New roles in both the church and the world that are opening up today for members of Roman Catholic religious orders of women were explored at a three-day conference here this week at the Washington Theological Union.
The invitation-only gathering of placement directors and other leaders of religious orders listened to sisters who are serving in unusual posts, explored the new educational needs for sisters moving out of the traditional teaching-nursing roles and pondered the conference's central theme of "Women in Ministry."
A panel of four women, each in aspects of ministry that only a few years ago were reserved to men, discussed their experiences.
As the first and only women staff chaplain at the Spartanburg (South Carolina) Hospital, Sister Paula Tinlin explained that a chaplain is involved "in everything that brings a patient in (to the hospital) in a crisis."
Emergency room personnel, she said, call the chaplain to "deal with the emotional needs of the family" of the victims of auto accidents, gun shots, or other emergencies.
In addition, she said, she is often called by medical personnel "to be with a person when he is told he has cancer."
"The ministry in the hospital is to meet people in the hiding places," she said, "when people are letting go of every human relationship, when they are struggling to let go, when they are learning how to die."
The role of the chaplain, she said, "is to be concerned with the patient as a person, not a disease," as the hospital bureaucracy is likely to view him.
Sister Tinlin said that in dealing with people's tragedies she had "been specially alerted to the God questions - the guilt people carry because they dear question the 'will of God'."
Sister Tinlin deplored the fact that "I am still called 'the lady chaplain'.That says to me that we still haven't broken through the need to deal with persons as persons."
One of five staff chaplains who share duty' shifts, she told of an instance of working with a man, the father of 10 children, dying of cancer. "His biggest problem was that he couldn't discuss it with his wife," she said. "She couldn't face his death and when he tried to talk about it, she would just change the subject."
Sister Tinlin worked with the wife, helping her finally to acknowledge the reality of her husband's condition and husband and wife were able to face his death together.
When he died, the sister was invited by his family to preach at his funeral, even though the family was Southern Baptist and she a Catholic. But the Baptist minister who conducted the service refused to let her participate.
A different set of experiences and problems was described by Sister Anne Marie Gardiner, of Newport News, Va., who said her job title at St. Jerome parish is "Pastoral Associate."
Together with another sister with the same title and the pastor, "we share the responsibility for leading parish life," she said.
Parish ministry, with its emphasis on work with committees, organizing programs and motivating and encouraging lay leadership is a far cry from the highly structured life of a teacher in a parochial school, Sister Gardiner explained, and she discussed candidly some of the problems of her transition, from one career to another.
"I went into religious life right after high school and taught for five years," she said. "My problem was that I went from a sheltered family to the shelter of the novitiate . . . Many of the aspects of my growing up were delayed." Fixx has a She added: "I can be an effective minister only to the degree that I have developed as a person.
Much of her traditional training as a sister had to be scuttled as she adapted to her new role, she indicated, even in such matters as the use of one's time.
"I had to learn to adjust my time to the fact that there were no bells to ring; no one to fix my meals," she said, adding that in parish work, "evenings are the prime work time; midnight is the hour for returning home."
Her "greatest struggle," she said, was "how to resolve one's sexual identity; what celibacy meant to me, what it could be. When meeting on a one-to-one basis with a man, I experienced myself as a sexual person, with no guidelines or with guidelines that were no longer relevant."
To make matters worse, no one back in the convent had any help to offer. "The sisters . . . would pray with me, they would direct me to the eucharist, and they would willingly finance retreats for me, but discuss sexuality with me they would not," she said.
"No (sister) should be working in ministry and cannot work effectively in it who has not dealt with her (own) sexuality in relationship to men - celibate, married, single and divorced."
In still another area, Gail Riina, campus minister at George Washington University, the only lay woman on the panel, pointed out that growing numbers of women serve as campus ministers. "In some places women serve as directors (of campus ministry) with more responsibility than the priests that work with them . . . There is a need for women to claim their authority without apology" in student work, she said, since students tend to be more open to women than is true in some other segments of society.
Because of the stage of development students are in, "evangelism on campus must be in terms of the search for their identity," she said.
Despite the traditional synicism of students, she said, "That the church is indeed sinful, fallen and imperfect and yet redeemed, even as they are themselves - that is the gospel that needs to be heard by students."
Sister Sally Thomas described and defended the work of NETWORK, a Washington-based organization of sisters devoted to influencing the political process. "Women enter into the religious struggle for social justice and speak for the poor precisely as a living out of our Christian commitment," she said.
She added: "The special responsibility of women religious in a political ministry in the next several years may be to keep the church honest in living up to her social pronouncements."
Underlying much of the discussion of the sisters in their three-day session was criticism of the Catholic Church's refusal to ordain women to the priesthood.
Near the close of the session, however, Joan Hickey, a local feminist leader in the church, paid tribute to the women already involved in the varied ministries.
"It may be," she said, "that we don't have to mount a major campaign for the ordination of women to the priesthood because ministry is being done by women; eventually it will be recognized."