Nancy Sylvester
The journey of women religious since Vatican II
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The bishops are right. Women religious have changed, not only in the United States but throughout the world. We have changed in ways that invited us to let go of who we thought we were. Surrendering to the Spirit, we awakened to new understandings that touched our deepest core. Change at that level is transformation. It radically altered how we see ourselves, the Gospel, our church, our world and most importantly how we understand our God. This change in consciousness was not easy. No, it was painful, but like the pain at childbirth it dissolves in unspeakable awe at the life that emerges.

I do not want to pretend that everything that transpired over these past 50 years was perfect and without mistakes or poor choices. But what is clear to me is that the renewal that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council invited women and men, vowed religious and lay, to experience our faith in ways that both permeated and was shaped by a modern, pluralistic, democratic society.

The council document, Gaudium et Spes, invited the church to embrace the joys and hopes, the pain and suffering of the people of God and to be in the world and not stand apart. It “opened the windows” of an institution that had been nailed shut and freed the Spirit. In that invitation the official church echoed what Jesus did in his life when he “opened the windows” of the restrictive purity system that prevailed in his time and proclaimed in word and deed that everyone was welcome to the table and loved by God.

An Act of Obedience

Women religious took that invitation seriously and, urged by the official church, undertook renewal. That was an act of great obedience. I know because I entered religious life in 1966 having grown up in Chicago in a Catholic enclave. Catholic defined every aspect of my life—Catholic schools, Catholic funeral parlors, Catholic sports teams, Catholic spirituality, the list goes on. The official church today would be very proud of who I was back then. I did not want things to change. I envisioned wearing a habit my entire life, living in a convent with a daily routine, teaching in schools. So when I entered and things began to change it was not an easy road for me; however, I obeyed and took seriously what I was being taught in our theology and philosophy classes.

Integrating the questions that arose about faith, scripture and theology into my prayer life was key to my journey, as it was for many women religious. We began to see with new eyes who Jesus was and how the Scriptures were formulated within the context of its time. We learned the history of the church and its tradition of social justice teachings. We learned liberation theology and began to understand how structures and systems of political and ecclesial power too often oppress the very people they were formed to serve. As U.S. dioceses paired with cities in Central and South America, many sisters served in those newly established ministries and experienced the power of liberation theology and were transformed by the people they served.

Guided by the council documents we learned about other faith traditions and that they, too, had something to offer to the exploration into God. Liturgical renewal brought an openness and freshness to liturgical celebrations that had ossified within the Roman church.

Prepared in the 1950s through the Sister Formation Movement, women religious were poised to move quickly to prepare themselves academically following the council. And we did. Liberal arts, the social sciences as well as hard sciences became friends to us. The insights of quantum physics, evolution and discoveries about the origins of the universe were not alien or suspect. Rather they too were pointing to a greater understanding of God and who we are in this marvelous world.

Immersing ourselves in the world opened up new ministries in which women religious worked directly with women who were struggling with abusive relationships or decisions about carrying a pregnancy to term; with young girls who mistakenly understood that according to the church’s teaching it was better to have an abortion and be forgiven for one mortal sin than to use contraceptives and be in a constant state of mortal sin. Our ministries brought us face to face with the outcasts of our society—the homeless, those in prisons, those on drugs, the economically disadvantaged, those suffering because of their sexual orientation. These experiences seeped into us and as we brought them to prayer they transformed us. We saw and understood that those are the people today who Jesus would have called friends and welcomed into his company.

The Awakening

Our life within congregations was changing as well. As we changed the clothes women wore in an earlier era to clothes of our time and began to live in different types of community, we experienced ourselves as individuals in our own right. Like women everywhere in those years we awakened to our own identity as women and claimed the rights that were ours, equal to those of men. Having ministered among women we felt in a new way the challenges that are ours because of our gender, the gift of our sexuality and as bearers of new life. We came to understand that the official church’s teaching on sexuality was not accepted by most Catholic women because it did not touch women’s hearts, our lives, address our pain or the difficult choices facing us, or celebrate the joy of our sexuality.

Having grown up in the United States women religious began to integrate democratic principles into our governing structures. The council asked us to move toward servant leadership and we saw that patriarchal and hierarchical structures do not foster that model. Rather we chose more circular models of leadership with an emphasis on participation and shared leadership even as we affirmed and accepted certain individuals among us as our elected leaders.

The social movements of our time became part of our lives—the women’s movement, the civil rights struggle, the non-violence and anti-war movement and more recently the gay and lesbian movement. What we learned was a visceral knowledge that every human person is endowed with certain inalienable rights regardless of race, gender, religion, class or sexual orientation. All are children of God.

