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She walks with her people no matter what the cost


Shout it from the housetops from Rochester to Rome: Margie Henninger is a woman who walks faithfully with her people, no matter how they are persecuted, no matter what the cost to herself.

Is she accompanying the poor in some barrio of Latin America, defending human rights against a capricious military? No. Does she minister in the Sudan or Sierra Leone in the midst of a civil war? No. Is she, perhaps, living in the Balkans where she accompanies Kosovo refugees? No.

Yet Margie’s situation is similar to all three. She defends human rights. She lives amid “civil strife” and accompanies people who feel like refugees. But Margie does these things within the Roman Catholic church. Her witness is in Rochester, N.Y., where she has chosen to stand with her people in the New Faith Community in spite of a warning that she will be dismissed from her religious community of 39 years, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester.

In a letter dated June 8, she received formal notice from Sr. Rosemary St. Peter, the general superior, that the Sisters of St. Joseph leadership had begun a formal process of dismissal because Margie continues to affiliate with the New Faith Community. She was given until June 18 to comply with an order, given under obedience, that she “cease all activity with the New Faith Community.” Margie has refused in conscience to do that.

As a woman religious myself, I am deeply pained by this threat of dismissal. I want the leaders of women’s communities to support their members fully when questions of conscience arise, but they too often find themselves caught in an ecclesial vise that pressures good people in unconscionable ways.

Indeed, this threatened dismissal is another ominous sign that we live in dangerous times in our church. Some in the Vatican have literally spent years going house to house to “theologically cleanse” the church of all dissenters. The smoke from the burning embers of past reprisals lingers on in the church as a warning to others.

Fear is rampant, so rampant that it can lead even good people to justify cooperation with oppressive acts. Fear can overrule a belief in human rights, needs for ministry and even moral values. Fear can lead even those who criticize patriarchy to find reasons to cooperate with it.

Indeed, many Catholics today praise, support and stand in solidarity with anyone who accompanies the physically poor or oppressed through persecution. But these same Catholics too often withhold support and even encourage abandonment of a cause when Catholics are oppressed by church structures. Few will stand publicly with the persecuted, lest the reprisals and punishment reach their own doorstep. Such is the way human rights violations spread -- in nations and in church. Such is the way “theological cleansing” works.

That’s why Margie Henninger and the New Faith Community are unique. The community stood its ground for its ideal of an inclusive church, even in the face of threatened excommunication. Margie walks with her people, even in the face of possible dismissal from her beloved religious community. “I am not doing anything I have not been doing for 20 years,” she said. “It is so sad, so very sad. I am being asked to turn my back on the very people I have walked with for 20 years and I cannot.”

Margie has had a remarkable role with her people for more than 20 years. In her early years at Corpus Christi, she went door to door, inviting people, including the homeless, to come to church. She founded a drop-in center that evolved into a health clinic, Dimitri House for the homeless and a Recovery House for alcoholic and addicted men where she ministered for 13 years. She was a leader in launching many of the outreach programs for poor people that made Corpus Christi one of the outstanding parishes in the United States until late 1998.

The crux of this crisis is structural. It lies in Rome, not Rochester. Vatican policies discriminate against women, alienate gay and lesbian people and fall far short of the ecumenical promises of the Second Vatican Council. Corpus Christi lived at the prophetic edge, calling the church to follow the ideals of Vatican II. Curia officials didn’t like it and most likely pressured Bishop Matthew Clark -- long respected as an open, progressive bishop -- to act.

Rarely in my life have I been more impressed by a group of Catholics than I was that weekend with the Corpus Christi parishioners. A wide swath of the community talked easily about faith and prayer, donated time and energy to welcome the poorest of Rochester (of course, that’s the gospel -- can we do otherwise?), and talked about inclusiveness as the bedrock of the gospel. Margie Henninger exemplified that spirit.

When someone writes the history of the last decades of the 20th century in the U.S. church, the story of Corpus Christi may be seen as one of the most significant developments since Vatican II. An entire community, acting in conscience to defend the rights of women, gay and lesbian people, and a welcoming spirit at the Eucharist -- stood up publicly for those ideals against repressive acts by church authorities. The New Faith Community is a sign that Catholic communities can claim a prophetic Catholicity and work to create a new type of parish that will ultimately be blessed and celebrated by the whole church -- even in Rome.

When that new day dawns, Margie Henninger will be lauded and honored as a woman who accompanied her people and remained true to her conscience. It’s just a pity that it isn’t happening now.

Sister of Loretto Maureen Fiedler is national coordinator of Catholics Speak Out, a program of the Quixote Center in Brentwood, Md.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999