Jeffrey J. Guhin

I decided while Iwas living with nuns that I wanted to be a priest. I live with two of them, Pat and Ellenrita, and a fellow my own age, Mark, who’s also serving a Dominican Volunteer year in the Bronx. The nuns are pretty easy to live with, once you learn to clean up the shower, make sure nobody calls after 9 p.m., never admit to rooting for anyone but the Yankees, get used to at least two episodes of “Law and Order” a night, commit yourself to non-violence, learn how to ask women your mother’s age about their relationship with God, and develop strong cooking skills based on ingredients from a neighborhood store with no tortillas and 67 kinds of pasta. We also pray together, which is really great, except for the days when we pray at 6 a.m., which could be great, if you and your roommate would wake up. The best part of living with nuns is community prayer, mostly because it puts Christ at the center of our lives and the psalms are beautiful, but also because, at 6 a.m., they don’t require too much thought.

I don’t live with nuns in a contemplative order. This becomes quite clear when Pat is watching basketball. Strictly speaking, they are religious sisters, not nuns, and they belong to one of the 33 Dominican congregations in theUnited States. As stated on their Web site (www.opblauvelt.org), the Blauvelt Dominican Sisters were founded in 1878 by Sister Mary Ann Sammon to care for homeless and orphaned children. Today there are over 250 Blauvelt Dominican Sisters and associates committed to continuing her compassionate presence and ministry. Both Pat and Ellenrita have done a lot of work for their Blauvelt Dominican motherhouse in trying to get new sisters. But they call themselves nuns anyway, mostly because everyone else does. When I was thinking about being a priest, I told one of the other Blauvelt sisters I know that I’d really like to be a nun.

“Well,” she said, “The hierarchy is just going to keep you down, I guess.”

Religious women know quite a bit about the hierarchy keeping them down. You get a sense hearing their stories—about bishops giving cold shoulders, dioceses not planning adequately for nuns’ retirement, sisters working tirelessly for the poor only to be criticized for not doing “regular work”—that institutions and some degree of structural sexism have let them down and kept them there.

The women I live with couple a deep love of Catholicism with a simultaneous faith and skepticism about the church and its structures. I was talking to Ellenrita on the drive into Highbridge Community Life Center, an agency of about 100 people in the South Bronx where she works as the program director and I as a case planner with at-risk families. I asked her what she would think if no one else entered the Blauvelt Dominicans, and they died out in 50 years. She looked me right in the eye and said: “Our job is not to maintain institutions. It’s to serve our communities and to live the Gospel. The important question is whether or not we’re doing that and what your generation is doing to keep our work alive.”

These are not the sorts of things I’m typically able to discuss on my morning commute, though I’m grateful, if not a bit intimidated, by the example. And the way I feel I can best serve communities and live the Gospel right now is by entering the seminary, even if I have always worried that my desire to be a priest is a bit too clouded by personal ambition. There are a lot of famous priests, and quite a few of them live very well. They could be my ticket in, my easy access pass to church connections and free food, shelter and health insurance and the opportunity to do all the writing and social justice activism I want.

I’m worried it’s too easy for us men. Dorothy Day wrote about the importance of precariousness in her own vocation, and I wonder how much she understood this, not only as a layperson dedicated to working with the homeless and forgotten, but as a woman, whose role in society (social advances duly acknowledged) is still on the other side of the power balance. I think Day was right when she said there is a real solidarity that arises from this choice to have less.

Pat and Ellenrita seem to think so too. They have dedicated their lives to the people of the South Bronx, just as thousands of other women religious have given themselves to their communities around the world. They’ve got little chance for prominence in today’s church, and they choose careers with low odds of major social promotion or national renown. They have given themselves to Christ for the same reason the first apostles did: because they love him and because they think he’s right.

Most men enter religious life for these same reasons, but I think something about our power limits us. In my experience, women religious—more than men—tend to know how to listen rather than lecture, to be emotionally vulnerable rather than insist on “ontological differences” and to create communities based on support rather than hierarchy. I’ve met a lot of women in both religious and lay communities who can’t do any of these things and plenty of men who can, but I still can’t help thinking that Pat and Ellenrita’s absence from the power structure has made them less dependent on it and more capable of love. We men have a lot to learn from women religious. And I’m not just talking about Pat’s tips on jump shots.

I don’t believe that women are holier than men, that women have a “feminine nature” men should imitate or that sexism is justified by its results. I do believe that I want to serve Jesus as a priest. And I feel that some sisters have shown me how.

Jeffrey J. Guhin works as a case planner at Highbridge Community Life Center in the Bronx, where he is serving with Dominican Volunteers U.S.A. He graduated from Loyola University New Orleans in May, 2003.

Comments

Dan Abben | 7/30/2004 - 3:04pm
Thank you for Jeffery Guhin's article "Living with My Sisters" (July 19/26, ). It was refreshing to read such a thoughtful reflection about what we can all learn from women religious.

I am a recent graduate of a college run by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs). During my time there, I received an education infused with the BVM Core Values of Freedom, Education, Charity, and Justice. In watching the BVMs, I have learned what it means to be a person of faith called to live in interdependent relationships with others; this group of women truly know the meaning of the word 'community.' As someone now working for the Church, I hope to use the model of leadership that I have learned from them in my own ministry, an egalitarian model rooted in diversity, respect, and inclusion.

