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Nuns reading

(Photo credit: Google)

By Addie Darling

In the controversy over the Vatican’s Censure of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), many have framed the debate as a conflict between women who care for the poor, and adherence to Catholic Doctrine. Sister Simone Campbell stated on an interview with Jon Stewart “Well the Vatican says we work too much for the needs of people in poverty, and we’re silent on issues of abortion, gay marriage, and therefore we are suspect,” and that any sort of support for the underlying principle of Catholic Social Teaching – the defense of life – is “not our mission.”

However, there is a large number of orders of women religious (mostly outside the LCWR) that demonstrate through their spiritual and apostolic lives that fidelity to Catholic teaching and a vocation to care for the poor and needy are not in conflict, and in fact go hand-in-hand. The women joining these orders are young, vibrant, highly educated, and emphasize all of the Church’s teachings- ranging from poverty to obedience, abstinence to feeding the hungry, an openness to life to care for the sick and dying.  As mentioned in Saturday’s article, Sister Simone believes that mission of serving the poor does include campaigns against congressional and Presidential candidates, though supporting the Bishops fight for religious liberty is “a scandal.” In a response for the New York Times to questions about defiance of the Church and “radical feminism,” Sister Pat Farrell answered: “Our understanding [of obedience] is that we need to continue to respond to the signs of the times, and the new questions and issues that arise in the complexities of modern life are not something we see as a threat.”

There are literally dozens of orthodox Catholic women’s religious orders in the U.S. that have an active and contemplative focus. Overall, these orders tend to be thriving and receive novices yearly, and stress the seamlessness of doctrine and wholeness of Christian life, even if their ministry is only in one small area of service. Below is a small sampling:

Missionaries of Charity was founded by Mother Theresa of Calcutta in 1950. They care for the poor, sick, abandoned and neglected around the world, including the mentally ill, former prostitutes, lepers and AIDS patients. The order has over 4,500 sisters worldwide in over 500 missions. To become a Missionary of Charity, postulants enter into 9 years of rigorous religious formation, with an intense devotion to the Sacraments, a focus on obedience and service, and vows of extreme poverty.

The ministry of the Little Sisters of the Poor focuses mainly upon caring for the elderly, sick, and dying in over 30 homes in the United States. In the midst of such pain and the constant shadow of death, however, they stay joyful! Their order, founded by St. Jeanne Jugan, stresses an intense love for God and focus upon the Beatitudes, as well as a rigorous prayer life with the Liturgy and Divine Office at the center of traditional daily devotions, penance and meditation.

Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia (also known as the “Nashville Dominicans”) and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist are two of the youngest and most vibrant orders in the US today. As part of the Dominican family, both orders focus on study as a means of serving God, and teaching as a means of ministry. All of the sisters have college degrees (Master’s degrees for the Nashville Dominicans) and teaching certificates, and teach in schools from kindergarten to college around the country. In addition, the long training process includes an intense spiritual boot camp and education in theology, scripture, and Church history.

These orders are growing too! The Dominican Sisters of Mary, which was started in 1997, has grown from 33 initial members to over 100 in only 15 years. Its average age of entrance is 21, and the average age of the sisters is only 28 years old. Though the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecelia is over a century older, the nearly 300 sisters are still quite young, with an average age of 36, and with over 50 girls still in the formation process, a number of trainees unmatched by any other order in the United States.

Servants of Mary, Ministers to the Sick offerrs a ministry that is precisely what it sounds like: care for the sick. In addition to a rigorous prayer life and formation process, these sisters also run 15 convents in the United States that run hospitals, hospices, health clinics, visiting nursing, health centers, and AIDS care. In addition, these women, who have dedicated their lives  to health care and prayer, feel that their ministry and care for the poor and needy is threatened by the HHS mandate Sister Simone and others in the LCWR feel is a “scandal” to denounce.

As these women demonstrate, the religious life, service to the poor and needy, and faithfulness to the traditions of the Catholic Church are not antithetical to one another; instead, faithfulness and obedience compliment and support an apostolate of service to the least of these in our midst.