More recently, women religious have brought to prayer the insights from quantum physics and cosmology that reveal the interconnectedness of all life. We have consciously chosen to see the plight of our Earth as a justice issue and to formulate congregational directions and public positions regarding sustainability, global climate change and the care of Earth and its natural resources.

Speaking Out

We found ourselves immersed in a society that was pluralistic, democratic and secular and we knew that our faith had something to offer as well as to receive from the culture. We spoke out about the abuses of greed, consumerism and selfish individualism and the public policies that are shaped without regard to the common good or to those who are the least among us. We lobbied and we demonstrated. We used our economic power through shareholder resolutions. And we offered at our retreat centers and educational forums opportunities for others to integrate their experience as adults in this culture with their evolving faith.

Women religious have changed. And that change is shaking the very foundations of what continues to be a church seemingly caught in an earlier time and place. That is not what is needed now. The signs of our times reveal to us persons who are Catholic but who no longer can go to “church” because of feeling alienated and angry at the corruption and lack of integrity among many of its male clerical leaders. These persons so want to know God as adults. They are longing for a spirituality that is rooted in their faith and in their life.

I believe that the Gospel and the richness of our Catholic tradition have something to offer our post-modern world. I don’t want to see it collapse under the weight of structures that maintain power relationships that no longer serve. I believe that the faith that is waiting to be offered to the 21st century is one that comes from a stance of openness and understanding of the changes that our evolutionary development has brought us. It cannot be a faith that comes from a position of condemning modernity. It will be a faith that has been tested in the crucible of our time and has emerged with new insights and new interpretations of how we can love one another as Jesus did. In difficult and chaotic times we can come to a greater awareness that we are more alike than different, more one than separate.

Yes, women religious have changed. And I believe that our journey has much to offer this moment in history. Together with others who have walked in similar paths, the future of our faith has been beckoning us forward since the Second Vatican Council. On the 50th anniversary of that event let us move courageously into the future claiming once again that we are Catholics and we are the church.

Nancy Sylvester, I.H.M., is founder and president of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious from 1998-2001 and was the NETWORK National Coordinator from 1982-1992.

Comments

Tim O'Leary | 7/29/2012 - 10:54pm
Rory #45
Thanks for your post of Nora Wall, which I hadn't heard of previously (to my embarrassment). It is one of the most amazing false sex abuse claims I ever heard of, where an innocent women became the first ever woman in Ireland to be convicted of rape. And she was given a life sentence, only later to be completely exonerated when her accusers admitted they made up the accusations.

It is like the infamous Dreyfus affair in France. I don't know why this miscarriage of justice hasn't been bigger news. The Irish media, the Irish legal sistem and the leadership of the Sisters of Mercy do not come out well here, but the story should be read by everyone who follows the child sex abuse cases in the US.
Tim O'Leary | 7/29/2012 - 2:28pm
Kay #48
Thanks for the link. Sr. Johnson's figures are not published at CARA but she did say that of the "thousand or so" who are studying to join an order, 50% are in the orders represented by the LCWR and 50% are in the orders represented by the CMSWR. However, since the LCWR represents 80% of the orders, this means that of women studying for religious orders, the CMSWR is attracting vocations 4 times as much as the orders represented by the LCWR. A 4-fold difference is huge. And these are students. There might also be a bigger difference in those that take vows.
Kay Satterfield | 7/26/2012 - 5:57pm
In response to Christine's post (#47); Actually the orders that are part of the LCWR are getting the same number of women entering religious vocations  as those orders that are not part of the LCWR.  This fact was presented by Sr. Mary Johnson, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Emmaual College.  Her interview along with Fr. James Martin sj can be listened to in this following link.  According to her and others indepth, academic study of the issue the statement that the LCWR is attracting significantly less vocations than the more conservative orders is a myth. 

http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/2012/may/22/nuns-now/
C N | 7/26/2012 - 4:46pm
The only good thing I can summon up to say is that my hope for the future Church lies in this: "catholics" who think like this also tend to be so far into contraception and climate change, that they aren't having children.

Same goes for sterile religious congregations.  How many vocations is the IHM getting? Compared to the Dominicans up in Ann Arbor?  Something to think about, when you're naval gazing . . . uh, contemplating quantum physics. (I think you have a few misfiring quarks!)

