What sisters mean to me

Photo via James Martin Father James Martin, SJ, and Sister Mary Johnson, SND, speakers at the Diocese of Springfield’s Catholic … Continued

Photo via James Martin

Father James Martin, SJ, and Sister Mary Johnson, SND, speakers at the Diocese of Springfield’s Catholic Women’s Conference, April 2012.

Last week, on the day when the Vatican released the results of its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of women’s religious orders in this country, I received emails from several Catholic sisters. All described themselves as saddened, stunned or demoralized by the Vatican document, which severely criticized the LWCR in a number of areas.

Catholic sisters are my heroes. They have been my teachers, spiritual directors, mentors, bosses and friends. I can barely begin to describe the admiration I have for these women, many of them now in their 70s and 80s, and for what that they have done for God, for the church, for what Catholics call the “people of God,” and for me.

When I was a young Jesuit working in Nairobi, Kenya, for example, two elderly Maryknoll sisters patiently listened to my worries about living in the developing world, shared some of their own experiences of years in ministry in remote villages, and encouraged me to “push on,” as they say in East Africa. When my father was dying of cancer ten years ago, one Religious of Jesus and Mary sister took a four-hour train ride to visit him in the hospital for an hour, stayed overnight at a nearby convent, and the next morning took the train home, for another four-hour journey. When I thanked her, she thanked me for the “honor” of letting her come. And during a difficult spiritual crisis, one Sister of St. Joseph helped me to find God in the midst of my doubts, and was even able to get me to smile. “God did all the work,” she said, when I thanked her, “not me.”

In the wake of the Vatican document, my sister friends, some nearing the end of their lives, seemed to need a word of gratitude. The very least I could do was to show some support in a small way–on Twitter. (Of course I had written about my admiration for them before, but it seemed that it was a particularly good time for praise.) Besides, gratitude is always in season.

Having tweeted for a few years now, I thought it would be a good idea to add a hashtag (#), which is a way for people to follow certain topics on Twitter. For example, everyone who tweets about, say, Pope Benedict XVI, might use #PopeBenedict or #Pope, so that other interested readers can follow the various tweets on the subject.

So I tweeted “Catholic sisters teach me what it means to persevere without the benefit of institutional power.” And I added #WhatSistersMeantoMe. Framing things in that way, I thought, meant that people could show their gratitude for sisters, and read other messages of support, without being in any way negative. No need to be anti-Vatican or anti-bishop or anti-anything. Just pro-sister.

A few people commented that the Vatican’s assessment of the LCWR wasn’t intended as a critique of all U.S. sisters. Which is true. The LCWR is a kind of professional organization that often issues statements on behalf of the religious orders it represents. But that observation misses the point that the LCWR assessment came on the heels of a lengthy Vatican investigation of all women’s religious orders in this country-an “Apostolic Visitation,” to use the official term, investigating the sisters’ “quality of life.” In other words, it wasn’t surprising that many sisters felt beleaguered and demoralized.

A few hours later I tweeted a question: “How have Catholic sisters helped in your life?” and a little later, “An Ursuline nun taught me as much about Ignatian spirituality as any Jesuit. And what a great director!” Soon I started to notice others weighing in, and some of the answers, many of them quite personal, brought a lump to my throat:

Poor Clares loved my family through my brother’s cancer and death; we wouldn’t have made it without them.

The sisters taught me to accept nothing less than the best of myself, and gave me support when I felt I was less.

When we could no longer afford it, a Sister of St. Joseph gave me piano lessons for free.

My spiritual director is a Mercy Sister. Her care for me and my vocation to serve the Church has been life-saving.

Daughters of Charity cared for my Granny as a child after her mother died. They were my great-great-grandmothers.

Sr. Peg Dolan, RSHM (dec) at LMU was a saint on earth! Touched countless lives. A true gift from God.

She helped me get through middle school when other students made fun of my deaf accent.

Within a day, Huffington Post had noticed the tweets and said that they were going to run a little story about my “campaign.” It wasn’t meant to be a campaign, I told them gently, but just a way of supporting the sisters. So I asked them to change “campaign” to the more neutral “drive” or “initiative.” Which they did. Still, the word “campaign” was used in some other media outlets, and though I didn’t like the word, it was a small price to pay for the possibility of expressing gratitude for the contributions that sisters had made in individual lives. Over the next few days, many sisters wrote (or tweeted!) and said how moved they were after reading the tweets.

