After a 40-year decline in the number of Catholics joining religious orders, the Vatican is taking note, at least of women's religious orders. Women's religious orders in the US, that is. The Vatican recently ordered an "apostolic visitation of nuns" in the US to "look into the quality of life" of women's religious orders in the US.
While some women religious are glad the Vatican is looking into their vocational crisis-the number of women religious has dropped from 180,000 in 1965 to just 60,000 currently-others "fear that the real motivation is to reel in American nuns who have reinterpreted their calling for the modern world." (New York Times, 7/2/09) That "reinterpretation" involves, in part, eschewing the religious habit for "civilian clothes," working in non-Roman Catholic institutions, and in some cases, advocating for the ordination of women and married men to the priesthood.
I'm not sure why this news has hit me so hard this morning. Perhaps it's that I know some pretty phenomenal nuns. I see their devotion to living the God-life wherever they might be, whatever they might wear. Watching them live their lives of pure devotion? It chastens me and challenges me to work harder to live my life with equal devotion.
But I also hear their pain...the pain of being overlooked and neglected by their bishops, the pain-for some-of being excluded from the priesthood, the pain of having to call on someone from outside their community to celebrate the Holy Eucharist.
Since my introduction to monastic life at Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana, I have been struck by how the plight of some nuns resonates with me. I grew up Southern Baptist. As I reflect on my teenage years, I have to call what was going on inside me at the time a call to pastoral ministry. I sang in church. I played my flute in church. I gave my testimony in church. I was at church every time the doors opened. But because I was Southern Baptist, no one around me could imagine that I, a young woman, might be called to pastor churches. (One well-meaning pastor once said, "Kim, we need to get you some piano lessons. The best combination there is is a pastor whose wife plays piano.")
While the journey was arduous, I was able about twelve years ago to claim my call to pastoral ministry. A Baptist church did ordain me, but I had to move to the United Church of Christ to find a church to pastor. On the 17th of this month I will celebrate the tenth anniversary of my ordination. On the first of last month, I celebrated 8 years of ministry at my current church, Pilgrimage United Church of Christ, in Marietta, Georgia. I feel blessed beyond measure to have had communities that were able-at last-to recognize my gifts for ministry and to call on me-to call me-to use them.
Maybe that's why reading about the "apostolic visitation" on US nuns hurts so much. I have known the pain of exclusion. What do you do when you listen to your church all your life, a church that tells you to listen to God's calling in your life and yet, when you try to follow that calling, the church doesn't support you? Or worse yet, villainizes you? Very confusing. Very frustrating. Very painful.
I've written before about Women Touched by Grace, the Lilly-funded program for Protestant women clergy. We spend two ten-day retreats a year at Our Lady of Grace Monastery, hanging out with the nuns, reflecting on ministry, resting, and praying. I've also written about Sr. Mary Luke Jones, whose brain-child the WTBG program is.
Our group of women pastors has been known to speak antiphonally. That's where a person will call out a short phrase like, "Sr. Luke," and the rest of the group will respond with the well-known answer: "has a big closet." (Sr. Luke has a very nice wardrobe.)
One morning we surprised Sr. Luke with a new antiphon: "Sr. Luke," our leader said, "is our pastor." The look on Sr. Luke's face spoke volumes. She seemed surprised, proud, and deeply grateful. Her gift for pastoral ministry had been acknowledged and blessed by her "congregants."
There's nothing I can do from inside the Catholic Church for American nuns. I will, though, as long as I've breath, sing the praises of the nuns I know. You are among the most faithful people I've ever known. You have shown me God in ways I've never before experienced. I-someone who is far outside the purview of the Catholic Church-- have been changed for the better by your ministry to me. I thank God for all your pastoral gifts. Thanks be to God!