Confessions of a Modern Nun: The Vatican visitation prompts reflection on a religious divide.

Religious life among women is undergoing a massive evolutionary change that can only be described as cataclysmic. The Vatican’s apostolic visitation of congregations of women religious in the United States and the recent investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious indicate that Rome is unhappy with so-called post-Vatican II nuns who have donned secular clothes and abandoned traditional community life. The current statistics show a trend. The number of religious sisters and cloistered nuns in the United States was almost 180,000 in 1965. In 2009 there are just over 59,000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. A steady decline in the number of women religious, together with the fact that their median age is 75, is a sign that religious life in the United States is a dying institution. Yet new communities have sprouted up in which women religious don a traditional habit and follow a daily schedule of prayer and service. These communities are attracting youthful, vibrant vocations. On the surface, the future of religious life seems to be on their side.

Those who have taken off the habit and those who are putting on the habit mark two distinct paths in religious life today. What is happening? Did most women religious misinterpret the documents of the Second Vatican Council? Is what some see as a rebellious streak taking its toll? Have women defied the church? Some interpret empty novitiates and an aging membership as evidence that women religious have made the wrong choice—for secularization. Others maintain that their intent was to live more authentically as women religious in a world of change.

The chasm between traditional and progressive religious life was made evident in 1992 with the publication of The Transformation of the American Catholic Sisterhood by Lora Ann Quiñonez, C.D.P., and Mary Daniel Turner, S.N.D.deN. The book impelled Cardinal James Hickey, bishop of Washington, D.C., at the time, to travel to Rome to fight for the establishment of a congregation of women religious that would be more faithful to the church. Hence the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious was formed with membership based on wearing the habit, communal prayer, eucharistic adoration and fidelity to the church. Meanwhile, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious continued in the spirit of Vatican II to be open to the world, exploring avenues of liberation theology, feminist theology and the plight of the poor, among others. Although dialogue was sought between L.C.W.R. (to which the majority of women religious communities still belong) and C.M.S.W.R., that desire for dialogue was not mutual. Rome has thrown its weight on the side of C.M.S.W.R., giving its members top ecclesiastical positions.

While the two groups of women religious seem to oppose each other, they form what Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the former master general of the Dominicans, calls in What Is the Point of Christian Life? two different theologies based on different interpretations of Vatican II. Members of the Leadership Conference embrace modernity and the work of the council as the Holy Spirit breathing new life in the church. They fall under what Father Radcliffe identifies as the Concilium group, who focus on the Incarnation as the central point of renewal. Members of the Conference of Major Superiors, by contrast, are Communio Catholics, who emphasize communion through proclamation of the faith, a clear Catholic identity and the centrality of the cross. Members of the Conference of Major Superiors, by contrast, are Communio Catholics, who emphasize communion through proclamation of the faith, a clear Catholic identity and the centrality of the cross. (Concilium and Communio are the names of two periodicals founded in the postconciliar era. The first stressed conciliar reforms; the second stressed the continuity of the council documents with the community of the faithful through past centuries.) Thus, one group focuses on doxology and adoration (Communio), the other on practice and experience (Concilium). One sees Christ as gathering people into community (Communio); the other sees Christ as traversing boundaries (Concilium). The C.M.S.W.R. recently held its eucharistic congress under the title “Sacrifice of Enduring Love,” while the L.C.W.R. continues to work on systemic change. The former sees religious life as divine espousal with Christ; the latter sees Christ in solidarity with the poor and justice for the oppressed.

As Father Radcliffe states, this is not a conflict between those who are faithful to the council and those who would return to a preconciliar church. Nor is it between those who are faithful to the tradition and those who have succumbed to the modern world. Rather, the conflict is about two different understandings of the council and how to carry its work forward. While I appreciate Father Radcliffe’s thoughtful distinctions, my own experience of women religious tells me that the root of the differences between the two associations is fear of change. I say this not by way of judgment but from personal experience.

My Journey to a New Theology

When I entered religious life in 1984, I had a newly minted Ph.D. in pharmacology and an opportunity for a postdoctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Yet I had discovered Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and could not let go my desire to renounce the world and live for Christ. My understanding of theology, church and religious life then was rudimentary. I flourished in the 1970s as a budding scientist, writing manifestos of liberation. Though I attended Mass weekly, I did not appreciate the liturgical changes of Vatican II. Instead I longed for the mystical ritual of the Latin Mass I knew as a child, even though I had never understood a word the priest said. When I made the decision to enter religious life, I sought an austere community where I could make a lifetime sacrifice to live for God alone. Wearing a habit was important to me because it represented holiness and religious identity. I entered a Carmelite cloister of nuns who wore a long, traditional habit and followed a set schedule of daily prayer, silence, adoration and the rosary.

My idealized view of religious life began to collapse in the cloister. Day in and day out I recognized how far I was from any noble aspiration of sanctity. I lived with women who suffered manic-depression, came from alcoholic families or were widowed early in life. There was little personal sharing and little contact with the world. The God to whom I had once felt so drawn began to melt into the darkness. I wondered whether I had chosen solitary confinement. I asked for a leave to discern my path and was sent to a Franciscan community near a university where I could resume my research. This community also wore a habit and followed a similar daily schedule, but the sisters’ openness to the world was liberating. I studied theology at Fordham University, wearing a full habit and feeling separate from my classmates. On weekdays, I lived in the Bronx with Ursuline sisters.

