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Sr. Pat Farrell's address to the LCWR

The presidential address Pat Farrell, OSF, delivered yesterday to the 2012 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is online for you to read: "Navigating the Shifts." (That link will take you to a page where you can download the .pdf.) It's prayerful, thoughtful, calm -- about what you'd expect, in other words, given the sisters' responses to controversy in recent months. Not reactionary, but still strong. Here are some significant passages, which to me are good reminders of what it is Catholics have come to admire so much about the sisters, and of what's valuable in their particular form of witness to life in Christ:

There is an inherent existential tension between the complementary roles of hierarchy and religious which is not likely to change. In an ideal ecclesial world, the different roles are held in creative tension, with mutual respect and appreciation, in an enviroment of open dialogue, for the building up of the whole Church. The doctrinal assessment suggests that we are not currently living in an ideal ecclesial world.


Considering again the large and small shifts of our time, what would a prophetic response to the doctrinal assessment look like? I think it would be humble, but not submissive; rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous; truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless. It would ask probing questions. Are we being invited to some appropriate pruning, and would we open to it? Is this doctrinal assessment process an expression of concern or an attempt to control? Concern is based in love and invites unity. Control through fear and intimidation would be an abuse of power. Does the institutional legitimacy of canonical recognition empower us to live prophetically? Does it allow us the freedom to question with informed consciences? Does it really welcome feedback in a Church that claims to honor the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful?


We who are in positions of leadership are constantly challenged to honor awide spectrum of opinions. We have learned a lot about creating community from diversity, and about celebrating differences. We have come to trust divergent opinions as powerful pathways to greater clarity. Our commitment to community compels us to do that, as together we seek the common good. We have effectively moved from a hierarchically structured lifestyle in our congregations to a more horizontal model. It is quite amazing, considering the rigidity from which we evolved. The participative structures and collaborative leadership models we have developed have been empowering, lifegiving. These models may very well be the gift we now bring to the Church and the world.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Sr. Pat Farrell's talk is a model for anyone interested in an adult discussion about Roman Catholicism today. She deserves our thanks. The CDF and the nuns both deserve our prayers that they flesh out the practical implications of her remarks and that the spirit of her remarks become the model for discussions of both procedural and substantive issues between lay people and clergy at all levels, parish, diocese, national conferences, and the world-wide reach of Catholicism.

Yes, a wonderful example. (Very unlike the intemperate slur about a "dialogue of the deaf" by Bill Levada.) GerelynP.S. In the Post-Dispatch this morning, Tim Townsend said the LCWR represents 47,000 women religious. Maybe Bill will release the real number to show that it's waaaay lower than that.

This is historic in my opinion. This iis a watershed moment for women and for nuns. But it is also a momentous moment for the whole church. The speech by Farrell shows that nuns have woke up and a marvelous statement that discipleship is in responsibility not blind obedience. Bernard Haring made these points years ago and Rome banished him. This will not happen to these sisters. The whole letter of Farrell is outstanding. It is impossible to over estimate its importance. "The participative structures and collaborative leadership models we have developed have been empowering, lifegiving. These models may very well be the gift we now bring to the Church and the world." Marvelous. Will the monarchs in Rome, in Philadelphia and New York listen?

"We have effectively moved from a hierarchically structured lifestyle in our congregations to a more horizontal model. It is quite amazing, considering the rigidity from which we evolved. The participative structures and collaborative leadership models we have developed have been empowering, lifegiving. These models may very well be the gift we now bring to the Church"The nuns' Different Way is a horizontal, i.e., democratic, governing model that has the potential to shame the monarchical/tyrannical structure of the Vatican. The Vatican cannot tolerate this. Unless the H.S. brings off a magnificent miracle by turning bishops Sartain and Blair into revolutionaries like the nuns, the LCWR doesn't stand a chance. Charlemagne lives.

