Tuesday, July 17, 2012

IHM Sisters Still Rock

Nuns on the Bus in front of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Mother House in Monroe Michigan.

The following is taken from America Magazine and written by Nancy Sylvester IHM.  I wish I had written it because it describes my own faith journey from a slightly different perspective.  I sometimes wonder if having had IHM Sisters in grade school in Detroit didn't leave some sort of mark on me, because IHM sisters of one congregation or another have really been in the fore front of VaticanII theology.  They weren't all perfect, but some of them were utterly dynamite in my faith journey.

Into the Future

The bishops are right. Women religious have changed, not only in the United States but throughout the world. We have changed in ways that invited us to let go of who we thought we were. Surrendering to the Spirit, we awakened to new understandings that touched our deepest core. Change at that level is transformation. It radically altered how we see ourselves, the Gospel, our church, our world and most importantly how we understand our God. This change in consciousness was not easy. No, it was painful, but like the pain at childbirth it dissolves in unspeakable awe at the life that emerges.
I do not want to pretend that everything that transpired over these past 50 years was perfect and without mistakes or poor choices. But what is clear to me is that the renewal that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council invited women and men, vowed religious and lay, to experience our faith in ways that both permeated and was shaped by a modern, pluralistic, democratic society.
The council document, Gaudium et Spes, invited the church to embrace the joys and hopes, the pain and suffering of the people of God and to be in the world and not stand apart. It “opened the windows” of an institution that had been nailed shut and freed the Spirit. In that invitation the official church echoed what Jesus did in his life when he “opened the windows” of the restrictive purity system that prevailed in his time and proclaimed in word and deed that everyone was welcome to the table and loved by God.

An Act of Obedience

Women religious took that invitation seriously and, urged by the official church, undertook renewal. That was an act of great obedience. I know because I entered religious life in 1966 having grown up in Chicago in a Catholic enclave. Catholic defined every aspect of my life—Catholic schools, Catholic funeral parlors, Catholic sports teams, Catholic spirituality, the list goes on. The official church today would be very proud of who I was back then. I did not want things to change. I envisioned wearing a habit my entire life, living in a convent with a daily routine, teaching in schools. So when I entered and things began to change it was not an easy road for me; however, I obeyed and took seriously what I was being taught in our theology and philosophy classes.
Integrating the questions that arose about faith, scripture and theology into my prayer life was key to my journey, as it was for many women religious. We began to see with new eyes who Jesus was and how the Scriptures were formulated within the context of its time. We learned the history of the church and its tradition of social justice teachings. We learned liberation theology and began to understand how structures and systems of political and ecclesial power too often oppress the very people they were formed to serve. As U.S. dioceses paired with cities in Central and South America, many sisters served in those newly established ministries and experienced the power of liberation theology and were transformed by the people they served.
Guided by the council documents we learned about other faith traditions and that they, too, had something to offer to the exploration into God. Liturgical renewal brought an openness and freshness to liturgical celebrations that had ossified within the Roman church.

Prepared in the 1950s through the Sister Formation Movement, women religious were poised to move quickly to prepare themselves academically following the council. And we did. Liberal arts, the social sciences as well as hard sciences became friends to us. The insights of quantum physics, evolution and discoveries about the origins of the universe were not alien or suspect. Rather they too were pointing to a greater understanding of God and who we are in this marvelous world.
Immersing ourselves in the world opened up new ministries in which women religious worked directly with women who were struggling with abusive relationships or decisions about carrying a pregnancy to term; with young girls who mistakenly understood that according to the church’s teaching it was better to have an abortion and be forgiven for one mortal sin than to use contraceptives and be in a constant state of mortal sin. Our ministries brought us face to face with the outcasts of our society—the homeless, those in prisons, those on drugs, the economically disadvantaged, those suffering because of their sexual orientation. These experiences seeped into us and as we brought them to prayer they transformed us. We saw and understood that those are the people today who Jesus would have called friends and welcomed into his company.

The Awakening

Our life within congregations was changing as well. As we changed the clothes women wore in an earlier era to clothes of our time and began to live in different types of community, we experienced ourselves as individuals in our own right. Like women everywhere in those years we awakened to our own identity as women and claimed the rights that were ours, equal to those of men. Having ministered among women we felt in a new way the challenges that are ours because of our gender, the gift of our sexuality and as bearers of new life. We came to understand that the official church’s teaching on sexuality was not accepted by most Catholic women because it did not touch women’s hearts, our lives, address our pain or the difficult choices facing us, or celebrate the joy of our sexuality.
Having grown up in the United States women religious began to integrate democratic principles into our governing structures. The council asked us to move toward servant leadership and we saw that patriarchal and hierarchical structures do not foster that model. Rather we chose more circular models of leadership with an emphasis on participation and shared leadership even as we affirmed and accepted certain individuals among us as our elected leaders.
The social movements of our time became part of our lives—the women’s movement, the civil rights struggle, the non-violence and anti-war movement and more recently the gay and lesbian movement. What we learned was a visceral knowledge that every human person is endowed with certain inalienable rights regardless of race, gender, religion, class or sexual orientation. All are children of God.
More recently, women religious have brought to prayer the insights from quantum physics and cosmology that reveal the interconnectedness of all life. We have consciously chosen to see the plight of our Earth as a justice issue and to formulate congregational directions and public positions regarding sustainability, global climate change and the care of Earth and its natural resources.