My first conversion in religious life centered around the final examination in a New Testament course. I had no computer or place to work until an Ursuline sister offered me her office and computer—and a cooked dinner. Sister Jeanne’s attentiveness to my needs, which included waiting up with me until after midnight, opened my eyes to the meaning of Incarnation. For the first time I saw God humbly present in jeans and a sweatshirt. Next I saw God in frail Sister Catherine, who carried out an extensive outreach to the local poor, and in Sister Lucy, whose 40 years as a missionary in Alaska gave me more than just the entertainment of her fascinating dinnertime stories. In the simple common life of the Ursuline sisters, I saw God fully alive. I saw the same God among the Allegany Franciscans who provided me a home where I could write my doctoral dissertation. They drew me out of my study cell, took me to the park and out to eat and listened to my woes. By graduation, I had resided at three different motherhouses among sisters whose congregations were all members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Through the study of theology I began to reflect on the Incarnation and the two different ways of religious life I had experienced. I realized that Jesus practiced Jewish customs and rituals, lived the humble life of a carpenter and felt called to public ministry around age 30, but he did not separate himself from others by dress or occupation. Engaging in the sociopolitical and economic struggles of his day, he reached out to the poor and showed compassion for the sick and dying. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God and gave his life as witness to the fidelity of God’s love. For that he died the public death of a criminal, without honor or glory. The early Christians who experienced the risen Lord were empowered to proclaim it. They had to be: until the conversion of Constantine, living as a Christian was a recipe for martyrdom. Today, too, Gospel life means giving witness to God’s goodness in Christ. In 2005 Dorothy Stang, of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, gave her life as a martyr for the impoverished people of the Amazon.

Both contemporary groups of women religious—the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious—witness to the Gospel revealed in Jesus Christ, but their trajectories differ. The former primarily seeks to be espoused to Christ; their focus is a heavenly nuptial union. The latter group primarily follows Christ the liberator, witnessing to Christ amid the struggles of history. In both groups one can find idols, secrets and dysfunction as well as saints, prophets and mystics. Both groups are sinful and redeemed. Both follow canon law; both maintain health insurance, car insurance, retirement funds and plots for burial.

Teilhard’s Evolutionary Vision

What difference does religious life make to the world? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., brought light to this question by understanding Christianity in an evolutionary universe. What we do and the decisions we make in history, Teilhard said, influence the genesis of Christ. Christ is the goal of the universe, the new creation, the future of what we are coming to be. We who are baptized into Christ must let go in love and descend into solidarity with the earth. Teilhard noted that there is nothing profane on earth for those who know how to see. Adoration means seeing the depths of divine love in ordinary reality and loving what we see. This universe is holy because it is grounded in the Word of God. It is Christ, the living one, who is coming to be.

For many years I wondered whether women religious had misread the signs of the time. Yet as I have pondered the mystery of God, I have come to believe that the evolutionary universe is moving forward in part because women religious are working in the trenches of humanity among those who are poor, oppressed and forgotten. Today world religions are playing a greater role in the synthesis of a new religious consciousness. The women of L.C.W.R. have risked their lives in the pursuit of authentic Incarnation and have proclaimed prophetically that the love of God cannot be exterminated or suppressed. They continue to fight for systemic change on behalf of oppressed people. Congregations may die out, but the paths inscribed in history by the women religious of Vatican II are nothing less than the evolutionary shoots of a new future.

As Teilhard noted, suffering and sacrifice are part of the evolutionary process. Isolated structures must give way to more complex unions. To live with an evolutionary spirit is to let go of old structures and to engage new structures when the right time comes. The new heaven and earth promised by God will not come about by cutting ourselves off from the world or forming Catholic ghettos. It will not unfold through the triumph of ecclesiastical power. It will come about as we follow the footprints of the crucified one, descending into the darkness of humanity and rising in the power of love. This is the path to a new creation symbolized by Christ.

We believe that what happened between God and the world in Christ points to the future of the cosmos. That future involves a radical transformation of created reality through the unitive power of God’s love. To be a Christbearer is to focus on the inner depth of love. It is love that puts flesh on the face of God, love that makes Christ alive; love is the power of the future and the unfolding of Christ. History will not remember what we wore, where we lived or how we prayed, whether as Concilium or Communio Catholics. In the evening of life we all shall be judged on love alone.

7 years 4 months ago

I enjoyed sister's analysis very much.  I do take issue with a couple of statements, none more so that this: "The new heaven and earth promised by God will not come about by cutting ourselves off from the world or forming Catholic ghettos."

It seems that she is downplaying the very important role of the monastic tradition. While it is true that helping others is absolutely necessary and among the most important commands of Christ, it does not overshadow the life of prayer exemplified in the monastic lifestyle.  It may seem as if those in a cloister are not "doing" anything.  However, Bishop Sheen once said that he believes that the world is being held together by a handful of cloistered nuns praying for us all.  I think that is a very accurate statement.

Leonard Villa
7 years 4 months ago
In her last sentence Sr. Ilia notes that in the eve of life we shall all be judged on love alone.  This is a quote from St. John of the Cross mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in #1022.  However St.John continues and says: Learn to love as God wants and leave your present state (deja tu condicion).  It's this second part of the counsel of the saint that's at issue in the Vatican visitation of religious life.  Is religious life simply an as-you-discern-it affair based on subjective claims to love or is it something received from the Church as a vocation in fullfilling the call to love as God wants?  This question is more critical than ever given the strong cultural current of as-you-like-it religion based on subjective notions of being very spiritual and loving in opposition to received-teaching as to what love is and means.
There's certainly nothing in the Second Vatican Council that called for the abandonment of religious garb and living in community according to the three vows, a situation in which many religious find themselves today or the definition of love freely choosing as God wills not as we will.  In Vatican II's call to read the "signs of the times" you would think think now more than ever the need for the sign-value of religious garb and communal living in service to the Church according to some particular charism would be seen.  Instead how many women-religious communities in doing a needed-reform threw out the baby with the bathwater along with an uncritical adoption of the tenets of a secular, misandrynous and anti-Church feminism.
7 years 4 months ago
Actually, the name of Timothy Radcliffe's book is "What Is the Point of Being a Christian?" not "What is the Point of Christian Life?"
7 years 4 months ago

Sister Delio’s reflection is very thoughtful. I personally believe that the wearing of the habit is a good sign of one being separated from the world.  And that it may reap positive results for religious vocations, more so than if one did not wear any religious garb.

