Monasteries of the Heart

LCWR Journal

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The following are journal entries from the Annual Assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious held in St. Louis, Aug. 7-10 that dealt with the mandate from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to reform LCWR. The Vatican assessment ordered LCWR to revise its statutes, programs and affiliations and place itself under the authority of Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain.

MONDAY, AUG. 6—I arrived in St. Louis with our prioress, Sister Anne Wambach, our sub-prioress Sister Susan Doubet and Joan Chittister who is here to attend a meeting of past presidents of LCWR scheduled for tomorrow morning. Sister Christine Vladimiroff, another former LCWR president from our community, arrived on Sunday. I am anxious and emotional. This is a tipping point for me, as I wrote in a previous blog, “It is time to say ‘enough.’ How many of the other 900 women religious gathered here feel the same way, I wonder? Sleep does not come easy.

TUESDAY, AUG. 7—I spend the morning working on a manuscript while Joan attends the meeting of LCWR presidents. At noon she calls and is overflowing with energy—the presidents are united and strong.

WEDNESDAY, AUG. 8—Barbara Marx Hubbard, futurist, gave a fantastic keynote on “The Transformation of Consciousness and Religious Life Leadership.” She reminded us that crisis precedes transformation and placed our current predicament in context: “Present world systems are not sustainable. To keep on the path means radical breakdown, to choose creativity and innovation will result in breakthrough.” Drawing on Jesus Christ, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, and Saint Paul—“Behold, I show you a new mystery…we shall all be changed”—she called on us to be feminine co-creators of a world yet unseen. My favorite line from her talk: “You must be a person in whom the flame of expectancy burns.”

I am at a table with Pat, a Dominican; Mary Francis, a Sister of St. Paul de Chartres; Mary Bea, a Humility of Mary; Nancy, a Franciscan; Norma, an Ursuline; and Liz, a Good Shepherd. I’ve lucked out—we are all on the same page, though no one is quite sure what that will mean when it comes to crunch time.

In the evening we gather in executive session where a variety of options are presented as possible responses to the Vatican mandate given to Archbishop Sartain regarding LCWR. There are a lot of questions, but at least we have something concrete to discuss.

THURSDAY, AUG. 9—Tom Fox, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, Jamie L. Manson an NCR columnist, and Jennifer Gordon, SCL, are panelists on the topic, Religious Life in the Future: What Might It Look Like?

Tom is his sincere, inspiring, beautiful self. He tells us that the future of religious life starts here and pleads, “Please give us hope. Say ‘yes’ to who you are.” Jamie reminds us of all the hundreds of young women who are graduating with theology and divinity degrees and need a spiritual home. She asks women religious to open their doors and find creative ways to incorporate these women into their communities. Jennifer, a younger religious, asks: “Why live this life if not at the liminal edge?” And she tells this story:

A group of disciples were urged by their teacher, “Come to the edge.” The disciples said, “No we will fall.” The teacher repeated, “Come to the edge.” The disciples resisted, “No, we will fall.” Finally, after much urging, they went to the edge. The teacher pushed them over the edge. They flew.

I believe that story with all my heart. I know it happened to me the first time I committed civil disobedience. When I finally stepped over the line, I knew a freedom akin to flying.

In the afternoon we meet twice in executive session. We are presented a few questions, discuss them at table and give group reports at the microphone. The conversation is very kind and respectful, but I am discouraged. I leave feeling that we will compromise our integrity and go the way of “good nuns.” I cancel dinner plans and just sit alone for a few hours before heading to the support vigil—St. Louis is one of 41 “Sister” Cities across the country staging events this week.

A few hundred people have gathered across from our hotel and they are joined by many of the sisters including the three leaders of LCWR—Past President, President and President-Elect--each of whom addresses the group. I am greeted with a warm hug by Monasteries of the Heart member Pat Martens Balke, leader of the online Heartlinks Monastery and one of the organizers of the vigil.

Marie Andrews, a mother of three grown children, then leads the group in praying a litany she wrote for all religious communities in the LCWR. Using the website, she found the mission statements of 211 religious communities, gave a name of God for each community’s spirituality and wrote a brief prayer incorporating the mission statement. What a labour of love. Here is one sample. You can read all 211 at

God of All Hearts,
Bless the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
Women with hearts
as wide as the world,
who make known Godʼs goodness
and love of the poor,
especially women and children,
in the most abandoned places,
through a Gospel way of life, community and prayer.
We pray: You are our Light.

I stand with these faithful seekers and give thanks for the thousands around the world who held vigils, offered prayers, and wrote testimonials on behalf of LCWR. At our tables, for instance, were scattered over 1500 letters from supporters. Here is the first letter I opened: “I support, am with you…fulfill your mission to poor. I have experienced your work with poorest. Also taught by the sisters many years ago as a kid from the housing project. With you in God.”

We can’t let these people down, I pray. All week we have been reminded that this issue is much larger than we are. We are entrusted at this time, through no choice of our own, to be a beacon that leads to a new church. And lead we must.

“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs,” said Pearl Strachan. In her remarkable address to the assembly, Pat Farrell, president of LCWR, gave a lesson of a lifetime in the power of words.

If there was a turning point in the assembly, this was it. Pat’s words—poetic, instructive and inspiring-- touched the deepest core of every woman in that room and brought them to their feet with a long, long standing ovation. Though I took copious notes, the image I will carry forever was her final one. It is a saying that Pat carries in her heart from the days of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship in Chile: “They can crush a few flowers, but they can’t hold back the springtime.”

Yes, I said to myself, you can crush a few flowers with intimidation and abusive power but you cannot stop the springtime of an empowered laity, of the quest for equality for gays and lesbians, of the women’s surge for their rightful place in the church. Try as you may to crush the flowers, you cannot stop the springtime of Vatican II.

The two executive sessions that followed Pat’s talk were strong, clear and energizing. Yes, we would dialogue, if honest, respectful dialogue is possible. No, we would not compromise our principles or our integrity. Yes, we empowered our leaders to make the decisions they feel are necessary regarding the CDF report. No, we will not deny the years of renewal following Vatican II—we embrace the religious life that evolved. We have spent 50 years defining our role as women religious; 50 years growing to understand our place in the church.; 50 years of listening to and learning from each other and the marginalized in our world. Yes, we own and celebrate who we are.

When the press release was read to the assembly, we rose as one. We know what each of those words means. With Daniel Berrigan we state, “Know where you stand. And stand there.”