An Encouraging Word — On women religious

Father J. Ronald Knott

If this endeavor is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you may find yourselves fighting against God.
Acts 5:38,39

Here we go again! A few years ago, it was a Vatican mandated visitation of the seminaries and now it is a visitation of women’s religious orders. Sides are being taken and fur is beginning to fly. Hysteria is mounting as one extreme is shouting “Unfair!,” while the other extreme is shouting “It’s about time!”

Against my better judgment, I have decided to weigh in. I am aware that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but since I have written regularly and enthusiastically about my admiration for women religious and their ministries, many already know of my profound respect.

St. Paul writes to the Ephesian Christians, “he gave some as prophets and others as pastors for building up the body of Christ.” Our prophets are leading demonstrations and circulating petitions. I am more of a pastor than a prophet. What is the difference? Prophets “unsettle the settled.” Pastors “settle the unsettled.” We need both! For that reason, I want to offer an “encouraging word” to those who are “unsettled” over this issue.

In the reading cited above, we have the story of Gamaliel, a wise Pharisee who spoke up when the high priest and some of the Sadducees wanted to put some of the apostles to death for preaching in the name of Jesus, after being told not to. Gamaliel, after going through a list of episodes when they had become infuriated in the past, advised them to remain calm to see if all this was “of men” or “of God.”

I personally went through a “Vatican visitation” back in 2005-2006. Because of some reported excesses during the 1970s and 1980s, the Vatican wanted to “see what was going on in all U.S. seminaries.” Again, the press whipped everyone into a frenzy, calling it an “inquisition.” As a seminary staff member, I was required to be interviewed by either of two bishops: Archbishop Schwietz of Anchorage or Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln. I chose Archbishop Schwietz.

I was asked about the strengths and weaknesses of Saint Meinrad Seminary. I got a chance to tell him of our contributions and successes and I was asked to make some suggestions for our improvement.

After that “visitation,” we received some very positive affirmation. We have worked hard to make the suggested changes, even though some of them were hard to hear. As a result, a seminary that was “emptying” is now “filling up” again. We were full last year. This coming year, we will be even more full.

Leading this latest “visitation” is the Gamaliel-like, Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle. My hope is that he will uncover even more of the strengths of our religious women, and that any suggestions for improvement that will ensue, will lead to a similar “rebirth.” My biggest regret that all this was not preceded by a “Year of Appreciation and Celebration.”

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