of all in the nature of our religious consecration. We’re not cloistered. We’re supposed to reach out with the message of God’s truth and love in Christ in a variety of ways, and for the most part, we freely choose to answer the call we hear. A second difference: For the most part clergy get that. The hierarchy confirms that prophetic impulse of the Holy Spirit whenever it approves a community’s Constitutions, which by the way, is part of their job; they have the gift to discern where the Spirit blows. They’re not always supportive in practice, in the day-to-day carrying out of our common mission, but just as American sisters have come a long way, they have too.

The glaring difference, though, between the two scenarios is that in the current situation the Vatican is not objecting to sisters’ way of life or attempting to corral us in the good work we do for God and humanity. The confrontation is about what we believe and teach and its effect on our discernment of God’s call.

As I mentioned last week, for ten years the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has studied the presentations and policies of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), prompted by complaints on this side of the Atlantic by clergy and by religious, some of whom are members of the LCWR. The perception that some of those complaints come from less than noble or open minded individuals does not obscure the possibility that the LCWR has been advocating tenets contrary to the faith of the Church we’re supposedly serving.

After living in the U.S. as a religious for over thirty years, in which I have read or heard some of those theological positions, I have to say that concerns for doctrinal integrity are not misplaced. A case in point is the address of Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P., to the LCWR in 2007, which the CDF cites in its recent letter to the LCWR. While she expresses some excellent insights, many of her comments are clearly outside the pale of Christian faith in some basic ways. She knows that and makes no apologies for it.

She rightly points out, “One of the benefits of Post-Modernism—the wholesale critique of modernity and its reliance on objectivity and western assumptions that there is one obtainable ‘Truth’—is that we are more readily able to recognize the place of subjectivity.” Looking at life through a personal lens, she calls it. There certainly is value to bringing one aspect of reality—my own perspective—into a dialogue, as long as we also acknowledge that dialogue itself is meant to lead us to truth beyond our own limited view. Sr. Laurie Brink could say that she is only defining postmodernism, not necessarily agreeing with it. However, she quickly adds that whatever she will say in the rest of her talk is only her opinion seen and expressed through her personal lens. That includes the four paradigms for the future of religious life, one of which runs entirely counter to what we believe as Christians:
“The dynamic option for Religious Life, which I am calling, Sojourning, is much
more difficult to discuss, since it involves moving beyond the Church, even beyond
Jesus. A sojourning congregation is no longer ecclesiastical. It has grown beyond the
bounds of institutional religion. Its search for the Holy may have begun rooted in Jesus as
the Christ, but deep reflection, study and prayer have opened it up to the spirit of the
Holy in all of creation. Religious titles, institutional limitations, ecclesiastical authorities
no longer fit this congregation, which in most respects is Post-Christian.

“…Who’s to say that the movement beyond Christ is not, in reality, a movement into the very heart of God?”
"Christ the Teacher," M. O. McGrath

Yet Jesus claims, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6), and for 2,000 years the Church has unequivocally proclaimed that message, even today, when we understand better than we did how and whom he saves. Christ is in Buddhism, Islam, and “all of creation.” If truth is there, so is Christ. If goodness is there, so is Christ. If beauty is there, so is Christ. In other words, Christ is the one who connects us with our sisters and brothers everywhere, whether he is acknowledged or not! The task of evangelization is, first, to uncover his face for all to see, and then, by fully sharing his story, bring his face into focus, allowing Christ to bring people to faith in him for their salvation and ours.

True evangelization never discounts the true, good, or beautiful either in the one who turns to Christ from other religious traditions or in the person who remains there. To discount it would substitute a mask for the face of Christ. In addition, when true evangelization brings that face into focus, it reveals that his face is connected to a body. That body is the Church—you and me, parents, pastors, teens, the LCWR, the CDF. Intimacy with Christ brings us to kiss his face where we see it and embrace his scarred, yet glorious body.

In women who do God’s work, why should theology matter? It’s no secret that, as educators, catechists, parish ministers, counselors, media evangelizers, and medical professionals, women religious in the U.S. command the attention of a wide swath of humanity, including, “future ministers of the global church”—in Sr. Laurie’s case, at the prestigious Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. They speak and act in the name of the Church, whether in a lecture hall or a hovel. They hold the present and future of people’s lives in their hands. Lots of power there. Thus, the ongoing formation at LCWR meetings and the crafting of corporate policy is no small matter.

In addition, what we believe directly affects the way we live, including the way we treat one another. Sr. Laurie asks, begs, women religious to initiate reconciliation with “our brother bishops.” She believes that as victims, we’re in the position to do this. In saying so, she contrasts “women religious who have given their lives for the Mission of Jesus” with “the very men who control the power in but not the Spirit of the Church” [sic]. (I think you get what she’s saying.) Yes, American sisters, including the Daughters, have been undervalued, patronized, and mistreated. But “good girl-bad boy” caricaturing will never accomplish the reconciliation she calls women religious to initiate, unless her vision of “reconciliation” aims for reverse discrimination.

It’s easy to demonize those whom we feel have done us wrong, but the justification we revel in only feeds our self-righteousness. That goes for all of us—religious, clergy, and the laity who side with one or the other. This is what happens when we overvalue our personal perspective and so, fail to recognize the objective and obtainable truth that transcends even group perspective. Then we don’t even try to listen to another. Neither ecclesiastical offices nor religious communities are immune from manipulative behavior—power grabbing and bullying included.