Let's see if this passes the censors!  Just how' open-minded' and 'tolerant' is America Magazine?
Mary Ann Hinsdale | 7/23/2012 - 5:49pm
I am very sorry for "Fearful and Perplexed" (#30)'s experience of how he and his faculty were treated by a religious order.  I will also pray for Jude (#43)-who clearly was mistreated by a pre-Vatican II IHM sister in her comments.  But, as Nancy said, "sisters are not perfect" -we, too, belong to the "sinful church."  I wish our bishops could admit that they do also. However, I want to take AMERICA'S editors to task:  THIS ARTICLE CLEARLY BELONGS IN THE PRINT EDITION as others have said!  Sr. Nancy will take the heat (and she will get that) for anything she is saying.  Full disclosure:  I belong to her congregation.
Rory Connor | 7/20/2012 - 6:15pm
I can heartily endorse the part couple of sentences of Sister Nancy's article:
"The bishops are right. Women religious have changed, not only in the United States but throughout the world. We have changed in ways that invited us to let go of who we thought we were."

In my country Ireland, the Sisters of Mercy have fallen over themselves in their   eagerness to repudiate colleagues who were falsely accused of child abuse. The most notorious case was that of Nora Wall (formerly Sister Dominic) who was convicted and imprisoned for life in 1999 on a charge of raping a child many years before. HOWEVER the case collapsed whne the two accusers gave an interview to a tabloid newspaper that published their names for the first time. One of their (several) previous victims saw the newspaper and recognised the name of the woman who had falsley accused himself! Nora Wall and her co-accused were released and in 2005 the Court of Criminal Appeal cerified that she had been the victim of a false allegation.

So what did her former colleagues in the Sisters of Mercy do? Why they apologised to her accusers and then remained silent when the case collapsed. (This was not the only time this sort of thing happened.) The following is an extract from the Wikipedia article on the case:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nora_Wall




Reaction of Sisters of Mercy

After their conviction, the Sisters of Mercy issued a statement, which read:


"We are all devastated by the revolting crimes which resulted in these verdicts. Our hearts go out to this young woman who, as a child, was placed in our care. Her courage in coming forward was heroic. We beg anyone who was abused whilst in our care to go to the Gardaí.



Even after the collapse of the case against the two accused, the Sisters of Mercy made no effort to apologise to Wall or to withdraw their statement of support for Walsh. One commentator [17] remarked: "The young woman their hearts were going out to, was the false accuser, not their own innocent nun. Our absolutist system had seduced them into identifying with the accuser and betraying their own sister."
Maggie Rose | 7/20/2012 - 9:49am
well said, sr. nancy. an excellent article. the sisters in american religious orders have worked tirelessly for their faith and they have so many ways of serving. our sisters have been a blessing to those sitting in the pews. well done and thank you.
Thom Nickels | 7/20/2012 - 9:31am
When I was in the eighth grade, an old IHM nun, dressed in the traditional habit, cornered me in the schoolyard and blasted me and my parents for daring to send me to a public high school. She wagged her finger at me and said, "You will lose the faith in a public school!" She meant it.

Years later I did lose the faith but then I came back as a believer only to find a Church that I did not recognize. The tabernacles had been removed; the statues were gone; there were burlap banners in the churches, and I thought I was in a Protestant church.

I am sure this old IHM sister is dead now. Lucky she did not live to see the transition of her order into a secular pant suit dress society supportive of liberation theology (condemned by John Paul II). If she could come back, I would say:

"Sister, the Church lost the faith. You had it backwards." 
Thom Nickels | 7/20/2012 - 9:22am
The good sister naively believes in the so-called "fruits of Vatican II, as well as in the myth of renewal when all around her the Church is falling to pieces. The Church before Vatican II was a healhty, vibrant place with full seminaries and convents as well as packed parish churches every Sunday. After the Council the Church began its slow decline into the Nuclear Winter. People stopped going to Mass because the ancient traditions they had grown up with were thrown to the wolves. The Mass became a Protestant-Catholic hybrid Mass, and the bishops did things not approved by the pope, such as communion in hand. This sister has totally accepted the brainwashing of the Novus Ordo Church, right down to her endorsement of liberation theology, something John Paul II CONDEMNED. And yet people praise her. Of course, this is AMERICA magazine, the same magazine that in the 1960s applauded the wholesale slaughter of the Catholic Liturgy. America magazine exists within a bubble but elsewhere Catholics will tell you how sick they are of what Vatican II did, especially to the Mass. Young Catholic women entering religious life today are avoidng the pant suit secular dress orders and entering traditional convents. Take a look at most of the "nuns" in the accompanying photo and you will see that they are all old. Old Vatican II leftover hippie nuns. They will die out. New women want no part of them. Perhaps the Orthodox Church is the true Church of Christ!  
Helen Cohenour | 7/20/2012 - 8:30am

Thank you Sister Nancy for this beautiful article. I was just out of highschool when Vatican II came into our church and was one who balked at the changes. As I aged, I became a full supporter and realized how my faith had grown with these wonderful changes. The holy women whom I have had the privilege of calling friends were and are great inspiritation for all of us. May they continue to inspire us all.


