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 CNS Story:

VATII-RELIGIOUS Dec-13-2012 (920 words) xxxn

Speakers say US sisters were at forefront of implementing Vatican II

By Beth Griffin
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- In responding to the Second Vatican Council's call to universal holiness, American women religious have been both beacons and lightning rods for the church, according to speakers at a Dec 11 forum.

Religious sisters were in the forefront of Vatican II's call for church renewal, and their vibrant lives and ministries are still shaped by the council's documents, panelists said.

The sisters took seriously the council's admonition to renew their religious communities from the inside out, explore their original charism and then make the charism come alive in a new setting, said James P. McCartin, director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.

The center co-sponsored the forum "Call & Response: How American Catholic Sisters shaped the Church since Vatican II."

"It is sisters, as much as anyone, who have shaped the face of the church in the world today," McCartin said.

"The story of U.S. religious women and a reforming Catholic Church has unfolded amid enormous changes, cultural shake-ups and under contested new developments," Christine Firer Hinze said. Hinze is co-director of the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, the event's co-sponsor.

Hinze said American women religious have "literally lived their lives on the front lines of issues and debates" in the church and society. Those debates have been more than theoretical, becoming part of the women's lives, relationships, struggles and the ways they sought to "practice their radical discipleship in this day and age," she added.

Mercy Sister Doris Gottemoeller, senior vice president for mission integration at Catholic Healthcare Partners in Cincinnati, said women religious inspire a temptation to nostalgia or selective memory, which does not reflect the complete picture.

In the 1950s, she said, Pope Pius XII presaged some of the changes formalized by Vatican II by urging religious orders to eliminate outdated customs and clothing. Changes implemented by communities after extensive consultation, reflection and experimentation "were an act of obedience to the church" and not an expression of defiance, she said.

Sister Mary Johnson, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur and distinguished professor of religious studies and sociology at Trinity University in Washington, said the women religious who taught her during the 1970s shared a passion for mission, the poor, the church and the world that came from the "freedom and restraint" of their vows.

Their communities were based on liberation, not oppression and they were able to transform old institutions to meet new needs. They crossed ethnic, racial, ideological, social class and linguistic lines "with aplomb" and "opened our parochial world," she said.

Sister Maria Cimperman, a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and professor of theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said she is a "grateful beneficiary of Vatican II." Women religious today are challenged to clarify their role in a changed world, consider what the Holy Spirit is inviting them to do and build on the work of religious who went before them, she said.

Panelist Sister Maria Theotokos Adams is a member of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara, a congregation founded in Argentina in 1988. She serves as director of studies for the order's American province. The congregation has more than 1,000 sisters in 35 countries, including women at 15 houses in the United States.

She said the congregation's constitutions are infused with council material and Vatican II "continues to shape our religious life and ministry."

Inspired by Blessed John Paul II's life, the sisters work among immigrant and minority communities, with a focus on youths, parish life and catechesis in inner-city and migrant areas. Sister Adams said cities are "the urgent modern mission field of the church in America."

A particular strength of the young congregation is its ability to respond to the "confrontation of culture and authority between bilingual, technology-savvy teenagers and their immigrant parents," she explained.

"We answer questions about faith and culture of families and help them discover the church on their own terms," Sister Maria said. They draw on traditional methods and new evangelization techniques, including the use of door-to-door visits and outreach with mobile devices.

Sister Miriam Ukeritis, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is CEO of Southdown Institute in Toronto, which serves the mental health needs of clergy and religious.

"The bottom line for religious communities to continue to live vibrantly is fidelity to their founding purpose and responsiveness to absolute human need," she said. Religious women have come to deeper understanding of how to do that, but continue to struggle with understanding their changing role in the church and the world, she added.

The speakers said living in community is a powerful example for contemporary society. "We challenge and support one another; we pray together; we go refreshed to our ministry; we decide how much is enough." Sister Doris said.

In the U.S., 1,200 women are in religious formation programs, according to Sister Mary; 40 percent are women of color and represent a span of age and religious practice. "God will work in them, as in past generations, to bring about a new kind of kingdom," she said.

Speakers acknowledged the challenge of incorporating new members of diverse backgrounds.

Traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience offer both freedom and restraint, panelists said.

"Headlines seem to revolve around money, sex and power. My vows give me, and us, a way to deal with those very human drives, address them, be aware and attentive and deal with money, sex and power in ways that are life-giving," Sister Miriam said.


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