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Religious Life

An action plan for justice

NCR Staff
St. Louis

The 1999 chapter meeting, said Sr. Betsy McMillan -- here with her colleague from Honduras, Sr. Eve Lallo, who works with Honduran Mercy sisters at an AIDS babies center -- was “a continuation of what we’ve been about for 30 years. We started with the external stuff. Now we’re at the heart, each discovering what we have to offer.”

“I no longer say, ‘Where do they need philosophy teachers?’ No, I look to see where there are other needs. Period. And then I see if I’m being called to that.”

And in Honduras, McMillan ended up teaching philosophy anyway -- along with conducting a campus ministry, teaching a diploma course in professional ethics and going to the hospice “to cradle AIDS babies.”

Whatever one’s age, said McMillan, responding to a new call brings with it qualms.

McMillan was chaplain at a huge hospital. “I knew what I was doing, most of it in English. I had all this claptrap around me. I was comfortable. And 59, and saying, oh gee, I thought I was just expected to fade away into the woodwork, when I got this call -- Honduras.”

She agonized, she prayed, she talked -- and went.

In the next stage, in Honduras, the question has been “How long should I stay? I was looking for a big sign from God,” she said. Instead, at the chapter meeting last summer, she heard futurist Barbara Hubbard Marx, the keynoter. McMillan ended up saying, “Heck, I’m young enough, I’m healthy. I did well with the language. It’s been a grace moment for me. It’s been great and it’s been difficult. But I think we’re called to do the difficult -- otherwise I don’t think I’d be in this outfit.”

Six thousand sisters and 1,700 Mercy associates were each invited to contribute their ideas to the “action plan” for the millennium, which the Sisters of Mercy adopted at their June 1999 chapter.

The plan they adopted committed the Mercys not only to opening 31 new inner-city Houses of Mercy, but called for:

  • Developing forums for investigation and accountability regarding justice for women, especially within the Roman Catholic church and Mercy workplaces;
  • Challenging the sisters’ personal attitudes and behaviors of cultural domination and racism, and asking for forgiveness;
  • Reducing resource consumption by 10 percent, and conducting a social analysis of the global economic system and its impact on the earth and people who are poor;
  • Exploring the reconfiguration of the existing 25 regional Mercy communities to maximize their human and financial resources for the common good;
  • Intensifying community life to nurture prayer, enliven themselves for ministry, strengthen their identity and welcome and sustain new members.

There’s already action behind these goals: three new Houses of Mercy -- in Baltimore, San Francisco and Staten Island, N.Y. As an indication of the shape of things to come, the San Francisco House, located in St. Peter’s convent, includes three Mercy sisters, a Presentation sister and three Mercy Corps volunteers who teach and work in the parish and local community.

The parish shelters the homeless, has an after-school daycare program and provides space for CARECEN, the Central American Resources Center that offers legal and medical services to Central American immigrants.

Mercy moved to battle racism and white privilege, even within the order. “We’re learning to be touched by our members from other countries,” said planning committee member Sr. Judith Carey of Hartford, Conn. “Mercys want to be multicultural.”

Mercy has groups within groups. There’s an Alliance of Sisters of Mercy of Color; there’s a Mercy Latin-American Caribbean Conference. (The chapter itself had a buddy system where each non-English-speaking sister was paired with a sister-interpreter.)

“Racism,” said Belize’s Sr. Carolee Chanona, “is almost part of the human condition. We’re beginning to raise our consciousness about it in our midst where there’s been, perhaps unwittingly, unconsciously, a predominant culture. I think it’s been complicated by the fact there’s also a religious culture that masks some of the other cultural dominations or behavioral patterns or attitudes.”

“Racism’s a problem in Guyana,” said Sr. Mary Noel Menezes. When it was British Guiana, she said, the Portuguese climbed the economic ladder but were never allowed in the social milieu. These days the country is 51 percent East Indian, 43 percent African, negligible whites and “there is a reverse racism.”

The chapter’s renewed emphasis on spiritual life “is not a question of restoration” of pre-Vatican II ways, said outgoing president Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, “but finding new ways to embody the values. We opened up the church’s treasures, the church’s spirituality, the whole biblical renewal was offered to us. Our new prayer book may sound like a small thing, but it was a tremendous three-year project intended to embrace the people-focused treasures of the church and our Mercy tradition and still leave room for creativity.”

Menezes, who lives and works in a Guyana orphanage, reached back into Mercy history to explain how creative Mercys get.

The Mercys in Guyana were being called to a mission deep in the country’s remote south. Only one sister volunteered, and the bishop wouldn’t let her go alone. Impossible.

A young woman who worked with the sisters offered to go, too.

“Overnight,” said Menezes, with a broad smile, the young woman “was postulated, noviced and professed. And off they went.”

Mercys -- a flexible approach to the impossible.

They also have a very flexible approach to retirement. Indeed, the Mercy retirement package is simplicity itself: Work until you drop or work until you want to stop. Very few of them seem to ever want to stop.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000