The story of the singing nuns of Bologna is a cautionary tale, for groups and societies, yes, but also for us as individuals. Collectives don't change until individuals do. Who or what is the center of our lives—really? Can I be big enough to honor giftedness in someone else? Humble enough to use my position for the good of all, including those I like least or fear most? Maybe today we can take time to actually talk with, not at, someone we work or live with. Prayer will bring perspective, allowing us to see goodness, truth, and beauty—Christ—in them and allowing them to see the same in us.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Where the Spirit Blows

Two weeks ago today, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) met with representatives from the U.S. Leadership Conference for Women Religious (LCWR). In a decision that garnered some notoriety even in the secular press, the CDF called for a revision of the LCWR, following its doctrinal Assessment of the conference initiated in 2009, as well as a revision of some of LCWR’s policies and practices.

The pushback by the LCWR and others who share its perspective was not unexpected, certainly not at the CDF, which had reviewed addresses given at LCWR assemblies over the past ten years, long enough to get a sense of its worldview. Add to this the letters that the CDF received from leadership teams of LCWR member communities, and it smelled the storm long before it struck.

I think the LCWR did, too, despite its public claim to be “stunned.” We women religious in the U.S. have had two “investigations”—one in 1983 and a follow-up about ten years later—plus the visitation conducted two years ago. Doctrinal concerns factored into all three. Regardless of which side of the fence people landed on, why was anyone surprised?

A number of Catholic bloggers have weighed in on the issue over the past two weeks. One of the more enlightened is John Allen’s All Things Catholic. Most have appealed to anecdotal evidence for one position or another, which appears to be a smokescreen for the fundamental issues. Others have beat the war drums, summoning support for one side or the other. Some try to make sense of what seems like a household squabble that has taken to the streets, sometimes using secular categories to explain religious ones. A Catholic journalist told me last week that he had read one source that referred, inaccurately, to the LCWR and its alternative conference, the CMSWR, as “sisters’ unions.” I have my own horror stories of encounters with religious and clergy/hierarchy alike, which I resist telling here or in most polite company. What purpose would it serve? I’ve come to terms with most of them; water under the bridge.

Fr. Art Coyle and then-novice Emily Marsh, Easter 2011

One point I would like to mull over with you if you’ll allow me is the, by now, somewhat threadbare and certainly artificial, opposition between the “charismatic” and “institutional” nature of the Church. I bring it up in the context of this current controversy, especially since one of the examples that the CDF mentioned in its letter to the LCWR is the address—not an isolated case—by Sr. Laurie Brink, O.P., in which she extolled some women religious who, in the “prophetic” nature of their call, are “moving beyond the Church or even beyond Jesus.”

During the inquiry into U.S. religious life in the early nineties, our community was invited, along with every community in the diocese where I was assigned at the time, to gather in conversation with each other. The group I participated in touched on this very topic. I felt moved to suggest that, while the charismatic and institutional aspects of the Church are different in theory, they’re rarely if ever, separate in real life. In fact, the institutional character of the Church that gives rise to its structure is just as much a gift of the Spirit as the charisms that give rise to religious orders and congregations: both are Spirit-given charisms in their own right and both exist to build up the Body of Christ. At the same time, no religious community is purely charismatic; by its nature as a community, it’s institutional. Just ask anyone who’s gone to Catholic school run by religious!

The reaction to my comment was mixed, as I expected it to be. It probably did more for me than for anyone who heard me. It brought into sharper focus my understanding of my own calling in the Church and gave me a little more patience with the contradictions and tensions I continue to see within the Church, within religious life, and within myself.

In popular imagination, the charism of prophecy is connected with foretelling the future. While that can be a part of genuine prophecy, it’s not essential. What is, is the prophet’s call by God to witness on behalf of God to his People. At times, the prophet speaks to God on behalf of the People. I think of Moses, who prays for God’s mercy on Israel (Ex. 32:11ff.; Nm. 21:7), and Jeremiah, who begs God not to abandon the nation (Jer. 14:7ff.). In this light, religious life is often described even in Church documents as “prophetic.” It points to Gospel values even in its silence.

It’s also a distortion of prophecy to make it and authority mutually exclusive. Who says that those in “positions of power” can’t also be prophetic? I think of Moses again: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me…” (Dt. 18:15). Or Jesus, Priest, Prophet, and King. Or the entire Church communicating God’s word to the world. Or saints galore. Each baptized Christian, in fact, shares in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal presence in the world.

The prevailing fiction is that the Holy See and its minions are only interested in seeing women religious—especially in the U.S.—subjugated to a male hierarchy and force fed their theology, rather than encouraged to think for themselves. While some men (and even women) are threatened by independently minded women, to predicate that of all who work in or for the Vatican is unjust and simply not founded on truth. As behaviorist and psychologist David Burns would say, an “all or nothing” view of reality is a cognitive distortion. 

Consecrated life is certainly prophetic. Sometimes that costs dearly, even to witnessing to those in authority in the Church—but always in service of unity in truth and love. For this reason, it’s a travesty of truth to appeal, as Sr. Laurie Brink does, to Catherine of Siena and others like her, as models of those who fly in the face of the Church’s faith, in the name of prophetic courage.

The CDF hears under Brink’s “phenomenological analysis” of religious life in the 21st century “a cry for help.” I doubt very much that anyone in the LCWR would concur; I’m not so sure I would either. At the very least, they’re not crying to the hierarchy, except perhaps for the reconciliation she calls for. Nevertheless, such an analysis is gaining enough momentum that it warrants a separate article here on Pauline Faithways. You’ll run into it again somewhere, so check in here soon!

As we, the Church, journey toward Pentecost, it’s worth asking the Spirit of God to breathe new life into us, so that, whoever we are, we might witness to Jesus Christ in authenticity and freedom, to the glory of God the Father in our world. Pray for women and men religious, for the bishops, and for all those entrusted by God with gifts to help the Body of Christ grow.