Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nuns in America on NPR

On Tuesday, Talk of the Nation, the afternoon call-in show on National Public Radio, aired a half-hour story rooted in the Apostolic Visitation of American nuns. To listen to the show, click here. I have to say when I heard about it on Monday afternoon I was really excited. I was a little nervous about who might call in, but I was also interested to hear how this story would go on a longish format news show, and who the speakers would be.

National Catholic Reporter, a decidedly liberal Catholic publication, has had almost weekly articles and editorials on this subject, mostly defending women religious in this country and expressing distress over the Vatican's decision to investigate women religious and their leadership organization, the LCWR. The most hard-hitting of these articles is one by Ken Briggs, author of Double Crossed: Uncovering the Catholic Church's Betrayal of American Nuns. In his article, he sees the investigation of the LCWR as a very bad sign for women religious. The LCWR, he believes, faces two bleak choices: death as an organization or living a very compromised life towing the line the Vatican is laying down. If the LCWR cannot discuss issues that are important to the real lives of American women religious, and that they believe furthers the mission of religious life and the Church, then what are they about?

What I like very much about the NPR program and about the recent coverage is the focus on two things. First, women enter religious life for one reason: love of God and desire to serve God. It is a life that gives them meaning and purpose, and that purpose is rooted first and foremost in their love of God and the Church. Second, their ministries and their lifestyles are driven by Church documents, the documents of Vatican II. These women embraced the Church's teachings like no other, were told to look at their original charisms and go back to their founders and "reform" their order so that they are not the service arm of the church, living in poverty and cloistered, but discover what it is they were and are called to do. Most of these orders were founded centuries ago by French, German, Italian and Swiss nuns who were motivated by service to the poor. Some gave aid to prisoners specifically. Some taught, and others lived with the poor directly. Benedictines, who were indeed cloistered in Europe, served God through lives of prayer and also attempted to meet the needs of the immigrants in their area who were struggling to build America.

What comes across in the radio program is the absolute clarity that I also hear from the Sisters I know, about their lives and faith and also about Vatican II and how it shaped them. These women are strong, proud, clear-sighted and full of God's love and the Holy Spirit. Their like will not be seen on this earth again.

And to bring harsh criticism and make their difficult lives more difficult still, well it just seems like plain meanness to me. These women have created a meaningful and quite successful way of life here in the United States, within the constraints of the Catholic Church. They have also found ways to be less hierarchical, more communal in their decision-making. This has allowed them to partner with laypeople in a way that has benefited vast numbers of people in the world. They are actually the most healthy vision of what it means to be Church that I've encountered.

To learn even more about Sisters and their history in America, visit this site for the currently touring exhibit, "Women & Spirit," put together by the LCWR, a comprehensive historical exhibit of the lives and work of women religious in the United States since the Ursilines arrived in New Orleans in 1727.

1 comment:

Sarah Jolie said...

Susan... excellent post. Thanks. I haven't had a chance to listen to the NPR piece yet, but I will. Saw your smiling face on Julia Sweeney's blog by the way (in one of your comments!)