Changing Catholicism

January 31, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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There’ve been all kinds of books lately about Catholicism: Garry Wills’s new book on the priesthood, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition; Kerry Kennedy’s anthologyBeing Catholic Now, and even, if you’re so inclined, Why Catholicism Matters, a study of the cardinal virtues in the 21st century, by Bill Donahue of the Catholic League.

Sometimes, though, if you want to know what’s happening with American Catholics, it’s just as helpful to notice what’s going on. Like the other day, when I had lunch with a relative down in Philadelphia, a cradle Catholic like myself, but even more so since a number of her parents’ siblings were nuns or priests. (She’s also a successful lawyer.) We chatted a bit about her kids, and then she said, “Well, I’ve stopped going to Mass.”  In response to my inquiry as to why, she told a long but all-too-familiar story: first there was the new pastor, who’s a lot more conservative than the previous one. Then there was the archdiocesan campaign to which she refused to contribute because of the Philadelphia archdiocese’s shocking record of protecting child sex-abusers.

But the last straw, she said, was the attack by the Vatican on the nuns. “I know that my aunts who were nuns put up with a lot from the pastors and priests they interacted with,” she said, “but the idea of these women being treated this way in old age is more than I can take. I’m finished with it.” This, as I suggested some months ago might be the case for many Catholics, was the “line in the sand” for this extraordinarily theologically middle-of the road, (almost) life-long Catholic.

Next there is the steady movement of married priests into the Catholic mainstream (by which I do not mean the institutional church). First there was the celebrant of the memorial service for my friend Susan Donahue down in West Chester, PA, in January. This former member of a religious order, now married, and vested in an alb and stole, led a room full of nuns, ex-nuns, and practicing and non-practicing Catholics through readings, hymns, prayers of the faithful and eulogies. Nobody blinked.

Then there was an article on the National Catholic Reporter webpage this week about “Fr. Paul Mayer” of East Orange, New Jersey, who has called for faith communities to begin building a major movement that elevates climate change above its current “footnote” status and places it squarely in the center of both spiritual and public concerns. Mayer’s lifetime of social justice activism, as described in the article, is truly inspiring. Almost as an afterthought, in the last sentence, the authors identify Mayer as “the founder of a spiritual peace community in East Orange, (who) teaches yoga to seniors and has an active wedding ministry as a non-canonical, formerly married priest.”

And lest you think that all the change goes in one direction, there’s an article in the January 27 New York Daily News about John Cornelius, the first former Episcopal priest to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest in New York state. A big part of the story is that Cornelius took a vow of celibacy, to which his wife of thirty-three years gave her blessing, in order to be ordained. I will attempt here to restrain my cynicism about the quality of the sex lives of couples who eagerly renounce same and say instead that it’s good to know that the exclusion of women and gays and sexually-active married men from the Catholic priesthood is an inspiration to somebody.

I suppose I could close with a riff on the increasing number of Catholic women priests in the US, but since that’s been going on for decades, it hardly constitutes a change at all!


Who Needs e. e. cummings?

January 19, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Last Saturday, January 12, I went to Philadelphia for the funeral of another friend, my high school classmate, Susan Donahue. I have decided to stop lamenting about people in my generation dying, though I surely miss them. What can we do? We’re getting older.

But even if I’m not lamenting, I keep on observing things, –in myself and others. And if it’s not too weird to say, I rather enjoyed my friend’s memorial service. A hundred or so people came. Susan had been a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur for about half her adult life (more or less–the details were vague) and a bunch of SNDs and former SNDs and almost SNDs, some of whom I’ve known for fifty years, came to the memorial. Clearly Susan had a good life, teaching school in the South and then working in a free health clinic in DC while she was a sister, and later working with the CDC on HIV/AIDS. And she had wonderful friends who testified to the enormous difference she had made in their lives. We should all do so well at the end.

One thing that kind of put me off, though, was the reading of a poem by e.e. cummings during the service; Susan had apparently loved cummings’s poetry her whole life,  so we heard one of his works, along with a passage from Isaiah, before the eulogies started.