These past few years have tested our faith in so many ways. I hang on with fear and pray the Holy Spirit open our hearts and minds to insure the upcoming generatiion of young people continue in the work of God.

fran kerns | 7/20/2012 - 5:33am
Thank you Nancy for a refreshing glimpse into a wonderful communal journey. I affirm the call to pay attention to Guadiam et Spes during this 50th anniversary of Vatican II, The joy and hope which sprang forth for so many during those years are ours to nurture and share. Thank you for reminding us  that the Spirit who moved us to embrace the difficult shifts 5o years ago will not give up on those who continue to be faithful to the primacy of God in their lives. Let us celebrate Vat.II with joy and hope.

fran kerns | 7/20/2012 - 5:33am
Thank you Nancy for a refreshing glimpse into a wonderful communal journey. I affirm the call to pay attention to Guadiam et Spes during this 50th anniversary of Vatican II, The joy and hope which sprang forth for so many during those years are ours to nurture and share. Thank you for reminding us  that the Spirit who moved us to embrace the difficult shifts 5o years ago will not give up on those who continue to be faithful to the primacy of God in their lives. Let us celebrate Vat.II with joy and hope.

Mike Evans | 7/19/2012 - 8:23pm

Holiness is not found in nostalgia. Else the Israelites would never have made it across the desert to the promised land. Life is about change. People also need to understand that the active orders of sisters are a comparatively recent thing in the church - mostly dating from the mid 1800's and thriving from 1920 to 1960. The old convent system provided more of a women's refuge than any thing else. But teaching, nursing and social service orders greatly affected all of us in America and other mission countries. These really holy women of service should be memorialized and many should be canonized, not for flowery piety but for hard working and dedicated service.

9039203 | 7/19/2012 - 6:38pm
Nancy:  Your article made my spirits rise to the heavens.  You have covered the process of change and the roots as well as the context of the times.  Thank you so very much.  Much grace in this, and obviously in you.  With great regard.  Pat Krommer
Joseph Keffer | 7/19/2012 - 5:04pm

thank you, Sister, for a beautifully, even poetically composed statement.
May the Holy Spirit bless you and keep you.


J H Keffer, M.D.

2180541 | 7/19/2012 - 5:03pm
Sister Nancy, your article provoked me to consider my experience as a student of Sister Xaveria, a Monroe IHM, in 1959-60 at St. Michael's Flint, during which time she embodied the spirit and practice of the reforms before their initiation. I would like to think that it is women like her who enabled the progress to follow. Thanks for providing the material for my reflection. Jim
SR M MEYER | 7/19/2012 - 4:03pm
I agree that this article should be in print, as well as, on the web.  I have been in religious life for 50 years and I have lived through the changes.  I love the Catholic Church and my SSND community.  Our Sisters have moved with the Spirit's guidance and served the needs of the poor wherever they are.  I am very proud of them.  Where they are, I am.  The poor, in any way one chooses to define the word, are the very people that Jesus would have befriended and continues to do so through us in our day and time.  Our ministries will continue to flourish as we read the signs of the times and respond to them.

I have worked with diocesan and order priests who have fully supported me in my ministry of education.  They give priesthood a wonderful name which is often not noticed because of the clergy abuse scandal.  I believe they should be  be recognized for the good that they do as well. 

The article was magnificent!  Thank you, Nancy!  Thank you, too, for all of your who recognize and support us for the good that we do.
DEBORAH TRUITT MS | 7/19/2012 - 3:40pm
Thank you, Sister, for reminding me of what is good and right in the Church.  Please don't stop testifying to the truth! Those of us who are struggling to stay in the Church need to hear voices like yours now more than ever!
Helen Deines | 7/19/2012 - 3:26pm
Bless Sr. Nancy for so thoughtfully synthesizing the many threads that bring together so many Catholics at this time.  Many supporters of the sisters, educated in the faith at the same time, love and live our faith passionately, yet experience a deep frustration with some church leaders who seem to cling to structures from past centuries.  

