Who would have thought that the Vatican would smack the knuckles and challenge the hearts of the nuns who have served God and the church in the United States, making the lives of the comfortable more compassionate, making the lives of the poor and oppressed more livable?
After spending three years performing a doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious(LCWR), the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a modern-day version of the Inquisition) has determined that Archbishop Peter Sartain will oversee the reformation of the programs and affiliations of America’s main organization of nuns, insisting that they conform more closely to the teachings and discipline of the Catholic church. Enough social justice work for these excellent women. Time to drill the people on church doctrine.
Challenging their hearts
This is not surprising to those of us who follow the follies of the thin-lipped Pontiff and his college of cardinals. Of course, they want to put the women back where they belong. Could they have forgotten that their loyalty belongs to the church rather than interpreting the Beatitudes and living by Jesus’s words “whatever you do for my brothers and sisters, even the least of them, you do for me.” (Matthew, 25:40 translation mine). And that is the way these women understand the Gospel, God’s preferential option for the poor. Most sisters spend their lives immersed in the deepest sufferings of our world. They don’t just stop by the soup kitchen on Ash Wednesday for a photo op. Some actually live in shelters with homeless women, orphans or the addicted.
“Their unwillingness to condemn gays and lesbians probably stems from the work they did with AIDS patients in the early 1980s. Back then, the disease affected mostly gay men, and no one was sure how it was contracted. Women religious were among one of the few groups who were unafraid to touch those dying from this unknown, frightening disease. Is there any doubt that, as the sisters bathed and fed these deteriorating bodies, they also noticed the deep and authentic love that these men shared with partners and friends? The sisters also saw anguish suffered by men whose parents would not visit them and the sacramental power of those who reconciled with family before they died. Any disagreements on contraception likely stem from the sisters’ work with poor, homeless and battered women. They harbor girls enslaved in the sex trade, women trapped in abusive relationships and mothers abandoned to poverty. Many sisters still run hospitals and are medical professionals. They have seen firsthand the price that so many women pay for husbands and boyfriends who refuse to wear condoms yet still demand sex. Every day, they see patients who have been date raped or women who bear life-threatening pregnancies.” (National Catholic Reporter, 23 April 2012)
Nuns on the bus
Using a bus as a metaphor is not unknown to activist nuns. In the Sixties they rode the buses during the US civil rights movement. In the Eighties, quietly, without fanfare, they served those afflicted with AIDS. They ran soup kitchens and clothed the poor way before it became chic to drop in on the hungry. And for 15 days the nuns, a dozen or so at a time, are at this moment driving a bus through nine midwestern states to educate people about the devastation ahead if the Republican budget, fashioned by Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives, becomes law. Visiting both the offices of Ryan and Senator John Boehner of Ohio, the sisters will offer an alternative to the Ryan budget. Ready for a teachable moment, a dialogue with the Congress people and members of the press that they meet along the way, the nuns explained matter of factly, “We’ve got to have a better understanding of the impact that it [the Ryan bill] has in terms of Head Start, food stamps, and to people who are on any kind of assistance.” Certainly, they are not riding the bus to teach the Magisterium in Rome. Rather, they are fulfilling their vocation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, as they have done for a lifetime. One suspects that Rome gets daily reports of the bus trip. Possibly the guttsiest of these nuns is Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, in Washington. Yes, even nuns lobby in these days of trying to grab a moment of attention from the people’s representatives of our democratic government. Sister Simone is also a bit of a provocateur “Catholic sisters have always been out on the edge,” she said with a pleasant smile.. “And quite frankly we have a long history of kind of annoying the central authority.” Thank God for Sister Simone and her merry pranksters.
A nun in prison
In the mid-Eighties I met Sister Anne Montgomery at The Catholic Worker in New York City. Anne was already a stalwart member of the Catholic peace movement, having been a member of the Plowshares Eight, a nonviolent direct action that laid the groundwork for and energized Catholic activists, who confront oppression in all its forms, particularly the shananigans of the US military-industrial complex. Back from serving time for a second Plowshares action, Anne was spending time in New York, speaking about the villainy of war. The day I met her, Anne was washing lunch dishes and talking to a homeless woman who ate her meals at The Catholic Worker. “I’m a sister too,” she told Anne. “We’re all sisters,” Anne replied. Less than five feet tall, her body sturdy as a flower stem, Anne rarely seemed surprised by anyone.
Anne is one of those teachers who spins one around without a whisper of reprimand. When I complained about the dreariness of mopping the kitchen floor three times a day, she reminded me of the value of communitiy. “Whatever issue you work on is connected to all other issues.” Mopping the floor is bringing peace to the world? “Remember what Dorothy Day taught us. We need to live in community for this work of justice and peace. We want the world to become a community, so we try to do that ourselves. We want to form a community conscience that can take a stand on these critical issues.” When I got that shamed expression that Anne must have seen many times on many faces, she squeezed my shoulder. “We all need other people to help us.”
