Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nancy Sylvester, IHM: "We're Always Evolving"

Nancy Sylvester, IHM
will be the keynote speaker
at Call to Action MN's Saturday, March 22 event,
“Transformation in a Time of Uncertainty.”

Register early as space is limited!
$40 before March 1; $45 after March 1.
$15 for students. Scholarships available
(call Sharon at 651-457-3249).
Morning coffee/rolls and lunch included.

For more information and to register,
call Art Stoeberl at 651-278-6630 or e-mail

Nancy Sylvester’s work has grown out of the realization of the growing divide of worldviews and ideologies within the Church and society. She believes that we must reach deep within ourselves to find a new way of working toward systemic change.

Influenced by the work of Constance Fitzgerald OCD, Sylvester identifies the powerlessness and “impasse” that so many feel in their work for justice. Only change that is rooted in commitment to contemplative practice can carry us into the future, Sylvester says. Her work reflects the spirit of evolutionary theologian, Ilio Delio OSF, who has said that “we need to discover the inner desert of the heart, that ‘still point’ of love within us that empowers us to do new things.”

Following are excerpts from a recent U.S. Catholic interview with Nancy Sylvester. The full interview can be found here


You entered the [Immaculate Heart of Mary] order at the end of the Second Vatican Council. How were things changing at that time?

It really started the unraveling of my dream. First, we were going to keep our names, so I was going to be Nancy after all. Then I found out we weren’t going to have the postulant habit that they had worn for decades. We could bring three skirts and three sweaters and three blouses, that was it. It was all regular clothes. I was received in the habit, but we were the last class to do so. And we were the first class not to take different names.

I was put into this world that was only somewhat what I had expected, but then it all just exploded for me. I started studying philosophy and theology, and there was a great revolution in me, a 180-degree turn, in the ensuing years.

How did the church as a whole react to the changes in women religious? Was there excitement, or more confusion about the changes?

Well, like in any pluralistic institution, it was both. I’m getting close to 50 years in religious life and there are still people who say to me, “You don’t wear habits anymore?”

We’ve never been able to create the marketing that used to happen when you could see a nun in a habit. You knew that was a nun. Now you don’t, and we understand that, and we know that can perhaps be problematic for some people.

I remember when I was in the habit, one time this gentleman who was probably 80 insisted on holding the door open for me. Now, I thought I should be holding the door open for him, not the other way around. It was a realization for me that what you wear should not be what creates respect, it should be based on who you are.

So for some people, getting out of the habit was really a positive thing. For others, it meant, “Well, now you’re no different from anybody else.”

Part of the goal of Vatican II was to promote the understanding that we are all called to holiness. That was really quite radical, because many people, including me, came to religious life wanting to be perfect. Now all of that shifted. That idea that nuns and priests are better than the rest of the church really changed with Vatican II.

It was important to pray over that, because in fact, that’s right—we are no different from anybody else. We have chosen a specific way of fulfilling how we believe we’re being called by God. But it’s no better than someone who wanted to be married or stay single.

That was not the teaching of the church when I was growing up, so that universal call to holiness was a significant shift for a lot of people. Those who wanted nuns and priests to be special and on a pedestal were confused. They didn’t know why it was happening. Others of us said, “No, we’re part of this culture. We were not to stand apart from the world, but within it.”

Was there a point where you felt women religious had really fulfilled the call of Vatican II in their work?

I don’t know that I ever thought, “We’ve arrived.” Part of that is because we’re always evolving. And of course there was more to it than Vatican II—there was the women’s movement and the civil rights movement. Women religious have been involved with people at all those stages. That’s not something that was talked about in Vatican II, but it’s what Vatican II set in place.

I often say it was an invitation to our institutions to really open themselves up to what is happening in the world and to try to understand our faith through a new lens. I think women religious really did that. They really engaged and transformed their consciousness. Not everyone did at first, because it can be frightening to look at things differently.

In a way, our habit used to be like we had blinders on—we saw everything through a very parochial Catholic view. Once we removed the blinders, it allowed us to look around and see that there were other non-Catholic views that may have something to offer.

Of course, when you start to see from a new consciousness, you often resist it. Who likes to be changed? I wanted religious life to stay the way that it was. I can still say I don’t like change, although I think that’s all we have. But it’s tough.

And if you’re in a position of power, to change often means you have to let go of some of that power, and you’re not going to do it easily. As we discovered after Vatican II, some people in the Curia chose to not ever see some of the council’s invitations as authentic or legitimate. They just stayed the way they were.

When did you start to sense a push-back from those in power to the changes of Vatican II?

First, let me say, some people think the church hierarchy supports women religious financially. They don’t—we are on our own. But we did receive support from the church in the sense that many priests and bishops were our friends. We knew these men, and in some cases they were right there with us.

There was a much greater openness in terms of them listening to our input and encouraging our work. It was under John Paul II where this idea of creeping infallibility began. Eventually you notice that there’s maybe a tolerance for what you’re doing, but not really an encouragement.

They hardly ever interfered with NETWORK, which is an independent 501(c)3. It’s not at all within the purview of a bishop, which is probably one of the reasons they find it problematic.

Now we’re really feeling the push-back, especially with the investigation of each religious congregation and of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). For many it was the assessment that was scandalous, not what the sisters were doing. We’ve heard that some U.S. bishops and the American cardinals in Rome were quite significant in pushing for that investigation.

Why do you think that happened?

When you’re talking about a patriarchal structure, which the church is, religious women in the past had always been sort of the handmaid of the clerical cast. The priests and the bishops said something, and the sisters did it.

I think the big problem came with the health care law, when the bishops lost a political fight and the sisters were mostly on the other side. I don’t think that sat well with them.

I think they are saying, “Look, you’ve got to get behind the teaching of the church, this is too much.” They had to defend that in some way, and I think they got quite angry.

Do you feel there’s a push from the hierarchy for women religious to go back to the way things were?

Well, I think that we are still evolving. I can still feel the tug of where we were in the 1950s because it was nice to have all those processions and all the symbols. I think what’s missing today is that we haven’t been able to express our faith symbolically in the new context. We had it for so long, and it was rich. It was Gregorian chant. It was incense. We knew how to do ritual.

Do we have the poets, the songwriters, and the artists to depict new understandings as we did in the Michelangelos and the great Italian painters who shaped our religious imagination? We need that, because if we don’t have religious imagination, then we’re just using our head, and that’s not where faith is. We need to find that again.

So I think, yes, there are some who want to go back. But they are the traditionalists, the ones who have stayed at a certain level of understanding of church and God. For the vast majority of us, that won’t feed us. I think we’re still searching for what will—the symbols, the music, the art. We need a new expression of that.

What do you think will be the next evolution for women religious?

Obviously, we’re going to be smaller in number. However, I believe we need to place more of an emphasis on engaging people in contemplation, from which action comes.

We need to be doing the things that are needed now that are not being done in the world, just like the nuns used to do when they started a school or started a hospital.

So there’s a real question now, in this country in particular, of “Where should we be?” Obviously we have to minister in a way that’s needed, doing the things that no one else is doing. We could be bolder in speaking out within the church. We could be witnesses to the roles of women in the church. We could speak out more in defense of the gay and lesbian community.

We need to try to evolve into a new understanding of how we live out the gospel today, so we can become a planetary community, with a greater sense of justice, peace, and right relationships.

To read U.S. Catholic's interview with Nancy Sylvester in its entirety, click here.

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