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US nuns to continue talks with church officials

By Tim Townsend, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — In her presidential address Friday in St. Louis to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sister Patricia Farrell compared the 900 nuns in the room — and the 45,000 more they represent around the country — to weeds.

“Though it can also be cultivated, mustard is an invasive plant, essentially a weed,” Farrell said. “It crops up anywhere without permission. And most notably of all, it is uncontainable.”

It was in that spirit of pride in the work they do among “those on the margins,” as Farrell put it, that galvanized the nuns this week. In private sessions they discussed their first formal response to news that the Vatican was taking the reins of their organization.

In April, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog office issued a report that questioned the organization’s fidelity to some church teachings, accused it of “serious doctrinal problems” and announced that it was putting three U.S. bishops in charge.

Some had speculated that the nuns may come out of their gathering in St. Louis with an outright rejection of the Rome’s overhaul, and dissolve the group, re-forming outside the official auspices of the Vatican.

Instead, they closed the session on a placid, if portentous, note.

A few hours after her address Friday, Farrell told reporters the group — the nation’s largest for women’s religious communities — would enter into a “conversation” with Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain, who is leading the Vatican overhaul. That conversation, Farrell said, was to be conducted “from a stance of deep prayer that values mutual respect, careful listening and open dialogue.”

But Farrell warned that while the group’s leadership would proceed with such discussions “as long as possible,” it would reconsider if the organization is “forced to compromise the integrity of its mission.”

The mission of the organization is to develop leadership within the sisters’ communities, promote “collaboration within church and society,” and serve “as a voice for systemic change.”

The sisters — who represent 80 percent of the country’s Catholic nuns — met in private sessions through the week to discuss their response, working through ideas and language that would be part of their final statement. The statement was approved by the body on Friday at the final executive session.

Throughout the week, lay Catholics who support the nuns have been holding vigils, near the assembly hotel and outside the Cathedral Basilica. That support, many of the sisters said, mirrored the vocal and widespread support they’ve been hearing from across the country since the Vatican’s report was issued in the spring.

Farrell and other members of the organization’s board will meet with Sartain for two hours this weekend in St. Louis — the beginning of what the Vatican has said could take up to five years to implement the changes it has asked for. Those changes were detailed in what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called a “doctrinal assessment.” It included denunciations of the group for being “silent on the right to life from conception to natural death,” allowing “corporate dissent” from church teaching against birth control and homosexuality and for leaving “the Church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality” off its “agenda.” It also noted “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The nuns and their supporters say the act of questioning and debating church teaching is not the same as disobeying it.

Sister Helen Garvey, a former president of the group, called her fellow sisters “realists,” on Friday. “You look at the history of the church and see unfortunate situations where women religious have been excommunicated, and later canonized,” she said. “Peter and Paul had different views, but Peter — the rock — had to eventually come around to Paul’s view, and I’m sure those were interesting discussions.”

In her address, Farrell said a “prophetic” response to the Vatican’s assessment “would be humble, but not submissive; rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous; truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless.”

Is the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment “an expression of concern or an attempt to control?” she asked. “Concern is based in love and invites unity. Control through fear and intimidation would be an abuse of power.”

Farrell said the mustard plant “is flavorful and has wonderful healing properties. It can be harvested for healing and its greatest value is that. But mustard is usually a weed.”

“We who pledge our lives to a radical following of Jesus can expect to be seen as pesty weeds that need to be fenced in,” she continued. “If the weeds of God’s reign are stomped out in one place they will crop up in another.”

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