More than one thoughtful person who guessed rightly that I would be interested have sent me the link to the Sunday New York Times editorial and video about the Maryknoll Sisters, the group of nuns of which I was a member for nine years. Sister Mary Joseph, originally Mollie Rogers of Boston, Mass. will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y. along with Betty Ford, Nancy Pelosi and others.
Mostly over the years I have looked back at that time I spent as a Maryknoller rather the way one reviews a long education. It was often difficult, it was often traumatic, and I was keenly aware that the Maryknoll Sisters were profoundly conflicted about their mission, and about what kind of women we wanted to be. Should we be submissive, blindly obedient, unquestioning of our superiors? Or were we an order that was creative, responsive, innovative, finding new ways to be among the poor? Mollie Rogers had the latter in mind. Those who took their cues from Rome thought the former.
As a result of this conflict, over several decades hundreds of sisters were either forced to leave Maryknoll or left voluntarily. I’ve just learned that my friend Pat Logan, about whom I wrote earlier this year, was told to leave because she was “too creative.” Others were told to leave because they were too questioning, or resistant to spending years at the Motherhouse in Westchester County, New York, when Maryknoll had said that they would be missioners in underdeveloped countries. A few simply broke under the strain. In 1969 there were 1169 Maryknoll Sisters, and hundreds of young women asking to be admitted every year. Today there are 471 Maryknoll Sisters, and many of them are old. Young women are no longer banging on the door to join.
I learned a lot during those years, though, and have not regretted the time I was there.
What I had forgotten was why I had entered the Maryknoll Sisters in the first place. But when I read the editorial and listened to the video, it came back like a flash of lightning. Yes, that was why I’d entered the convent! I wasn’t wrong. The choices that had been offered to me as I was growing up on a midwest farm in America was to become a nurse, but not a doctor, to teach grade school, but not in university, to be a secretary but not a lawyer, to choose social work but not psychiatry or psychology. But nuns did all those things not open to me as a mere lay person. And Maryknoll Sisters, above all, went to other peoples, other cultures, and lived there. They made a difference. I saw it as a kind of life-time Peace Corp.
As I have said before, the Maryknoll Sisters have changed a lot. They took Vatican II on board, and in many ways are today among the most active and innovative group of nuns I know. The hundreds of sisters who were forced or decided to leave were, I believe, a necessary part of bringing about that change. It became apparent to those still there that Maryknoll itself had been in part responsible for betraying the promises made to those who thought that Maryknoll Sisters were different.
But on some level, Maryknoll is still conflicted, and I am not sure whether they can survive within the straight-jacket imposed by the ruling hierarchy of bishops. The Roman Catholic Church is itself now engaged in the kind of conflict that characterized us at Maryknoll. Hundreds of thousands of people are leaving the RC Church and not returning. Pope Francis knows that change is called for, but I’m not sure at this point how fully he understands what needs to be done, or indeed how to do it. My fear is that he will be loved by the people and eventually be canonized as a humble unpretentious pope who cared for the poor and who is held up as an example to the faithful. But the Vatican power structure may remain, perhaps a little battered but fundamentally unscathed.
Perhaps I am wrong and real change is coming. I think since 9/11 something similar may be happening in America.
Perhaps the tectonic plates really are shifting.