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The Nuns Still Work

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By Mike Mallowe

Nuns still work. That might not be the trendy thing to say, or even believe, but it happens to be true. The fact that nuns still work -- as in don't fix what isn't broken --  remains one of the few constants in an otherwise tattered, reeling, scandal-sobered Roman Catholic culture.

And, since Philadelphia persists as one of the generously-contributing, heavy-hitting dioceses in Catholic culture the work of the 2,782 local nuns here is important. They are still present in schools,  nursing homes, shelters, social service agencies, hospices, advocacy groups and counseling organizations, among others. They range from celebrities like Sister Mary Scullion, of the Sisters of Mercy, the homeless advocate and co-founder of Project H.O.M.E., to the cloistered Pink Sisters from the Convent of Divine Love, in Fairmount, devout contemplatives of the Holy Spirit Adoration order, who wear pink habits, live in virtual silence and witness the world through lives of prayer. The climate of religion in Philadelphia has long been infused by the determined work of these engaging, confident women of deep spiritual resources.

Nuns work on every level and in just about every profession - though many of them are in their 70s and 80s, they are still tutoring, authoring textbooks and spiritual diaries, operating from small, busy offices in their residences and turning away no one.

They are still pursuing their vocations and their passions: still feeding the hungry, still ministering to the sick, still educating children, still rescuing the battered and abused, and still living a Christ-like example for the disillusioned faithful of the American Catholic Church. For women who have chosen to become nuns, the missionary zeal, the joys and frustrations of living in communal settings, the magic of being a "sister" is still alive; it still works, for them and for the thousands of restless souls who seek them out. The life of a nun remains a calling as special and as self-sacrificing as any pursuit in the western world. Camilla Hall Chapel.jpg  

It is no small accomplishment that these women are still doing God's work as they see it, despite the fact that nearly all of them are now above the age of 60. They are still marginalized by an obstinate, male-dominated clergy; and a distant hierarchy in Rome bristles suspiciously at their every accomplishment. But, as these women understand only too well, nobody ever promised that being a nun would be easy.

While it might seem obvious that the Catholic Church should have its hands full with pedophilia exposes, pay-outs from monstrous law-suits, a dire shortage of priests and parishioners, a diminishing relevancy in a hard-edged world and a scarcity of creative, visionary leadership, the fact is that the only thing the Vatican is publically investigating is the orthodoxy of the women in American religious communities. This "Apostolic Review," as it is called, has been underway since 2008.

The National Catholic Reporter, a publication that has never been accused of pushing the company line, recently excerpted this explanation from Michael O'Malley, a writer with the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Critics believe the hierarchy in Rome is trying to turn the clock back to a more conservative and traditional church.

"The heart of the issue is not about nuns,' said Sr. Diana Culbertson, a retired professor of literature and Scripture at Kent State University. 'It's about the interpretation of Vatican II. The current hierarchy of the church does not have the same interpretation of Vatican II as we do.' [Vatican II was the international religious conclave, in the 1960s, called by Pope John XXIII that liberalized and modernized the Catholic faith, encouraging more free expression, rapprochement with other faiths and social activism].

Culbertson, who refers to the investigation as the "nunquisition," said, 'They see us as Marxist-feminist radicals. Rome has a picture of American nuns that doesn't correspond to the picture we have of ourselves. They want us in our place. But we don't make vows to the hierarchy. We make our vows to God.'

'Though Culbertson welcomes the appointment of [Archbishop Joseph]Tobin to the Vatican panel [as the latest papal detective], she challenges his call for a "reconciliation" between the Vatican and U.S. nuns.

"Reconciliation suggests we both have something to apologize for,' she said. 'Nuns have no apologies to make."

In March, Mother Mary Clare Millea, who is leading the review for the Vatican, announced that  on-site visits of American women's religious orders have been finished. A report is expected to follow, though no date has been set.


A Mac nun says she loves to go to the chapel in Camilla Hall because, "I know God's waiting for me in there."

"Macs" are Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is one of the oldest and largest orders of religious women in the United States; although today their numbers have dwindled into the mere hundreds. In the history of Philadelphia Catholicism the Macs --as teachers, care-givers, counselors and scholars -- have been among the most pivotally important women sine the order's founding in 1845.     

This woman's old school faith is a simple, matter-of-fact statement. It could be the valedictory of an era that has finally, nostalgically ended - the last days of the classroom sisters. No melodrama, no strained spirituality, no preposterous speaking-in-tongues. This nun's personal statement of belief rings with the prosaic tone of, "I'll have a ham sandwich and coffee," or "I have the blue, four-door Chevy."