 

We may say that God looks at the heart, not at the clothes we wear – but – remembering the “second call” of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, God thought the habit (sari) was very important. He designed it!

7 years 4 months ago
Sister Delio's article helps all of us, laity and religious alike. "Teilhard noted that there is nothing profane on earth for those who know how to see. Adoration means seeing the depths of divine love in ordinary reality and loving what we see. This universe is holy because it is grounded in the Word of God,"  This is something everyone can realize, Divine Presence gestating me, right now, out of love.
7 years 4 months ago
It is both fascinating and horrifying to read this article concerning the spirituality of what is in fact a political and cultural attack on our American Sisterhood. View the Communio group as rightwing conservative extremists, back to the past, a revival of the Holy Roman Empire of middle European prelates. View the Concilio as exemplified by the late Cardinal Dulles and the American followers of the teachings of Vatican II. Always the old refuses to give way to the new, new because it is based on the continuing revelation that goes with increasing knowledge and need; and bravely confronts the fear of change for the good.
7 years 4 months ago
Terrific article. However yet another article about the 'black & white, right & left,
action vs contemplation' approach. This is the 21st century & 40+ years after
V2. Let's get on with it. I see all around me the seeds of true communion between
these two equally important ideals in religious life. Lets talk 'blend' not separate!
It works for me. 
7 years 4 months ago
How very much I agree with  you. Let's give credit to God for doing something new in the church. The old movements are still valid and new movements involving millions are spreading more and more. There is room for all.
 
History shows that no matter how many mistakes Rome makes, those who bolt do not thrive, and those who stay, despite the suffering, survive and flourish. It takes an act of faith.
7 years 4 months ago
Prayer, we realize, is the very power of being-given to "Our Father" in LOVE.  When we are absorbed in it-even when we think we are wrongful in it, or even sinful in how we carry it out (if we are comparing ourselves to others how can this be good?)-and giving to the utmost, or until we no longer have anything more to give without resting... THAT is how it is meant to be given.  I, therefore, did not find this article helpful, but just another example of justification that did not have to be-because we are ALL thankful for what the women religious give (but do they really HAVE to be so horribly restrictive in whom they take-I, for one, have been looking for some time for a community that would be "right" for me; somehow this life is beginning to look like that of autocracy and death-producing... not open to new people, new ideas, and LIFE at all.)  If I was the only person I knew in my shoes, I wouldn't be writing this-but there are others who do not fit particularly well in any other type of work, who have been turned down and are living with this empty hole in their souls while trying to "make do" with secular occupations when they have had this call.  (So much for those who can make Opus Dei into a viability for themselves.)  I also just had the experience of an attempt at getting me into psychiatric treatment for "religious preoccupation" when I have taken private vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience-and the psychiatrist himself, my psychological testing, and the Catholic nurses said there is no psychiatric illness.  I tend to think this may be the way of modern culture, more than anything else... which doesn't recognize the spiritual-and puts EVERYONE into some kind of deviate category-even to the point of making false assumptions on court records (by trained personnel as well as untrained people, never actually examining the patient.)  Dear contemplatives-we have to keep praying (those of us without communities, as well as those with them.)
7 years 4 months ago
Dear Ilia,
Good article - dialogue is the secret, but oh so difficult to begin!

[url=http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/sep/11/birdwatche][color=#800080]http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/sep/11/birdwatche[/url][/color]rs

[color=#800080]We do our bit for the Kingdom by walking with these people.[/color]

[color=#800080]Abracos[/color]

7 years 4 months ago
I'd like to see more concrete signs of the "concilliar" crowd actually loving the "communio" crowd, because it seems to be there's an awful lot of judgmentalism going on - in a stiff, defensive fashion.
I'd also like to see some quantification of what 40 odd years of 'service to the poor' has actually accomplished, 'for the poor'. Are these poor living lives of Catholic virtue? Producing vocations? faithful marriages producing happy and well adjusted children? Or do we not rather see in innumerable "councilliar" congregations and ministries a more materialistic, social-work ethic that's more about promoting a Left-wing/Democratic/big-city Machine political order than actually evangelizing the poor?
Here in Detroit the only people actually trying to help evangelize the poor - preaching Jesus and salvation and morality....seems to be the pro-life laity, not the "professional" catholic women religious. But then, maybe I'm mistaken. Where can one find quantifiable evidence that the 'left' wing is actually about promoting the Gospel, making Catholics out of people, and leading them to lives of virtue and holiness?
7 years 4 months ago
The first "break" (new and creative awareness, understanding and appreciation) in the "enclosed" style of vowed religious life occurred 800 years ago when Francis and Dominic created their respective mendicant Orders', traveling Europe, preaching, teaching, sharing, healing, respecting, nurturing, understanding, befriending, forgiving, celebrating and breaking bread with any and all they encountered. Even the reference to "vowed religious life" is "separatist", "elitist" and "hierarchical", since married people are, in the modern Christian era, "vowed" and certainly engaged in a "religious" endeavor, as they are in social, emotional, educational, professional, health, financial and political endeavors, each represented formally by institutions (i.e.: church, school, hospital, bank, etc.). Can we begin to realize and act on the reality that we are all one-with each other, nature and the entirety of the cosmic creation? Let us pray that we recognize the eye is distinguishable from the ear, however both have invaluable and life-giving functions and are significant parts of the same body.             
leonard Nugent
7 years 4 months ago
If you want a good example of authentic Incarnation in  religeous life look to blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Like everything else in the world when you do something you have to get it right. Mother Teresa got it right. As far as I know the Missionaries of Charity are not suffering a crisis in vocations.
7 years 4 months ago
I'm curious...how many people read this first on Fr. Z's blog? Just askin'.
7 years 4 months ago
I enjoyed reading Sister Delio's recollections of her experiences as a sister. We all have at least once in our life, I trust, experienced a person whose way of living inspired us and clarified our vocation, our journey in life, and I am glad the Ursulines provided such an experience for Sister Delio.  I have some demurral, however, in accepting the either/or dichotomy she sets up by separating sisters into groups which follow either the Incarnation or the Cross as their guiding principle.  Is there any version of Catholic Christianity which would not find either indispensible? And perhaps therein lies the crux of the situation.  In his fine book, The Holy Longing, Fr Rolheiser makes the point totally clear: either lacking in private prayer or social justice is spiritual imbalance.  While one may be a good secular humanist or anonymous Christian or some other kind of Christian if one doesn't participate in the sacramental life of the church, he is not a balanced, practicing Catholic Christian, at least as I understand Rolheiser presents it.  Likewise with one who would not take his prayer or sacramental life outside of the confines of the church walls.
My daughter Sister Colleen is in her 5th year of formation with the Apostles of the Sacred Heart, the order whose mother superior has been assigned the task of visiting the various orders of sisters here in the US by the Vatican.  I have had the joy of watching my daughter growing in the spirituality of these sisters.  They have a very regular and intense prayer life and a whirlwind schedule of teaching and acts of charity, from inner city grammar schools to helping Haitian immigrants find housing to working with handicapped children, college students, etc.  (I was reminded of Fr James Martin's recollection of his experience washing down soiled elderly men under the tutelage of another group of sisters.)  And I can understand why many sisters, and priests, would perhaps not want to wear the "habit of perfection": you must wear a spiritual bulls'-eye everywhere you go.  You are singled out, as you pointed out, at all times, as Christ was, unable to hide for a minute who you are and what your charism is, even to a stranger you pass in the street. You will be ridiculed by some (I've seen in happen in a restaurant) and you will be inspirational to others.  And you must live out that image of who you are in acts of prayer, sacrament, and social justice.  I so admire you all.   
 
