I don’t envy those tasked with reputation management for the Catholic Church. The showdown between the Vatican and the Sisters here in the United States seems to have reinvented the image of nuns. The image of the kind-hearted Sisters who sang about the solving “Problems like Maria” or Whoopi Goldberg’s use of music to save an underfunded inner city school in Sister Act are being challenged by women who defy the Vatican in their fight to do what they have taken vows to do – serve the poor and needy of our communities – a mission made famous by Mother Teresa.
The nuns in the spotlight today are politically active feminists, and the target of the Vatican, which to stick with the movie theme had been the “great and powerful Oz.” It’s Catholic Nun 2.0. Or is it?
I will admit I am not unbiased on this topic. I attended Catholic School for most of my life, and was lucky enough to be taught by nuns of all shapes, sizes, ages and attitudes. In my grammar school years, I remember Sr. Barbara with her 70s hairdo and folk guitar. She taught me that Sisters weren’t born old, and had arms and legs like the rest of us. And when I got to my plaid-skirted, all girls high school, I had nuns who still spoke conversational Latin and wore long habits, and nuns that wore jeans and earrings. I quickly learned that these Sisters were highly educated and intelligent, and they were committed to sharing their knowledge with us. Sr. Virginia taught us to question the status quo, and about the responsibilities of citizenship. Sr. Ruth instilled compassion for others and a passion for social justice, regaling us with tales of the boys and girls just our age who were living at the Covenant House. Sr. Ignatius, with her requirement to read 10 books per quarter (imagine!), instilled a work ethic that serves me well, even today. And Sr. Jeanine demanded that we take on challenges boldly, particularly if those challenges involved dissecting a frog. They encouraged us to volunteer in our communities, register to vote and to achieve.
So these Sisters in the news aren’t really Nun 2.0 – these are the Sisters I’ve known my whole life. The ones who dare to stand up for the child others picked on. Who demanded that we be our best selves. Who showed us that women could do absolutely anything (and should). They taught us to challenge the status quo. And they followed their mission boldly, without distraction. They didn’t have a bus tour, but the unwavering commitment to what they believed was the same.
Sr. Simone Campbell has reached a new level of celebrity, embraced by political leaders in a Presidential election where the women’s vote will be critical. It seems to me that a Church that is struggling for relevance in an increasingly secular society might do well to do the same. I think these Nuns might be just the reputational remedy the Catholic Church needs.