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Gazing into the true face of the church


The recent meeting of leaders of religious orders in a downtown convention center here provided a small window into one of the great, ongoing stories of fidelity and prophetic witness in the church.

Justice and peace are familiar concepts to NCR readers, perhaps for some of us a bit too familiar. The words become frayed, robbed of their edge through years of overuse. But sit in a room with 850 women religious for whom the words are descriptions of everyday life, and they take on new life. It’s the ageless story of the quest for a better world, continuously taking on fresh meaning in the work of these women and the congregations they represent.

A quick-cut video, shown at the joint meeting of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, told part of the story:

  • In Walls, Miss., brothers, sisters and priests of Sacred Heart Southern Missions built shelter for 38 families;
  • in Oklahoma, members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes organize education and social services with the help of Dominican men and women;
  • in Cincinnati, members of four congregations travel around bringing health care to the needy in their “Moms and Babes” mobile health care unit;
  • in Milwaukee, 19 congregations are collaborating in a ministry to develop housing for the elderly.
  • in New Orleans, priests, brothers and sisters care for patients afflicted with AIDS.

And the list goes on and continues in the conversations in the corridors and at receptions. “Our sisters are working with poor women to help them get educated ... ” “Our sisters are in Mexico. They’re seeing firsthand the results of NAFTA ... ” “Our sisters are involved with women in prison ... ” “Our congregation is doing some incredible work in the inner city in ... ”

Such exchanges, part of the meeting’s theme of “human rights at the heart of our mission,” was a welcome, if unwitting, counterbalance to the recent stream of news out of Rome.

As the nuns, priests and brothers were gathering here for the conference, the news was breaking that the Vatican had condemned the writings of the late Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello. In recent weeks the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had also issued documents limiting the power of national conferences of bishops and extending the reach of infallibility.

Often, of late, headlines in NCR have dealt with this continuing deconstruction of church renewal. The pronouncements from Rome, the assaults on church thinkers and other church workers by the far right, the Vatican-mandated changes to liturgical texts already approved by the American bishops, all can add up to a seemingly unremitting gloom.

We’ll continue to do those stories because they constitute the record of the church as it lurches unevenly and divided toward the next millennium.

But gloom is not the whole story. Several years ago, the editors here sensed that a lengthy and demoralizing siege was underway that would ruin the careers of some and challenge the faith of many, and at that point we decided to place new emphasis on certain aspects of this paper’s mission.

Of course we would report the siege in detail, but we would also make a special effort to look at “what works,” to chronicle the signs of hope and health that we knew were all around, the stories of where the faith was being lived out, in large and small ways, throughout the church.

We began visiting parishes (and continue to) that are powerful witnesses in their communities for the ministries they undertake. Other parishes show us striking models of multicultural cooperation.

The paper instituted a new feature -- Illuminations -- to draw attention to lives that enlighten in distinctive ways their own corners of church and world. And in a more limited way, the column Keeping Faith provides snapshots of what extraordinary moments can result from faith lived in ordinary circumstances.

The goal in seeking out the signs of hope is to keep us all aware that the breadth and texture of this people of God is grander than any of us can begin to imagine in any given moment.

More and more we would report on those providing an alternative to the strict authoritarianism and condemnations that Pope John Paul II deems essential to church governance in the twilight of his reign.

And that’s what was behind the trip to Milwaukee.

The overwhelming ratio of nuns to priests here reflected the fact that there are many more women’s congregations than men’s and that the women, on average, send more delegates per congregation than the men.

Nuns, it might be said in a glib moment, are an old story, literally and figuratively. What new could possibly be forthcoming from another gathering? Perhaps nothing.

The demographics, for certain, are daunting. Of the 75,129 nuns in the United States, nearly half, or 36,651, are over 70 years old. Of the 38,478 under 70, only 5,725 are under 50. The numbers drop off even quicker in the youngest categories: There are only 623 in the whole country between the ages of 25 and 40, according to a 1997 survey of the National Religious Retirement Office.

Perhaps, then, this conference should be talking about who’s going to turn out the lights when the show’s over. But these women, who represent about 90 percent of the nuns in the United States, appear to be charging ahead, perhaps real fools in the biblical sense, as if that tomorrow -- the end of nuns as we know them -- will never happen.

Maybe it’s denial, but more likely it is, as a number expressed informally, a sense that in the future things will be smaller, different, but not altogether missing.

In the meantime, there simply is too much work to be done to become paralyzed over numbers. The work is inspiring, and in the coming year we’ll be chronicling more of it in these pages.

Statistics say that in the not-too-distant future the presence of nuns in the U.S. church will be sharply diminished. Perhaps new forms of religious life are, at the moment, straining to break through the surface to replace the old.

Whatever happens, whoever signs up to take over their work, the nuns of today will leave a powerful legacy. That is why we’re betting on the example of the nuns when looking to the future of the church -- after the anger of the deconstructionists finally exhausts itself, when the last condemnation has been leveled and the final heretic cast out. Then, the truest face of the church will remain in the legacy of the nuns and others like them.

They have planted deep and wide, across racial and social barriers, across denominational differences, across gender differences and in those many places where ecclesial bickering is absolutely irrelevant to the proclamation of the gospel.

Tom Roberts is NCR’s managing editor.

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998