My observations about the LCWR assembly have to begin with my appreciation to the LCWR for allowing the press to cover their assembly. The sisters were very welcoming and gracious, and we members of the media were extended every courtesy. One sister even walked a good distance across the room at Mass to offer me the Sign of Peace, as I was the lone journalist sitting in the press area.
The sisters also seemed very dedicated to working together to formulate their response to the mandate from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to reform their organization. And many of them appear to be quite convinced that they have developed a new but valid form of religious life and have the authority to do so because they are the people who are living the life.
What strikes me as a veteran journalist who has covered dozens of such meetings is just how different this assembly was from that of other Catholic entities. There were no informational sessions on topics relevant to the Catholic faith. Daily Mass was celebrated every day and was well attended, but that was the only Catholic worship event on the schedule.
The prayer service at 9am each morning had been composed for the assembly. Its content was not worship or praise, but seemed intended to motivate sisters to let go of their opinions and judgments. The prayer services included “table sharing,” meditations on discerning truth, a ritual with a wine glass and generic songs like Invoking Spirit. These prayer services demonstrated for me why the CDF mandate included the requirement that the Liturgy of the Hours should have a “place of priority in LCWR events and programs.”
On Wednesday and Thursday of the assembly, the LCWR provided for the media what were billed as “press conferences,” but really were informational sessions on specific topics: “Contemporary Religious Life,” “Contemplation and Dialogue” and the LCWR’s history and vision for the future. Each day, three sisters who were present or past LCWR leaders or consultants gave a brief presentation and then fielded questions that were supposed to focus only on the topic of the day.
We media were politely frustrated that we couldn’t pry any information out of the sisters about how the decision process was progressing, even by creatively framing our questions. But I did gain some insights into the philosophy of the LCWR and how its members perceive their role in the Church and the world in these sessions.
Speaking on “Contemporary Religious Life,” Sister of Saint Joseph Nancy Conway said apostolic orders of sisters play a different role than priests and bishops, so there is a normal tension between those roles. No order wants to have an unhealthy tension or cause a breach in its relationship with priests and bishops, she said.
Dominican Sister Rebecca Ann Gemma explained that “religious Catholic women are being asked to help set the context in which all people can speak for themselves. In our traditions, we have been more the mediators between the clergy and the body of Christ. What we recognize now is that, in a true sense, we are all united. And so, how then can we enable others to speak with their own voice of where God is in their lives, how God speaks to them, how the Spirit moves them in their day-to-day choices?”
Sister Rebecca Ann told us that when she attended the LCWR board meeting in May, members were shown thousands of letters of support for LCWR from all over the world. She said that those affirmations were wonderful, but most “amazing” was “the solidarity” that the letter writers understood “a tension that came in recognizing the voice of God within themselves and within their life context and how that is put next to regulations, policy, worldviews that may not necessarily speak to them in that context.”
Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Sandra Schneiders, a theologian and frequent consultant for LCWR, who received the LCWR’s outstanding leadership award at the assembly, was asked in the media session on modern consecrated life if the LCWR has a conflict with the Vatican over some Catholic doctrine. She replied: “If you look at the whole Church, if you look, for example, at statistics of what Catholics hold, you will find that LCWR is not a whole lot different from what Catholics in general hold. Are there conflicts within the Church between some people in authority and most of the Church? Yes. I think that’s pretty clear; you can’t deny that. But it’s not that LCWR is on a bandwagon to do something; we’re probably much more in touch with the people of the Church simply because of where we live and where we work.”
I had the very real sense that some sisters feel that the Church can address problems in the modern world only by reconsidering some of its doctrine. Thus, I developed a better understanding of the Vatican’s concern that the LCWR seems to want to negotiate doctrine.
Attending the LCWR assembly also made clear to me that the LCWR sisters and the Vatican have a divergent ecclesiology and even a different language. One gets the sense that many LCWR sisters feel that the “marginalized people” they so lovingly serve are finding it too difficult to adhere to certain Church doctrines because of the difficult situations in which they find themselves.
So, the gulf between the two parties is wide, and they both need our prayers that God will be with them as this process continues to unfold. I like to think of the beautiful image of the Holy Spirit evoked by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “ … the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”