Thank a Sister

Sister Linda Fuselier was my first-grade teacher. It was 1969 at St. Ignatius Catholic School in Sacramento, California. I remember her round, smiling face greeting me every morning, her hair tucked modestly into her veil. She helped us learn how to go to Mass and say our prayers. She was just “Sister Linda,” the teacher I loved.

In January 2009, the Vatican informed the 59,000 American Catholic sisters in 341 religious orders that they would be subject to a two-year investigation or “visitation” into their “quality of life.” Communities of cloistered, contemplative nuns are not officially part of the investigation. (Apparently, it’s the active Christian life that has Rome agitated.) The Vatican has opened a parallel doctrinal investigation into the Leadership Council of Women Religious, an umbrella organization that represents 95 percent of U.S. Catholic women’s communities.

Due to bad historical press, the Vatican no longer refers to these investigations as inquisitions. Nonetheless, this scrutiny of American sisters undoubtedly is to interrogate women and suppress their perceived heresies. (Some sports just never go out of style.) “When women leaders visited Rome in April,” one Catholic sister told me, “some American clergy at the Vatican and some bishops in the U.S. were promoting the idea of the ‘visitation’ for nuns in the U.S. What is certain is that American Catholic sisters, as a body or as individual communities, didn’t ask for it.”

Catholic women religious were—and still are—my heroes. Sister Sheral taught me the beauty of singing to God, especially while sitting at a Thanksgiving dinner shared with hundreds of homeless men. Sister Joan exhibited Paul’s gifts of teaching and governance in her service to Catholic schools, while also taking in teen girls who needed a safe place to stay. Sister Nora, who taught me calculus in high school, was known as the “Mother Teresa of Sacramento” for her work with poor women.

These are the women the Vatican is investigating—and thousands more like them.

But doesn’t the Vatican have a right to question its own people? Well, yes and no. First—and this may be a surprise to many Protestants and some Catholics—members of religious orders take a vow of “obedience” to God, not to the pope. Sisters are accountable—in a relationship of mutual respect—to their religious community and its leadership.

While they are not part of the Catholic hierarchy, like priests who come “under” bishops and the pope, the Vatican does provide guidelines and protections for sisters in their chosen way of life. An unrequested investigation—especially when investigations usually occur in situations where there is evidence of grievous harm, such as the pedophilia scandal—is an insult and a breach of respect.

My guess is that Pope Benedict has created an atmosphere that encourages nailing shut the “windows of the church” thrown open by Vatican II. Traditionalists in the Catholic hierarchy see a green light to go after educated, strong-willed, brave women whose lives have been totally transformed by the gospel.

After Sister Linda stopped teaching first grade, she became involved in HIV/AIDS work in Oakland, California. She advocated for AIDS justice at the United Nations. In the rural South, she served men who were not getting adequate health care because their AIDS diagnoses were too great a stigma. In May, at age 63, Sister Linda moved to Uganda, where she helps AIDS orphans who are about the age I was when I first entered her classroom. “I help them to be fun-loving individuals who reflect the glory of God as fully alive,” Linda told me. That’s just the kind of Catholic nun she is.

If you get a chance, thank a sister.

Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners associate editor, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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