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Her 1979 plea unanswered

NCR Staff

The kneeling figure being blessed by Pope John Paul II is Mercy Sr. Theresa Kane, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. It is Oct. 7, 1979, and she is about to make international news for her welcome to the pontiff on his first U.S. visit.

As part of her address, moments later, Kane said, “As women we have heard the powerful message of our church addressing the dignity and reverence of all persons. As women we have pondered these words. Our contemplation leads us to state that the church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of the church.”

Kane’s gently issued plea reverberated around the Catholic world. It was not what the pope wanted to hear. He was visibly annoyed.

Two decades later, would Kane have changed anything? And indeed, has anything changed?

“I’ve learned over the years,” said Kane, “that the appeal was even more urgent and critical than I realized. If it were possible, the only thing I’d change would have been the intensity of the appeal.”

The South Bronx-born Kane, these days teaching at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., believes the still-unresolved role of women in the church is a barrier to Catholic women across-the-board. One example: It affects religious life as “an obstacle to young women entering because they are seen as marginal to the structures of the church.”

Looking back to the 1979 papal visit, Kane said she thought that the pope arrived in the United States with a “very cloistered” view of religious life. His view was of “sisters in their convents going about their prayer life.” He was not familiar with nuns out and about their work in society, “not familiar with the active apostolate we had moved into, actively questioning the systems and unjust structures as we have,” she said.

The feeling in Rome, she said, was that the sisters had become too secular. Twenty years later, however, Kane -- who after completing terms as leadership conference president and president of the order, went into campus ministry before teaching -- believes “the pope has been listening.”

“I think he’s a listening person,” she said. “I certainly think he’s moved in terms of the roles of women in society -- very strongly on abuses against women in society: prostitution, slave labor, sexual abuse and about women being very much needed in church ministry.

“He’s not moving at all into ordination,” she said, “but I thought he might move on the role of women and the diaconate. He’s aware of it. And he still might. I’ve a feeling he’s going to want to do something like that before he dies. It makes sense. The very fact that he sent a message to me says there’s movement in him.”

Kane referred to a message delivered by Sr. Sharon Euart, associate general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and also a Mercy Sister. Euart accompanied a group of U.S. bishops who met with the pope in 1998. The pope, when he was told that Euart was a Mercy sister, asked if she knew Sr. Kane. When she said yes, the pope asked about Kane, if she was still active and what she was doing. Euart reportedly told the pope what she knew, and then he said, “Give my regards to Sr. Kane.” Some time later, when the meeting was ending and goodbyes were being said, Pope John Paul took Euart’s hand and told her to remember his message and “be sure to give Sr. Kane my greetings.”

“All this has to be a complete turning around for him because he came out of a very traditional background,” said Kane. As for women’s increasing role in the church: “There’s no way it cannot happen,” she said. “Pope John XXIII, 35 years ago, said one of the signs of the times was the emerging role of women in society.”

Kane continued, “In 1980, Fr. Tom Kelly (former National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general secretary, now Louisville archbishop) said he felt the most critical issue facing the Catholic church in the 21st century would be the role of women. I think he was absolutely right. It has to be much more the focus for church structures and the church institution.”

Kane has three takes on the domestic U.S. church: There is a divisiveness, a continuing anti-Second Vatican Council (1962-65) movement, and a quiescent, conservative hierarchy.

“We’re in a more divisive church than at first appears, but everybody’s trying to be covert or delicate about it. I think we’re in a waiting stage,” she said. “In this last 20 years, there’s been a lot of pressure and money from the right-wing Catholics to roll back Vatican II. Personally I don’t think it’s succeeding. The clergy and bishops have moved into a very traditional state of affairs, but people at large are not where the bishops and priests are.

“The U.S. bishops are even being more cautious on the social issues,” said Kane. She cited the bishops’ low profile on the death penalty and poor nations’ debt forgiveness as examples. “They need to be a lot stronger on the capital punishment issue. At their last meeting [November 1999] they didn’t give [poor nations’] debt forgiveness the attention it needed; President Clinton has spoken out more about it than the U.S. bishops. I see the bishops as nervous about everything.”

Including religious life. Kane referred to the small diocesan communities formed by Washington Cardinal James Hickey and the late New York Cardinal John O’Connor as “an attempt to continue a traditional religious life form.” The communities, she said don’t relate “to any national movement I’ve seen.”

O’Connor and Hickey, she said, “don’t seem to have any appreciation of the struggle we went through for a real renewal of religious life. [These new communities], while basically focused on one very important issue [the ‘life’ issue], focus on a tradition of religious life that I think is really gone now among women religious. And gone because it’s gone among women in the church.”

The passion her own Mercys have for women and children, said their former president, “will continue to impact church structures. We highlighted that at our [June 1999 chapter] when the sisters voted to develop forums for investigation and accountability regarding justice for women, especially within the Roman Catholic church and Mercy workplaces. It’s becoming a real focused issue,” she said, “and if it continues, we’ll attract women who want to be part of that vision.”

Kane, recently returned from a Santiago, Chile, meeting of Sisters of Mercy from 15 countries, said Mercy women are laying the international groundwork for being a global Christian community. “We’re combining to become stronger, even if not any younger.” That determination has at its core the refusal to be marginalized.

“You know,” she said, “if the role of women in the U.S. church is still marginal, in a way that’s understandable. You get a group of 300 men [the U.S. bishops’ meeting as the National Conference for Catholic Bishops in Washington] for four days,” she said. “They’re not there with a passion for the role of women in the church. Nor are they aware of the other implications or consequences that would come from that.

“If you had a group of women as equals at that conference, women bishops as well as men bishops, it would be very different,” she said. “The issues would be different. All the more reason to get this mix moving much faster than it is.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2000