We must find a way in love to free ourselves from what is not of the gospel.  Yet our church is not dying.  Thankfully, our youth too hear the call to serve the poor and marginalized-they appreciate Jesus, what His life was about, the meaning of the essentials in the context of the 21st century.

It is important to recognize that the Sisters have not walked out the door.  They have kept the conversation going, maintained their ministries with creativity and wisdom.  We lay supporters must continue our public affirmations, ally ourselves with their works in practical ways, pray and discern how best we can contribute to actions that build the future rather than the past of the church.

Again, thank you, Sr. Nancy, for letting you light shine! 


6844274 | 7/19/2012 - 1:30pm
Thank you so much, Sr. Nancy for writing this and America magazine for publishing it. It is so good to hear more of your voices as we all journey with you through this recent act of the Vatican.
Joseph Joseph | 7/10/2012 - 8:17pm
I want this article to ring true. Really, really, really I do. But I was employed by a religious order for several decades and through a series of lies and misrepresentations a school was summarily closed, and my colleagues and I are out of a job and left without the safety net every Religious has. The leadership was going to conferences, networking, writing articles like this, and treating the employess quite badly. Power is power, whether it is clerical or "mission driven." My sisters lied to a significant group of hard working barely-making-it employees. My sisters!!! We are jobless, they are still "doing justice." Oh well, power is power. Trust no one, not even members of the LCWR. Forgive me.
Anthony Gooley | 7/8/2012 - 11:40pm
I liked much of what Nancy has written especially about engagement of Sisters with some new areas of mission. I found unsettling the references to 'the official church' as if there is some kind of split in the Church between an offcial and unofficial Church. Jesus only founded one Church and as Vatican II reminds is in Lumen gentium #8 it is both a human and a divine reality, it is both hierachical and communal, it is both visible institution nd mystical communion...it is always both/and and not eaither/or, but is a complex reality. It is above all a sacrament of the communion of all humanity and intimate communion of people with the Holy Trinity through Christ.

I think it is great that theologians, religious and clergy  and ordinary Catholics in the pews have found ways to integrate insights from contemporary culture into faith. That has been the tradition of the Church from the time it began until now-it is not a new phenomenon. It is true that at times the church as a whole has been suspicious of some forms of learning and research but on historical balance the Gospel and culture are deeply intertwined.

I may be wrong in my reading of Nancy's column but it seemed to me she has reversed the call of Vatican II, espcially as we find it in Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes, which is to read the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel. To let the light of Christ illuminate the culture. Nancy's emphasis seemed to be read the Gospel in the light of the signs of the times as if Christ needs illuminating from the culture. It is a matter of empahsis but it is an important one.

Post Vatican II the various bodies within the Holy See and commissions issued guidelines on implementation of the decrees of the Council. One of these is the Principles of the Renewal of Religious Life. It emphahsises community living, shared or common mission, communal prayer, shared and simple life in communities (no doubt with the benefit of reducing the carbon footprint of religious communities) and simplicity of religious dress, as well as much else. I wonder why these reforms asked for by Nancy's 'offical church' did not become guideing principles for the new engagement in new ministires and learning. The shpae a lot of religious life has taken does not reflect these principles.

I can't quite see the connection between Vatican II's purpose (as stated in the introduction to Lumen gentium and Sacrosanctum concilium) which is deepening Catholic faith and living out of that faith, the unity of of all CHristians in the hope of bringing the world to Christ- with some of the directions taken by religious post Vatican II. Christ is the fullness of God and the on through whom all people are saved and brought into fulness of communion with God, according to Vatican II and not just one path among many. The Church is the body of Christ and religious life needs to reflect a deep ecclesial sense of being in, with and for the Catholic CHurch -as does all other experssions of Catholic life, marrried, single and clergy. I felt a lack of this ecclesail sense in Nancy's article- but that may have just been a matter of interpretation.

I think the recent statement of the CDF on LCWR forms a background context for the article. We all owe religious sisters an enormous debt of thanks for buliding up the Church and for dedicated service but religious life is an expression of Catholic life and with regard to LCWR the Holy See has the right and obligation to ensure that it is a body which promotes clearly Catholic life. The CDF statement praises women religious but asks that a body the Holy See established remains accountable to its Catholic mandate-why should this be a problem for anyone? Isn't that a good thing? Jesus called his apostles to accounatbility and why should he not continue to do that through the apostolic ministry?

Thanks Nancy for the thought provoking article.
Michael Schlacter | 7/8/2012 - 6:21pm
Thank you Sr Nancy.
 
