Last week, on the day when the Vatican released the results of its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of women’s religious orders in this country, I received emails from several Catholic sisters. All described themselves as saddened, stunned or demoralized by the Vatican document, which severely criticized the LWCR in a number of areas.
Catholic sisters are my heroes. They have been my teachers, spiritual directors, mentors, bosses and friends. I can barely begin to describe the admiration I have for these women, many of them now in their 70s and 80s, and for what that they have done for God, for the church, for what Catholics call the “people of God,” and for me.
When I was a young Jesuit working in Nairobi, Kenya, for example, two elderly Maryknoll sisters patiently listened to my worries about living in the developing world, shared some of their own experiences of years in ministry in remote villages, and encouraged me to “push on,” as they say in East Africa. When my father was dying of cancer ten years ago, one Religious of Jesus and Mary sister took a four-hour train ride to visit him in the hospital for an hour, stayed overnight at a nearby convent, and the next morning took the train home, for another four-hour journey. When I thanked her, she thanked me for the “honor” of letting her come. And during a difficult spiritual crisis, one Sister of St. Joseph helped me to find God in the midst of my doubts, and was even able to get me to smile. “God did all the work,” she said, when I thanked her, “not me.”
In the wake of the Vatican document, my sister friends, some nearing the end of their lives, seemed to need a word of gratitude. The very least I could do was to show some support in a small way--on Twitter. (Of course I had written about my admiration for them before, but it seemed that it was a particularly good time for praise.) Besides, gratitude is always in season.
Having tweeted for a few years now, I thought it would be a good idea to add a hashtag (#), which is a way for people to follow certain topics on Twitter. For example, everyone who tweets about, say, Pope Benedict XVI, might use #PopeBenedict or #Pope, so that other interested readers can follow the various tweets on the subject.
So I tweeted “Catholic sisters teach me what it means to persevere without the benefit of institutional power.” And I added #WhatSistersMeantoMe. Framing things in that way, I thought, meant that people could show their gratitude for sisters, and read other messages of support, without being in any way negative. No need to be anti-Vatican or anti-bishop or anti-anything. Just pro-sister.
A few people commented that the Vatican’s assessment of the LCWR wasn’t intended as a critique of all U.S. sisters. Which is true. The LCWR is a kind of professional organization that often issues statements on behalf of the religious orders it represents. But that observation misses the point that the LCWR assessment came on the heels of a lengthy Vatican investigation of all women’s religious orders in this country-an “Apostolic Visitation,” to use the official term, investigating the sisters’ “quality of life.” In other words, it wasn’t surprising that many sisters felt beleaguered and demoralized.
A few hours later I tweeted a question: “How have Catholic sisters helped in your life?” and a little later, “An Ursuline nun taught me as much about Ignatian spirituality as any Jesuit. And what a great director!” Soon I started to notice others weighing in, and some of the answers, many of them quite personal, brought a lump to my throat:
@Karenvanhoek: Poor Clares loved my family through my brother’s cancer and death; we wouldn’t have made it without them.
@tmiyamoto: The sisters taught me to accept nothing less than the best of myself, and gave me support when I felt I was less.
@Aardvark1922: When we could no longer afford it, a Sister of St. Joseph gave me piano lessons for free.
@KerryAlys: My spiritual director is a Mercy Sister. Her care for me and my vocation to serve the Church has been life-saving.
@debboamerik: Daughters of Charity cared for my Granny as a child after her mother died. They were my great-great-grandmothers.
@stephencbenoit: Sr. Peg Dolan, RSHM (dec) at LMU was a saint on earth! Touched countless lives. A true gift from God.
@slinkerwink: She helped me get through middle school when other students made fun of my deaf accent.
Within a day, Huffington Post had noticed the tweets and said that they were going to run a little story about my “campaign.” It wasn’t meant to be a campaign, I told them gently, but just a way of supporting the sisters. So I asked them to change “campaign” to the more neutral “drive” or “initiative.” Which they did. Still, the word “campaign” was used in some other media outlets, and though I didn’t like the word, it was a small price to pay for the possibility of expressing gratitude for the contributions that sisters had made in individual lives. Over the next few days, many sisters wrote (or tweeted!) and said how moved they were after reading the tweets.
The Huffpo piece also meant that the hashtag went viral. Many now weighed in, sharing their stories and comments. Hooray for social media, I thought: I had found a way for people to be positive without being critical.
If you’re thinking, “This is the web. I’ll bet things get ugly,” you’re right.
One morning I noticed that other voices--vindictive, cruel, mocking--suddenly started appearing on under #WhatSistersMeantoMe, egged on by Catholics who were themselves delighted to crackdown on the LCWR and slam those sisters they had decided weren’t “real” sisters.
@biddlejabob: These “sisters” need to pull the habits and veils out of the trash and get to work.
@robertrecchia: LCWR: Looters in the burned out City of God.
@DavidMReedOhio: The sisters have been very radical and very unCatholic. They need their house cleaned up.
And so on. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. For good measure, they started to attack me, too. Why not, right? It’s easy to trash people anonymously.
Soon the hashtag meant for personal expressions of gratitude to individual sisters was flooded with snotty comments about who were faithful sisters were and who were not. (Apparently the commenters were able to see within the souls of the unfaithful ones.)
It’s easy to get discouraged about the state of discourse in the church today, especially on the web. (Ironically, I had written about that precise topic the week before, listing the five most common angry responses from Catholic bloggers and comments.)
But I have to admit something: even I was taken aback when gratitude was seen as out of bounds, when praise was mistaken for dissent, and when an occasion to support elderly sisters was used as an opportunity to mock women who had given their lives to God.
To sum up then, let me say something to the sisters who have meant so much to me, who have given their lives to the church and who have always inspired me.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest and contributing editor of America magazine, is the author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.” Follow him on Twitter: @JamesMartinSJ.