Interview with Council in State Journal-Register about LCWR leadership assembly

Local nuns look forward to dialogue with bishops


The State Journal-Register

Posted Aug 18, 2012 @ 10:15 PM

Local Catholic nuns who attended a recent leadership assembly in St. Louis say they don’t harbor any bitterness toward church leaders and that dialogue about the future of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious is a prudent path.

Acknowledging hurt and bewilderment at an assessment by a Vatican office that found “serious doctrinal problems” with the LCWR, leaders of the group, backed by 900 attendees last week in St. Louis, and were buoyed by a meeting with Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle, a delegate from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who will be working with the group.

Two Springfield Dominicans who attended the get-together with Sartain, who formerly served as bishop of the Joliet diocese, described the atmosphere as “cordial and relaxed.”

“There was a calm and a real sense of trust as a beginning point,” said Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma, regional chairwoman for District 8 of the LCWR.

Sister Barbara Blesse said Sartain asked to know more about LCWR, which represents more than 80 percent of the nation’s nearly 56,000 women religious. He wanted to know particularly how women religious live out their vows after Vatican II, the ecumenical conference nearly 50 years ago that is credited with modernizing the church, she said.

She said Sartain also gave the LCWR a set of questions it must address, although she didn’t know what form of response it might take.

No taking sides

The Hospital Sisters of Third Order of St. Francis (Franciscan Sisters) and the Ursuline Sisters of the Roman Union are both members of the LCWR and had representatives at the St. Louis assembly. Both orders have sisters who live and work in Springfield.

A spokesman for the Franciscans referred a State Journal-Register reporter to the LCWR’s national statements. A representative from the Ursulines in St. Louis did not return a request for an interview.

Springfield Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, who was appointed earlier this year to help Sartain and Toledo bishop Leonard Blair in the process, was not present for last week’s meeting with Sartain and the LCWR national board. Through a diocese spokeswoman, Paprocki said Sartain plans to confer with Blair and him “on our next step.”

 Although numerous ideas were floated before the St. Louis assembly about LCWR’s future, local nuns say that remaining in dialogue was always a preferred route.

“There was nothing spoken about choosing sides or getting even,” said Sister Rose Marie Riley, the Springfield Dominicans’ prioress general who attended the St. Louis assembly. “The question was, ‘Can we move forward for the sake of the Christian mission?'” Added Sister Kathleen Cour:  “The only way to dissipate an adversarial relationship is to stay at the table and know where truth is on both sides.”

Public support

There have public outpourings in support of the nuns since a Vatican crackdown designed to bring the organization more in line with church teachings on sexuality and theology. That was evident in St. Louis, where supporters waving signs gathered outside the Millennium Hotel and inside, where copies of letters of affirmation were displayed.

Sister Pat Farrell, the outgoing president of LCWR, said the continued talks brought hopes of “creating more possibilities for the laity and, particularly for women, to have a voice in the church.” 

It’s in schools, hospitals and homeless shelters, long staffed by nuns, said Riley, where “the love for the sisters is at.”

“One of the signs I saw (in St. Louis) was ‘We are all sisters,'” recalled Sister Kathlyn Mulcahy. “That sense of solidarity is powerful, that we are all in this together.”

“We’re not seen just as ministering to them, but ministering with them,” added Cour, also an attendee. “We work in the same ministries together. They see us as partners.”

The local nuns said there continue to be misperceptions about LCWR and about presentations from LCWR assemblies that were taken out of context. The CDF assessment particularly cited a 2007 speech by Sister Laurie Brink, a Sinsinawa Dominican, who talked about some religious “moving beyond the church or even beyond Jesus.”

The LCWR “isn’t meant to be a teaching organization,” said Riley, but rather to help women religious focus on leading in a more collaborative manner.

“It’s very clear,” said Gemma, “that there is a misrepresentation of our central Christic stance. We are believers of Jesus Christ, and when we speak of the gospel, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

While LCWR leaders have acknowledged “an inherent tension” between church hierarchy and the organization, Gemma said no ground is going to be gained by coercion or talking points.

“This is going to be a time of listening for (Archbishop Sartain) to get to know the organization and the organization to get to know him,” she said. “To tell our story well takes time.”

“Authentic expression”

 Here is part of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious assembly’s response to a doctrinal assessment made in April by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

“While acknowledging deep disappointment with the CDF report, the members proclaimed their intention to use this opportunity to explain to church leaders LCWR’s mission, values, and operating principles. The assembly articulated its belief that religious life, as it is lived by the women religious who comprise LCWR, is an authentic expression of this life that must not be compromised… “The assembly instructed the LCWR officers to conduct their conversation with Archbishop Sartain from a stance of deep prayer that values mutual respect, careful listening and open dialogue. The officers will proceed with these discussions as long as possible, but will reconsider if LCWR is forced to compromise the integrity of its mission…”


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