David Fike | 7/8/2012 - 5:48pm
Sr. Nancy,

Thank you for this beautifully-written and inspiring reflection.  I'm sending it to as many people as I can think of who will be similarly inspired to keep the faith and progress courageously into our future, as you do.

With your words and with your deed, you make us proud to be Catholic.

Warmly,
David
Gloria Rivera, IHM | 7/8/2012 - 3:24pm
Nancy,
Thanks for capturing some of the highlights of the journey that many of us in religious life have experienced and cherish!
The signs of the times invite us to stay focus and to be coraugeous and daring as we continue to respond to the 'urgency of now' in our world.
I am proud to be one of your IHM sisters 
sheila turney | 7/8/2012 - 2:20pm
BULLSEYE  !!   GREAT THINKING/WRITING, NANCY !!!
AS FAR AS I'M CONCERNED,  OUR FEMALE  RELIGIOUS ORDERS ARE THE CHURCHES ONLY SALVATION !!!!!!!

JESUS WAS NOT A BIGOTED,NARROW MINDED OLD "WHITE MALE".... HE WAS A YOUNG, VIBRANT BEARER OF A NEW WAY OF LIFE:  LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS YOU LOVE YOURSELF,  TREAT ONE ANOTHER AS YOU WISH TO BE TREATED !!

THE CHURCH OF ROME IS NO LONGER THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST -
AND SHALL GO THE WAY OF THE DINOSAURS !

KEEP AT IT !!    PRAISE ALLAH FOR ST. FELICITAS !!
sheilat 
Tim O'Leary | 7/8/2012 - 1:05am

Craig #23

I think you are finding discord where there is none and I would strongly urge everyone to read (or re-read) both Perfectae Caritatis and Vita Consecrata. Both are beautiful and are in great agreement. Here are some quotes from Perfectae Caritatis on the issues of renewal, service, chastity and obedience. I apologize for the length and urge a read of the full documents.

On Renewal(4): “The approbation of the Holy See or of the local Ordinary must be obtained where necessary according to law."

On Service (5): “Since the Church has accepted their surrender of self they should realize they are also dedicated to its service…This service of God ought to inspire and foster in them the exercise of the virtues, especially humility, obedience, fortitude and chastity. In such a way they share in Christ's emptying of Himself (cf. Phil. 2:7) and His life in the spirit (cf. Rom. 8:1-13)."

On Chastity (12) “Religious, therefore, who are striving faithfully to observe the chastity they have professed must have faith in the words of the Lord, and trusting in God's help not overestimate their own strength but practice mortification and custody of the senses. Neither should they neglect the natural means which promote health of mind and body. As a result they will not be influenced by those false doctrines which scorn perfect continence as being impossible or harmful to human development and they will repudiate by a certain spiritual instinct everything which endangers chastity."

On Obedience (12): In professing obedience, religious offer the full surrender of their own will as a sacrifice of themselves to God and so are united permanently and securely to God's salvific will…religious obedience, far from lessening the dignity of the human person, by extending the freedom of the sons of God, leads it to maturity.

Then read JPII’s words in Vita Consecrata: (57): “The Church fully reveals her varied spiritual richness when she overcomes all discrimination and welcomes as a true blessing the gifts lavished by God upon both men and women, considering them in their equal dignity. By virtue of their dedication lived in fullness and in joy, consecrated women are called in a very special way to be signs of God's tender love towards the human race and to be spe cial witnesses to the mystery of the Church, Virgin, Bride and Mother.”

”Having received from Christ a message of liberation, the Church has the mission to proclaim this message prophetically, promoting ways of thinking and acting which correspond to the mind of the Lord. In this context the consecrated woman, on the basis of her experience of the Church and as a woman in the Church, can help eliminate certain one-sided perspectives which do not fully recognize her dignity and her specific contribution to the Church's life and pastoral and missionary activity. Consecrated women therefore rightly aspire to have their identity, ability, mission and responsibility more clearly recognized, both in the awareness of the Church and in everyday life. Likewise, the future of the new evangelization, as of all other forms of missionary activity, is unthinkable without a renewed contribution from women, especially consecrated women.