The Huffpo piece also meant that the hashtag went viral. Many now weighed in, sharing their stories and comments. Hooray for social media, I thought: I had found a way for people to be positive without being critical.

If you’re thinking, “This is the web. I’ll bet things get ugly,” you’re right.

One morning I noticed that other voices–vindictive, cruel, mocking–suddenly started appearing on under #WhatSistersMeantoMe, egged on by Catholics who were themselves delighted to crackdown on the LCWR and slam those sisters they had decided weren’t “real” sisters.

These “sisters” need to pull the habits and veils out of the trash and get to work.

LCWR: Looters in the burned out City of God.

The sisters have been very radical and very unCatholic. They need their house cleaned up.

And so on. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. For good measure, they started to attack me, too. Why not, right? It’s easy to trash people anonymously.

Soon the hashtag meant for personal expressions of gratitude to individual sisters was flooded with snotty comments about who were faithful sisters were and who were not. (Apparently the commenters were able to see within the souls of the unfaithful ones.)

It’s easy to get discouraged about the state of discourse in the church today, especially on the web. (Ironically, I had written about that precise topic the week before, listing the five most common angry responses from Catholic bloggers and comments.)

But I have to admit something: even I was taken aback when gratitude was seen as out of bounds, when praise was mistaken for dissent, and when an occasion to support elderly sisters was used as an opportunity to mock women who had given their lives to God.

To sum up then, let me say something to the sisters who have meant so much to me, who have given their lives to the church and who have always inspired me.

#Thank you.

James Martin, a Jesuit priest and contributing editor of America magazine, is the author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”
Follow him on Twitter: @JamesMartinSJ.


  • mikestech

    Again with the “us vs. them” mentality. No one is “attacking” the nuns. And I’m sure the pope would be the first to admit they do a tremendous amount of good for the church. And I’m sure the vast majority of them do follow the bishops’ direction faithfully. The fact that the Vatican cares enough to launch a reform effort of those nuns who apparently were poorly catechized in the first place is a move toward unity, not away from it.

    It’s pieces like this that try to villify the Vatican and drive a wedge between sisters and brothers in the Lord that are divisive. Do sisters serve the good in society? Absolutely! But that doesn’t exempt them from the need to be 100% Catholic, which includes speaking out in support — not in opposition — of the Church on matters involving gender, sexuality and abortion. For those nuns who do — please accept my sincere thank you and prayers. And for those who would rather view this in terms of an “attack by the Vatican,” please know you have my prayers as well. This “you’re not the boss of me” attitude has got to stop.

  • LocalTut

    Thank you father for this article, and for answering YES to Christ call to his priesthood!!

    It would seem to me that Father Martin is taking a stand against the Vatican’s effort to work with the LWCR to address areas of concern to the holy see and in no way attacks LWCR, its only areas of concern are doctrinal, it would seem to me to be an area the Church clearly has Authority from Christ himself, and The Church also has through the Magisterium a Teaching office exercised by Apostolic successors. This is not in dispute.

    No one likes to be told they are wrong, heck going to confession is difficult, even examination of conscience is difficult, so I would not be surprised that Sisters who have sincerely toiled all their lives would be in shock and discouraged, BUT, every Catholic knows, all Spiritual works come from Christ, and this effort if its is from Christ, (It clearly is from him through his appointed Bishops) it will bear much fruit for the Sisters.. and the Church..

    I have read the document, it in no way attacks individual sisters, the Church is trying to help the, and the Church actually commends the work that the Sisters have accomplished in areas of helping the poor, education, health, social justice…
    The Church is seeking to help sisters conform more to Christ… We all know and love Sisters, any Catholic would tell you sisters are most selfless and giving people you will ever meet, The Church will be the first to tell you that.. How many sisters has the Church Canonized? Even American Sisters.. Many…

    There is no cause for Alarm, After all the sisters are Daughters of the Church, and the Church will care and love them as Christ loves his church.