I should perhaps confess at this point that I have ambivalent feelings about the world I came out of. Delaware County, just south of Philadelphia, was in the 50s and 60s mostly white, working class, and Republican; I put a lot of energy into getting out of there. I also love (or loved) a lot of the people I met there.

What came to me about the e.e. cummings part of Susan’s service was, “Deliver us from the poetry we learned when we were teenagers, O Lord. Surely Susan got beyond e.e. cummings!”

I did not say this out loud. Another friend smacked me at a funeral last summer for saying something negative about the deceased,  so I kept my mouth shut this time. But that didn’t stop me from thinking.

Then, a few days after Susan’s funeral, I came across a reference to Dana Green’s new biography of the poet Denise Levertov. I have been in the habit in recent years of reciting a poem to myself as the Q train takes me across the East River from  Brooklyn to Manhattan: “I thank you God for most this amazing day.” I suppose it functions as a prayer for me, though if it’s a prayer, it’s one I sort of say to the Brooklyn Bridge, since I always look at the bridge as we cross the river. Anyhow, I had forgotten who wrote the poem, and then it occurred to me that perhaps Denise Levertov had.

So I googled “I thank you God,” and guess whose name came up? e.e. cummings.

I am writing this blogpost as an act of penance for being, once again, a judgmental twit.

Susan, I hope you’re laughing up there.

Odds and Ends

January 11, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

During a recent domestic crisis which my regular readers may remember, I had occasion to look directly at all my worldly possessions. It’s hard, when looking at all your “stuff,” ” as Annie Leonard puts it, not to wonder: why the hell do I own all this?

There are, of course, various answers to this question, depending on which stuff you’re scrutinizing. During my recent (and happily ended) domestic crisis, I had occasion to think, in particular, about the huge stack of bookmarks in the basket on my desk. My first thought was to pitch three-quarters of them, but as I sorted through them, I came across a large number that I just can’t seem to separate from. Nor do I ever use them: they mean too much to me to risk sending them to the library by mistake with my latest read.

I suppose I could put them in an album. Or maybe, if I tell you about them, I’ll get them out of my system, or at least, off my desk. Here goes:

2.5×8.5 inch cream-colored card with a picture of the woman at the well (John 4), commemorating the ordination of Mary Anne Whitfield Rammerman to the Catholic priesthood, Spiritus Christi Church, Rochester, NY, November 17, 2001.

2.25×8.5 inch orange and green on white card with a picture of Jesus on a meditation cushion, and Luke 4:18-19 in Vietnamese, commemorating the ordination  of Hanh D. Pham S.J., my student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, to the Catholic priesthood, June 7, 2008, St. Francis Xavier Church, St. Louis, Missouri.

(I attended neither of these events, though I did attend my student’s ordination to the diaconate.)

2×8 inch, plasticized white card announcing the publication of Francis Yates and the Hermetic Tradition: The First Biography of a Pioneering Woman Historian (1899-1981), by Marjorie G. Jones, whom I met at the awarding of the Mary Magdalene Award to Sister Teresa Kane RSM by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia in spring, 2012.

2.5×4.25 inch memorial card, printed in green, for Lydwine Van Kerstbergen, Dutch co-founder of the Grail in the United States, 1905-1995. “And a Mother Arose in Israel.” (Judges 5:7).

4×6 inch, black ink on grey paper, in Spanish, of St.Teresa of Avila’s famous saying: “Let nothing disturb you, let nothing affright you; those who seek God will never go wanting…only God is enough (Solo Dios basta).” From the Gross Munster Church in Zurich, whose founders during the Radical Reformation would not have been entertained.

3×5.5 inch multicolor, mostly blues, picture of Edith Stein, “ebrea, filisofa, carmelitana, martire” (Jew, philosopher, carmelite, martyr), 1891-1942.

3 1/8×6 3/4 inch folded card, red and white flowers with Latin words in black on beige, from a Flemish Book of Hours (1500), a birthday note from one of the sisters of Notre Dame who taught me in high school and who has never missed my birthday since then. No date.

2.25×6 inch tealish green on cream card from Tropiques, a bookstore at 63 rue Raymond Losserand,  14th arrondissement, Paris. Owners Valerie Alvim and Sophie Barets.

Well, there are about 75 more of these, but you get the idea. I’m off now to Philly for the weekend. Talk to you again soon.