 
Ted McGoron
7 years 4 months ago
Sister Delio's article is a good example of the way politicians make speeches. they talk and talk but never say anything that clearly means something. She didn't want to be a religious in the way most Catholics think of them but she still wants to be thought of as a religious. And she tries to prove everyone should think the same way as she does.
The best way to prove what is the right way to do something is to look at how effective it was. When the nuns wore habits and either taught in our schools or worked in hospitals, Young couples could send their children to Catholic schools and they got a first class education. There were vocations to the convents, seminaries, and monasteries. Hospitals provided service that did not bankrupt families nor discourage religious beliefs. The church needs more Mother Teresas and more Mother Setons.
7 years 4 months ago
I must return to my comment, 5 above. Of course, monasticism and/or contemplation. They are probably integral to the overall process of our religion. However, the kind of religious life chosen must be chosen in the free will and intellect of the one choosing. Under no pretense of dictatorial majesty should the freedom of choice be denied any person responding to God's call. No man may stand between one and her/his God. It is God who is almighty; not the Curia.
7 years 4 months ago
Oh God not Teilhard again.
7 years 4 months ago
I knew Sister Lora Ann Quinones personally when I was her religious order for 8 years.  I agree with the writer.  The Sisters who I lived with were holy women of God even without the full habit.  Those who do wear the habit and live "apart" from the world are attractive to many young people but both groups are following Jesus in their own way.
7 years 4 months ago
Some interpret empty novitiates and an aging membership as evidence that women religious have made the wrong choice—for secularization.
....
 
How else to interpret it?  Growth is the only sign of life.
7 years 4 months ago

The article makes a needed contribution  showing that differing interpretations
of religious life have deeper roots and reflect values too precious to either
group to be lost or suppressed.  I
do sympathize with the reader who says “Get on with it.”  I would like to go there but with a
caveat The tensions underlying these difference have been historic in their
making.  They can’t be simply
categorized as ‘action’ vs. ‘contemplation,’ or even the ‘communio’ vs. ‘concilio.’
debates.  Delio’s own theology is nourished
through deep roots in early texts, such as those of Bonaventure and
Augusine.  She is not  ‘modernist.’ mindlessly activist, nor
anti-monastic. Too little time has been given for a serious analysis of these
unprecedented initiatives which will have juridical consequences.  The underlying issues are more profound
than can be pinpointed in a single article.  John O’Malley’s book, “What Happened at Vatican II” gives
insight here.  As I understand him,
the majority view in Vatican II recognized the need for a “return to the
sources,” a ‘ressourcement’ that might unite spirituality and contemplation
through a study of writings that issued from a pastoral concern.  These thinkers advocating a step back
to the sources to renew Christian life. The ‘turn to the past’ would also
placed brakes upon a snowballing inflation of papal power since the nineteenth
century, making it possible to speak again of dialogue and collegiality.  In more recent decades that majority
vision appears ti been lost or suppressed.  I think this may be a time to reawaken it, even as we move
forward. I think that these unprecedented visitations, with questions that
presume to monitor every aspect of religious life, are symptomatic of a how
effectively these rifts are dividing not only religious women but the whole
church. Women may be surrogates here in a much larger narrative.  Fortunately, most religious women treat
each other with mutual respect. Yet the conversation between ‘communio’ and
‘concilio’ sisters cannot be just another friendly chat.  One side has been affirmed and its
practice made normative. 


Delio’s article is important because it expresses eloquently
that both groups of sisters are passionate about their values. They are
nourished by a tradition deeper than themselves.  I was sorry to see that the questionnaire seemed to narrow
spirituality to the current bottom line of catechism, recent church documents
and external practices.  I think
that if we go forward we must draw from deeper wells.   The questionnaire to sisters is no  sociological poll of willing
volunteers.  It is an external intrusion
into  every aspect of their lives
of religious women and it will have juridical consequences.  The responses to the events leave hope
for moving forward but this is only a beginning.