There is a God, there is my God, and he's waiting patiently for my arrival. How many of us only wish we had such convictions? Do any of us still pray for such certainty?

If you don't agree with what she says, that's perfectly OK, too; she isn't about to hold your head under a running faucet and baptize you by force. She just believes in what she knows - not thinks, or guesses, or hopes, but what she absolutely knows to be true - and you are invited to share in her belief, or not. And in her God.

That's because this Mac nun also believes in free will, in giving people enough space, and in taking the real world exactly as she finds it: which includes people who desperately need her professional skills and compassion; and also includes headlines about pedophile priests; goofy, ignorant people who think nuns are supposed to be like Whoopie Goldberg in Sister Act; arrogant, double-dealing bishops and cardinals; a charm-challenged Pope who can't catch a break even on those rare occasions when he does the right thing; long-suffering, impossibly loyal parishioners who keep hitting the collection plate, no matter what; heroic, elderly pastors trying to hold collapsing parishes together; inner-city schools with all the gritty perseverance of besieged police stations; and the indisputable and empty desperation that comes creeping along with old age, illness and the fatigue that comes from having practiced your calling, your sacred sisterhood, and practiced it well, for 50 or 60 years.

PrayerBlog.jpgThis description also represents the reality of most American nuns - women who are among the hardest working and least appreciated and most misunderstood females you will ever meet, this side of your own dear mother.     

Camilla Hall, in certain ways, is like the Pentagon. It's big, it's solid; it stands for something. It is an imposing, useful building, part nursing home and part-retirement community, and Camilla's occupants are still just as deeply committed today as they were back in their collective youths, so many years ago, when they first donned their black, serge habits, with nervous fingers and hopeful hearts. They had their vocations then, they have them now.

At the Pentagon they've seen it all: wars, changes in leadership, shifting alliances and political interference. Yet, the professional warriors who work there and make plans inside its thick walls, commanding the generations that will one day replace them have learned to take it one objective at a time, one strategic task at a time. And they do it with a sense of almost religious conviction when it comes to the moral rightness of the United States military.   

Nuns, too, are like that. Camilla Hall is like that. The old generals aren't questioning the value of patriotism or the right of the commander-in-chief to command. And most contemporary nuns aren't debating the existence of God, the efficacy of religion, or the unwise decisions of an ambitious Cardinal or a duplicitous priest. They are taking it one soul at a time, one problem at a time. This, too, is belief. This is the life of a nun in 2011.   

Camilla Hall is a 350-seat house of worship, simple, elegant and authentic. It was built in the mid-1960s, located on the windy, open-to-the-elements campus of Immaculata University, in Frazier, Pennsylvania. However, once you are sitting or kneeling in one of its long, smooth pews, the chapel seems larger and it suffers from none of the modernist, utilitarian boredom of most structures from the same era. There's a wide, imposing main altar, two compact side altars and the accumulated spiritual icons of several generations of Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order.

Behind and above you, there are also two balconies for the sisters who are too infirm and incapacitated to attend mass in the first-floor chapel. Doctors, nurses, therapists and slightly younger sisters take good care of them. A male chaplain can also become available for their spiritual needs, but every single woman in residence or at work in Camilla Hall is eminently qualified to be a priest, herself. However, there is very no chance any of these women will ever get that opportunity. Because, to offer the understatement of this or any other age, the Catholic Church does, indeed, have some issues - refusing to even consider the ordination of women is one of them. Yet, the women at Camilla Hall and in hundreds of other convents, motherhouses and residences around the country, persist.  

In a casual conversation with another nun at a social event an unexpected conversation ensued. She was asked about the on-going investigation of America's women's religious orders by the Vatican. How is it going? Has it affected your work?

"Not at all," she answered. "We all have our jobs; we do them," she replied. "They called a few of our sisters to sit on some committees," she added. "We have reports and questionnaires to fill out. I guess they read them."

The conversation continued and it became clear that the women in her order had much better things to do than chase the Vatican's phantoms.

Then, she said something that was hard to see coming. "Did you see the stories about the Pope no longer being an organ donor?" she asked.

Pope Benedict XVI has been a long-time proponent of organ donation and had, in fact, listed himself as a donor throughout his previous career in Germany and in Rome. Then, abruptly, the old guard at the Vatican objected; apparently reasoning that the organs of a pope, even a dead one, were too precious to donate. Quietly, he assented to their position.

This woman's eyes suddenly showed an anger and resentment - almost embarrassment - that had not been there before. "Can you believe that?" she said, the exasperation, the raw feeling of having been disappointed too many times coming through viscerally. "Who do they think they are? What can be wrong with that? He tried to do the right thing."

Then, she rolled her eyes. And you knew she's had to roll them before.


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