  • LaraLoganDoesExist

    The fact that the Post and other leftist publications try to play up the “us vs. them” mentality is absolutely pathetic!

    Nuns have been some of the most vocal in calling for reform of American nuns groups.

  • jack824

    These Sisters set a very high bar for everyone in their living their faith in service to others. For many they are the mature and intellectual embodiment of the faith and their long and very favorable impact on the laity is reflected in the many comments above.

    Those who cannot tolerate a frank discussion about their faith would appear to enjoy only a very fragile faith. It’s OK to be Catholic and to question too.

  • LocalTut

    The problem is the name calling, Which father James is addressing heroically,

  • faylei

    Thank you, Father Martin.

  • RobertRecchia

    I responded to Fr. Martin’s question with my heartfelt opinion. It was not anonymous. It was honest. Can the same of a non-campaign of “expressing gratitude” whose effect is to undermine the Vatican and the bishops?

  • LocalTut

    The article is silent on reasons why the Church is taking on the reform of the LCWR leaves the impression that the Church is stressing out the sisters for no apparent reason.

    Father James is a wise and learned man, there is good reason he omitted this side of the situation (perhaps not to stress them out more?)

    However I believe Fr. James is sincerely trying to help the sisters ‘in their time of need’ a little context could have been more useful though.. There is no denying that LCWR has basically stressed out Bishops and Popes who have the terrible responsibility of taking care of souls, and these sisters need soul care, because the consequences of no care could be eternal damnation for them and their shepherds…

    Given that Father James is a Jesuit, its not difficult to see where he is coming from, since they too some might argue might have their own canonical visitation from the Holy See to fix some parts of their house…

    But Father Martin should be commended for reaching out to stress out sisters and giving them support.

    Some of the stuff the LCWR has done is pretty serious and if I were a sister, I would be stressed out too about it..

  • cholman1

    I was more fortunate than I knew growing up.

    I may have resented all the eyes on me at the time but I realize now how lucky I was. Two of my aunts were Sisters of Mercy and they had a constant presence in my life. They let me know that it was important to ‘tow the line’.

    They were excellent examples of strong, confident, smart ,and empathetic women. They worked hard and accepted graciously all that was given to them: good and bad.

    When I face difficulties in my life I turn to them for guidance. They offer their help graciously and without judgement and I believe that is important that they be allowed to continue to do this.

    When I read about the Pope’s decision it upset me greatly. I have read that the sisters serve without question when and where they are needed. I have witnessed this first hand.

    Anything that would interfere with this ability to serve those in need based on the Pope’s perception of ‘acceptable exclusions’ would be harmful.

    Jesus would not abandon those in need and I believe the Sisters answer to Him.

  • LocalTut

    why did the Holy father’s decision upset you? What did he do wrong?

  • dadof6

    But is it OK to not only question but act on the answers which one gleens? Even if they are contrary to church doctrine. Is the wrong not standing by and doing nothing when change is pointed to?

  • dadof6

    Kind of like the church loved Martin Luther?

  • dadof6

    If you haven’t read the mission statement of the LCWR do so. It is a wonderful, bold, inspired statement. In reading it the first thing that stands out is to me in the build up to its goals for the 5 years which it addresses is the fact that the organization’s decisions and deliberations will be done without active participation or in consultation with the rest of the RC church. If this stands out to me I would think that it screams at Rome. Especially if this group has not “toed the party line” in the past and present. I hope that the laity takes an interest and supports this wonderful group of committed women and if Rome’s reponse is a reaction to the LCWR stepping outside the box maybe all Roman Catholics should look in the mirror and ask if their church is following Christ or following Rome

  • LocalTut

    Rome is not a party. The sisters are wonderful, However, they are Daughters of the Church and the Church has a responsibility not only for their work, but more importantly their souls..

  • ThomasBaum

    These sisters are daughters of God and sisters of God seeing as God became One of us and therefore became our Brother and it was our Brother, Jesus, God-Incarnate, Who instructed us to pray, “Our Father…” and even said to think of God as ABBA which translates as Dad or Daddy.

    The Church is made up of “living stones” meaning people, therefore we are not our own sons and daughters but God’s sons and daughters.

