ST. LOUIS (CNS) — Security was tight outside the doors of the ballroom at the Millennium Hotel in St. Louis; no one was allowed in without the right color badge.
Behind the closed doors women religious representing the majority of U.S. women’s congregations met several times during their Aug. 7-10 annual assembly to discuss their response to the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment of their organization, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has called for reform of LCWR to ensure its fidelity to Catholic teaching in areas including abortion, euthanasia, women’s ordination and homosexuality.
At the meeting’s start, the sisters were reminded of how atypical this year’s gathering would be. They were urged to take a thoughtful and prayerful approach to discerning the Vatican assessment and not to discuss the deliberations with members of the media since the process of discernment would continue to unfold in each day’s executive sessions.
During an Aug. 9 press conference, a reporter asked if an LCWR representative could indicate which way the group was “leaning” in its discussions. The sisters said they would not discuss that either.
“We know well enough to honor the process and not predict” an outcome, said Sister Mary Pellegrino, a Sister of St. Joseph from Baden, Pa.
The process of discernment, which one sister described as “muddling through,” is not new to the sisters, they said, but rather is something they are used to doing particularly in their work with other religious communities and lay groups.
Mercy Sister Mary Waskowiak, from Burlingame, Calif., said discerning involves finding the answer to “what we believe is being asked of us” and asking God to help them to the next best step, which she also added, is not always clear.
References to how the sisters were discerning their next steps were clear in the daily prayer sessions where the sisters were continually reminded that they were at a crossroads and should let go of fears and preconceived ideas and trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In the Aug. 9 prayer service, the sisters watched a clip from the movie “Of Gods and Men” based on the true story of a group of French Cistercian Trappist monks living in Algeria during the 1990s civil war. In the clip, the brothers had just finished discerning if they would stay in the monastery and risk their lives or leave for their own safety. Having chosen to stay, they each drink from a cup of wine in silence.
After this scene was shown on the large screen, Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon, LCWR’s president-elect, told the 900 sisters assembled at tables of eight that they also “are in a place we could not have anticipated. We’ve arrived at where we are and like our brother monks, we too are being asked to drink from a cup for which we did not ask.”
The sisters were then asked to silently reflect and to drink from a glass of juice at each table pledging to each other to do God’s will, not their own.
Sister Waskowiak, former LCWR president and current director of development and fundraising for the Mercy International Association, said the movie’s imagery was “a powerful juxtaposition” that made her think about what it means to surrender and also to look beyond the Vatican doctrinal assessment to what is truly being asked of today’s women religious.
“What am I really willing to die for and what will this cost?” she asked.
Dominican Sister Donna Markham, from Cincinnati, told reporters the sisters need to figure out “how to get through the mandate together.”
“We can’t risk further splitting our church and getting into more fragmentation,” said Sister Markham, who is vice president of behavioral health services at Catholic Health Partners.
“We have to get through this in a way that respects the integrity” of the church, she said.
Officials of LCWR were expected to have a late afternoon press conference Aug. 10 to report on conclusions of the assembly’s discernment process.
LCWR’s members are the 1,500 leaders of U.S. women’s communities representing about 80 percent of the 57,000 women in the country’s religious congregations. The organization’s canonical status is granted by the Vatican.