Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Planting Seeds: Why the Nuns are Right

We sit in the living room of the tiny apartment, old paint peeling on the walls, sipping tea, and listening with our ears and with our hearts. The year is 1970-something, a time of political unrest in Quebec, but nothing in proportion to what our host family have left behind in Vietnam. They are ‘boat people’, escapees from poverty and oppression, striving to make a new life for themselves in Canada.

I listen to the teenage boy, the only one who really speaks English, as he describes his journey and the family’s struggle. I don’t remember his name. There are younger siblings who fiddle at our feet, giggling at us visitors.

I am roughly sixteen years old, finishing my last year of high school in Quebec, and I am in this room with two of my classmates because of ‘Ma Soeur’, the little sister of the Congregation of Notre Dame who teaches my senior religion class. She has made it clear. Like Jesus, we need to learn from the world. Like Jesus, we need to be made uncomfortable with our comfortable lives. Like Jesus, we need to reach beyond ourselves and our Church.

I learned a lot from Ma Soeur and from the other Sisters who ran my Catholic high school. I learned that you need to live beyond the rules, that you need to reach for love, and that if you have gifts they must be shared. I learned that hard work brings rewards, and forgiveness brings bigger ones. I learned to go to the source, and listen to the story of the people. I discovered the blessings hidden away from brand names and shiny boxes, in the hopes and dreams of the outsiders and the forgotten.

So when I read last week of the Vatican’s scathing condemnation of the LCWR, the largest organization of nuns in North America, I was speechless. Without consulting the sisters, the Vatican appointed a bishop to reform the statutes of the LCWR. It condemned the sisters for spending too much time with the poor and oppressed, and not enough time on issues of sexuality and reproduction.

What is it that these sisters are doing? They are running hospices, caring for the poor, advocating for the oppressed, teaching the young, and leading the way through prayer and action to a just and compassionate society. They are educated, contemplative, and prayerful. They live lives of solidarity and peace. They work, write, and speak out against oppression. With informed consciences, they are shining light on the darkest parts of both society and the Church. And that is the problem.

The Catholic Church does not appreciate anyone outside the hierarchy showing leadership. The report against the nuns reminded them that the Bishops are the ‘authentic teachers of the Church’. In other words, how dare these women speak truth without the men’s permission?

I think of that afternoon in the little Quebec apartment. I think of ‘Ma Soeur’. I don’t know now what happened to any of the people there. I don’t remember what my friends and I wrote in our report for class. And sadly, I didn’t stay in touch with the family we met. I regret that. A few months later I moved on to CEGEP then University, then off to Africa to see more of the world.

But a seed had been planted by Ma Soeur and her sisters through the experiences and knowledge they shared with me, and the people they introduced me to. That seed took root and could not be dislodged. I learned something about hope, relationship and justice that year. I learned about possibility and solidarity. I learned that you need to speak up when you see an injustice.

I see an injustice now in the way the Vatican is treating the sisters. They are right to care for the poor. They are right to be concerned with systemic injustice. They are right to comment on political oppression, whether the men who think they are ruling the Church like it or not.

I hope and pray that the Vatican realizes that the nuns are doing exactly what Christ calls them to do. I hope and pray for reconciliation and justice. But mostly I hope and pray that the nuns don’t back down. There are seeds to be planted. There is hope to grow. Go nuns.

And, ‘Ma Soeur’, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, this is long overdue. Thank you.

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