by Robert Ellsberg, Publisher, Orbis Books
Last week I attended a symposium for the centenary of the Maryknoll Sisters. The theme of the day was Mary’s Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. . .” It is the longest speech assigned to any woman in the New Testament. In fact, one of the remarkable things about the encounter between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in the Gospel of Luke is that their exchange is not mediated, authorized, or facilitated by any man—Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah having been struck dumb. In the joy of their meeting, Mary is moved to utter an extraordinary and subversive speech in which the favor of God to two humble women is seen to presage a thoroughgoing process of social reversal: God has “put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
That same week the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an “assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80% of sisters in the U.S. Among the alleged offenses of the LCWR is that their programs are infected by “radical feminism” and that the sisters have shown a predilection for advocating church teaching on social justice, while failing to speak on the “biblical view of family life and human sexuality.” How this will be resolved remains to be seen.
In the meantime, for anyone wishing to understand how American women religious see themselves in the light of scripture, the teachings of Vatican II, and the unfolding challenges of our time, Sandra Schneiders’s Prophets in Their Own Country: Women Religious Bearing Witness to the Gospel in a Troubled Church is an incredibly timely work. Schneiders, a religious of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and a distinguished biblical scholar, explains the changes in religious life over the past fifty years, and how religious women have claimed their prophetic function in the church today.
A similar theme runs through Joan Chittister’s The Way We Were: A Story of Conversion and Renewal, a study of her own Benedictine community over the past fifty years, showing how change and evolution were inspired by the very task of remaining faithful to their original charism in the light of changing circumstances.
Claudette Laverdiere’s On the Threshold of the Future describes the life and spirituality of Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, founder of the Maryknoll Sisters. Mother Mary Joseph stressed the importance of the Sisters maintaining their individuality, their initiative, creativity, and spirit of adventure. The story of that adventure is told in the centenary edition of Hearts on Fire: The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters, by Penny Lernoux. (This book has a special meaning for me, since I was privileged to help complete this book after Penny’s death 23 years ago.)
We have of course published many other books by and about women religious, including Thea’s Song, the award-winning biography of Sister Thea Bowman by Charlene Smith and John Feister, or the haunting memoir by Sister Dianna Ortiz, The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth. All of these books portray the faces of holy and heroic women religious of our time. Their modern stories are joined by other stories from across the pages of history in Mothers, Sisters, Daughters: Standing on Their Shoulders by Edwina Gateley and Sandra Mattucci.
I have always been especially inspired by the stories of holy women who have struggled throughout history to assert their own humanity and to follow where God was calling them–even when this challenged the prevailing options of their times. Whether claiming the freedom to remain unmarried, or to accept or reject the enclosure of a convent, to engage in active apostolic work among the poor, or to travel across the world to proclaim the gospel—they often had to contend with male authorities who pronounced, confidently, that their wishes contradicted the will of God.
With thanksgiving for Mary’s Magnificat, and for the many women religious in whose lives her prayer has taken flesh.