Benedict XVI: Just a second-hand telegram to women religious leaders a few kms from his doorstep Print E-mail

 May 10, 2010

Pope, Cardinal Rodé: no time for world's women religious leaders

by Thomas C. Fox

Rome: The Holy Father today, (Monday, May 10), according to the Vatican Press Office, received in separate audiences: two prelates from the Episcopal Conference of Belgium, Bishop Lucas Van Looy of Ghent, and Msgr. Koen Vanhoutte, the diocesan administrator of Bruges. He also received Italian Bishop Valentino Di Cerbo of Alife-Caiazzo, accompanied by members of his family.

Nothing unusual – except for a mention of who he did not receive in audience.

Who the Holy Father did not receive in audience was any (or all) of the 800 general superiors of international women religious orders who are in Rome from all corners of the globe for a once in three-year general assembly. These women religious represent close to 1 million women religious worldwide. (This is not the LCWR we're talking about here. This is the LCWR and the leadership of every other women's religious congregation in the world.)

The women have been meeting here in Rome since last Friday.

For the record, the Vatican Press Office reports that the Holy Father last Friday (the day the meeting of the women began) received in separate audiences five prelates from the Episcopal Conference of Belgium. Again, for the record, they are Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt, Bishop Aloysius Jousten of Liege, Bishop Gur Harpigny of Tournai, Msgr Jean-Marie Huet, diocesan administrator of Namur, who was accompanied by Auxiliary Bishop Pierre Warin.

The Holy Father Friday also received Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia.

According to the Vatican Press Office, that meeting “provided an opportunity to examine various bilateral questions, and other important matters concerning life in Georgia, restating the commitment of the parties in favor of intercultural exchange.”

The women’s meeting is being held at the Ergife Hotel, a few kilometers from the Vatican. They are examining the topics of Mysticism and Prophecy in order to reach deeper into their souls to pull out even more courage and commitment. (Maybe Benedict found the topic un'reason'able, but then he blew them off partly in favor of a trip to Fatima. I guess it can't be the topic.)

Courage? Commitment?

On Saturday, one women religious from the Congo, Sr. Liliane Sweko, in passing, in an address on prophecy, told a stunned assembly that many of her co-religious have been assassinated, 235 in the year 2003 alone. “By the end of last year,” she added, “the number of assassinated women religious greatly increased” (This is a staggering number of unacknowledged of female martyrs from just one country in one year.)

For many of the women religious who had come from African and parts of Asia and elsewhere, their trips to Rome for this plenary assembly of the International Union of Superior Generals is a once in a life time event.

And, yes, it would have been inspiring for many to see the Holy Father.

Three years ago, when the plans for this women's meeting were first underway, an audience was put on the conference agenda. It was to be on Tuesday, May 11. However, subsequent to the announcement of the plan, the Vatican announced the Holy Father would fly to Portugal May 11 for a four-day visit, including a visit to Fatima. So the audience with the 800 women religious had to be canceled.

What the women did receive was a telegram from the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertrone, Secretary of State, saying the Holy Father is “present in spirit” and that he sends his “cordial wishes." (A telegram from the Vatican's number two....That says a lot about how much Benedict is 'present in spirit'.)

You’d think the women would be disappointed. I suspect some were, but few dwelt on it. I spoke with one who shrugging it off, saying “when you work on the margins, you really don’t expect much recognition at the center. This is the choice I made.” (No kidding.)

Nevertheless, allow me: what a missed opportunity! It should be no secret to NCR readers that tension exists between women religious in various parts of the world and prelates in the Vatican.

Our church’s sacramental and liturgical life is built on symbols. We are very good at symbols. Know this expertise, one is left wondering. How could such a spectacular oversight ever occur? What were the pope’s handlers (or the Holy Father) thinking? (There's way more money and blind obedience to be had in the Fatima cults.)

At one point, I thought to myself that had the Holy Father decided at any time during the past four days to trot over to the Ergife hotel for even a ten minute visit he could have opened a flood gate of good will and offered incalculable inspiration to women who, frankly, can use it. They deserved to be recognized. Had the Holy Father greeted them many of the women would have gone home with an inspirational story that would energize countless more. (What's personal commitment and energy when it comes without much money? Service on the margins really doesn't pay like service to the marginal wealthy.)

But it was not to be.

PS… I need to add that Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, the congregation that these women report to and canonically work through, also was unable to make it to the gathering as well.

Turns out he was out of town. For the entire meeting. Though the meeting has been planned for three years. (Apparently Rode had three years to find some excuse to be out of town.)

He sent an aide who offered the cardinal’s greetings, but I don’t recall right now any mention of “cordial wishes.” (Rode sent an aide. Well at least it wasn't a telegram from an aide.)

Webster defines “dialogue” as a conversation between two or more persons. Yes, it needs to be two ways to be dialogue.

Are any bishops listening?


