Old-fashioned nuns say the past is key to the future
The light, clear tones of young women’s voices filled the chapel, their chanted prayers drifting across the wooden altar screen that shielded the sisters from the full view of those sitting in the pews.
It was five o’clock on a hot August afternoon, and vespers, the traditional evening prayer of monastic life for centuries, had begun in this Catholic convent located in this leafy suburb west of St. Louis.
The 16 sisters, novices and postulants of the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus had been up since 5 a.m. – “the first Resurrection of the day” as they call it – starting an unchanging routine of common prayer, quiet contemplation, morning Mass, and breakfast in silence. That was followed by a day of work with the aged at a rest home attached to the convent and with children at a day care that is also part of the 24-acre grounds.
As vespers concluded, the women filed back into the cloister for another half hour of silent contemplation before dinner. The characteristic brown habits of their order were all that could be glimpsed of them through the screen.
It’s hard to think of any image that could have provided a sharper contrast with the huge meeting that was taking place at the same time a few miles away in a hotel ballroom in downtown St. Louis, where hundreds of sisters from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious were figuring out how to respond to the Vatican’s plans to recast their organization in a more orthodox mode.
The Vatican’s proposed takeover of the LCWR had been the focus of widespread interest since April, when Rome announced that the group – which represents about 80 percent of the 56,000 nuns in American religious communities – was infected with “radical feminism,” marred by dissent and in need of a top-down overhaul.
There were few habits to be seen among the 900 sisters gathered at the LCWR assembly, and the prayers and speakers evoked New Age comparisons as much as they channeled any old-time religion. Yet the LCWR delegates, buoyed by an outpouring of public support, in the end forcefully rejected the Vatican’s charges and opted to try to pursue dialogue with Rome to resolve the dispute.
But what of that other 20 percent of American nuns? Often overlooked in the coverage of the LCWR showdown, they largely belong to a separate organization, called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, that the Vatican set up in 1992 as traditional alternative – some say a conservative rival – to the more progressive LCWR.
The CMSWR umbrella comprises convents with a total of about 10,000 nuns, including the Kirkwood Carmelites, and you probably won’t be reading about any Roman investigation of their practices. These sisters tend to follow a more cloistered existence, with limited contact with the outside world and even with their families, who see them for just a week or so each year.
Most important, the CMSWR communities are growing, and getting younger, which has many fans saying that they represent the future of women’s religious communities precisely because they reflect the past with confidence and with no discussion of dissent.
“We know what we are about,” Sister Mary Joseph Heisler, the vivacious head of this community, said with a smile. [More]