At home in the Catholic Church with the SPs
(This article originally published in the Summer 2013 edition of HOPE)
The first time I went to Mass with the Sisters of Providence in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, it rattled me.
Those sisters were changing words in the responses at the Mass!
It was 1994, and I was an 18-year-old student at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. The Catholic Church had been a “home” for me since I was a child: a place of safety and comfort. At the time I expected — I needed — its constancy.
And here these Sisters of Providence were, in their spoken responses at Mass, each personally (but collectively it became a more powerful-sounding whole) using gender-inclusive language in their spoken responses: replacing the word “He” with the word “God” and the like.
Apparently, I wasn’t quite ready for the Sisters of Providence and what they taught.
My childhood had been full of chaos. The Catholic Church provided stability, and I held on tightly. The ground of life was rocky, but God and the Church provided for me a solid haven.
It was the spirituality of the Woods that drew me to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and the Sisters of Providence in the first place: the obvious holiness of this place. It felt safe.
It turned out it was safe: safe enough for me to loosen my blind grasp enough to learn and grow.
And leave it to those Sisters of Providence to really shake things up for me.
One of my college majors was theology, the study of God, and the classes were not what I’d expected. I distinctly remember an evening spent crying my eyes out because my theology professors didn’t believe a literal devil existed.
After college I got married and began work in the Sisters of Providence Mission Advancement office. There I listened to and observed the sisters; I wrote stories about and documented their lives.
I experienced a lived history of strong, educated, faithful women of the church. I saw the struggles and joys of life as a woman religious today and in the recent past.
Along the way my admiration, my trust and my appreciation of the Sisters of Providence just kept growing.
I eventually reached a point where asking questions about the Church broadened me rather than threatened me. And that new-found strength came just in time.
Last year when the Vatican announced their “crack down” on the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, an organization representing more than 80 percent of the women religious in the United States, my faith in the Catholic Church was shaken like never before.
I was horrified at the perceived injustice. It seemed to me that women religious in the United States, a group of intentional, thinking, caring women who had dedicated their entire lives to the people of God, were being chastised for just that: for thinking, for caring, for being women (with different priorities and perspectives than the men), for walking with the people of God and for being a prophetic witness to the needs of the Church in the 21st century.
For the first time in my life, I felt a strong desire to run away from my Church home.
Yet listening to the wisdom of these very women of Providence has settled me down a bit.
Instead of running away, I’ve found a place I feel at home: by their side in the Catholic Church.
Sundays at Mass as I struggle to pay attention while juggling an active 3-year-old, I at times become conscious that I am not saying the words to the responses exactly as those around me are. I am using inclusive language, just as my mentors, the Sisters of Providence, have been doing for years.
And I am thankful. Thankful for having been educated by them. Thankful for having been stretched by them. Thankful for the wisdom and grace of their example that helps me give others, even a Church I love, the room it needs to grow.
Amy, when you wrote above about your reaction to the Vatican crackdown on LCWR, you really spoke for me, too! When it happened, I thought, “This is the last straw. I cannot stay.” BUT – I stopped long enough to listen to these amazing religious women, and I changed. The change has been gradual and very deep, as I work to follow their example of contemplation, community, solidarity with marginalized people, and profound nonviolence. My experienced this past year has included sisters from many congregations, not only SPs, but just as you said: “Yet listening to the wisdom of these very women of Providence [and other congregations] has settled me down a bit. Instead of running away, I’ve found a place I feel at home: by their side in the Catholic Church.”
It has become a joy, actually, to walk with them. Their fundamental peace is contagious.
After the April 2012 crackdown, a group formed almost instantly among my friends and friends-of-friends. We named it Solidarity with Sisters. With 200 people, we rallied at the Vatican Embassy last May. We met with the Papal Nuncio, and continue to walk in solidarity with LCWR and Catholic sisters. Our website offers both current news and an invitation to explore the rich resources that have fueled us – the tools of contemplation, community, solidarity with marginalized people, and prophetic life that the sisters show us. I’m the main person doing the website, and it has been INCREDIBLY rich for me to discover and use those resources.
But the resources without the lived examples of sisters would be harder to follow. It’s been a tremendous privilege and joy to meet sisters on staff at LCWR, including Providence Sister Marie McCarthy, truly a powerhouse of intelligence and insight! I know that my h.s. education with the Sisters of Providence at Immaculata Preparatory School in Washington, DC, was an enormous factor in enabling me to become a genuinely adult member of this complicated Church, and I am so grateful to still have their companionship, both in person and in your beautiful HOPE periodical, Amy. Thank you.
Betty Dunnington Thompson
Thank you for your comments. And thank you for for your efforts to advocate not only for women religious but for all women in the church. We need it!