The city of Memphis was ravaged by a series of yellow fever epidemics in 1873, 1878 and 1879, the aftermath of which touches the city even today. Growing up there, I often rode the public bus, and I became aware at an early age that sisters, brothers and priests were allowed to ride at no cost. During those dreadful epidemics, as thousands of citizens died or fled to healthier climes, Catholic religious stayed put. More than 50 sisters and 25 priests died of yellow fever while caring for victims of the disease, and in gratitude the city offered free bus rides to religious for many years thereafter. Such heroism inspired me as a boy growing up in a city whose population was less than 3 percent Catholic.
The history of the Catholic Church in Washington State, my new home, is likewise filled with similarly inspiring chapters, chief among them the pioneer courage and faith of consecrated women. Their story was repeated again and again across the United States, and perhaps nowhere else in the world have women religious had the impact they have had in this country.
Catholic explorers, immigrants, settlers, Native Americans, converts, sisters, brothers and priests faced daunting challenges in the early days: few resources, primitive transportation, disease, extreme weather, racism and language barriers. I am moved every time I read about the establishment of hospitals, schools, orphanages and monasteries in the Pacific Northwest. For the most part, these institutions were the inspiration and work of religious women, who responded to God’s call to serve his beloved people, no matter their religion, culture, language or way of life.
The Contemplative Life
Quite simply, these religious women evangelized. They lived the life of Jesus Christ; they introduced others to him; they taught the truth; they loved; they healed; they cared for the outcast; and most importantly, they prayed. The histories of our early years chronicle the sacrifice offered by religious women to build the foundation of the church in this part of the world, and embedded in each story is a life of prayer. Prayer makes witness to Christ possible and credible.
The superior of a monastery of cloistered nuns in Veracruz, Mexico, once told me something that deeply impressed me, for what it meant both to their form of consecrated life and to all others. I repeat it here in Spanish, because she chose her words carefully: "La vida contemplativa es nuestro modo d’estar en la iglesia, con la iglesia, y para la iglesia." "The contemplative life is our way of being in the church, with the church and for the church."
By her careful phrasing, Madre Esperanza was indicating that the contemplative life is the path to which God calls them to give themselves in sacrifice to him for the good of the church. It is how they are evangelized and how they evangelize.
By extension, all women and men in consecrated life have been called by God to a vocation that is their way of being in the church, with the church and for the church. Their ministries span a wide spectrum. Called and given to Christ, they are consecrated by him as unique and indispensable witnesses of divine love in the world. Their prayer and apostolates feed and strengthen many.
One of the great Catholic pioneers of the Pacific Northwest was Mother Joseph (Pariseau) of the Sacred Heart, a Sister of Providence. After a 6,000-mile journey from Montreal, she arrived in Fort Vancouver, Wash., with four other sisters on Dec. 8, 1856. Under her leadership, more than 30 hospitals, schools and homes for the elderly, sick and orphans were opened. She was one of the northwest’s first architects, and I have prayed in pews designed by her skilled hands. Love for Jesus consumed her; religious consecration defined her; prayer grounded her and gave her hope in the face of countless obstacles.
The state of Washington recognized her singular contribution when, in 1980, it named her one of our state’s two representatives in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Her sculpture was created by Felix de Weldon, who also sculpted the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial commemorating the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. In 1999, her birthday, April 16, received annual designation by the Washington State legislature as Mother Joseph Day.
Mother Joseph was just one among many heroic Catholic witnesses to the Gospel in the United States. A monument across the street from St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington, D.C., for example, offers tribute to the sacrifices of more than 600 sisters from 12 religious congregations who served on battlefields and in hospitals during the Civil War. Erected in 1924, the monument reads, “They comforted the dying, nursed the wounded, carried hope to the imprisoned, gave in His name a drink of water to the thirsty.” By their Christian witness, they helped erase the scourge of anti-Catholicism that had blighted our country for many years after its founding. Few know the inspirational story of Sister Ignatia Gavin, a Sister of Charity of St. Augustine, who was influential in the early history of Alcoholics Anonymous and helped transform the medical view of alcoholism from moral failure to treatable disease.
