Tag Archives: Catholic Nuns

Feminism in Faith

12 Mar

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, I wanted to promote Buzzfeed’s article Feminism in Faith: Four Women Who Are Revolutionizing Organized Religion.

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

Sister Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

The article highlights four women working within their faith community to bring about change:

Sara Hurwitz: the first publicly ordained Orthodox Jewish Rabba

Kate Kelly: an attorney getting the issue of ordination of Mormon women in the public eye

Elizabeth Johnson: a Catholic feminist theologian, nun and professor working for female ordination

Zainah Anwar: a Muslim journalist and advocate working to reinterpret the Qur’an’s verses that lead to taking multiple wives and beating wives

The article asks:

Why bother? Why fight? If you’re an educated feminist who was born into such a religion, why not convert to another that doesn’t relegate women to a second-class status? For each of these women, the answer relates to not only her devotion to her own faith, but to her community. This is no small thing: By a rough estimation, there are nearly a billion and a half women on Earth who are Orthodox Jewish, Mormon, Catholic, or Muslim.

Take a moment today to learn more about these women who are working for equality in their faith communities.

Who would you add to the list?

Living the Gospel Today with Joan Mitchell: Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation

12 Dec

The second video in Sister Joan’s series “Living The Gospel Today” is about Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation.

Happy St. Joseph’s Day!

19 Mar

As Sisters of St. Joseph we celebrate the feast of our patron on March 19 and take a break from Lent for festivities. Joseph is also the patron of the universal Church, so March 19 is a feast we can all claim. Joseph also gives us an example of an ordinary husband and father who faces extraordinary challenges. Here is a prayer to him.

Joseph, most ordinary, on this your feast,
help us listen to our dreams with compassion and openness as you did.
Help us stretch, hold, and deepen our relationships.
Open our embrace of the future
as you opened your arms to a child not your own.
In these hard times may we like you
dream compassionately, provide wisely,
and build community that can hold us together.
We ask this through Jesus, whom you claimed and named.  Amen.

Possible Futures for Catholic Sisters: The Fourth Scenario

26 Nov

Scenario 4: Reconciliation

Read scenarios one, two and three here.

Doing the work of dialogue and reconciliation resonated with sisters I spoke with at the 2007 meeting. In the scripture Sister Laurie chose for this scenario, Paul describes reconciling old and new as a core ministry in the Church: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who has reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5.17-18).

Reconciling is the painful process that countries such as South Africa, Guatemala, and Ireland have done in their truth and justice commissions to end the killings and impoverishments of too many. Reconciling involves dialogue, which can only really happen between equals. Dialogue is not women religious agreeing to what bishops order, nor vice versa. Real dialogue takes participants to new shared understandings.

Many sisters alive today participated in protesting the Vietnam War, the renewal of Vatican II, the Civil Rights movement, the continuing worldwide women’s movement, the gay rights movement. Today we acknowledge each of us sees from where we stand without a monopoly on truth. Science finds the cosmos in motion, its center everywhere. Truth demands circles of dialogue.

The bishops’ critique of Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God illustrates on what different pages bishops and sisters are reading their theology. The subhead of the book is Mapping Frontiers in the Theologies of God, a clue that Sister Elizabeth is looking at recent theologies, actually the work of some 175 theologians, who describe the suffering God of the Holocaust, the liberating God of the exodus and Mary’s Magnificat, the festive God of Hispanic culture, the black God of African American slave experience, the dynamic God of quantum physics and evolutionary theology, the boundary-less Spirit of ecumenism, Sophia God of feminist theology, and the womanist God of survivors like Shug in The Color Purple. Most bishops aren’t reading these theologians. Their critique insists theology must start with God’s revelation recorded in scripture rather than with God’s revelation in our human experience. Books groups with bishops might be a place to start the work of reconciling.

Sisters today live and minister in a world that is secular in its separation of Church and state but dynamic, democratic, inclusive, peace-seeking, earth-loving in its energy. It’s a world in which people live holy lives. Our rediscoveries of our origins have taken religious communities out of the cloister that the 1917 Code of Canon Law re-imposed and into the streets of the world to help the afflicted thrive, especially other women. The aggiornamento of Vatican II has taken sisters—to governance as equals, to ministry as theologians, to advocacy for justice for the poor, to outreach to people falling through the cracks.

In the last 50 years since Vatican II, sisters and our colleagues have taught two generations of Catholics who think critically and seek to serve in the world. Their grandchildren are now putting their faith into action and becoming social entrepreneurs who will go on without any of us who don’t keep up. Many have learned well the great commandments and Catholic social teaching.

To reconcile requires active engagement. Perhaps bishops might do the undercover boss thing and serve in our ministries as a way to begin dialogue and befriend our neighbors in the secular world—or book groups or dinners among friends.

What can I do to bridge the separate worlds of people and leaders in our Church?

