From Nunzilla to 'You Go Girl': A Tale of Sisters

"Pueden aplastar algunas flores, pero no pueden detener la primavera."

"They can crush a few flowers but they can't hold back the springtime."

With this striking image, Sister Pat Farrell, the new president of the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious), concluded her speech at the LCWR assembly that took place Aug. 7-10 in St. Louis, Mo.

Sister Pat's predecessor, Sister Mary Hughes, was peppered with questions when she spoke Thursday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. -- about the April Vatican bombshell that roundly chastised the nuns, speculation about what motivated what seems a singularly unwise move, the LCWR's response (Plan A and Plan B), the nuns' reaction to the sex abuse scandals, Obamacare and the Ryan budget plan.

Sister Pat had observed that: "Here we are, in the eye of an ecclesial storm, with a spotlight shining on us and a microphone placed at our mouths." Sister Mary navigated the questions like a pro, gently but firmly, positively but with some tough messages about integrity. Her stance stood in marked contrast to the fractious Washington politics of our time. The bottom line: they will try dialogue, the way they believe dialogue should be, and it's too soon to talk Plan B. The criticisms stunned the LWRC, coming without warning or explanation, and they can only speculate on where they come from. As deeply hopeful women, they hope and pray that good will somehow come from the process.

Two narratives stood out in what Sister Mary said. First, the sisters of LCWR (about 80 percent of America's 57,000 nuns) bring different gifts, "charisms," but they have in common that they "fall in love with people we work with." They feel a deep solidarity with the marginalized of society, many of whom feel excluded. The nuns see issues -- social, political and spiritual -- through their eyes. A part of their prophetic, charismatic role is to bring these voices to the Church. This is not defiance but a true gift.

And second, they wrestle with their commitment to obedience. Obedience, Sister Mary stressed, means at its deepest level listening, to God and to others. It is grateful and respectful. But it is not blind obedience. In each of their religious orders, nuns would never expect blind obedience to their leadership, and the same applies to their vision of relationships with Church authorities. Obedience, in short, is to be humble but not submissive.

The unexpected limelight for LCWR gave their annual assembly a special flavor, and another message was about tone and dialogue (politicians, listen up). Despite intense feelings and an existential threat to their organization, the meeting was, Sister Mary stressed, deeply peaceful. There were no fiery speeches, no denigration of others. There was contemplative silence and careful listening to minority voices. This very diverse group with widely different interests and personalities was thus able to agree on a path forward.

Looking for silver linings is part of hope and the LCWR is deeply appreciative of the outpourings of support for the work of the sisters that the Vatican move has sparked. Letters have poured in, most in support, and more than 1,500 were delivered directly to the Assembly hotel, where stacks were centerpieces at each table. The letters express views on support (or opposition) but they also contained moving personal stories, testimony to the nuns' impact. But above all, the LCWR and its members are happy to see their public image shift from a nunzilla model of the stern unbudging nun to the caring teacher, professor, social worker, nurse or hospital administrator.

Sister Mary stressed that months ago the LCWR had stood in solidarity with the U.S. Catholic Bishops in highlighting their concerns about the impact of the Ryan budget on the poor. With Paul Ryan now in the vice presidential spotlight, LCWR will not take a political stand. However, she made clear that LCWR and its members will maintain their staunch support for the poor and programs that support them, and budgets will be an obvious focus.

Sister Pat Farrell's Assembly speech has some pearls of wisdom that are worth citing, especially with their counsel, intended or otherwise, for our still predominantly male political leaders:

"The human family is not served by individualism, patriarchy, a scarcity mentality, or competition. The world is outgrowing the dualistic constructs of superior/inferior, win/lose, good/bad, and domination/submission. Breaking through in their place are equality, communion, collaboration, synchronicity, expansiveness, abundance, wholeness, mutuality, intuitive knowing, and love...

It is usually easy to recognize the prophetic voice when it is authentic. It has the freshness and freedom of the Gospel: open, and favoring the disenfranchised. The prophetic voice dares the truth. We can often hear in it a questioning of established power, and an uncovering of human pain and unmet need. It challenges structures that exclude some and benefit others. The prophetic voice urges action and a choice for change...

St. Augustine expressed what is needed for civil discourse with these words: 'Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth. Let us seek it together as something which is known to neither of us. For then only may we seek it, lovingly and tranquilly, if there be no bold presumption that it is already discovered and possessed.'

Amen. And all power to the sisters as they navigate their dream of dialogue and hope. They are flowers that should not, must not, be crushed.