Craig McKee | 7/7/2012 - 9:54pm
The reforms of which Sr. Sylvester speaks were further called for and facilitated by Vatican II's PERFECTAE CARITATIS, not John Paul II's polarizing VITA CONSECRATA which has unfortunately become the litmus test wielded like a 1950's grade school nun's ruler by the Congregation for Religious during the Apostolic Visitation of American women religious and now by the CDF in its current full frontal assault on the LCWR. These guys just don't get it...and they probably never will!
Marlene Bertke, OSB | 7/7/2012 - 10:48am
Nancy, I'm going to send this article far-and-wide. It is such a good commentary on where religious life is today. Many thanks!
Tim O'Leary | 7/7/2012 - 10:23am
Wouldn't it be refreshing to have one grow in the Spirit without showing any prejudice or antagonism to the successors of the apostles? How does one live the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience by pulling down the people appointed by Christ to keep the faith for His faithful? The doors and the windows of the Church are still wide open to anyone with an open heart and mind.

Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, understanding, my entire will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace, that's enough for me.
Your love and Your grace, are enough for me.

- adapted by Fr, Foley from St. Ignatius Prayer
Jean Pruitt | 7/7/2012 - 5:42am
Thanks our Sister Nancy for using your great gifts of courage to "comfort the afflicted". (see Ferder's comment).  Because of women like you I have been transformed by my ministry of 44 years in Tanzania as a Maryknoll Sister of more than 50 years!  I remember well when we spent  weeks debating the height of our habit hems from the floor instead of contemplating the pollution growing in our horizons.  It is ironic that is the very same church which mandated we open our windows and see the horizons!  An invitation was given and you symbolic of so many women religious  responded with the fullness of your being through leadership and love. Thank you.
6129076 | 7/6/2012 - 5:49pm
Sr. Nancy Sylvester's comments are right on target and that's why Rome and most American bishops are so afraid of them.  They haven't made the same journey themselves - locked in by protocol, presecence, fear of punishment and communio episcocorum.
EILEEN KEIM | 7/6/2012 - 3:12pm

How many of us cry,"yes!" as we read this! It needs to be in the print edition of 'America' so that all may read it.

LARRY | 7/6/2012 - 12:21pm

Tradition: The living faith of those who are now dead.     
Traditionalism:
The dead faith of those who are now living.
Conservatism:  Nothing must ever be done for the first time.

Just thinking… One hundred years ago no country had a woman as its president or prime minister; no university or college had a woman as its president. Today, literally dozens of countries and dozens of universities and colleges are headed by a woman.  It is only conservatism,for instance, (“Nothing must ever be done for the first time”) that keeps women from being cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church. (You don’t have to be a priest to be a cardinal-  Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, secretary of state of Pope Pius IX, was not a priest; Pope Leo X was made acardinal at the age of 13…).  Just an interesting thought, after reading Sr. Nancy's very thoughtful article...

Tim O'Leary | 7/5/2012 - 7:47pm

I read Sr. Nancy’s full article. I can agree with her first sentence: “The bishops are right”. It goes downhill thereafter - how disobedience is an act of obedience, and how democracy and quantum physics, evolution and cosmology can make ethical wrongs right. I think she is channeling Barbara Marx Hubbard.

Sr. Nancy writes about being moved by a spirit. I am sure she would agree that discernment is required with all spirits. If the spirit is moving one away from the Church and into sin and injustice (such as abortion and homosexuality, into infidelity and immorality), then it cannot be from God. Anyone who has an inkling of how evil spirits work (read CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters if you want a popular introduction) will know that he/she will use any pretext (sexism, patriarchy, feminism, liberation, liturgical experimentation, etc.) to sow division, fear and anger. You reap what you sow.

From Saint Paul: Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8)

PATI JANSEN | 7/5/2012 - 11:56am
As someone who came into the Church in the 80's it is the spirit of the women religious that apppealed to me and welcomed me.  I would never have found a home in the pre-vatican church and am struggling terribly with what is happening locally in my home parish as well as the greater church.  I am hearing messages that have no connection to serving the poor or have any relevency to a God of the universe.  I have always heard that the message of the Gospel was meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  What I am now hearing from the magisterium seems to be afflicting the afflicted and comforting the comfortable.  It is Sr. Nancy's article as well as others who represent a bigger God that keep me struggling to remain in the Church.
Fran Ferder | 7/4/2012 - 11:20pm

Nancy, your review rings true to my own experience, having entered my community in 1962, the year Vatican II began. My whole early formation, from postulancy to final vows, was steeped in the challenging message of "Gaudium et Spes" and the other Council documents. Like most sisters at the time, we took the invitation to renew our lives as perhaps the most significant act of obedience that we would ever undertake. We learned to see our vows as deeper and broader than simply not having a bank account, not having sex, or not having our own opinions. We came to see Poverty as including an active care for the earth and identification with all of her peoples. Chastity, while it inlcudes celibacy, became more and more about healthy, loving relationships. And we collectively came to know that obedience can never be limited to mindless following, but includes active listening in community-a listening that seeks to hear all of the voices of God's people.

