The pope praises American women religious

The pope praises American women religious
Father Vince Guest, pastor of Holy Cross Parish, Bridgeton, is pictured with Sister Maria de Jesus and Sister Graciela at The Catholic University of America for the papal Mass and canonization of St. Junipero Serra. When leaving the United States, Pope Francis called American nuns “great, great, great women.”

Father Vince Guest, pastor of Holy Cross Parish, Bridgeton, is pictured with Sister Maria de Jesus and Sister Graciela at The Catholic University of America for the papal Mass and canonization of St. Junipero Serra. When leaving the United States, Pope Francis called American nuns “great, great, great women.”

After a week that cannot be described as anything other than unforgettable and the glut of coverage and commentary on a visit that touched and invigorated millions, it remains a difficult task to come up with something original to say in its wake. However, one angle that has not been discussed ad nauseum yet, at least in my circles, was the pope’s approach to American women religious.

Before he even arrived on our shores, in the special on ABC-TV that put him in direct contact with the American people in advance of his visit, Pope Francis motioned for Sister Norma Pimentel (a Loyola Chicago grad, by the way). “I want to thank you, and through you to thank all the sisters of religious orders in the U.S. for the work that you have done and that you do in the United States,” the pope said. “It’s great. I congratulate you. Be courageous. Move forward. Take the lead, always. I’ll tell you one other thing. Is it inappropriate for the pope to say this? I love you all very much.”

She had a few minutes in private to respond to him here in America, and reportedly gave him a painting of an exhausted and hungry Honduran mother and child after their journey, which she had made.

In his homily at St. Patrick’s, the pope reiterated his sentiments of appreciation: “In a special way I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States. What would the church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say ‘thank you,’ a big thank you … and to tell you that I love you very much.”

And again, in Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica at SS. Peter and Paul, a Mass I was lucky enough to attend in person, he commented: “The church in the United States has always devoted immense effort to the work of catechesis and education. Our challenge today is to build on those solid foundations and to foster a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility in planning for the future of our parishes and institutions. This does not mean relinquishing the spiritual authority with which we have been entrusted; rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the church. In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, to the life of our communities.”

It is also noteworthy that he made an unannounced visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, a community currently embroiled in a legal battle with the Obama administration over plans with required contraceptive services under the Affordable Care Act.

Lastly, on the plane ride home he called American nuns “great, great, great women.”

I spent the Mass in Philadelphia amidst a sea of black and white and religious lapel pins that flooded me with memories of the sisters who taught me at St. Peter’s School in Merchantville and my close relationship with women religious in academia, especially at Fordham. The pope’s numerous and public endorsements of the work undertaken by American sisters cannot but be read in light of the recent investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Though that inquiry ended with no disciplinary measures or acknowledgment of error or public dissent from magisterial teaching on the part of the LCWR, the whole process left many American nuns feeling bullied and scapegoated. I have no doubt that this remarkable pope, as shrewd as he is pastoral, knew exactly what he was saying through those comments and gestures. “Build bridges, not walls,” as he has put it in so many other contexts.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Loyola University, Chicago.

 

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