7 years 4 months ago
Thank you, Ilia.  The theology is breathtaking.  I did not find your article a bit divisive.  There is room in the world for living witness to love as a lifestyle and living witness to love as engaging service. 
Those who interpret the diminishing numbers of consecrated women to religious life as bad have missed the point.  Religious life has always been evolving; hermits to now and beyond.  The emerging equality of women in the world toward being co-creators in the world's systems has opened many doors for women to actualize and consciously live out their spirituality in families, communities and workplaces.  How we do it is not the issue.  That we do it with love, integrity, reverence and responsibility for all of creation is the goal.  The former distinction between "religious women" and "women who are religious" was an artificial construct.  We are all, women and men. called in a myriad of complimentary ways to faithfully reflect the goodness, justice, mercy and compassion of the Divine with and for one another.  The diversity of ways makes room for everyone.
Throughout history there has always been and will continue to be forms of religious life.  It is not their numbers that make them significant.  It is their legacy of faithful commitment. 
7 years 4 months ago
Sorry sister, but I completely disagree with your opinions. I fear you and many American nuns have tragically made the wrong choice. You have lost today's children, the convents, the schools and the presence in the nation's culture. Much of what you say is quite pleasant and positive, but the reality is your philosophy has taken that which was stone and made it a temporary impression in the sand. I say this with sorrow and profound respect for you and all of the nuns of our church who have lost their past. I believe the numerical data will soon erase you from our church. Can't you see something is wrong? Today's young women are drawn to your competition in the "traditional" orders. They are creating the foundation of the future which will one day really resemble what your sisters deserted in the late 20th century. I admire your faith and service, but the path of so many American orders just leaves me cold and sad. I am so grateful I was a young Catholic child taught and loved by the sisters. I am so saddened by the spiritual lonliness of today's kids.
7 years 4 months ago
Ilia Delio believes that as long as one does good work and lives one's own version of Gospel values, that person can enjoy the status of being a religious without having to bother with Catholic Church requirements for religious life. I fail to see how this way of life differs from that of laity who also do good works.
BTW, its COUNCIL of Major Superiors of Women Religious, not Conference, and that group is not a "congregation," but rather a superiors' organization. In my experience, the CMSWR does not view itself as being in competition with the LCWR, and in fact has gone out of its way to maintain a low profile. The different "trajectories" of the two organizations are very simple to see:  The CMSWR accepts the doctrine and authority of the Catholic Church, while the LCWR often does not.
7 years 4 months ago

The writer asks if women defied the Church and made the wrong choice for secularization. As someone who entered parochial school when the nuns were still in the black clothes and left the 8th grade just when they were leaving in droves. My childhood friends and I spent our childhoods with these Sisters, and they were devoted to us, it seemed, only to lose them, similar to the loss of a parent in a divorce.

 

There was one ex-Sister, who took an interest in me when I was a child. She left in the early 70s and we stayed in touch over the years. She eventually married a divorced man raising three children. She would have his fourth child. From her, I have heard a litany from “You’re not my kid”, “Don’t you have a family?”, “I am not your mother”, and “This is what I do for a living.” to telling me that I was “stupid” when I asked her for advice in selecting my first college course in the field for which she holds a Ph.D.

 

Let us face the facts. The nuns who left the Church in the early 70s, are of that generation that was the most affluent in the history of the United States. In contrast to the Sisters whose average age is now 75, and who were children of the Depression, they were the war babies. Vive la difference! Those who left would often attain Ph.Ds, so they also had first crack at all the opportunities that America’s post-WWII affluence could provide. (Their mothers had filled the positions at home during the war, while the men were off fighting.)

 

Empowered in their own right, these highly educated ex-Sisters no longer needed to serve the priests and the children of the poor, but would fill the university positions and sometimes even have private professional practices. The advent of the birth control pill made their liberation complete. The fact that so many of them married indicates that they did go on to live more authentically as women religious in a world of change as many of these women, who married later in life, were often restoring human families broken by divorce. The irony, of course, is that in doing so these same ex-Sisters cast aside the children of the poor, who also needed them, for the children of already affluent men in need of a wife and a mother for their children. This is why my favorite prary is "Oh Lord, save me from the misguidedness of the well-intentioned!"