For many Catholics in the United States, the experience of religious women is personal and profound. To say, “I was taught by the Mercies, or by the Holy Names Sisters, the Ursulines, the Franciscans, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the Carmelites, the Dominicans, the Benedictines,” is the equivalent of saying, “I was formed by...” Perhaps understanding little of the internal life of the sisters whose vocation was so influential in our rearing, we nonetheless experience its effects in a powerful, personal way. As congregations of women religious opened new apostolates to their members after the Second Vatican Council, Catholics in the United States continued to understand instinctively the crucial place of women religious at the heart of the church. As laity have accepted ministerial roles with increasing importance and in increasing numbers, they have maintained their appreciation for the evangelical witness—the witness of evangelization—of religious women.
In an address to catechists during the Great Jubilee Year, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger noted that the evangelical mission of the Church is all-encompassing, constant and crucial:
The Church always evangelizes and has never interrupted the path of evangelization. She celebrates the Eucharistic mystery every day, administers the sacraments, proclaims the Word of life—the Word of God—and commits herself to the causes of justice and charity. This evangelizing bears fruit. It gives light and joy; it reveals the path of life to many. Many others live, often unknowingly, in the light and the warmth that radiate from this permanent evangelization.
Consecrated women religious have contributed and continue to contribute in a unique and indispensable way to this uninterrupted, permanent, evangelical and missionary impulse of the universal church and its particular manifestation in the United States. Millions have lived, even unknowingly, in the light and warmth of Christ through their mission of Christian holiness, proclamation, justice, charity and the radiation of the word of truth who is the Lord Jesus.
Conflict as Opportunity
Through the years, there have been inevitable conflicts and misunderstandings between religious congregations and their bishops, between one congregation and another and among the members of individual congregations. They exist today as well. Disagreements regarding mission, apostolate, discipline, doctrine, style of life and personality have often been at the core of such conflicts. Each situation was an opportunity to seek reconciliation and collaboration at the heart of the church, in the communio that is God’s gift. Such a pivotal opportunity is now before us.
The recent call by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the renewal of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious marks an important moment in the life of women religious in the United States, an important moment in living out communio. Precisely because the vocation to consecrated religious life remains significant and contemporary, and precisely because the impact of American sisters is profound and essential to the church’s mission of evangelization, this call for renewal holds particular prominence and deserves special care. According to a CDF statement, it supports the “essential charism of Religious which has been so obvious in the life and growth of the Catholic Church in the United States” and “arises out of a sincere concern for the life and witness of faith among women Religious in the United States in view of their important role of service of ecclesial communion.”
The “Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious” outlines the central concerns. Officials of the CDF had first spoken personally of these concerns with L.C.W.R. leadership in 2008, and dialogue continued through the assessment conducted by Bishop Leonard P. Blair of Toledo. The Doctrinal Assessment acknowledges the praiseworthy emphasis by the L.C.W.R. on a number of vital areas of the church’s life, mission and social teaching but also notes lacunae and issues of doctrinal deficiency.
Given particular attention are L.C.W.R. General Assemblies, addresses and occasional papers. Though not intended to serve as theological treatises per se, some of these addresses and documents have theological undertones or implications not consistent with church teaching. Others have directly contradicted church teaching, and still others are not grounded in faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and redeemer. L.C.W.R. statements have often emphasized certain aspects of the church’s moral and social teaching while remaining silent about others, such as the inviolability of human life from the moment of conception to natural death. Assembly presentations have at times proposed models of religious life that are not in sync with the very nature of religious life.
The doctrinal assessment seeks to clarify and renew the LCWR’s crucial, “positive responsibility for the promotion of the faith and for providing its member Communities and the wider Catholic public with clear and persuasive positions in support of the Church’s vision of religious life.” Concomitant to this responsibility is the role of the L.C.W.R. in the doctrinal formation of religious superiors and formators. The important task of congregational leadership, which women religious accept at the discernment and vote of their fellow members, requires thorough spiritual, theological and human formation that is firmly grounded in Catholic teaching and tradition. The formation of new members, many of whom did not receive adequate catechesis as youth, requires a depth of theological and personal formation that previous generations had often received in their formative years. In its service to member congregations, the L.C.W.R. can play an irreplaceable role in formation, one that renews and strengthens those congregations and prepares them to receive and form new members.