If Mr. Guhin remains willing to learn from the example of others, values the gifts of all members of our community, and continues to remain open to the Spirit, wherever he (or she) may lead him, he is on his way to becoming a wonderful priest.

francisco | 7/26/2004 - 11:47pm
How interesting. I lived with Blauvelt Dominicans for 5 years way back in the 1940's at their St. Dominic Home. Ministries available to Sisters at that time were not as varied as today: hospital, school, orphanages. Today, they are into everything (thank God). Some Sisters were wicked softball players. They didn't have to slide into home base: they hit far enough so that they can just run. As Jeff can attest, they work hard, play hard and pray awfully hard. But they always did that. Today, I am a Priest because they taught me all those things as a child. The Sisters lit a lot of sparks, but not everyone knew how to keep them ignited. Although Bronx born and raised, I now minister as a Priest in Honduras. I am also a Dominican, belonging to the Priests' Fraternity. Keep the sparks flying, Sisters!! ¡ADELANTE LA PREDICACIÓN!
Margaret Kavanagh | 7/21/2004 - 9:46am
Jeff Guhin's article, "Living With My Sisters," was a refreshing reflection on the life of women religious today.

During the 2003-2004 academic year, the Sisters in my local community shared life with another Dominican volunteer, Karen Gargamelli. The experience was profound. Karen's passion for justice, her wonderful sense of humor, and her boundless energy inspired us.

Thank you to all the young women and men who give of themselves as volunteers. We are all bless by their generosity.

Mary Ann Foy, R.S.C.J. | 2/9/2007 - 4:26pm
Several of my community read with delight “Living With My Sisters,” by Jeffrey J. Guhin (7/19). Here is a young man whose heart is in the right place, regardless of having to sacrifice his vocation to the sisterhood! Sisters need priests of this caliber in their lives—those who question their comfortable lifestyle, their positions of privilege and power, and those who “listen rather than lecture.” I salute Jeffrey and his vocation. His reflections give me hope.

Nancy F. Gallagher | 2/9/2007 - 4:23pm
Jeffrey J. Guhin’s article, “Living With My Sisters” (7/19), offers great hope for the future of ministry and the Catholic Church. This inspiring glimpse of one man’s relationship with the Blauvelt Dominican Sisters is indicative of a new and changing attitude within the church. It is an attitude that we hear far too little about. An increasing number of people of all generations are becoming more aware of the need to work together in equality and respect in order to fulfill the example set forth by Jesus Christ. Barriers of separation between the male hierarchy of the church and all other members of this church have existed for years but are being broken down by those who seek to restore the true meaning of a community of discipleship to the context of Roman Catholicism.

Throughout the years, vowed women religious have worked tirelessly in a multitude of ways to build upon the ministry of Jesus Christ. As Jeffrey Guhin points out, their ministry has often been done amid a hierarchy and structure that would just as soon keep them down. Now, younger generations of women and men, like Mr. Guhin, are calling for justice, accountability and mutual respect for all who work on behalf of Jesus—in other words, to live and act as Jesus did.

At Boston College’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry, where I am enrolled as a graduate student, I am immersed with wonderful women and men, many of whom are the same ages as my adult children. Their quest to bring equality and justice to the institution of the Catholic Church is inspiring and hopeful and gives everyone a reason to believe that the future will be brighter and better for all generations, regardless of age, culture or gender. I agree with Jeffrey Guhin when he says, “I don’t believe that women are holier than men, that women have a ‘feminine nature’ men should imitate or that sexism is justified by its results.” This intuitive statement highlights the reality that no one gender is superior to another, but that we should strive to coexist together in respect and harmony.

Dan Abben | 7/30/2004 - 3:04pm
Thank you for Jeffery Guhin's article "Living with My Sisters" (July 19/26, ). It was refreshing to read such a thoughtful reflection about what we can all learn from women religious.

I am a recent graduate of a college run by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs). During my time there, I received an education infused with the BVM Core Values of Freedom, Education, Charity, and Justice. In watching the BVMs, I have learned what it means to be a person of faith called to live in interdependent relationships with others; this group of women truly know the meaning of the word 'community.' As someone now working for the Church, I hope to use the model of leadership that I have learned from them in my own ministry, an egalitarian model rooted in diversity, respect, and inclusion.

If Mr. Guhin remains willing to learn from the example of others, values the gifts of all members of our community, and continues to remain open to the Spirit, wherever he (or she) may lead him, he is on his way to becoming a wonderful priest.

francisco | 7/26/2004 - 11:47pm
How interesting. I lived with Blauvelt Dominicans for 5 years way back in the 1940's at their St. Dominic Home. Ministries available to Sisters at that time were not as varied as today: hospital, school, orphanages. Today, they are into everything (thank God). Some Sisters were wicked softball players. They didn't have to slide into home base: they hit far enough so that they can just run. As Jeff can attest, they work hard, play hard and pray awfully hard. But they always did that. Today, I am a Priest because they taught me all those things as a child. The Sisters lit a lot of sparks, but not everyone knew how to keep them ignited. Although Bronx born and raised, I now minister as a Priest in Honduras. I am also a Dominican, belonging to the Priests' Fraternity. Keep the sparks flying, Sisters!! ¡ADELANTE LA PREDICACIÓN!
Margaret Kavanagh | 7/21/2004 - 9:46am
Jeff Guhin's article, "Living With My Sisters," was a refreshing reflection on the life of women religious today.

During the 2003-2004 academic year, the Sisters in my local community shared life with another Dominican volunteer, Karen Gargamelli. The experience was profound. Karen's passion for justice, her wonderful sense of humor, and her boundless energy inspired us.

Thank you to all the young women and men who give of themselves as volunteers. We are all bless by their generosity.

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