William McAnally
7 years 4 months ago
A beautifully written article that more than justifies the Concilium approach. Just as there are different gifts of the spirit, there are different paths to God. I hope that the Vatican will not once more succumb to being exclusionary and insisting on a single rigid orthodoxy.
7 years 4 months ago
Wouldn't it be wonderful if these two groups could show us how to live together? To show us how, as Christians, we can respect one another, to see Christ in one another? Even though we may see our individual response as how to live a Christian life differently, we are all still part of the mystical body of Christ. Wouldn't it be wonderful if Rome would help promote an understanding between these two groups instead of favoring one, which, ultimately pits one against the other? It is very discouraging  that, so often, it is religion and many of our leaders that use these differences to divide us, rather than unite us? I know that it can be very difficult work to understand each other, but the importance of this work cannot be underestimated. Our religious leaders should be leading the way, but, unfortunately, all too often, they don't.
7 years 4 months ago
We have a group of cloistered Carmelites that we visit every three or so months who are the most joyful and lively persons I have ever known.
I am sorry for Ilia's misfortune of belonging to an unhealthy group but want to say that her  experience is not universal. Only in heaven will we know what they have done for us.
7 years 4 months ago
I appreciate sister's reflection, but I am completely baffled why being faithful to the church and wearing a habit are imcompatible with serving the poor?
7 years 4 months ago
I have to respect Sr. Ilia's broad experience of religious life - the Carmel, a congregation wearing habits but participating in the spirit of aggiornamento, and then the "liberated and liberating" sisters serving the poor and dressing as ordinary women.  I disagree somewhat, however, with her analysis of the two directions women religious have taken in their response to the Council's call for updating and return to the spirit of their founders.
Most of the congregations of active women religious in the United States, at least, were founded for some ministry  - teaching, health care, social work, etc.  In the days of our founders, religious wore habits, lived in community,  and shared what they had.  No one could imagine another form of religious life.  It seems to me that, back then, it might have been easier for our founders to remain in ordinary garb and have more activity outside the religious houses - things that Angela Merici tried to do back in the 16th century.  However, the "house rules" for religious life, had been laid down by a culture which felt compelled to protect women.  By 1917, when canon law finally recognized the existence of apostolic congregations, it was assumed that religious women would wear some sort of distinctive garb, live some form of cloister, and observe many of the old monastic customs such as kissing the hand of the superior, asking permission for everything, and taking the discipline.
What seems to have happened after the Council is that women religious finally recognized that external appearance and living arrangements should be more dictated by the requirements of ministry than by medieval custom.  Finally we were able to imagine what Angela Merici - and perhaps others - had recognized so long ago.
I do not think that we need to divide the trajectory of religious life by saying that some of us seek total communion with God's own Self and others seek to serve God by relieving human suffering.  Jesus was not divided like that and didn't ask us to be divided either.  Total dedication to God belongs to every expression of religious life as does some form of service.  The error, of there is one, is a lack of imagination.  Those who have gained the ascendency in Rome imagine that not wearing a habit, not living in community with others, not attending daily Eucharist is tantamount to not being a true religious.  Those who have left the old accoutrements of religious life behind imagine that anyone who sees value in the old things is not being faithful to the movement of the Holy Spirit for the post-modern Church.  Both are wrong.  Over the centuries God has led religious men and women to form many different expressions of total decidation.  The thing that all the various forms have in common is a hunger for God so strong that religious let go of family and career and self-determination in order to respond to that call.
My hope is that, in this "visitation" currently going on, the emmisaries from Rome will have their imaginations expanded as they discover in the women religious of the United States the hunger for God which they share but express differently.
7 years 4 months ago
I would very much like to know what a department of "spirituality studies" is; if this is an example of "spirituality" then I don't think much of it as compared to a religion. The universe is Christ who is coming to be? We must descend into solidarity with the earth? World religions are playing a greater role in the synthesis of a new religious consciousness? I've heard it before - on Oprah. It doesn't mean anything.
Sister Ilia mentions that orders like hers are shrinking and that the average age is 75, but then dismisses this reality with the airy certainty that God is doing something important with the women who share her spiritual views - somethign to do with evolution, "nothing less than the evolutionary shoots of a new future." That may well be, and I hope so, because the alternative is very sad. It seems more likely, though, that this kind of thinking is more of an evolutionary dead end. If we are supposed to take evolution as our theological guide, then we need to see that this spirituality does not seemed to be adapted for our time and situtation, and it does not replicate itself.
7 years 4 months ago
A thoughtful article by Sr.Delio whose scholarship I greatly admire. Her conclusion is fair that the conflict is about two different understandings of the council. The problem stems from the formation of the alternative leadership conference, which is divisive.  It requires religious to "choose", "to take sides" .  Then one side is perceived as more desirable, and preferred over the other. The more charitable and Christian approach is to encourage  diversity and seek to understand it.
7 years 4 months ago
When a hungry hand reaches out for bread it matters not whether the hand behind wears a black robe or a T-shirt, what matters is that the hungry gets fed.  The wimple of a  habit wearing nun, or the "hoodie" wearing sister from the Bronx - means just as little to God, but what means everything is love.  As in the Beatles song, "COME TOGETHER" - that Sisters, is my advice.
7 years 4 months ago
As I read Sister Dilio's article, it struck me that every useful, compassionate thing I've learned in life was from nuns. I went to Catholic schools from kindergarten through college. And when a moral question arises, do I turn to the bible or to a priest? No, I turn to my memory of the way Christ would have responded, as taught to me by the good sisters of many different orders. Whether they wore habits or mini-skirts, nuns are always consistent in my mind as people who understood how to do the right thing and then lived out their beliefs in the way Christ taught them.
I also have noticed since I was a young child that women Religious and men do not share the same support from the Roman Catholic church. Should young women feel called to a church that does not offer both men and women the same level of status and respect for their work? Women in developed countries have gained a lot of ground in the past 40 years in terms of employment opportunities, equality in marriage and equality in the courts.  Young women today expect that they have the same range of choices in life as men. That is, except within the Church.
Before the Vatican spends another minute assesing if the Church would have more women joining religious orders if nuns had to live more like they did pre-Vatican II, they should ask themselves: how would Jesus have treated these women? If they followed that thinking rather than constantly revisiting the tradition of the church, I think they would have more women compelled to join religious life.
 
 
Michael Olson
7 years 4 months ago


"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.                            

This article points up what happens when any small group, whether it be the Vatican or American religious fundamentalists, attempt to restrict Awareness, telling others in effect,  "We have encompassed God in our dogma, everything new is false."  Often it is discovered that what is thought to be new is actually ancient.

Teilhard was influenced by the East.  One of the most telling images from the East is when a child from the West and one from the East were  asked, "Where is God?" The child from the West pointed upward.  The child from the East placed its hand on his/her own heart. 

How close is God?  How close is your awareness, your breath, your heartbeat?  Find God there and express that as your own wisdom and freedom allows.