How do I use my expertise and voice my experience for the common good?

Who sits at my table? Whose tables have room for me? At what tables am I committed to stay? What is at stake in our conflicts?

What helps me hold conflicts in tension rather than resolve them into polarities?

What is a book I would like to read and talk about with someone who tends to disagree with you?

This series was written by Joan Mitchell, CSJ.

Possible Futures for Catholic Sisters: Scenario 3

25 Nov

Scenario 3: Sojourning in a Strange Land

Read about the first and second scenarios by Joan Mitchell, CSJ.

The third scenario tells the heartbreaking story of Hagar (Genesis 21.9-21). Hagar is Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. African American women have long identified with Hagar because she is both a servant and a surrogate mother as many black women have been in our U.S. history. When Sarah cannot bear the child God promises, she insists Abraham have a child with Hagar. But after Sarah has her own son and watches Hagar’s son Ishmael flourish, she grows jealous and insists that Abraham put Hagar out of their tent and out into the desert with her child. God does not get the message; God does not abandon Hagar and her child.

This casting out is a woman against woman act, Sarah exercising her privileged position against Hagar. Similarly some of the 20% of the sisters in the U.S. that are in the more traditional religious communities have urged the Vatican investigations of the 80%, Sisters against Sisters.

Hagar runs away in Genesis 16 when Sarah deals harshly with her. Hagar sits near a spring where God sees her and promises her many descendents, the same promise God makes to Abraham and Sarah. The angel urges Hagar to go back and she does. “Have I seen God and remained alive?” Hagar asks and names the spring for El Roi, God who sees.

In Genesis 21, Sarah puts Hagar out into the wilderness. When the skin of water she carries runs out, Hagar sits apart from her child because she cannot stand to watch him die. God hears the child cry, and a spring appears. In the Quran, the sacred text of Islam, Hagar is the pioneer foremother whose sojourn in the desert begins the holy history of Muslim faith. Pilgrims on the hajj imitate her search for water in the desert. Hagar’s story is the original Arab Spring.

God sustains Hagar outside the tent of Abraham and Sarah. God’s tent has no outside.

The bishops investigating the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) charge us with sojourning in a strange land. They want to supervise our meetings and choices of speakers. They cannot imagine the Holy Spirit animating their would-be maidservants and helping us find sustaining grace in our contemporary wilderness.

This is not the scenario with which most sisters at the annual conference identified as we talked at tables. Sisters have indeed moved beyond pre-Vatican II boundaries but not outside the Church as the People of God, who stand in solidarity with the afflicted in our global world, not outside the gospel message or sacramental worship. Perhaps the bishops regard forging ecumenical or interfaith bonds as sojourning in a strange land. Or perhaps immersing ourselves in how evolutionary cosmology and quantum physics affect our theology of God is dangerous, or our commitment to sustain our planet, or our advocacy for people who are poor, or our commitment to speaking out for the common good. Still it is the Church that has called us to the prophetic ministries we pursue.

What tensions can communion among the people of God hold without breaking?

How might equality for women renew the Church and its mission to the world?

What is so threatening about sisters and about women in the Church?

Possible Futures For Catholic Sisters: The 2nd Scenario

18 Nov

Scenario 2: Acquiescence

Read about the first scenario here

The familiar household of Mary and Martha in the village of Bethany provides the setting for acquiescence (Luke 10.28-32). The conflict in this gospel story puts both Mary and her sister Martha in their proper places.

Martha wants Mary to help her with the work of hospitality. Instead of asking Mary to help directly, Martha asks their guest, Jesus, to tell Mary to help. She calls on Jesus’ authority to stir her sister into action. Psychologists call this triangulation.

Jesus exercises his voice of authority, telling Martha she’s busy about too many things and insisting Mary has chosen the better part. Feminists have noticed that the better part involves a subordinate position, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening without having any voice. But isn’t it proper and positive for a disciple to sit at a teacher’s feet? The scene clearly includes a woman among those Jesus teaches.

Luke writes in the middle of the AD 80s. He tells not only the story of Jesus’ ministry in AD 30 but also reflects the life of the Christian communities for whom he writes in AD 85. During Jesus’ public ministry Martha and Mary are Jesus’ followers and friends, eyewitnesses of his teaching. What if by AD 85 some people challenge women’s leadership among Christians? What if Mary and Martha’s home has become a house church in the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection? What if Martha extends hospitality to the community that gathers and finds Jesus present in their midst? What if Mary remembers and hands on Jesus’ teachings? What if Luke’s story functions to silence Mary and stop Martha from extending hospitality?

John’s gospel makes Martha and Mary much more active than Luke (John 11). Martha takes the place of Peter in the synoptic gospels, professing her faith in Jesus, “I believe that you are the messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11.27). Mary anoints Jesus’ feet in chapter 12, anticipating the same servant gesture that Jesus makes as his signature action at the last supper in chapter 13.

