Wanted: Women of Spirit in Our Own Time

By Chittister, Joan | National Catholic Reporter, August 20, 2010 | Go to article overview

Wanted: Women of Spirit in Our Own Time


Chittister, Joan, National Catholic Reporter


The Leadership Conference of Women Religious met in Dallas in mid-August under scrutiny from Rome and with a cloud hanging over its head.

What shall we think about such a time as this when the women religious who have built, carried, led and staffed every work of the church from the earliest days of this nation to this present time of turbulence and transition are being accused of being unorthodox, unfaithful, and unfit to make adult decisions about what they need to hear and who they want to have say it?

The problem is that in the face of opposition they have also been unafraid.

What shall we think about that? Think David, maybe, who confronted the giant Goliath; think Moses, perhaps, who faced the Red Sea with an Egyptian army at his back; think Judith and her handmaiden, certainly, who routed Holofernes and saved the city; think Shifra and Puah, without doubt, who refused the order to murder Jewish newborns and so saved the nation. Think Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala who stood as independent women alone and unblinking. Think moment of decision.

Then think of the foundresses of every religious order you have ever known who came to the United States without money, without professional resources, often without the language, and commonly without support--even from the church--to deal head on with the social justice questions of their time and so saved the church in the process.

"Women & Spirit," the traveling museum exhibit mounted by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that reviews the story of women's religious communities in the United States, bears witness to the role of religious life in church and society. It is the visual history of women who made astounding choices at all the crossroads in national history and made them when women were allowed to make few, if any, choices at all.

It is a story too often forgotten and too easily domesticated. "That's just what sisters were supposed to be doing," people say. Oh, please.

These were women who opened schools for girls in a world that considered the education of women a useless and uppity waste.

These were women who nursed soldiers on both battlefields of the Civil War, North and South, in an age when sisters didn't work with men at all, let alone nurse them.

These were women who worked with what was left of a Native American society that had been stripped of its dignity, robbed of its lands and denied its civil rights in a culture that defined both' the American Indian and the women who served them as less than fully human.

These were women who taught blacks for centuries and then walked with them in Selma, Ala., to claim their full humanity--attack dogs at their heels, fire hoses in front of them--and met disdain everywhere from Christians who used religion to justify first slavery and, after it, segregation.

These were women who gave their lives to insert Catholic children into a Protestant society as equal participants in the democratic dream all the way to a Catholic presidency.

Indeed, for hundreds of years, over and over again, women religious have found themselves at the junction between past and future. For hundreds of years they have consistently, persistently, confidently and courageously chosen for a necessary future--whatever difficulties the doing of it meant for them in the present. Over and over again, they chose for tomorrow rather than settle for a more convenient past.

The entire history of religious life in this nation has been a history of crisis and response, of need and resistance, of response and reaction. …

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