Sisters of CMSWR explore prophetic character of religious life at St. Louis symposium

Sisters listen to Sr. Mary Prudence Allen's keynote Nov. 14 at the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious symposium in St. Louis. (GSR photo / Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)

On the evening of Friday, Nov. 13, bumper-to-bumper traffic had downtown St. Louis at a near-standstill. As frustrated drivers tried to jam their cars into already-clogged intersections, other drivers honked or — at times — rolled down their windows to forcefully suggest those cars get out of the way.

But inside the Drury Hotel, just a stone's throw west from St. Louis' Gateway Arch, the mood was quite different.

More than 500 women religious from across the United States and Canada gathered at the hotel for the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious' symposium on religious life, an event inspired by the Year of Consecrated Life and Pope Francis' 2014 call for men and women religious to "wake up the world." On the first night, before the lectures began, the sisters poured into the hotel lobby for a hot dog dinner, and the room burst with the sound of old friends reconnecting for the first time in a while.

Yet by the time Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had reached the podium for the opening keynote address — a theological exploration of the prophetic character of religious life — the sisters fell to a reverent silence, most scribbling notes and some crouching on the floor to snap quick photos of Di Noia.

Over the next 24 hours, the sisters would hear more presentations like Di Noia's as a mix of theologians, canon lawyers, authors and philosophers parsed out the symposium's theme: how women religious, through their lives and ministries, are specially called to share the Gospel with a broken world.

On Saturday, the only full day of the symposium, lecturers spoke in two plenary sessions and nine optional breakout sessions on topics such as the centrality of prayer for religious, Christology and ecclesiology as the foundations of religious life, and the scriptural definition of prophetic vocation.

In the first plenary session, St. Paul-Minneapolis Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens focused on the evangelical counsels, that is, the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience taken by men and women religious, noting that God can use these counsels to renew humanity.

"[Religious] are called to stand in the midst of the people, submitting all their possessions, submitting their bodies, submitting their wills completely to Christ so they can be obedient to the way that we must all in some way embrace these counsels in order to enter into heaven," Cozzens said. "It's this prophetic witness that has been the constant source of the renewal of the church in history."

Sr. Mary Eucharista of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church in Spokane, Washington, talks with other women religious Nov. 13 in St. Louis during the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious symposium. (CNS / St. Louis Review / Lisa Johnston)

In the second plenary session, Religious Sister of Mercy Mary Prudence Allen, philosopher and author of the multivolume The Concept of Woman, traced the development of the concept of religious life as a prophetic calling through the writings of popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Allen highlighted that John Paul II considered all women to have a prophetic character by nature of their gender and that Benedict called the Virgin Mary, who carved the spiritual path for consecrated women, a prophetess rather than a priestess.

For Little Sister of the Poor Constance Veit, these messages served as a personal wake-up call. Just before vespers Saturday, she told Global Sisters Report that the symposium had given her a new understanding of the prophetic responsibility granted to women religious.

"I think what [women religious] can bring to people that maybe other people can't — or not as readily — is the witness that God is enough," she said. "Because we've given up the things that most young women commonly desire: family, profession, possessions. And yet there's such happiness in our life that people are sometimes taken aback. But our happiness really does come from [Christ]."

Veit added that her new Advent resolution was to spend more time in the Scriptures.

"This has really driven home to me that the whole life of a prophetic person has to be immersed in the word of God," she said. "Sometimes our lives can get very busy, but you can't speak God's word to his people if you're not listening and immersed in it yourself."

Similarly, Sister of Life Bethany Madonna said the new ways of thinking about religious life that she gleaned from the symposium were exhilarating.

"To think that a prophet is someone who is called into a special relationship with God — the privilege of it and the treasure of it — that's to have received so much from God," she said, clasping her hand to her heart. "It's such a gift to be able to have at this time when the culture is looking for a witness, is looking for a word, is looking for direction."

Sister Bethany said she was also particularly struck by the discussion of gender roles in the Catholic church that came up in Allen's address, as well as in a breakout session with Academy of Catholic Theology president and Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity Sr. Sara Butler.

In addition to extolling the specific and exclusive gifts of femininity — the feminine genius — in her talk, Allen also offered correctives to Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Sandra Schneiders' well-publicized critiques of Catholic patriarchy.

"Sandra Schneiders focuses her particular attention on the vow of obedience, which she describes as a mindless obedience to the will of another person," Allen said, drawing gasps from her audience. "She also describes religious hierarchical structures, and I use her own words, as 'demonic and satanic power structures.' She fails to distinguish between the structure itself and the poor use or abuse of a structure. . . . To me, that is a philosophical error in her thought of what she's looking at."

Mary Prudence Allen and CMSWR chair Mary Agnes Donovan (GSR photo / Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)

Butler's talk addressed the tendency to conflate authority and power, stating that women, by nature of the feminine genius, are able to exercise significant moral authority in the church without the need to hold office. As an example, she pointed out that everyone knows who Mother Teresa is, but no one remembers the archbishop of Calcutta.

Butler also dismissed claims that keeping women from certain church offices — like the priesthood — is inherently sexist.

"Notice that in law, the distinction is between clerics and laypeople, not between men and women," she said. "If all Catholic women suffer an injustice over not being admitted to office that require the character of holy orders, so do all nonordained men." The audience laughed.

"Sr. Sara Butler's talk fed my soul," Sister Bethany said. "When I was listening to her, I was like, 'Women need to hear this message.' Because if you don't receive the gift of our femininity, you'll never be comfortable in our body and in our roles. You'll always be dissatisfied, you'll always feel out of place. And the reality is, we have a place, and God wants you to live the gift that you are."

The symposium ended Saturday night with gala at which Catholic radio host Servant of God's Love Sr. Ann Shields was scheduled to give the closing keynote on the topic of God as the eternal exchange of love. However, when Shields took the stage, she announced that God was calling her to disregard her prepared speech and to speak from the heart.

She then offered a nearly 50-minute personal testimony, sharing her story of overcoming spiritual darkness after the community she originally joined in 1957, which she declined to identify, changed after the Second Vatican Council.

"In the community that I was part of, we reached some very, very difficult times. I can summarize it by saying we ended up somewhat in heresy in some teaching," Shields said. "I'd been taught to obey my superiors. And when your superiors are telling you something that you know is not orthodox, that is heretical, you're faced with a great challenge."

Shields said she became depressed and even began to doubt God's existence. But the Holy Spirit kept nudging her forward, ultimately to the Catholic charismatic movement of the 1970s and to the Servants of God's Love. And that, she said, was the central idea she felt called to share that night.

"When it gets very dark, don't doubt him," Shields said, her voice quivering. "You don't have to go through all I went through. Don't doubt. [God] strips in order to reveal himself; he strips in order to reshape and refashion us, because he loves us more than we can even begin to understand. Scripture tells us he numbers the hairs on our head. He knows us intimately, through and through."

At the end of the symposium, Sister of Life Mariae Agnus Dei told GSR she was thoroughly moved, ready to return to her ministry of supporting pregnant women and new mothers in New York City with a renewed sense of mission.

"This weekend brought the reality that the beauty of our lives, the gift of our lives, the fruitfulness of our lives comes from being united to God — being steeped in the treasures that we're given through our faith. And that's the leaven that's going to bring the light we so desire to bring to this world," she said. "The fruitfulness of our lives wed to God and espoused to Christ is what it's all about. Amen."

Women religious gather for the Nov. 14 gala at the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious symposium in St. Louis. (GSR photo / Dawn Araujo-Hawkins)

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is Global Sisters Report staff writer, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter: @dawn_cherie.]