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It is inconceivable to me that a similar global gathering of the leadership of men's religious congregations would be blown off the way the Vatican has blown off these women. In my book this is the perfect symbol of the place of women in the Church. In Benedict's Church religious women are worth a telegram sent through a subordinate office, even congregations who give 235 lives in one year for the Faith. Sigh.......

I'm sure apologists will say this was all unintentional. Benedict holds no ill will towards women's religious. Unintentional in this case also means "Failed to compute" and that too is an indication of where women religious fit in Benedict's scheme of the things. It's an excuse which proves the point. In Benedict's Church women don't merit equal consideration with men--especially powerful clerical or political men.

In the meantime, Benedict is on his way to Fatima on a spiritual pilgrimage to honor the only woman who seems to count in his scheme of things. He will also be honoring the mystical visions and prophecies of three children (one who became a consecrated nun) at the same time this conference on mysticism and prophecy is going on in Rome amongst other consecrated women religious. In this sense the timing is deliciously ironic.

As usual Benedict answered a few previously submitted questions on the flight over to Portugal.

I found his answer to this question most interesting:

What meaning do the apparitions of Fatima have for us today? When you presented the Third Secret of Fatima in a press conference at the Vatican Press Office in June 2000, you were asked if the message of the secret could be extended beyond the assassination attempt against John Paul II to other sufferings of the popes. Could it also be extended to put the suffering of the church today in the context of that vision, including the sins of the sexual abuse of minors? (The question is about the suffering of Popes and the Church. It does not seem to include the suffering of the victims. The spin about the poor suffering Church has worked it's own magic.)


First of all, I want to express my joy to go to Fatima, to pray before the Madonna of Fatima, and to experience the presence of the faith there, where from the little ones a new force of the faith was born. It’s not limited to the little ones, but has a message for the whole world and all epochs of history, it illuminates this history. As I said in the presentation, there is a supernatural impulse which doesn’t come simply from someone’s imagination but from the supernatural reality of the Virgin Mary. That impulse enters into a subject, and is expressed according to the possibilities of the subject, who is determined by his or her historic situation. The supernatural impulse is translated, so to speak, according to the subject’s possibilities for imagining it and expressing it. In this expression formed by the subject, there are always hidden possibilities to go beyond, to go deeper. Only with time can we see all the depth which was, so to speak, dressed in this vision, which was possible for the concrete person. (This is an excellent point, and although Benedict most likely made it to disarm the Fatima literalists, it is bang on. As my own mentors have put it, the clarity with which one is both given and interprets a vision is only as good as the Rolodex in the receivers mind. Little children do not have a very large Rolodex, (body of knowledge and experience), in which to either receive or relate a visionary experience. On the other hand, there is far less resistance to receiving the message as they have not concretized a view of reality which would preclude the possibility of such experiences. It's sort of a Catch 22.)

With regard to this great vision of the suffering of the popes, beyond the circumstances of John Paul II, other realities are indicated which over time will develop and become clear. Thus it’s true that beyond the moment indicated in the vision, one speaks about and sees the necessity of suffering by the church. It’s focused on the person of the pope, but the pope stands for the church, and therefore sufferings of the church are announced. The church will always be suffering in various ways, up to the end of the world. The important point is that the message of Fatima in its substance is not addressed to particular situations, but a fundamental response: permanent conversion, penance, prayer, and the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and charity. One sees there the true, fundamental response the church must give, which each of us individually must give, in this situation. (Actually, like most Marian visions, Fatima was pretty specific about the corruption with in the clerical structure and called for a conversion with in those consecrated to her Son's teachings. Fatima contained a pretty specific call for clergy to experience conversion, do penance and prayer, and live as her son lived.)

In terms of what we today can discover in this message, attacks against the pope or the church don’t come just from outside the church. The suffering of the church also comes from within the church, because sin exists in the church. This too has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way. The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside, but is born in sin within the church. The church thus has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. Forgiveness does not exclude justice. We have to re-learn the essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues. That’s how we respond, and we can be realistic in expecting that evil will always launch attacks from within and from outside, but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil. The Madonna for us is the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history. (Neither God nor Mary will violate the sanctity of personal choice. God will certainly have the last word in history, but mankind will have the last choice. There are no guarantees.)

In this last paragraph I wish I knew just what Benedict had in his mind when he says "Church" and 'we'--which card in his Rolodex he flipped. It makes a huge difference in understanding the point of his answer and what it may portend. Is he thinking specifically of the clerical church of which he is a huge part of the 'we'. Or is this a generic kind of statement about the whole church and includes the 'we' part he ignored back in Rome?

These paragraphs exemplify exactly why St. Paul speaks of the gift of discernment coupled with prophecy. Benedict himself might not actually understand which 'Church' and which 'we' he is referencing or prioritizing. It can all be so Freudian or Jungian or Adlerian or mystical. Which is precisely why St Paul linked the gift of discernment with the gift of prophecy. Two or more personal Rolodex are generally better than one.