It was an Ash Wednesday at my all-girls' Catholic high school. The Sisters of St. Joseph, who ran the school, had devised a Lenten service in the cafeteria. Or maybe it was a "retreat." Anyway, we all inflated balloons and wrote our sins on them. Then we prayerfully popped the balloons. One of our feistier friends refused, and went around all day carrying a balloon with "LUST" written on it.
That was sometime between 1972 and 1975. We did more conventional Catholic things as well--the actual sacrament of Penance, for instance, or Mass. Being teenage girls, we were not prone toward taking much of anything seriously, but we took the Religion Department less seriously than most. Even then, the sisters tended toward do-it-yourself liturgies and social-justice crusades that did little to capture our imaginations. We dutifully created collages of multiracial faces for class projects and boycotted grapes and lettuce for the farmworkers. But in a time of convulsive societal change, the convent held no mystery or fascination for us. Not surprisingly, the numbers of women entering religious life began to plummet in those very years. Several sisters in our school left the order before we graduated.
All this has weighed on my mind throughout the furiously partisan reporting of the latest dust-up between the Vatican and America's "progressive" religious orders of sisters (incorrectly called nuns, by the way--nuns are cloistered). My own experience was much richer and more complex than the current media caricatures on either side. The sisters' greatest gifts to us, I will admit, had little direct connection to Catholic doctrine and practice. Rather, they were powerful witnesses to "sisters doing it for themselves," in the best sense of the term. Here were administrators, scholars, teachers and counselors who lived in a world that seemed utterly removed from male domination. Some of them were quirky and a few were downright dotty, but most were tough-minded and able, and some were unforgettable in their brilliance, caring, humor or strength.
Many of the sisters who taught me are still alive, and some are still teaching. Much of their ministry now centers on taking care of their own aging membership, which they do with compassion and heroism. To think of their being hurt, after a lifetime of selfless service, by the recent firestorm is painful to contemplate. But so is the reality that the leadership of many of these orders has wandered into some strange theological and ideological places, some of them barely recognizable as Catholic or even Christian. And now the male leadership of the Church, having set its own sterling example in the clergy abuse crisis, has called the sisters' leaders to account, setting the stage for yet more division and discord.
The whole mess gives me a headache, because after kidding fondly for years about administrative and liturgical "nun follies" (yes, I know, not technically nuns), I now find myself feeling very defensive about the sisters and distressed about the way they're being handled. More thoughts to come.