7 years 4 months ago
It seems to me that the religious in the USA who have opted for a different way of life to what Church authorities and Canon law understands as religious life, should be honest, opt out of the religious life they are not living and become members of a Secular Institutes - the way of life they are living.
Am not sure that what fr Radcliffe and Sr Ilia are talking about is anything new. It is the way of Secular Institutes that the church recognised decades ago and incorporated her Canon Law. So my word to Sr Ilia is simply be honest and convince your congregation and other such congregations into becoming a Secular Institute. Then there will be no reason for the present Visitation.
And by the way, just because many religious congregations belong to LCWR does not mean that it represents all the religious in those congregations. If the situation in the U.S. is similar to that in Australia I would suggest that there are many religious in the Congregations belonging to LCWR who lament the loss of the religious life that they professed many years ago.  
7 years 4 months ago
My aunt would have been considered rebellious for what she was doing in the Amazon.  She did not go to Brazil to fight the corruption in Government.  She went there to teach and spread the Word of God.  What she found was God's poor being treated inhumanely.  Having their land stolen, their families killed, their schools burned.  She could not teach, have a meeting or have a prayer service until people were fed, clothed and had a roof over their heads.  The wonderful leadership of the Sisters of Notre Dame have been tremendously supportive and continue to go to dangerous, impoverished areas all over the world and asked to perform miracles without stepping on anyones toes.   I as just a normal lay person find it amazing that our religious women are asked to do more and more with our priest shortage, yet they are criticized by those in Rome or as here in the Cincinnati Archdiocese for their proactive thinking or unusual tactics to help those most in need.  I have always felt that to fight the fight, you must get in the trenches, not supervise or criticize from a safe, comfortable place.  Now firing nuns for their thoughts????   What next, jail?
7 years 4 months ago
My admiration goes out to Sr. Ilia, who has written so eloquently of the struggle we all face in Religious life today.  Her honesty and fidelity to the guidance of the Spirit are inspiring.  I entered Maryknoll in 1950, at a time when we followed the traditional style of religious life.  As a missionary community this life style was often at odds with our charism of outreach to the poor, social justice, etc.  Then in Graduate School after Vatican II in 1968 I underwent a conversion after studying the documents and theology of Vatican II.  In both periods of my life, as with Sr. Ilia, I believe I was following the Spirit and was faithful to God's leading.  I love my Church, but am also loyally critical.  I love my community and the leadership which has helped us to move together with the Spirit into the future. I give thanks for the grace of living as a Catholic sister in these prophetic times!
7 years 4 months ago
Dear Sister Delio,
Your habit, a priest's collar or the robes of a monk have more power and influence than you can know, and were a large part of at least the emotional side of my Catholic conversion.  Considering I am a common man in type, it must be true that this had been the same, on a conscious or unconcious level, for many others.   
You obviously have a very good heart, and a superior intellect as well, but I see you over-thinking and over-feeling on this.   It is simple and true that in all human societies that "uniforms" are like icons, and without them our world is a less easy to navigate.  Policemen, Firemen, Doctors, Nurses, EMT, Military, etc.; all there to help, and yes even "save" us.  All readily recognized by their uniforms.   And we all feel a little more physically safe and secure in ourselves because of their visibility.   With the Religious, there is a certain spiritual safety & security well feel in your "professions" presence, that is the same.   This is a visceral, non-intellectual reaction in all of us.  While your passion and profession is known to you and can be seen in your work and words...  it cannot be seen when you're sitting in a bus station.  
When a young person, like I was, sees a Sister "in habit" on the street, in a hospital, or even at a social event; it sparks the imagination and curriosity.   I, from a non-religious protestant family, simply "knew" that Sisters were something special, who were there to help people in some way... like Doctors, Policemen, etc.  I'm afraid you and other Religious undervalue the impact you have by just being there.. in a recognizable way.  Without my childhood exposure to the habit, I seriously doubt that I, my wife, my children or granchildren would be traveling the Catholic path today.   I hope you value this & God Bless you! 
JUAN JARAMILLO M D MR
7 years 4 months ago
Matthew 26: 6-16 sheds some light on this issue: A woman adores Christ, and others get upset. The money spent on the costly perfume, they say, could have been used for the poor. And it is a sensible thing to say. Yet Jesus Himself rebukes them: "The poor you will always have with you..." It is at this point, according to Matthew, that Judas starts looking for an opportunity to hand him over. The work of the nuns "in the world" is good. But it doesn't have to be exalted by humiliating the work of the more traditional cloistered nuns, which is what this article does. Thank God for the Mother Angelicas of the world, now and throughout history.
7 years 4 months ago
I appreciate the article by Ilia Delio in "America"  magazine.  The most effective aspect of the article is that Ilia stated her faith experience, reflections on scripture and continuing conclusions.   It seems to me that her writing is an honest story of her Journey so far.  All of us have such a story through which we have been called to faithfulness to God. 
I have been a member of a Religious Order for almost sixty years.  I followed what was expected of me because I loved God very much.  This has not changed.
Still, as Vatican II commenced, I felt an uplifting breath of the Holy Spirit within me and around me.  I already felt called to do the work as invited to by the Document, Church in the World, written by our own Detroit, John Cardinal Dearden and his committee. It was from conferences and discussions with the Cardinal that the desire to me integrate what was deep in my heart with what was in the world around me.   
In the sixties, in our Order we formed groups (committees) dealing with various topics of religeous life.  I was a part of the committee dealing with Apostolic Life.  I did research into church documents. I did and active apostolic ministering in the lower east side of Manhattan where I lived and worked with the Fourth World Movement members.  The following summer, I spent ministering in the inner city of Kansas City, MO.  This was done in connection with the Parish  Community.  After those experiences, I wrote a supposition paper which was used by sisters of our community.  I went on to begin preparing myself to move from the suburb to the inner city of Detroit.  There, after spending two years being present, with another sister, studying the neighborhood and talking to people.  The need evolved so that I began the work with children and families who were struggling with poverty and numerous other challenges.  Studies showed the 50% of the families in that area lived below the Federal Poverty Level.
All of the above was done with the approval of superiors to  whom I was  accountable.  Though I am no longer living and working in the neighborhood, the Montessori School,  I established in 1978, is still serving children of the area. 
For me a very significant statement, found on the line of  THE PASTORAL CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH IN THE MODERN WORLD, GAUDIUM ET SPES,  Promulgated By His Holiness, Pope Paul the VI, On December 7, 1965, which states
"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men(and women) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way affflicted these are the joys and the  hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ.
Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts."
This is what I believe and follow as much as possible.  I cannot just forget that there was a Vatican II and all that is brought to the church andd the people of God.  It has led me.  It has led many religious women.  I know that it will continue to do so.
One more point.   Over and over I have heard about the decline in the number of members of Religious Orders.  I think about the priests.  This year there were 5 ordained in the Detroit Archdiocese.  I walk down the halls of Sacred Heart Seminary and look at the pictures of newly ordained priests of the past.  The numbers have been in the  40's, 30's 20's and now 5.  It is the same in all Archdioceses. 
The situation of a lack of women religious is the result of many factors the least of which is the wearing of the habit.     
 
