Asked for her curriculum vitae, she said simply, “I am a Little Sister of the Poor.” And how: she is the superior of the Baltimore Province of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and she helped found a group that many call a major sign of hope. Called the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious in the United States, its member orders have some of the fastest-growing and youngest memberships in the country. She spoke with Register correspondent Raymond de Souza recently in Rome.
De Souza: When did you decide to join religious life?
Mother Nettle: In grade school, when I first had religious teachers — they were Dominicans — I felt a great attraction to religious life because of their example. It waned for a while and then came back again. I joined after high school, and that was 41 years ago.
How does your experience compare to the young sisters who are joining the congregations of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious today?
For us it was an obvious option. We had priests who would come and address the whole student body and talk about vocations to the priesthood and religious life. It was not hidden that somebody might want to join — no one was ashamed of it. Now, you couldn't do it the same way; you do not have those images, those role models to put before young people.
There is still a hunger in the heart of young people to give their lives, to respond to a call. But they have to go about it differently; they have to find the communities. They go on the Internet, or they call a priest, or they go from community to community. They have to go looking, and some want to be very sure before they join.
I remember I had a book I used to go through and see which communities looked the best in the pictures! Now they are not looking at that; they are looking at prayer life, community life, loyalty to the teachings of the Church, love of our Holy Father, the religious habit and external signs, and the quality of formation programs, and the apostolate has a role too. They are much more serious.
I don't remember understanding consecrated life when I entered the community. Young women, especially those who have any theological training, have a much better notion now. They may even ask to see your constitutions right away — I didn't even know they existed before I entered!
Tell us about the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.
It is a grouping of major superiors in the United States who wanted to promote the renewal of women's religious life.
We weren't able to find that in any other conference, so we grouped together and found that we had many similarities — a love of the Church, a love of the essential elements of religious life. It was thought that a brand new conference of sisters could be formed, that would not be affiliated with any other conference. So we started from scratch. We had to write a draft of the statutes and then petition our Holy Father for approval. We received that approval in June 1992. In October of that year, we had our first national assembly, where we elected our first board of directors and officers. There are now 108 congregations that belong to the CMSWR.
How did you come to the decision that a new conference of major superiors was needed, that the existing conference was not satisfactory?
We did not want to create a rift in the Church. The existing conference had been the canonically approved organization since the late 1950s. But we wanted to do our thing and do it positively, without challenging anyone. We had our problems at the beginning, but they were overcome. We wish to support the Church, collaborate with our bishops, and we welcome any directives that the Church gives us.
Your conference represents a minority of women religious in the United States. How are your relations with the conference that represents the majority of congregations, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious?
We pursue a position of not threatening, not contradicting, and not polarizing. The media did not help us in the beginning, but as time went on we continued to work together. We participate in each other's assemblies. Our relationship is cordial. We have our differences, and we maintain our positive position without compromising.
What is like to be the president of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, a position of national responsibility, in addition to being the superior of your province of the Little Sisters of the Poor?
In modern language we would say it's “awesome.” It's an honor, but also a responsibility and challenge that requires a commitment. I can't do the impossible, but I manage as best as I can to do what I can, and what I can't do, I don't do! My own superior general has been very indulgent in allowing me time to do work on the CMSWR.
How does the Council for Major Superiors of Women Religious promote the renewal of religious life?
I remember in 1996 when Vita Consecrata [John Paul II's postsynodal apostolic exhortation on consecrated life] came out, we couldn't wait to get our hands on it. We brought a whole stack of them to our assembly and passed them out. There are some parts that really call for personal meditation. The Transfiguration is a very powerful image for the consecrated life as proposed in Vita Consecrata, which is probably the richest document we have had in modern times on consecrated life.
More concretely, in our assemblies we have taken up the themes of preparation for the Jubilee and worked it out in the light of our vows. So we began in the first year, dedicated to Jesus Christ, with a focus on poverty; in the year of the Holy Spirit, chastity; and now in the year of the Father, obedience. We carry that theme throughout the whole year, presenting it in different ways — regional workshops, speakers, panels, roundtable discussions, and in our newsletter. All this is done in light of Vita Consecrata, which we try to get before the eyes of the people through our newsletters and also pamphlets.
How do you assess the growing number of new charisms, new orders and new movements in the sphere of consecrated life?
The charism comes from God. It is not our creation. It is a gift that is given to our foundresses, approved by the Church, and then passed on to us. We have our little portion to carry forward.
