By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published October 12, 2006
At the recent 50th anniversary gathering of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the 2006 Outstanding Leadership Award was given to Sister Catherine Pinkerton, CSJ, a lobbyist at NETWORK who has advocated for social and economic justice issues on Capitol Hill for more than 22 years—starting at age 63.
Sister Catherine was honored as an outstanding example of the prophetic and courageous Gospel witness which sisters are called to give as a leaven in the church and society. Still going strong with “the nuns’ lobby” in Congress at 85, she expressed confidence in the future of religious life and the call of dedicated women Religious to work toward a moral vision for the nation.
“Women Religious are the prophetic dimension of the church. Religious life is a prophetic gift given to the church” and humanity, she affirmed in an interview. “We stand on the line of what is and what is yet to be, and that is our role.”
She loves an LCWR statement that affirms that “our foundresses dealt with chaos, and we have to deal with chaos now because only out of chaos is going to come the creativity of the future.”
After serving as president of LCWR in the early 1980s, Sister Catherine was asked to stay in Washington and to help at NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, where she became a lobbyist in 1984. She said she never her doubted her ability on Capitol Hill, keeping in mind her first lesson in social justice as a girl when her family was about to move into a very large house during the Depression.
Her father changed his mind about the purchase “because something terrible was going to happen to this country, and there would be people who weren’t going to have food or housing or jobs and … we had to help them. And Little Miss Muffet says, ‘Why can’t they help themselves?’ I got my first lesson in social justice, that you don’t have a right to have more than you need when other people don’t have the necessities of life. … It was grounded in me early on.”
Sister Catherine was honored during a ceremony at the LCWR assembly, which was held Aug. 18-21 at the Atlanta Hyatt Regency, drawing together over 800 women in leadership roles in religious orders. The theme was “Embracing the Dream: Leading with a Jubilee Heart.”
Participants reflected on their orders’ history, charism, and prophetic voice and how to refocus their passion for social justice and service. The events began with an interfaith prayer service for peace at Ebenezer Baptist Church co-sponsored by LCWR, the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta and the Atlanta Conference of Sisters.
During the meeting, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated an anniversary Mass. LCWR members also elected Sister Mary Whited, general superior of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood, as LCWR president and reelected Sister Jeanne Bessette, OSF, as secretary. The assembly also endorsed a resolution that condemns torture in all its forms. The resolution, which had been approved by the assembly of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, encourages support and help for victims of torture throughout the world but especially in areas under the control of the U.S. government.
Sister Catherine has raised questions of social justice relating to the federal budget, health care, immigration and free trade.
“Free trade is wonderful, but it has to be just trade,” she said. “Free trade is necessary for development,” but with the North American Free Trade Agreement, and now the Central American Free Trade Agreement, without adequate protections foreign farmers struggle to sell their crops in competition with the United States.
“Many Americans do not understand all the implications of our economic systems on trade agreements, and they have to learn,” she said.
LCWR was created in 1956 at the initiative of the Vatican to bring together the heads of religious orders in national associations to explore how to most effectively serve the needs of the church. Since then, LCWR has taken an active role in renewal of religious life as well as advocacy for systemic change and social justice within the church and society.
In a talk Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister urged sisters to lead with jubilee hearts into the 21st century. Religious are in the process of realizing the renewal of religious life sought by the Second Vatican Council 40 years ago, she said. The Council called orders to delve into their foundation and charism and asked Religious to become their most authentic selves and respond more prophetically to the needs of modern life.
She compared them to the Israelites pining for 40 years in the wilderness for the Promised Land, but falling at times into fear of the unknown and nostalgia for the past.
“There is some summit toward which every life is bent. All we really need is to find the faith it will take to complete the journey,” Sister Joan said.
She spoke in light of the dramatic decline of vocations to religious life. In 1976 there were 125,000 women Religious, and today there are 67,000 in the United States.
Sister Joan reminded conference attendees that the core mission of their religious orders was never centered on sister recruitment.
She affirmed their orders’ roles in establishing the broad network of Catholic education, health care and social services that now exists across the United States. Those pioneering women focused on the dire needs around them, and she challenged them to do likewise and not “retreat” by becoming overly focused on the needs of their orders at the expense of outreach.
She noted how the Book of Numbers describes how the Israelites sent spies into Canaan to see what the Promised Land was like.
“We too, in other words, have been wandering in our own desert for 40 years, sending out ‘spies’ that we called experimentations, hearing the reports and watching the results. In the course of it, we built important altars along the way: soup kitchens and halfway houses, prison chaplaincies and retreat work, hospitality centers and housing projects, peace centers and justice programs, associate programs and ecumenical work—but those are now mainstream. But now we are at the point where we are the ones who must decide whether or not in this wild, teeming, starving, dying world we will go on toward newness of life or go back to concentrating on ourselves again rather than on the new world emerging around us, and calling us forward.”