The other interesting takeway is that the leadership of the LCWR seems to come out of this assembly with a more energized base and with clear authority to represent the base. Prior to the assembly, what I was reading from critics of the LCWR is that the problem is not with American sisters but with the LCWR, which somehow doesn't really represent those sisters. The leadership of the LCWR came away with a clear mandate from 900 superiors of religious orders, arrived at by consensus, (One sister said 99.9% of the participants supported the final response and gave the leadership a standing ovation when it was reported out).This situation created an institutional crisis which could have really fragmented the membership; one could absolutely see the different constituents coming down differently on this. But they came together, shaped a collective response and empowered their leadership to carry it out.And I think the response absolutely has teeth: we'll work with the Vatican with mutual respect and we are open to some changes,but we won't compromise our mission integrity. This puts the other side in the awkward position of needing to compromise themselves if they wish to keep any kind of moral high ground.So already what this process has accomplished:1. It undermined opponents' contention that criticism of the LCWR does NOT equal criticism of sisters. The sister members are clearly behind the organization and see it as representative.2. It weakens the opening positions of at least a couple of bishops who came out of the gate saying that no compromise is possible. With the sisters saying we'll work with you in good faith, but can only go so far, it puts what happens next on the Vatican. The sisters aren't quitting so the Vatican needs to either reconcile with them or break up the organization, which I think is a much less attractive proposition than it might have originally seemed now that the sisters are organized and have so much support.I am so beyond impressed by how the sisters have acted so far; I think this could turn out well.

I talked with an RSM this morning and she told me that the LCWR sought input from EVERY member of all the member congregations. Talk about a challenge to the membership and to the leadership to process and assess the returns!Can you see (arch)bishops doing the same in their (arch)dioceses?

Sr. Farrell refers several times to a possibly-beneficial "pruning". What does she mean by that - that Rome will prune them? Or something else?Also - I'm a little unclear on the event itself. Is it over now? What was the result of the group discernment and executive sessions that were scheduled to take place?

Jim P. --As I understand it, Sr. Pat Farrell's speech reflected the results of the nuns' discernment process. The nuns and the bishops were scheduled to meet yesterday for two hours. Sr. Pat says that the nuns will talk first about what they are and are supposed to be, not about doctrinal matters. (As I see it, Rome thinks that the place of women in the Church *is* a doctrinal matter -- women belong downstairs, beneath the centers of power.)

I find the tone of Sr. Farrell's address somewhat defiant; not really conducive to a productive dialogue.

Bruce - I am not sure what to think of it, but I think it could have been a good deal more defiant than it was, and I don't doubt that there was a contingent at the conference who wished for more prophetic rhetoric.I suppose my takeaway is this: I think that official Rome, or at least some segments of official Rome, would really like the sisters to be other than they are. I once knew a priest who described the orderly administration of the pre-Vatican II church - sometimes described as the "Perfect Society" - as follows: "The pope told the bishops what to do; the bishops told the pastors what to do; the pastors told the other priests what to do; the priests told the nuns what to do; and the nuns told the laity what to do." I would just observe that the church has changed since then.I take Sr. Farrell's address to be saying to church officials, in effect, "This is who we are, hee, now, today. If that is not who you wish we were - well, we can't help that, and honestly, we aren't very interested in being who we're not. If you want to work together on this, you must work with us as we are." For purposes of staking out an initial position in a difficult dialogue, I think that is a reasonable thing to say.I've said previously that this isn't going to end well. Sr. Farrell's address gives me reason to hope that I was too pessimistic.

I believe it will not only be well worth the reader's while to read Sr. Pat Farrell's entire address, but to give prayerful consideration to its implications as well. I also believe that Pope Benedict XVI, his Roman Curia, his hide-bound theologians, and members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would be hard pressed to match Sr. Farrell's thoughtful remarks in depth, breath, and vision. No doubt the appointed LCWR oversight bishops -- Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, Toledo, Ohio, Bishop Leonard Blair, and Springfield, Ill., Bishop Thomas Paprocki -- have direct orders from the Vatican, to wit: 1) Let the nuns dialogue to their hearts content, but 2) Secure the Vatican's financial interests in the nun's assets, and 3) Bring the nuns to heel under a male-only hierarchy, serving as non-thinking, blindly obedient puppets echoing Vatican pronouncements and teachings. The bishops likely have interests of their own as well -- a future red hat for Archbishop Sartain and favored Vatican status for Bishops Blair and Paprocki. Finally, after following the Vatican's hostile takeover of LCWR from its outset and then reading LCWR's press release and Sr. Pat Farrell's address, I have come to see the nuns as a cut far above the church's high-ranking officials in the manner in which they express their faith in loving but firm words and visible action in the real world.

Sr. Pat Farrell's response is a testament to the maturity of the Sisters and their ability to achieve servant leadership. As a non-consecrated women who is a Catholic and interfaith hospital chaplain, I look to and, indeed, need the Sisters to be successful in bringing their 'gift' to the Church and the world. If Rome, etc. doesn't accept them, the rest of us women who have been called to ministries in the world have no hope of legitimization.

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