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Albany Sister of St. Joseph in Article on Apostolic Visitation
Lives of Nuns under Review
by Carol DeMare, staff writer
Albany (NY) Times Union, April 11, 2010
As teachers, nurses and social workers, they built Catholic schools, hospitals and orphanages across the nation. They strive to live the good life, faithful to their vows and their ministry.
Now American nuns are under investigation by the Vatican, which has ordered a review of the communities of religious women to determine whether they have strayed from their vows, their calling and their faith.
The three-year, $1.1 million study, known as an apostolic visitation, has infuriated many—nuns and laypeople—who see it as an assault on stalwarts of the church.
While the probe is in no way tied to the scandal of sexual abuse by priests that has engulfed the Roman Catholic Church, skeptics wonder if the inquiry into the nuns is a diversion to distract the public.
The reasons given for the visitation and its scope are broad. It will look into the "quality of life" of religious orders and how they contribute to the church and society. Some see it as a way to rein in sisters who may not be living up to the principles on which their orders were founded.Others suggest a brighter side: the study will explore dwindling membership and enlighten nuns on increasing vocations.
A second Vatican study, called a doctrinal investigation, focuses on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the U.S., an organization that represents nearly 1,500 leaders of orders.
The sisters, whom many remember from parochial school or religious instruction, who lived in convents, walked in pairs and wore black robes and veils, began to change almost 50 years ago.
The Second Vatican Council, begun in 1962 under Pope John XXIII, relaxed church rules. The Mass changed from Latin to English. Parishioners became part of services and sat on parish councils.
Sisters gradually shed their habits for secular clothes, moved out of convents and into private residences, took jobs in the business world and at non-Catholic colleges. In some cases, they advocated on behalf of what church leaders looked down upon as liberal causes, like allowing female and married priests and accepting homosexuality.
Several local sisters were adamant they remain dedicated to their vocations.
"We define ourselves as wholly contemplative and wholly apostolic," said Sister Joan Gannon of Albany's Religious of the Sacred Heart. Education is the order's mission, and Gannon taught school, but also supported migrant farm workers in Florida. The 74-year-old Washington, D.C., native is a liaison for sisters living at Albany's Teresian House, a nursing home. Just because sisters wear street clothes and work in society doesn't mean they have forsaken their vows or "the reason for joining a religious community," she said.
Sister Paula Toner is the U.S. Provincial of Sisters of the Sacred Heart and is based in St. Louis. "The people in Rome who are responsible for religious life and religious orders, I hope this gives them good opportunity to have a close look at how religious women in this country are living. I hope they will have a renewed appreciation for who we are in the church and the faithful we serve."
The Rev. Kenneth J. Doyle, pastor of Mater Christi Parish in Albany and longtime chancellor for public information for the Albany Diocese, is familiar with the visitation, but doesn't know what it's about or whether it stems from any kind of Vatican dissatisfaction. He said after Vatican II, "The trend was moving away from large congregational living to living as individuals or as two to three nuns in apartments." The Vatican may be looking at "whether that really promotes religious life."
Marge O'Brien of Delmar was educated by Sisters of Charity straight through nursing school at New York's St. Vincent's Hospital. "They are good women who are living in the world and seeing what is going on in the world, and they are willing to be out there, helping people, preaching the word of God," O'Brien said. "Nuns understand so much better what these people are going through, certainly in the poor communities."
Chosen to direct the study is Mother Mary Clare Millea, an American who is superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Her directive came from Cardinal Franc Rode, who is in charge of religious communities for the Vatican. Millea, who lives in Rome and wears a habit, will lead a contingent of 75 nuns. Rode conceived of the visitation in 2008 while at a symposium in Massachusetts on religious life, hearing speakers criticize religious communities. The Vatican announced the study in early 2009. In November, Rode said, "Above all, you could speak of a certain secularist mentality that has spread among these religious families, perhaps even a certain feminist spirit."
Sister Mary Rose Noonan, 58, communications director for Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet at their Latham Provincial House (pictured in photograph on right), reads everything she can on the issue. "They say they're doing it because they know there are so few people coming into religious communities in the United States," she said. The cardinal "figures this is a great opportunity for communities to look into themselves and do a little introspection."
Some sisters, who didn't want to go public with their names, called the investigation "ridiculous." Noonan didn't want to get into any possible "hidden agenda." "We interpret everything in the most positive stance," she said. "People get very emotional. We're welcoming it as a thoughtful self-examination."
Noonan's order was formed in France in 1650 by Jesuit Jean Pierre Medaille, and through the years, the sisters have taught and been nurses. They founded The College of Saint Rose in 1920 and St. Mary's Hospital in Amsterdam. Noonan said while she doesn't think the visitation is needed, "We do have the confidence of knowing that for 360 years, our sisters have been incredibly faithful to the call of our founder, to the church and the gospel."
Some of the faithful, like Irma DeMarco, 74, of Niskayuna, are unfamiliar with the visitation. "What they've done for us," she said about the nuns. "I grew up with my religion. They had a big influence on my life. I am shocked," she said when told of the probe.
For many devout Catholics, the change to secular wear was hard to accept. "There was never a group of women that gave more to the development of the students that they taught," said Ellen Lewis of Troy. "I'm old school. There was a certain respect that the students had for the nuns when they had the habits on. After Vatican II, they changed outwardly ... Students didn't see this person as a nun."
Her son, Richard J. Lewis, 40, grew up in Lansingburgh, attended Catholic schools and has a long-standing loyalty for the Sisters of St. Joseph. Last month, he flew in from his Washington, D.C., home to attend the sisters' annual Ziti Dinner. He suggested the "current leadership in Rome is trying to direct the U.S. Catholic Church to come back into the fold (and) tighten its grip and regain control." He said it's not working to apply old rules to "modern-day things."
Marge O'Brien, who also attended the ziti fundraiser, sees hypocrisy in the current events. "The Vatican has the right and perhaps the responsibility to look at these things," she said, "but they also need to look at themselves more closely and understand why the religious orders are acting the way they are ... The other side of the coin is they are losing Catholics left and right. The Vatican is stuck with its head in the sand."
Sister Frances MacKay of Little Sisters of the Poor in Latham, and local superior Mother Celine Therese wear habits and live in a communal setting where they run a nursing home and apartments. "We have daily Mass here and we say our office together every day" Ten sisters at the complex say morning, evening and nighttime prayers in unison, MacKay said. "We have the support of community life, we share everything." The visitation is "affirming our vocation, and we are happy to share the life we live in our religious community," Mother Celine Therese said. "We live to serve the Lord in the person of the aged poor. We try to give witness to the Lord by living our vows, chastity, poverty, obedience and hospitality."
So far, 20 U.S. communities, none in the Capital Region, have received letters to expect a visit.