    The “Church” is an instrument of God in God’s Plan of Salvation and the “Church” is made up of rocks, living stones and the “Church’s” mission is that “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” and the “Church” is Jesus’s.

  • Carstonio

    Although I’m not religious, I respect the work that Catholic nuns do for the betterment of their communities. All the more sad that the Church basically insists that having a uterus disqualifies a person from any sort of leadership position. The nuns basically have all there responsibility and none of the authority.

  • LocalTut

    Where did the Church say that?

  • Carstonio

    I’m paraphrasing the Church’s reading of II Corinithians, as well as the boneheaded excuse that the Church isn’t “allowed” to ordain women since the 12 Apostles were all male.

  • Baywoman

    Too become informed, I read the Vatican Report on LCWR and the 2007 address by sr. Laurie Brink.
    I found the Vatican Report to be condescending. This is not the way you treat people you respect; it is the way you treat a nuisance (unless of course you are trying to be truly Christian, in which case it would be respect with all).
    I found Sr Laurie’s address witty, warm and intelligent. The going beyond Jesus portion was not a recommendation but a report of various responses to church
    issues. She reported the newer, more traditional sisters, in the same tone. When she discussed reconciliation, I thought she had some thought provoking and challenging comments and would not be surprised if this is not what really got the Vatican upset. I found these comments resonated with much of what I feel as a Catholic Woman.
    My reactions are all over the map. I think perhaps the nuns, in their educated, active, daily lives are light years ahead intellectually and emotionally of the bureaucrats cloistered in the all-male very insular world of the Vatican. Maybe every priest in the world, excluding the Pope should be mandated to spend a few years out of every decade in the field doing honest to goodness pastoral work. Get them out of their little fiefdoms and into a local rectory. No pomp. Real roll up your sleeves pastoral work.
    Finally on a personal level, I interact with nuns regularly. They rock! They are role models for me! I am in awe of them. And so it hurt to see them treated as pesky children. If that is a little extreme, I think we can all agree they are not being treated as mature adults.
    I ask everyone out there to make a kind gesture to a nun or nuns until the dust settles. Bring them flowers. Tell them you love them. Thank them for what they
    do. The ones I know seem to be walking around in a daze. It is as if, after devoting their entire adult life to the service of their church, they have been slapped in the face. Let them feel the love. They deserve nothing less.

  • jack824

    USA Today piece says that a conservative Catholic blogger/priest Father Z asked his followers to send in tweets about these “liberal” nuns.

    That may account for many of the sour tweets and new posters who cropped up here. How unseemly is it to have a Catholic priest orchestrating a tweet attack against nuns?

  • ThomasBaum

    God bless you.

    As I wrote in a previous post, two of the most important things that I have learned in my entire life, I learned in second grade from Sr. Philip Marie at St. Jane Frances in Riviera Beach, Md.

    1) God Is Love, which I now know to be quite literally true since meeting Who is referred to as God the Father.

    2) We are all equal in God’s Eyes, some seem to think this means all the same, however, that couldn’t be farther from the truth seeing as we are all quite different, every one of us that has been, is or will be.

  • LocalTut

    You now show your true colors

  • GuestyMcGuesterson

    You still didn’t address the main issue – that they were spreading things that were directly opposed to the teaching of the Church. It’s as simple as that, and the fact that some people used your hashtag to point that out doesn’t make them mean. What IS mean is the support for abortion and other forms of the culture of death, which is the reason the Vicar of Christ had to engage in some charitable fraternal correction, all the while acknowledging the good work that they do.
    You really don’t have a cause here. The Vatican supports the nuns and their good work, just not their destructive work. That’s how they treat priests too.

  • DigitalQuaker

    And what true colors are those?
    His disagreement with Catholic church policy?

  • DigitalQuaker

    The Church are the blievers, not the institutions of religion.

  • LocalTut

    How unseemly for a Catholic to be orchestrating a tweet attack against anyone…

  • LocalTut

    Father Martins silence and failure to state why the Holy See is taking this action is very telling

  • ThomasBaum

    Yes, the Church is people, living stones, and the Church has a mission which is “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it”.

    Also, the Church is Jesus’s.

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