She acknowledged the challenges they have, with fewer companions and limited financial and other resources. But persevering still means providing a penetrating Gospel witness for the common good as they share their wisdom and insight with the next generation.
She urged them to look beyond their size to the needs of the human community.
“The question is not how many people do we have to do it, the question is simply are we willing to do it with however many we have. We must not give into the temptation to be less than we are here and now. One person who will say what needs to be said may be all it takes to change the world as we know it,” she asserted. “When one man, Martin Luther King, stood up alone against segregation, the churches stood up with him. When one man, Mahatma Gandhi, stood up alone against oppression, the country stood up with him. When one old woman, Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Grey Panthers, stood up against ageism, alone, the elderly of this entire country stood up with her. … If we really think this life of ours is beautiful, if we really want people to join us, we have to stand for something worth joining.”
And she also encouraged them to not let their age limit them. “Mother Teresa was 68 when she started the great work of her life, Dorothy Day was still the voice of the peace movement and the poor until she was almost 80. Oscar Romero became the saint of the oppressed when he was 60,” she declared. “And Catherine Pinkerton at the age of 85 is still pounding the pavement to soften the heart of this country. How can any of us possibly do less?”
“We need, as Vatican II defined us, to be prophetic congregations. We must be those who live at the center of society to leaven it, at the bottom of society to speak for it, and on the edge of society to critique it, not because we fear it but because we love it,” she said.
In an interview after the talk, Sister Peggy Moore, OSU, reflected on how she joined the Ursuline Sisters 40 years ago and how her order came to New Orleans from France in 1727 to establish the first Catholic Charities outreach. She recalled how their Italian foundress began in 1535 a new kind of religious life, living with the people instead of in a monastery. “She was 65.”
Sister Peggy said she feels challenged to consider how to re-channel passion for the mission of their international order of 2,400, which has a substantial presence in Indonesia working with Muslims, and pass on their traditions. “We have to focus our energy. We can’t give up.”
Cecelia Smaha of Macon, an associate of the Sisters of Mercy, who sponsor Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta, attends monthly meetings with 10 other associates. They each strive to apply the Mercy charism in their secular and spiritual lives.
In her job working at the Labor Department with the poor and unemployed she tries “to take extra time with each person I see, to help console them, to give instruction, cry with them, advise them and encourage (them).”
“We feel very deeply that our involvement with the association of Mercy is because God has called us to that vocation,” said Smaha, who wore a Mercy pin on her suit. “It’s an avenue to do God’s work without leaving home. You don’t have to be single, Catholic or female.”
Sister Beatrice Eichten, OSF, LCWR immediate past president, noted that one reason for the decline in religious vocations is that women have more options before them today. Another reason is smaller families. She was one of nine girls in her family, and that made it easier for her parents to support her vocation.
She is president of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minn., and one of their missions is to advocate through their peace and justice office for issues including peace-building, ecology and immigration reform. They have drawn both Catholic and non-Catholic supporters.
“In many ways we’ve become a beacon of hope and place of refuge for people who have convictions about peace and justice and the role of women. They gather around us because they know that’s what we stand for, and we will address that in a public way,” she said. “So it really becomes a catalyst for working for peace in our area.”
Several consecrated women live in the motherhouse while other sisters live alone or with other members but come together regularly for meals, prayer and to discuss community business. Regional meetings are held for all sisters and lay associates twice yearly. She is a facilitator and consultant for other orders while other sisters work in various professions.
She believes the conference was “outstanding” and found “the energy and spirit in the group was positive.”
“As a conference and as member congregations, we have committed to peacemaking, to voicing our belief that God loves all persons equally and totally and that we are all sisters and brothers. We join together with like-minded people, trusting the hypothesis of Jean Shinoda Bolen that ‘when a critical number of people change how they think and behave, the culture will also, and a new era begins.’”
Sister Eichten noted how in a way the decline in religious life has been a natural shift with the rise to leadership of laypersons in church life called for by the Vatican Council. In response, women Religious supported this process of laypersons taking over their roles in education and health care and carrying on their traditions. They, in turn, intentionally stepped aside as their numbers declined to work more with the poor and for justice.
“The lessening of numbers meant that we needed to do something different, which meant that we brought in committed lay men and women to carry out roles we were doing.”
She views the growing number of lay associates, those who are drawn to the spiritual energy and authentic holiness of the order, as very positive. Her order now has 200 Religious and 250 lay associates in the United States and Latin America.
“They may not find themselves drawn to living in a religious community, but they want to continue to live out the charism so … they connect with us for support in spirituality and the values of our foundress.”
To attract new sisters, the Franciscans are striving to show parents and girls who they are, through youth camps, confirmation programs or youth service projects.
“We’re trying to find ways to get young people engaged with us so that they get to know us. As we’re not as present in schools there’s less opportunity for us so we’re trying to find other ways to do it.”