Thank you, Nancy, for your article. Hopefully, it will contribute to greater understanding of the lives of contemporary sisters and the complicated issues that face us today. It is far easier to be a silent follower than a voice for change in behalf of the gospel vision. You are clearly among those who are the prophetic voice of the times.

Theresa Crean | 7/4/2012 - 7:29am
Amen, Sister! Testify! :) It's women like you in the church that give me hope enough to stick around. Without the Sisters in my life, I would have left this church long ago. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I'm sending this article to all my thirty-something girlfriends to remind them we have a glimmer of hope in Sisters like you. Thank you for your testimony!
NORMA NUNAG | 7/3/2012 - 7:46pm
It is heartening to read the positive comments of the men readers to Sister's inspiring piece.
Marie Kyle | 7/3/2012 - 4:12pm
Thanks, Nancy, for this insightful review of what brought us to where we are.  Despite the struggles, I feel proud of women religious and how study of theology and listening to the signs of the times have led our lives.
Michael Barberi | 7/3/2012 - 3:35pm
Thank you Sister Sylvester and God bless you. As Mary the Mother of God was chosen by God to bring forth by birth the truth and the life, so may Women Religious usher into the light of our times, the truth about the many new ways we all can all love Christ and our neighbor, something that is lacking with the priestly hierarchy.

The following statement summed up for me the truth you proclaim.

"I believe that the faith that is waiting to be offered to the 21st century is one that comes from a stance of openness and understanding of the changes that our evolutionary development has brought us. It cannot be a faith that comes from a position of condemning modernity. It will be a faith that has been tested in the crucible of our time and has emerged with new insights and new interpretations of how we can love one another as Jesus did."
karen wikoff | 7/3/2012 - 11:42am
Article is dead center and True North
Mary Motte | 7/3/2012 - 8:18am
Thanks, Nancy - very much!
Victoria Schmidt | 7/2/2012 - 9:01pm
Thanks, Nancy for this insightful piece.  What women religious have modeled for us all these years is a way toward real dialogue that negates no one but includes the voice of everyone at the table.  Not only can our Church benefit from this model but ever institution that is pervaded by patriarchy.  Patriarchy is the most destructive model of leadership .  I'm minded of Albert einstein's statement that no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it.  Thus leaving me to think that no real change can happen until ther is integration of women into all leadership.  It will be the wisdom and softness of women that will change this struggling world. 
Sara Damewood | 7/2/2012 - 8:09pm

What a wonderful, encouraging article! Thanks and God bless you, Sister.

Boreta Singleton | 7/2/2012 - 7:22pm
Thank you Sister for your wonderful article! May the Spirit continue to inspire and guide our women religious as they continue to serve God and God's people!
Mary Lynn Sullivan | 7/2/2012 - 7:18pm
Thank you for the succinct and thoughtful summary of these past fifty years of growth and change for lay and religious women and men within the church. Certainly such purposeful and sincere growth can never be reversed and will serve as a foundation for the church's painful emergence from the no-longer-relevant ties that bind it. Indeed, the world is grateful for your faithfulness.
George Hampton | 7/2/2012 - 5:53pm

The Catholic Church, like all institutions, requires renewal if it is to stay relevant in the 21st century. Sister Nancy Sylvester tugs at my heart because she is speaking from the heart. This gifted woman has devoted her life to serving the needy, nuturing their souls, and contemplative dialogue to address the problems we all face in life.

Women Religious are a vital part of the modern church. They do not need to be investigated by the church hierarchy; they should be given a seat at the table so they can participate on an equal footing with males serving the church.

An opinion pole would undoubtedly reveal strong support for Women Religous. We recognize their valuable contribution; it is time for the church hierarchy to do the same!

George Hampton
6466379 | 7/2/2012 - 2:54pm
Dear Sister Sylvester, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." I think Jesus guided as you wrote this article. Essentially, it is truly One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, I nean it authenticates Christianity. Powerful in light of the Spirit's promise, "Behold, I make all things new, yes, "Ever ancient, ever new!" Thanks!
ed gleason | 7/2/2012 - 12:56pm
Sister: Thanks for an expression of the kind of Church I want to stay in. Would that the hierarchy leadership be able to express where they are coming from so lucidly and why we need women leadership in the Church. Fear in men is so un-becoming.... this fear is the  result of courage being the one virtue that is never taught or encouraged in seminary training.