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Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

In praise of nuns in a still patriarchal church

Gerald SchmitzJo Piazza, If Nuns Ruled the World
(New York: Open Road, ©2014)

Just before Christmas Pope Francis made headlines with a pointed message to the Vatican’s top clerics warning of “spiritual Alzheimers” and other sins of bureaucratic hubris and sclerosis. It made me wonder if allowing a few women into this preserve of all-male power might assist in sparking a salutary shake-up.

The pope has spoken of “feminine genius” and a greater role for women in the church, though not in cracking the glass ceiling of the priesthood. The under-appreciated contributions of women spurred journalist Jo Piazza to redress that imbalance, observing: “Catholic sisters and nuns rarely receive banner headlines or magazine covers. They eschew the spotlight by their very nature, and yet they’re out there in the world every day, living the Gospel and caring for the poor. They don’t hide behind fancy and expensive vestments, a pulpit or a sermon.”

Although Piazza had nuns as teachers and wrote a master’s thesis on nuns’ use of social media, she wasn’t a very religious person. Then came the Vatican crackdown on American nuns beginning with the 2008 “Apostolic Visitation” — termed by some as the “Great Nunquisition” — that attempted to reign in suspected dissidents. Provoked by this patriarchal power play Piazza decided to tell the story of these dedicated women. Although their numbers have declined by 70 per cent since 1965, the vocation remains strong. As she puts it: “We live in a society constantly searching for ways to live an authentic life. Nuns already do. . . . After conducting countless interviews with nuns, I can say that these women have no doubt that Jesus Christ is the great love of their lives and service is their highest calling.”

Having covering celebrities as a reporter, Piazza found herself more impressed by the unassuming accomplishments of the nuns she met. Her cheekily titled book If Nuns Ruled the World profiles 10 nuns who shatter still prevalent stereotypes.

At 83, Sister of the Holy Child Jesus Megan Rice continues her anti-nuclear civil disobedience since a first arrest in 1998 after returning from two decades working in Nigeria. When a 2013 action against a nuclear weapons facility resulted in a three-year prison sentence, the Washington Post’s Dan Zak marvelled at her reaction to the verdict: “She was just this beacon of acceptance and love even though this heavy judgement had just been levied against her. She was so completely Christ-like right then.”

Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell says simply: “We’re faithful to the Gospel. We work every day as Jesus did in relationship to the people in the margins of society. That’s all we do.” During the 2012 presidential election campaign Sister Campbell made waves with her “Nuns on the Bus” tour to protest the budget proposed by Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan which would have cut $4.4 trillion in support for low-income families. She wasn’t the least fazed by his claims to be a devout Catholic. Drawing strength from daily prayer and meditation, in 2013 she organized another tour focused on immigration reform.

Sister of Notre Dame Jeanine Gramick’s work with the gay and transgender communities has drawn fire from the Vatican but she believes Christ’s love doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Sister of Charity Joan Dawber, who heads a New York City safe house for women survivors of human trafficking and sexual slavery, underlines how faith is central to her work: “If I don’t set aside time for prayer, I can’t live.”
Nuns aren’t just spiritually robust. Take the case of Sister of the Good Shepherd Madonna Buder who competes in Ironman triathalons. In 2012 she completed a record 46th at age 82!

Sister of St. Francis Nora Nash is a leader in shareholder activism demanding social responsibility and accountability from corporate executives. Ursuline Sister Dianna Mae Ortiz, who was raped and tortured during Guatemala’s years of internal oppression, works with survivors of torture and coalitions for the abolition of torture. Sister Tesa Fitzgerald counsels women in prison and heads a non-profit agency that provides post-release communal homes and skills training.

Sister of Loretto Maureen Fiedler, who hosts an Interfaith Voices program on National Public Radio, campaigns for gender equality and equal rights, including in the church as argued in a 2010 book Breaking through the Stained Glass Ceiling. Dominican sister Donna Quinn courts controversy in advocating for women’s reproductive rights and working with women seeking abortions.

In light of each new year’s challenge to make present the joy of the gospel, the stories of these women religious offer timely inspiration to others and to the life of an imperfect church.