       
7 years 4 months ago
I appreciate the article by Ilia Delio in "America"  magazine.  The most effective aspect of the article is that Ilia stated her faith experience, reflections and continuing conclusions.   It seems to me that her writing is an honest story of her Journey so far.  All of us have such a story through which we have been called to faithfulness to God.  I have been a member of a Religious Order for almost sixty years.  I followed what was expected of me because I loved God very much.  This has not changed.
Still, as Vatican II commenced, I felt an uplifting breath of the Holy Spirit within me and around me.  I already felt called to do the work as invited to by the vatican Document, Church in the World written by our own Detroit, John Cardinal Dearden and his committee. It was from conferences from the Cardinal and those that the desire for me to prepare myself and integrate what was deep in my heart with what was in the world around me.   In the sixties, in our Order we formed groups (committees) dealing with various topics of religeous life.  I was a part of the committee dealing with Apostolic Life.  I did research into church documents. I did and active apostolic ministering in the lower east side of Manhattan where I lived and worked with the Fourth World Movement members.  The following summer, I spent ministering in the inner city of Kansas City, MO.  This was done in connection with the Parish  Community.  After those experiences, I wrote a supposition paper which was used by the sisters of our community.  I went on to begin preparing myself to move to the inner city of Detroit and work with children and families who are struggling with poverty and numerous other challenges.  Studies showed the 50% of the families in that area lived below the Federal Poverty Level.
All of the above was done with the approval of superiors to  whom I was  accountable.  Though I am no longer living and working in the neighborhood, the Montessori School,  I established in 1978, is still serving children of the area. 
For me the very important Statement, found in the very first paragraph of 
THE PASTORAL CONSTITUTION ON THE CHURCH IN THE MODERN WORLD, GAUDIUM ET SPES,  Promulgated By His Holiness, Pope Paul the VI, On December 7, 1965, which states
"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men(and women) of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way affflicted these are the joys and the  hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ.
Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts."
This is what I believe and follow as much as possible.  I cannot just forget that there was a Vatican II and all that is brought to the church.  It has led me,  It has led many religious women.  I know that it will continue to do so.
One more point.   Over and over I have heard about the decline in the number of members of Religious Orders.  I think about the priests.  This year there were 5 ordained in the Detroit Archdiocese.  I walk down the halls of Sacred Heart Seminary and look at the pictures of newly ordained priests of the past.  The numbers have been in the  40's, 30's 20's and now 5. 
The situation of a lack of women religious is the result of many factors the least of which is the wearing of the habit.     
 
       
7 years 4 months ago
Sister Delio's comments sound to this Catholic convert much like my independent Protestant friends explaining why their theology and practice is better. This personalization of church is why the Protestant Church is splintering into thousands of unique groups from very fundamentalist to New Age.  The Catholic Church is hierarchal and theology and practice has accountability and that rescues us parishioners from theological personalization of the local pastor.  Sister Delio wants to be an independent Protestant, not a Catholic.
7 years 4 months ago
Another ostrich with her head in the sand.  The progressive sisters are about to go extinct and their "spirituality" has turned out to follow the path of Fr. Teilhard, a spiritual gelding if there ever was one.
Too bad the legacy of flaky sisters, priests, and bishops of the so-called "Vatican II" generation will be the reduction of the Catholic Church in the US to a small sect on the order of the Mormons.  Their dereliction of duty in failing to evangelize and catechize the laity in this country has doomed us to cultural and social irrelevancy for the foreseable future.
 
 
 
Peter Castaldi
7 years 4 months ago
Sister Ilia is a gift from God, sharing a journey which all of us must make  - beginning with a child's hopeful and naive view of God, moving to a more mature view of what God is and asks, ending with the simplicity of the child who accepts God on Her terms.  Thank you Ilia!  Please keep me and my loved ones in your prayers, I will keep you and yours in mine.
7 years 4 months ago
"To be a Christbearer is to focus on the inner depth of love. It is love that puts flesh on the face of God, love that makes Christ alive; love is the power of the future and the unfolding of Christ"-but not for the manic depressive, or women from alchoholic homes or the widowed? Wow.
Maria
7 years 4 months ago
"To be a Christbearer is to focus on the inner depth of love. It is love that puts flesh on the face of God, love that makes Christ alive; love is the power of the future and the unfolding of Christ"-but not for the manic depressive, or women from alchoholic homes or the widowed? Wow.
Maria
7 years 4 months ago
"To be a Christbearer is to focus on the inner depth of love. It is love that puts flesh on the face of God, love that makes Christ alive; love is the power of the future and the unfolding of Christ"-but not for the manic depressive, or women from alchoholic homes or the widowed? Wow.
Maria
7 years 4 months ago
"To be a Christbearer is to focus on the inner depth of love. It is love that puts flesh on the face of God, love that makes Christ alive; love is the power of the future and the unfolding of Christ"-but not for the manic depressive, or women from alchoholic homes or the widowed? Wow.
Maria
7 years 4 months ago
"To be a Christbearer is to focus on the inner depth of love. It is love that puts flesh on the face of God, love that makes Christ alive"-but not for the manic depressive, nor the woman from an alcoholic home, nor the widowed? Wow.

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