On a hot day in mid-August the Leadership Team of the Sisters of St. Joseph in London travelled to St. Louis MO, to attend the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ Annual Meeting. What drew us to this gathering of leaders of religious women in the U.S. was the investigation that the Vatican has ordered on this Conference. We went both to stand in support of these women and their conference, but also to gain some better insight from them about this investigation.
As we drove into the hotel near the famous Arch in St. Louis, we were greeted with signs of support from lay women and men who also were standing in solidarity with these religious congregations. One evening during the meetings, a large public prayer gathering was held in the park at the Arch. Again this was organized by lay people, women and men who supported these women religious. During the days of the meeting, many journalists from both the secular and the religious media were present, including a team of journalist from 60 Minutes.
All of this caused me to ask, “What is really going on here?” When you step back from the immediate doctrinal investigation – that deals with issues such as women’s ordination, ministry to gay and lesbian people, and contraception, both the church and the lay people recognize that these women carry a great deal of influence and are largely responsible for much of the care and education of many Americans. From small humble beginnings, their stories include ministering to the wounded on the battlefields of the Civil War and victims of the great San Francisco earthquake and the influenza epidemic. Since then, they managed to establish the largest private school system in the country, 110 colleges and universities and more than 600 hospitals. And they have established many other social services in response to those who are in need because they are poor. Their numbers include teachers, nurses, administrators, professors, lawyers, doctors, and social workers.
What is common in the stories of all these religious groups of women is that they responded to the needs of the time with vigour, commitment, great care and compassion for the people they served and often with few resources and at times, great opposition.
So, what became very clear to me as we talked together was that the challenge now facing these women is to get the Roman Catholic hierarchy to open itself up to dialogue about some of the most pressing issues facing the Roman Catholic Church today. The Sisters, in wanting further dialogue, were clear that they spoke from a place of deep hope. Dialogue may not be successful and they are very much aware of this, but the words of the outgoing president of LCWR, Sister Pat Farrell, called each of us to this place. She speaks of living in joyful hope because that is the call of the gospel from which the mission of the religious life grows. Joyful hope is the hallmark of the genuine discipleship. But the image she chose from scripture was that of the mustard seed. Mustard, although it can be cultivated, is essentially a weed. Weeds are not easily controlled.
Perhaps this is an apt image of what is being tested here. Perhaps the weed is the joyful hope. If this is a sign of the power of God at work among us, then no political or ecclesiastical herbicide can destroy the movement of God’s Spirit. These are brave and courageous women, not afraid, and full of hope. We stand with them, knowing we are in good company.
I would like to quote Sister Pat Farell’s final farewell to us: “And so, we live in joyful hope, willing to be weeds one and all. We stand in the power of the dying and rising of Jesus. I hold forever in my heart an expression from the days of the dictatorship in Chile: ‘Pueden aplastar algunas flores, pero no pueden detener la primavera.” “They can crush a few flowers but they can’t hold back the springtime.” (for the full text visit www.lcwr.org)
Joan Atkinson, CSJ