The story of the Vatican’s investigation and highly critical report on the activities of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has captured my heart. A big reason is because of the role that Catholic sisters have played in my own spiritual and theological formation. I grew up Roman Catholic and they were my first teachers and role models. As a teenager, they listened without judgment as I brought my existential questions and doubts to them, and in my seminary studies some of the best thinking in theology and spirituality that I was introduced to came from catholic women religious. Joan Chittister was among them. In addition to being a prolific writer, Joan Chittister has also served as past president of the LCWR. Upon receiving an award for outstanding leadership in 2007 she retold this Hassidic tale:
“Master,” the disciple confessed, “when I study or join others in great feasts, I feel a strong sense of light and life. But when it’s over, it’s all gone. Everything dies in me.” And the old rabbi replied, “Ah, yes, of course. It is just this feeling that happens when a person walks through the woods alone at night. If another joins the traveler with a lantern, they can walk safely and joyfully together. But if they come to a crossroads and the one with the lantern departs, then the other must grope her way along — unless she carries her own light within her.”
In words that ring eerily prophetic in light of the events of this past week, Chittister went on to say that:
There are two churches in the woods, it seems: the church of Vatican I and the church of Vatican II. The question now is, will the two become one again — preserving the best of the past but bringing the light of the new? Or will they struggle so much for ascendancy that the Gospel gets lost in a morass of institutionalism, as it did after Trent?
And religious life is at a crossroads, too. Has it died or is it simply being born anew? The problem is that the answers to all those questions depend on you and me. They depend as never before on the fresh, new, creative leadership we bring to the crossroads. And it all comes down to the quality and the strength of the light within us. Most of all, it depends on whose light we ourselves are following and what lights we ourselves seek to ignite and leave behind.
(you can find a link to the full text of Joan Chittister’s remarks here)
I continue to be grateful for the light of faith ignited in my heart by the witness of Roman Catholic sisters. With countless others, I had hoped that the reforms initiated by Vatican II would continue to propel the Church towards an ever deepening commitment to make the gospel and God’s liberating love concrete for our times. Sadly, when I came to my own spiritual crossroads I discovered that I no longer belonged in an intransigent church steeped in patriarchy whose male hierarchy claims divine authority exclusively for itself.
As Margaret Swedish observed in her reply to a post by New Ways Ministry, this is indeed an extraordinary moment for LCWR, women religious and the US church. Together with all for whom Catholic sisters’ unstinting commitment to work for social justice serves to deepen their own faith or strengthen them in their own vocation I, too light my candle and pray for courage, deep wisdom and continued faithfulness to the gospel of Christ rather than the edicts of men.