By Sister Beryl Herdt, OP, Ph.D.
The month of March is known for many things, ‘coming in like a lion-going out like a lamb’ March madness, St. Patrick’s Day, and Spring at least chronologically. Most important recently, it is known for being National Women’s History Month which also contains National Catholic Sisters Week.
What is the significance of National Catholic Sisters Week? It represents the extremely belated recognition of the role of Sisters in the American Catholic Church. In what was considered a definitive history of catholic nuns and sisters through two millennia and two centuries in the western world, Jo Ann Kay McNamara stated in the Introduction to Sisters in Arms, “the history of nuns is haunted by the presence of men who often admired them yet feared their own admiration; who controlled them but did not trust them; who invested emotional currency in the mythology of mystery and difference rather than the ideal of understanding and equality.”
Despite often dealing with negativity, our foundresses “have broken new paths for women in a hostile and forbidden world. They served their God and their Church and in doing so they fulfilled themselves and laid a foundation for all women. Without the daring and sacrifice of these nuns, it is impossible to imagine the feminist movements of modern times finding any purchase in the public world. They created the image and reality of the autonomous woman. They formed the professions through which that autonomy was activated. They still devote their lives to the care and development of human beings everywhere.” Today, they are educators, medical and health personnel, lawyers, social workers and justice advocates. They are almost anywhere with society’s marginalized and with the demeaned migrants and children at the southern border.
In the United States, Sisters were largely responsible for growing the Catholic Church through their role in the Catholic education system and presence in parishes, hospitals, and child caring institutions. We know from the public’s response and outcry to the Vatican’s Apostolic Visitation of recent years, that the sisters were much loved and respected. The largely male hierarchy of authority varied in its response to the Sisters. Many were very supportive and respectful while others were neglectful of the Sisters efforts and needs. Though some Sisters have been formally named as Saints, the majority who worked exhaustively over the years are also saints without formal recognition.
Obviously, the role of the Sisters in the Church today amid the sexual abuse scandal takes on a more serious and meaningful position. While a Pope’s commission has been considering whether women should be admitted to the diaconate, it is also obvious that the role of women in the church deserves even greater consideration, not only participation but ordination. May the spirit of the first Apostle to the Apostles, Mary Magdalen, be our guiding spirit, leading us to bring our loving, triune God to all.