Monasteries of the Heart

All You Holy Women

View all posts in Heart of the Matter

What was your reaction to last week's Vatican bombshell that it was reforming (read dismantling) the leadership organization of U.S. Catholic sisters? The sisters are charged with undermining Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality and promoting "feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

Some have used the words "shocked" and "stunned" to convey their reactions. Mine is "enraged."

I am as enraged as Samson who tore down a building with his bare hands, as enraged as Jesus who entered the Temple and smashed every sign of corruption. Which is not to say that I am ready to tear off heads or destroy chanceries. No, my rage is on simmer as I prepare for the days ahead. And here's how I prepare.

Every morning I read about a "saint" in a monthly periodical I subscribe to, "Give Us This Day: Daily Prayer for Today's Catholic" (Liturgical Press). In April alone I met these six women:

April 11 — St. Julie Billiart, co-founder of the Institute of Notre Dame de Namur. During the French Revolution she got into trouble for harboring illegal priests and had to be smuggled out of her house to go into hiding. Lesson I learned: you must break the law, even church law, to protect the safety and life of others, for example, gays and lesbians.

April 16 — St. Bernadette of Soubirous. Bernadette was only fourteen when Blessed Mary appeared to her and a miraculous spring gushed up at the site in Lourdes, France. Church officials subjected Bernadette to "interminable interviews and cross-examinations." Eventually they canonized her and Lourdes remains the most popular pilgrimage site in Europe. Lesson I learned: God gives visions where God will, often to women, though church hierarchy find it difficult to believe and do their best to trivialize it.

April 17 — Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, poet and scholar. This extraordinarily brilliant nun who was born near Mexico City ventured to write theology in 1609. Though acknowledging her work, the bishop of Pueblo urged her to use her gifts for "activities more becoming a woman." Her no holds barred response to him championed the equal rights of women to learning and caused such an ecclesial uproar that she was forced to disperse her famous library and write no more. Lesson I learned: Doing theology is a work most becoming a woman. Efforts to silence the theological contributions of Sister Juana in the 17th century was a sin and efforts to silence new theological thinking of women religious today — such as calls for a discussion on women's ordination — is sinful and to comply would put our souls in danger.

April 18 — Venerable Cornelia Connelly, Founder of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. Cornelia married an Episcopal priest, Pierce Connelly, who subsequently converted to Catholicism. He then decided to become a Catholic priest and Cornelia, pregnant with their fifth child, was asked to take a vow of chastity, which, out of love for her husband, she did. Taking her children with her to England she founded a religious congregation to advance the education of women and was living peacefully until her husband renounced his priesthood and wanted her to resume marital duties. She refused and after losing his suit against her in Anglican court, he kidnapped their children and she never saw them again. Lesson I learned: You can be betrayed by those you trusted and loved the most, in this case the Church that asked us to implement Vatican Council ll. To punish you for doing what you agreed to do when asked — now that they have changed their minds — they will try to take what is most precious to you: your good name, your freedom, your community unity,

April 19 — Corrie Ten Bloom, rescuer and witness. Living in Nazi occupied Holland, Corrie, her older sister, Betsie, and widowed father, heard a knock on the door one night and found a Jewish woman asking these devout Christians for shelter. Corrie invited her in and soon others followed until the Gestapo raided the home and she and Betsie were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Corrie survived the war and spent the rest of her days traveling the world bearing witness to God's love. Lesson I learned: Doing the right thing, standing up for those who have no recourse, is risky and can have dire consequences. Do it anyway. Answer the door when the poor needing health care knock. Answer the door when women trapped in desperate situations knock. Answer the door when a lesbian couple knocks. Answer the door.

April 20 — Anna Dengel, founder of the Medical Mission Sister. This woman responded to a notice that women doctors were needed in northern India to care for Muslim women who would not be seen by male doctors. This experience inspired her to envision and then establish the Medical Mission Sisters — the first Roman Catholic congregation to provide doctors for mission work. Lesson I learned: every founder of a religious congregation was a courageous pioneer that battled obstacle after obstacle to realize a dream. We owe it to our founders to trust our vision.

That's as far as I got in April. When I look ahead to April 26 there's Nano Nagle, the Founder of the Presentation Sisters who founded clandestine schools in Ireland. And on the last day of April we celebrate the great Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena who "received a divine commission to help heal the world and the church." She counseled Pope, kings and other men of power to end war and restore unity in the church.

This is how I prepare for what is to come. I stay close to these women, this communion of saints, because they remind me that, "if this is of God, nothing can destroy it." They teach me all I have to know of courage, of compassion, of creativity, of tenacity, of faith, of vision. And they remind me of a debt I owe. For the saintly women of April, and of May, and of June...all women who have suffered because they dared to be true to themselves and to their God, it is time to say "Enough."

And I include all of you in this communion of saints. Thank you so much for your notes of care and concern. Let this Monastery of the Heart join hands with Juilie, Bernadette, Juana, Corrie, Cornelia, Anna, Nana and Catherine and holy women and men and welcome the morning star.