Speaking Out

We found ourselves immersed in a society that was pluralistic, democratic and secular and we knew that our faith had something to offer as well as to receive from the culture. We spoke out about the abuses of greed, consumerism and selfish individualism and the public policies that are shaped without regard to the common good or to those who are the least among us. We lobbied and we demonstrated. We used our economic power through shareholder resolutions. And we offered at our retreat centers and educational forums opportunities for others to integrate their experience as adults in this culture with their evolving faith.
Women religious have changed. And that change is shaking the very foundations of what continues to be a church seemingly caught in an earlier time and place. That is not what is needed now. The signs of our times reveal to us persons who are Catholic but who no longer can go to “church” because of feeling alienated and angry at the corruption and lack of integrity among many of its male clerical leaders. These persons so want to know God as adults. They are longing for a spirituality that is rooted in their faith and in their life.
I believe that the Gospel and the richness of our Catholic tradition have something to offer our post-modern world. I don’t want to see it collapse under the weight of structures that maintain power relationships that no longer serve. I believe that the faith that is waiting to be offered to the 21st century is one that comes from a stance of openness and understanding of the changes that our evolutionary development has brought us. It cannot be a faith that comes from a position of condemning modernity. It will be a faith that has been tested in the crucible of our time and has emerged with new insights and new interpretations of how we can love one another as Jesus did. In difficult and chaotic times we can come to a greater awareness that we are more alike than different, more one than separate.
Yes, women religious have changed. And I believe that our journey has much to offer this moment in history. Together with others who have walked in similar paths, the future of our faith has been beckoning us forward since the Second Vatican Council. On the 50th anniversary of that event let us move courageously into the future claiming once again that we are Catholics and we are the church.


  1. Coincidentally, I watched beautiful documentary by Michael Wood, Story of England: Peasants’ Revolt and the Black Death last night. Some of you may be able to see the program online at:


    Wood's themes are so very similar to those expressed above. The ideas of individuality, conscience in a new relationship to God and government create the modern world.

    We sometimes underestimate our forbears, and perhaps don't appreciate that these very same issues were struggled with some 350 years ago. The episode ends in the church graveyard in Kibworth where a lifelong Catholic woman's will is read. It reflects her obedience, awakening and speaking out with an newly acquired awareness of conscience. It even addresses the clothes that are worn. Invictus would enjoy the examination of real Protestant heretics. How similar the issues and struggles of all involved.


    1. Yes, that Wood documentary takes a lot of the harshness and religious propaganda out of much official history. That the Anglos have had a long history of a very different undercurrent or spice in our way of looking at individual rights that many times has gone up against a European POV. That America that as is was in the beginning is an extension of that Anglo individual quest for soul as well as daily bread and well suited to democracy.

    2. p2p - Thanks for that link to Michael Wood's documentary. My interest is on high alert status to see the entire series.

      I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that we "sometimes underestimate our forbears, and perhaps don't appreciate that these very same issues were struggled with some 350 years ago."

      I am ever grateful for stories and truth-telling, perspective enhancing documentaries that can provide an in-depth historical view that are objective as well as scientific. I look forward to seeing this and sharing it with friends and family.

      Fran Schultz

  2. P2p, thank you for the woods documentary. I was able to play it on my TV via my computer because several family members were interested. EVOLUTION IS what living in this world is all about. Modernism is part of the world, but even more so now is post modern thought. Some of the thinking of the modernist mind was that given honesty and hard work, man could if he worked hard enough come up with the right answers using science and scientific method. Even social scientists began to believe in this type of ability that men had. We could become our own little Gods. Then came Einstein who figured out that the more we worked things out , the more we studied basic science, the more we finite beings began to realize that there was always more to learn. So really it comes down to hard work and humility in the post modern world. However there will be those whorish personalities that are every inspired by dinero. They are the scientists employed by big tobacco or big oil that get on TV and talk about false science, or the current one is that global warming warnings come from "bad" science. There is no humility in these people and many have questionable scientific degrees from questionable universities, but there are those who did study good science at good universities that do this and can only be described as prostituting their degrees for capital. You see part of Laissez-faire capitalism is greed which is the very opposite of humility.