Mary and Martha are icons of active faith in John’s gospel. Luke’s gospel puts Mary and Martha into passive, subordinate roles.

In the LCWR investigation the sisters want dialogue with the bishops. The bishops want dialogue, too, but not as equals, which makes real dialogue impossible. They see themselves as the teachers who take Jesus’ place in Luke’s scene. Dialogue means obedience to their wishes—acquiescence.

The Mary and Martha story suggests that controversy about women’s place in the Christian community may have reared its ugly head from the earliest decades. Women through the ages have taken Mary and Martha as models, trying to balance activity and prayer in their lives, contemplating Jesus’ teaching in their hearts, assuming it’s not their place to speak up or out. In decades before Vatican II, women could not teach theology.

My community, the Sisters of St. Joseph, grew out of the preaching of Jesuit home missioners in France in the century after the Reformation, the 1600s. Women responded in great numbers to the needs of the sick and poor. Our Jesuit founder called women to do all of which we are capable, a call to magnanimity and excellence that has resounded down the centuries. The first sisters moved into houses among the poor, refusing cloister. The Sisters of St. Joseph were the first apostolic community to receive approbation from Rome. Apostolic means not cloistered. We wore the dress of widows at the time. Many religious orders that teach and serve the sick and the orphaned began much this way.

The Second Vatican Council challenged sisters to study our origins (ressourcement in Italian) in order to envision our future (aggiornamento). We reclaimed our initial commitment to the poor and to serving among the people. This went against the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which re-monasticized the sisters, establishing rules that separated us from our neighbors and obligated us to parts of the Hours.

Today sisters stand with the people of God and in our more horizontal Church, we no longer have or claim a place of privilege. Along with the women’s movement we have become active agents of change and educated voices for justice within the Church and in the world. The Vatican investigation first of religious communities and then of LCWR, the conference to which 80% of us belong, has resulted in unprecedented solidarity across communities. We cannot go back to pre-Vatican II ways of being— acquiesce. I doubt Mary and Martha went back either and put a lock on their house church.

What is women’s place in the Church?
What might a Martha active and inclusive in her hospitality today look like?
What might a Mary who stands up and speaks out look like?
What does it cost the Church to keep women subordinate in its structure?

Check back on Sunday, November 25th for the 3rd Scenario

Gospel Reflection for October 21st, 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

15 Oct

Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark 10.45


Jesus calls his disciples together when he hears the rest complaining about James and John seeking status.  He defines himself as one who serves, who gives his life to redeem all.  Jesus challenges his disciples to see they are following a servant, who wants to gather a community of equals for whom serving the rest is the most important activity.  Jesus’ instruction to his disciples continues to challenge us to service rather than status.

Whose lives challenge you to live gospel values rather than work for social status?

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More from this week’s Sunday By Sunday:Life coaches might well promote the attitude of James and John in Sunday’s gospel. When Jesus asks if they can drink the cup he will drink, they speak a bold and brash, “We can.”These two words in Latin form the motto of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet – possumus. The pioneering sisters in our community and other religious communities indeed lived bold and brash lives, building up the schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages that serve people to this day.

Read the full issue (pdf)

Dancing with Miriam

10 May

A guest post from Ellie Roscher

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” Exodus 15: 20-21

I love reading the story of Exodus because I believe it is universal. It seems to me that these beautiful tales of the Israelites bravely escaping slavery, wandering in the desert for forty years, and coming to the promised land of freedom is indeed the story of the movement of human history. In our own way, each individual and community is somehow moving from slavery to wandering to freedom.

In your individual or communal history,

Tell me about a time of captivity:

Tell me about a time of wandering:

Tell me about a time of freedom:

This passage comes right after the Israelites escape slavery under the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh’s chariots are swallowed up by the sea, but the Israelites walk through the sea on dry ground. They have a long road ahead, they are far from knowing the freedom of being home, but they are slaves no longer. After Moses leads the Israelites in a song to the LORD, Miriam takes the women to go dancing.

One has to wonder, “In the moments before their escape, who thought to pack the tambourines?” I mean really! Yet this scene, of women claiming their freedom with music and dancing is glorious and believable. Human history is saturated with examples of slaves preserving a culture of song and dance.

What modern day music genres and dance can be traced back to oppressed groups?

There have been many news stories lately about oppression against women. Sex trafficking of young girls is on the rise. Catholic nuns are receiving pressure from the Vatican. The gender wage gap is still embarrassingly wide in many professions. I love these two little verses in Exodus because they evoke such a beautiful, powerful visual of free women. I can picture Miriam, the prophet, leading the women in unabashed song of celebration. It is a visual that I am going to carry through my week. I love the truth in the verses, the fact that no one can be truly free until the women are finished dancing.

Where else do you see women struggling for freedom?

Photo courtesy of Lawrence OP via Creative Commons License
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