Nuns in the tombs
A few weeks later in New York at the office of a New York senator, a group from a peace community in New York performed a simple action on the Feast of the Assumption, praying the rosary for the US to end its constant intervention in other nations’ sovereignty. A number of us risked arrest and ended up in the Tombs. Most of our companions in the large holding cell were hookers. “Let me get this straight,” one woman looked at us wide-eyed. A nun who was the principal of a Catholic grade school and a first-time activist, began to cry. One of the hookers put her arm around the woman, who was well dressed in a summer-weight navy suit and silk scarf. “My pimp can get you out,” she offered. “No, I don’t mind being here. It’s just, well, how can I lead the Pledge of Allegiance again?” Nobody had an answer. “The liberty and justice for all part. It’s a lie.” She prayed throughout the night, her lips moving silently, while some of us sang folks songs. Our new friends talked and joined in the singing, and the night passed slowly. Twenty-four women with one toilet in the middle of the cell does not create a silent night.
Nuns behind the apartheid wall
In the mid-Nineties, after another sojourn in a federal prison, Anne joined the Christian Peacemakers Team and went to live in their community in al-Khalil in the West Bank. A tiny apartment with foam-rubber mattresses on the floor and a computer on the table, the place was shared by the eight team members and whatever friends might drop in for a few days. The top-floor apartment is located in H2, the part of Hebron that is under Israeli military control, and where the settlers are multiplying monthly. Less than a week before 11 September 2001, a note written in the CPT diary, described a situation, when Anne and another CPT member, Kathy Kern, were attacked near the small settlement of Avraham Avinu. I offer the entry because it is devoid of melodrama and self-pity.
“A group of 10-12 settler boys, ranging in ages approximately from 7 to 12 years old then ran at the two women, shouting “F– you” and as well phrases in Hebrew. As they began picking up small stones and throwing them at the women, the two CPTers asked the soldiers to call the police. The soldiers just laughed and made ineffectual attempts to stop the boys from throwing stones, water, and sand at the women. One of the boys came around the back of the concrete blocks where the women had sought protection and began hitting Kern with a rod made of some light metal.” (Private correspondence from CPT.)Anne stayed and witnessed until some young settler hoodlums threw a large rock at her. The stunning blow wrecked her shoulder. She was evacuated back to the States, and the Palestinians in Hebron still talk about her courage. I am glad that she was not there to see Shuhada Street shops closed up, their doors bolted closed by the Israeli soldiers. I am glad that she did not witness the water tower on the roof of the CPT building filled with human excrement by the settlers. I am glad that we have some of her diary entries from her time there.
“I returned to Hebron on 2 September prepared for a worsening situation – for confusion rather than clarity, problems rather than solutions. I was not prepared to follow so immediately a path of tears and blood through the streets in the evening, walk frightened children to school in the morning and climb over rooftops with the grieving relatives of two Palestinians, both shot in the head, one man while attempting to carry the younger boy for help. As so often happens, with roof and street vulnerable to both settler and army guns, exact facts are elusive, but not the pain of children breaking into tears in the street or of a grandmother gesturing her grief over a boy she had helped raise from infancy.
“As always happens, even under curfew, the pain and confusion spread from house to house and also among the soldiers (two had previously suffered wounds, one’s leg badly shattered by a pipe bomb.) The following morning, unsure of new orders, the soldiers at first prevented some children from going to school. Other children dashed past the soldiers in frightened little groups while we watched to prevent harassment. As the children finally rushed into the school the principal called out a warning, not about what they might carry in, but about what they might find “planted” there – not to touch.”
By the time I visited the CPT team in Hebron in 2004, unbeknown to me, Anne was planning another action that would send her to prison for a final Plowshares action, her eighth major nonviolent direct action. I was going to stay for a week, getting the feel for the work and getting to know the community. My tasks were simple. In the morning, holding tight to the small warm hands of trusting Palestinian children, the team would walk the children to their school. With our cellphones at the ready in case we needed a “police escort,” we walked past the jeering settlers of Kiryat Arba. Of course, some days the schools were closed, or there was full curfew set by the Israeli military. While I was there the grazing field for the sheep had been seeded with poison by the folks at Kiryat Arba, those followers of God’s commandment to do unto to others. In the company of angels and the members of the CPT, I spent a couple of very hot afternoons crawling across the field looking for tiny white clumps of poison, hoping to find them before the sheep did. I was relieved to catch a servise back to East Jerusalem where all I had to face were looney haredi who like to spit at women in jeans, a teeshirt, and a Crucifix around the neck.
Nuns without visas
I dare not be too specific in talking about the nuns and priests who remain in the Occupied West Bank without visas. The Israelis have refused to renew their visas, some of them after serving in the Holy Land for 30 years.