    These IMS nuns and many other, the sisters of Loretto, The Benedictines only to mention a few have grown and developed past modernism and evolved to where many should aspire to be. They are the modern day saints that truly follow the Way of Christ. Perhaps, if we listen we can find our way from so many good minds that are threatened by a central kingdom that we call the Roman Catholic Church. There are many Jesuit priests and Benedictines that also are of the same mind but are enough of them ready to call out the papal stucture for what it is, and stand with these nuns? How many laity can understand to follow Christ is to become more like these nuns and give up the ways of envy and greed that are so much a part of the Roman Church and its hierarchy?

    May we learn to live in The Way of Christ through peace and understanding!? It does not mean a war with the RCC only to ignore it and its leaders!! dennis

    1. Great documentary wasn't it Dennis? Amen to your thoughts above.


    2. Now both of you have me really interested in watching this, but that will have to wait until Sunday.

  3. Are the IHM sisters in Detroit the same organization as the IHM sisters in Philly that taught me decades ago. Blue garb, white blouse piece and black veil?

  4. I had the IHM Sisters in grade school near Harrisburg, PA and Sister Regina was the musical director for the entire school and Church and taught third grade. She was from the Philly area. Sometimes I wonder what became of her after all of these years.

    Thanks for posting this writing by Sister Nancy Sylvester IHM. Beautifully written.

    I am very proud of these nuns on the bus. They are the elders of the Catholic Church. They have obeyed their true calling and with such grace how can we not benefit from their witness, their walk and their talk on the journey of Faith? To shut out such grace-filled voices is to nail the windows of the heart and soul shut against the Truth and the Life that we need in our Church and in the world. The mighty wind of the Holy Spirit keeps the window of the soul open in seeking God. No institution, no person can prevail against the Holy Spirit. The current leadership in the Vatican may think they hold all the cards. How mistaken they truly are, imho.

    Fran Schultz

  5. It appears to me that women cannot let suffering, abuse, poverty anything that hurts another human being, stand without trying to right the wrongs.

    The two bastions of male dominance, Penn State and the Catholic church, allowed the sexual abuse of young boys, to go on for YEARS, in order that the status quo be maintained.
    In order that they not have to face punishmnet or the loss of their power.

    I hope that all the women religious fight against the Vaticsn'a witch hunt and the people of the church support the nuns.

  6. I would not remain Catholic if it were not for the nuns. They supported and sustained my family in our bleakest hours.

    My mother's kindergarten friends, now in their late 80's, are Sisters of St. Joseph. My mother's aunts were Loretto Sisters, and my wife's aunts were Ursuline Nuns. My religious instruction for sacraments was with the Sisters of St. Joseph.

    I fully support the Nuns on the Bus, and all the others represented by them.


  7. Have just finished listening to the interview on NPR with the President of the LCWR, Sr. Pat Farrell, regarding their current take on the Vatican's actions with regard to their organization. She was very articulate and well spoken iterating many of the sentiments expressed here. I don't understand what is going on behind the Vatican's actions in bulldozing all these wonderful Spirit-filled women. They seem to be processing the same kind of hatchet job at the Irish College in Rome as well. It all kinda boggles my mind, kind of like mozzeta and mouth decease.

  8. Jamez that's a good point about the Irish seminary in Rome. Also, it seems the same kind of strategy was used against Archbishop Bezak, and Bishop Morris. That would be investigations which were enacted just to serve as cover for decisions which had already been made. The Vatican really seems to be on a mission to silence any thinking that goes beyond the catechism. I can think of a number of reasons they might want to do this, but all of them have to do with maintaining their power, both political and financial, over others and the current status quo as it pertains to the priesthood. Sad really, and also very selfish and not in a good way.

  9. Bravo! What an articulate and thoughtful response to the Vatican pressure to conform. Sister also explains very well the Theology of VII and why the communities evolved into what we see today. I believe that there may be a coming Renaissance for Vatican II if more people like Sr. Sylvester speak out on the richness and possibilities of the council. It really is the way into the future for the Church.

  10. Coleen,

    It still comes down to fully understanding the meaning and the practice of envy and greed. Let's face it, the vatican is burning with these vices. At least the lust is in the open or is it. About a year ago I read about a male prostitution ring that was busted in Rome that had as its primary clients people in the Vatican. Never read anything more just a small article!! The coverups continue and the investigations of thinking people of this church continue. I can honestly say that, although I remain Catholic, I am no longer "Roman" Catholic. dennis

  11. I think that this sentence Sister Nancy Sylvester quoted from Gaudium et Spes, for me, embraces the whole Spirit filled theology of the Second Vatican Council.

    "The council document, Gaudium et Spes, invited the church to embrace the joys and hopes, the pain and suffering of the people of God and to be in the world and not stand apart." This is a powerful statement.

    The sisters have experienced that and lived that.

  12. Some very good stuff here, it's got to be said. I'm intrigued by a prayer based on quantum physics, though!

  13. Thank you for this excellent article. On another site I had to speak up because of the nun bashing. Nice to read positive things.