Farewell, Dear Sisters

January 3, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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When I began writing about the two Vatican investigations of US Catholic sisters that began in 2009, my first post was a response to an article in Commonweal, the liberal Catholic magazine. It was written by a Catholic sister whose pen name, “Sister X,” indicates how dangerous she considered it  to say what she was going to say. She titled the piece “Cross-Examination.”*

There was much about “Cross Examination” that I found meaningful, but what moved me most deeply were Sister’s X’s reflections on the frequent experience of burying her sisters. “If the Vatican wants to know about sisters’ ‘quality of life,’ she riffs, ‘let me tell you about a common form of liturgical life in our community’–the burial of a sister, in a service without a priest, because priests are in short supply.” This thought gives her an idea about the cause of the visitation of women’s religious congregations and the doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious: ‘What Rome is really asking,’ she ventures, is ‘Why don’t you have more  nuns to bury? What aren’t there more of you?'”

My strong response to this thread in “Cross Examined” was more than theoretical. Catholic sisters, especially the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur who taught me in the 1960s at Notre Dame High School in Moylan PA and at Trinity College in Washington, have been some of the most influential figures in my life .  Catholic women in those years often entered the convent at age 18 and so some of the Sisters of Notre Dame at my high school were only ten or twelve years older than I was and are still going strong.

But many of them were older, and like the women in Sister X’s community, have in recent years, left us. The first of the deaths that really registered with me was that of Sister Claire McCormick, the high school Latin teacher from whom I learned that sometimes being clever just isn’t enough; sometimes you really have to study. In 2008, in her eighties, in what seemed pretty good health, Sister Claire sustained a stress fracture in her spine, developed pneumonia, and died within a week. I still can’t believe it.

Then, in 2010, came the death of Sister Mary Daniel Turner, one of the influential leaders of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who had become a hero to me when I did a series of interviews with her between 2003 and 2006. Sister Mary Daniel died of cancer, so she left us a bit more slowly than Sister Claire did, but her loss was very hard nonetheless. As she said, there was a lot she still wanted to do. I continue to miss her.

And most recently, in early December, Sister Helen James John died at the age of 82. As her obituary in the Washington Post notes, Sister influenced very many students as she taught philosophy for four decades at Trinity Washington University (formerly Trinity College). She was also a vigorous outdoors-woman and fought for justice in civil rights demonstrations and at her own institution.

What Sister Helen James did for me, though, was to help me to believe, for the first time, that I could be the scholar and intellectual I dreamed of becoming. I had done fairly well in school previously, but during the first semester of my sophomore year, I took Sister Helen James’s honors metaphysics class, a pre-requisite for further study in philosophy and theology. The class was a ferocious encounter with the works of the great metaphysicians–Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and more–and when I got an A at the end of the semester, I felt I had arrived. I also took a number of memorable walks around the campus with Sister Helen James; on one outing, we decided that “being” is better than “doing,” an insight that, as you may know, I certainly do not embody!  Not long ago I came across a copy of a reference Sister Helen James wrote for me when I was applying to a Ph.D program. It’s thoroughness and thoughtfulness take my breath away.

We’re all going to die, of course, and living into one’s eighties is a whole lot better than dying young, as recent events have reminded us. But the passing of these Catholic sisters marks not only their end, but, in a certain sense, the end of a way of life, at least here in the US. The median age of US Catholic sisters is 74. At a conference on women’s religious life at Fordham Lincoln Center in December, a sociologist reported that 1200 women are currently in formation to become sisters here in the US. This figure may not sound particularly low till we consider that it comprises slightly less than 2% of the sisters in the US today.

I could go an a rant about the ways in which mistreatment of US sisters by the Vatican and the hierarchy has contributed to this decline. In “Cross Examination,” Sister X writes of the Vatican, ”Do they really wonder why our numbers shrink and shrink? They might ponder their own actions.”

But perhaps this is not the time for such a rant. Perhaps, as the winter wind  blows outside my window, it’s time simply to be grateful for these splendid women and the incalculable difference they made in so many of our lives.

*Sister X’s article is now only available in the Commonweal archives for a fee, but my 2009 blog post summarizes it.

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