“Fifty years after Vatican II, are we on fire with or have we tamed the Holy Spirit?”
Sr. Florence Deacon, a Franciscan Sister of St. Francis of Assisi and President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, USA, was enthusiastically welcomed to Ireland and Milltown Park by Phil Dunne of We Are Church, and a packed hall of mostly grey-haired men and women; ‘Vatican 2ers,’ who demonstrated their support of LCWR and Sr. Florence, by intermittent, loud and prolonged applause.
Tracing her own metamorphosis from a nineteen year old novice with an understanding of “the church” as a building and then as the hierarchy, Sr. Florence shared how she struggled initially with Vatican II’s exposition of the church as “the people of God,” but over time, she, with thousands of Sisters, studied the documents and made changes accordingly. Many of the clergy did not, as demonstrated by one priest who responded when she offered enthusiastically to help in the parish, by asking, “Sister, could you get the candle grease off the sacristy floor?”
Stating at the beginning of her presentation that the church needs to create spaces for authentic dialogue, Sr. Florence returned to this theme before the end of her talk, saying that a lot of pain and a public fiasco might have been spared had the Vatican entered earlier into honest dialogue with the leaders of 80% of the women religious in the United States.
But while she was direct in acknowledging that the Sisters in the United States had been on the receiving end of two Vatican investigations: Apostolic and LCWR, she managed to steer through contentious issues in a gentle way. On the fact that Pope Francis had told the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Muller, that the process of Vatican supervision of LCWR, which had been initiated by his predecessor, Pope Benedict, should continue, she surmised that the Pope was “probably poorly briefed by Archbishop Muller.” It was obvious that Sr. Florence wanted to continue having faith in what she perceived to be Pope Francis’ simple, open, “favourably disposed to women” and Christ-like leadership.
We were left in no doubt that the leaders of LCWR experienced shock, pain and confusion when the report was released which criticized, among other things, their radical feminism and non orthodox theories concerning sexuality and gender. They sought solace in biblical readings, prayer and reflection on the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus and in Jesus’ words, “Fear not, I bring you peace.” As for their present position, Sr. Florence said that ongoing dialogue and relationship- building with Archbishop Sartain and the two bishops appointed to oversee the LCWR, takes place behind closed doors with no media present and in a spirit of prayer and discernment. Giving an example of how, as an NGO, by using gentle negotiation, she played a key role in securing annual multi-million dollar funding for world poverty projects which otherwise would not have been allocated in full, Sr. Florence showed herself to be a bridge builder, living Pope Francis’ challenge to, “not tame the Holy Spirit.”
As for the place of women in the Church, she believes that now is the time for the vocation of women to be achieved in its fullness- even if we have waited 50 years for it to be realized! She acknowledged that a huge expansion of women’s roles in the church has taken place since Vatican II, in the United States. There are women administrators in a number of parishes and women chancellors in a number of dioceses – but more can be done, she believes. Cardinals advise the pope and women can be Cardinals! They could also be appointed as leaders of key councils in the Vatican!
I left MilltownPark thinking that Sr. Florence would probably continue to play a key role on that “journey of fraternity, of love and trust, bishop and people together,” of which Pope Francis spoke. Along the way, she might be able to hasten the day for the participation of women at levels of governance and decision-making in the church. It was heartening to see that a major Vatican investigation has not dimmed her vision nor quenched the flames of the Holy Spirit.
Maeve Mc Mahon O.P.