Additionally, the doctrinal assessment notes concern regarding liturgical practices and texts used in L.C.W.R. events and programs, adding that the Eucharist and Liturgy of the Hours should frame common liturgical prayer at conference-sponsored activities. Finally, the relationships between L.C.W.R. and organizations such as Network, Resource Center for Religious Institutes and New Ways Ministry were noted as areas of concern.
An Expression of Collaboration
The L.C.W.R., the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious are unique in purpose, relationships and canonical standing. They exist as an expression of the collaboration between the Holy See, Superiors General and the local conference of bishops in support of consecrated life, as indicated by Canons 708 and 709.
In light of this distinctive reality, the doctrinal assessment calls for greater emphasis on both the relationship of the L.C.W.R. with the U.S.C.C.B. and the need to provide a sound doctrinal foundation so that “by combined effort they may work to achieve more fully the purpose of each institute (Canon 708).”
To that end, the Doctrinal Assessment calls for the appointment of an archbishop delegate, to be assisted by two bishops, to review, guide and approve, where necessary, the work of the L.C.W.R. It also asks that the USCCB establish a formal link with the archbishop delegate and the assistant delegate bishops. The delegate is to form an advisory team composed of women religious, bishops and other experts to assist in the work of implementation.
In his May 18 address to U.S. Bishops of Regions XIV, XV and the Eastern Rite, Pope Benedict XVI said:
I urge you to remain particularly close to the men and women in your local Churches who are committed to following Christ ever more perfectly by generously embracing the evangelical counsels. I wish to reaffirm my deep gratitude for the example of fidelity and self-sacrifice given by many consecrated women in your country, and to join them in praying that this moment of discernment will bear abundant spiritual fruit for the revitalization and strengthening of their communities in fidelity to Christ and the Church, as well as to their founding charisms. The urgent need in our own time for credible and attractive witnesses to the redemptive and transformative power of the Gospel makes it essential to recapture a sense of the sublime dignity and beauty of the consecrated life, to pray for religious vocations and to promote them actively, while strengthening existing channels for communication and cooperation, especially through the work of the Vicar or Delegate for Religious in each Diocese.
Recognizing the momentous and heroic contribution of women religious in the United States, having had the honor and joy of collaborating with thousands of religious in the dioceses I have served, and knowing the importance the L.C.W.R. holds for the vast majority of American religious congregations, I gladly accepted the appointment as archbishop delegate for the implementation of the doctrinal assessment. No one expects that such a sensitive task will be accomplished quickly or effortlessly, but by God’s grace and with mutual respect, patience and prayer it can be indeed accomplished for the good of all. Challenges larger than this have been met before, with renewal and even deeper faith the outcome.
Nearing death, Mother Joseph Pariseau wrote to her superior:
Please tell our worthy Father Superior that his wish for the union of my soul with Our Lord is being accomplished. Now more than ever I enjoy that total abandonment of my interests into His loving hands...
You know that I made my retreat. At the outset, scarcely was I in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament when, without expecting it, I was drawn into one of those heart to heart embraces, and was so submerged that I thought I would melt with love...
I must avow, Mother, that ever since my entry into religious life, I have made it a habit to pause before the chapel door whenever I pass it, and beg our Lord to hide me in His Divine Heart, and send a ray of light into mine. He has given me more than a ray; He has given me a flame, and made fruitful my striving for union.
Mother Joseph was a woman of extraordinary vision, strength and depth whose heart melted with love for Christ. The same flame lit by God in her heart continues to warm and illumine the United States through the hundreds of societies and institutes of consecrated religious women who reside at the heart of the church. Their particular way of being in, with and for the church—the fire of the Lord that lights their hearts and the union which joins their souls to his—are all expressions of the very communio that the task before us seeks to deepen.
Read a response from Christine Firer Hinze.