The Mystery of the Church

Of late, I can’t escape pondering the religious sisters. They keep appearing in reading I’m doing on U.S. Church history, in efforts to understand the nature and foundations of Catholic education, and in the audiobook sent this month.

We owe the sisters so much. From hundreds of hospitals that were built on their service and sacrifice to the thousands of schools they founded, they have been a strong and reliable thread binding American society together. Many of those schools are closing, partially because the inexpensive education provided by the selfless sacrifice of so many celibate sisters isn’t sustainable when laypeople take their place (laypeople needing salaries to support families). In 1965, there were 15,000 parish elementary schools, and 50% of school-aged Catholics went to them. The 2004 numbers stood at 6,853 elementary schools, and less than 25% of school-aged Catholics attend them.

Some say these numbers reflect a deep crisis in our culture and the Catholic church itself. Pointing to the incredible decline in vocations to sisterhoods (In 1965 there were 179,954 religious sisters. In 2004, there were only 71,486), there is much speculation for the cause. To hear some tell it, the reforms of Vatican II robbed the liturgy and American Catholicism of much of its unifying identity, and the drop in vocations is a natural outgrowth of Vatican II.

Others say the exodus from religious orders (including priestly orders–which have shrunk some 15%) came with the Council’s refusal to allow religious to marry and for women to be priests. While I don’t feel qualified to make judgments on claims concerning the liturgy (in part because I’ve only known post-Vatican II), I view assertions concerning female ordination and celibacy with great skepticism. Any man or woman who took vows of celibacy under the expectation that the church would erase them took false vows, and probably never had a vocation to consecrated life in the first place.

In contrast to “traditionalists” who would see Vatican II overturned, others proclaim the Holy Spirit is doing something new with the American church and religious sisters. I know some lovely and wonderful sisters. I’ve actively tried to encourage young women to explore possible vocations to that life.

The precipitous drop in female vocations may not have all that much to do with an overly sexualized or individualistic culture (though it is certainly both things), or with a new movement of the Holy Spirit. Much has to do with the abuse of the sisters’ good-will and mismanagement of funds. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, young men can go on a weekend retreat, eat wonderfully prepared meals, receive lodging and spiritual direction, and enjoy space and time for prayerful discernment–all free of charge.

Not so females. Having sacrificed so much for charity’s sake, the sisters are forced to ask inquisitive young women to pay for discernment retreats. Those retreats seldom receive publicity and promotion anywhere near that given to male “Come and See” weekends.   I had to hunt for 20 minutes on-line to find info for a young woman.

Young men entering formation have educational expenses paid for them. In all the cases I’ve heard, young women are expected to pay their own way, and thus have to work secular jobs while male brethren have ample (I might even say “excessive”) free-time. Do these practices seem just to you?

I do not believe the differences are warranted by the distinction brought by ordination. The Lord said, “the worker is worth (his/her) wage” and did not begrudge the extravagance lavished upon him by Mary of Bethany. I do not think He would begrudge us lavishing some due extravagance on our consecrated sisters. I think it long overdue. Instead, it seems we relegate our women (and yes, the hardworking priests out there) to the role of Martha, forcing them to work to pay a wage before they can sit at the feet of the Lord like Mary.

Quite recently, the Archbishop announced a plan to support seminary expansion in the diocese. It is wonderful more young men are responding to religious life, and certainly the faithful should support them. But the publicized plan calls for raising $30 million for building expansions, and $25 million for the endowment that supports seminarians, leaving the ladies out in the cold once again.

When vocations to religious sisterhood are in such peril, would it not make sense to strengthen, promote, and collaborate with our sisters? And given that 80% of laypeople participating in liturgical functions or ministry are women, wouldn’t it seem sound to grace their willingness to serve with attention to their formation and spiritual development?

I have found Archbishop Burke to be a holy man, and I ignore those who attribute sinister or prejudicial motives to him (you do not know the man). We are all human, and prone to a certain blindness to the “big picture” around us. Perhaps those in positions of such staggering responsibility are all the more prone to understandable ignorance.

Celibate men and women, surrounded as they are by vowed members of their own sex, do not have the perspective (or sense of compromise) that comes with married life. If God is Other, and Mystery, there is perhaps no greater opportunity to encounter God than godly, loving marriage. It stretches one, causes them to move beyond the tendencies of their own sex, and takes them out of comfort zones in ways I believe consecrated life rarely offers. That’s just my perspective on the issue, and should not be construed as an argument against celibacy. The church would be lesser without it.

Still, I’ve seen the shift that takes place in those peers of mine that are religious brothers or sisters. I have watched a few grow more aloof from the Body of Christ, less capable of intimacy, and it leaves me questioning the validity of their professed vocation.

Maybe that’s a necessary shift, but I do think celibacy and communal life requires them to make more deliberate efforts to understand the opposite sex. I have seen a very real (though subtle) sexism in some orders (ladies, do not think yourselves exempt from that statement or risk).

I find myself wishing there were an advocate to speak certain words in the Archbishop’s ear. I’ve been told such thoughts are a sign the person having them is meant to be the messenger. Still, I harbor doubts as to my effectiveness as an advocate.

This whole post was inspired by two audio recordings from Mother Theresa. They got me thinking I understand religious sisters less than ever–they are a greater mystery than before (and not necessarily the good kind)–and that thought was inspired by Theresa’s exposition on celibacy, and being “only for God”. Is my lack of clarity because I’m struggling more than ever with my own sexuality?

My “flesh calls for flesh”, and yet my heart is incapable of truly giving what another person (save one) would deserve.

Or are the sisters more mystery because I’m being drawn by God to strive to understand them–and the Holy Spirit–in a deeper form of communion? Well, I will never rest content with what I know. I know enough about my own ignorance to have the conviction I can always understand and love more deeply…

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