If there are new movements or charisms appearing, it is important that they are approved by the Church, so that we have knowledge of the different expressions of consecrated life. That would be very important, for example, for priests who are trying to help young people discern vocations to consecrated life.
One thing that the CMSWR has done for all of us is that as we come together, we reflect back, one to the other, our own charisms. That enriches us, and makes us appreciate what we have received, without detracting from any particular charism.
What do you see for the future of religious life in the United States?
I am not a prophet, but I do believe that there is going to be a resurgence. We may not see consecrated life come back in the numbers that we had before, but I think we will see the quality increase — a conviction, a dedication and a pursuit of holiness. This will be essential to counter the culture of death.
We have discussed among ourselves the need to have more personal encounters with young people so that they can see that there are women religious who are happy living a life given to God. Hopefully, we will create new images of consecrated life — that we are not a dying group, but that we are alive, that we are happy and that we are confident.
Already there exists a connection with the North American College in Rome here at the Domus Guadalupe, with the priests, deacons and seminarians serving the sisters here for Mass and holy hours.
Yes. This will help the priests and future priests understand consecrated life. We do need confessors, priests to celebrate daily Mass, and priests for spiritual conferences. Sometimes there can be a misunderstanding that we are called to be workers in the vineyard, and not prayers so much. So just the fact that some of them come and pray with the sisters — there is something in that. I don't think there is anything as wonderful as hearing women religious praying the Word of God.
I believe that without priests — and without good bishops to ordain good priests — we do not have the Church, and we do not have consecrated life. But I also believe that for many priests their vocation comes through a woman religious. So we will try to encourage a healthy mutual support.
—Raymond de Souza
New Residence Shows Hope for Nuns
ROME—On April 25, the Vatican welcomed the formal establishment of a major new initiative in the revitalization of U.S. religious life.
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, solemnly dedicated the chapel and altar of the Domus Guadalupe, a new residence for American women religious studying in Rome, in the presence of the board of directors of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious in the United States.
“May the risk you have taken inspire the women religious of other nations to undertake similar measures,” noted Cardinal Sodano, acknowledging the difficulties and expense of establishing a house in Rome.
Sisters studying in Rome have many advantages besides the opportunity to study at the city's many pontifical universities.
The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious has noted that while the Pontifical North American College has served American priests and seminarians studying in Rome for 140 years, there has been no equivalent for American sisters.
“It is a sign of great hope for the Church in United States,” commented Msgr. Timothy M. Dolan, rector of the North American College, who was present at the dedication. “Rome is a classroom in itself, and for a growing number of sisters to study in that classroom is a blessing for the future of the Church in our country.
We welcome the sisters, and share their joy that they too have a home here in Rome.”
The religious council was formed seven years ago by the superiors general of dozens of congregations of women religious in the United States who wished to rededicate themselves to religious life according to the mind of the Church.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious was the only national organization for American women religious until the formation of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, an alternative national organization which counts 108 congregations in its membership.
“The mother superiors who sit on the board of directors of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious are as different as night and day,” said Mercy Sister Yvonne Mary, the founding superior of the Domus Guadalupe. “Yet they have decided to work together to listen to what the Holy Spirit wants for the renewal of religious life in the United States. It's a powerful witness.”
Domus Guadalupe is one of the first major initiatives of the new council. With growing number of vocations among its members, it has felt the need for more formation of the young women entering religious life. Indeed, in stark contrast to the general pattern in women's religious life in the United States, a full 20% of the sisters in the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious member congregations are new vocations, still in basic formation.
The residence will be able to house 20 sisters. This past year, four sisters have been the “pioneers,” overseeing the material preparations of their new home, a Vatican building in the center of Rome that had fallen into disrepair and required major renovations.
“Our brothers and sisters thirst for sound doctrine,” said Cardinal Sodano. “Higher studies help us to understand the mysteries which Christ has revealed and to hand them on to the men and women of today and, if necessary, to defend them.” Yet studies should never lead to a neglect of the primacy of the spiritual life, he cautioned: “Studies should never be a useless burden, which keep us from running to meet the Lord and our brothers and sisters.”
Domus Guadalupe enjoyed special tokens of affection and support from the Holy Father, as well. The chalice used at the dedication Mass was a gift sent by the Holy Father to the house. He also sent a papal blessing, signed by his own hand.
American Cardinal William Baum, major penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary, also present at the dedication. He emphasized the importance of Domus Guadalupe in instilling in the sisters “a deeper love for the successor of Peter, for the person of the Holy Father.”
—Raymond de Souza