Seeking Right Relationship ... lessons from history

This morning I met with my congregation small group, a small group of Sisters and Associates who meet regular for faith sharing, prayer, celebration and conversation.  We didn't have any official agenda from the Congregation for this meeting, so since I had offered to be the facilitator it was up to me to come up with some sort of prayer and process.  I was inspired by the following letter from the early days of our Congregation's history.  It was written, no doubt after a time of great prayer and discernment, by Mother Evangelista--one of our first Sisters and great friend of our founder Mother Clare (Margaret Anna Cusack)--and Sister Ignatius, another of our founding Sisters--to Bishop John J. Keane of the brand new Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.

Let me briefly set the stage (more details can be found on pages 476-482 of The Nun of Kenmare, the autobiography of Margaret Anna Cuscak, which you can read online via Google Books.)  Mother Clare was travelling at the request of her bishop in NJ, seeking to raise funds for the new community's works with Irish immigrant women and hoping to establish a ministry to the Catholic blind.  Unfortunately, she was blocked from success by a great deal of opposition from the (mostly Irish) bishops in America who did not appreciate her writing for social reform, which often called the role/response of the hierarchy to systemic poverty into question.  There were apparently many harsh words spoken and written about her.  Bishop Keane, the founding rector of the Catholic University of America, even went so far as to call into question her mental state.

These words against their founder, friend and Sister caused Mother Evangelista, Provincial Superior, and Sister Ignatius, Local Superior to write these words to Bishop Keane.  I will let their letter speak for itself.  It was written in 1886 or 1887, shortly before Mother Clare felt it necessary to leave the new community in order to save it.
Convent of the Sisters of Peace 
Jersey City, NJ  
My Lord—Our Mother General, most generally known as the Nun of Kenmare, was sent by our bishop, the Right Rev. W. M. Wigger, to Baltimore and other places South, in March 1886, for the purpose of seeing several bishops, partly to try and interest them in the establishment of a home for the Catholic blind, and partly hoping that, by a personal interview, she might be able to satisfy them, by the documents which she brought with her from Rome, that the many and cruel slanders which have been circulated about her were not only false, but absolutely without foundation whatever, and were originated by persons who dislike her great zeal for souls, and her wonderful energy in good works. 
In this mission she failed, not from want of proof of the divine character of her mission, and of the full approval of it by the Holy See, but because the ecclesiastics to whom she applied preferred to believe scandals which did not exist, and would not accept the denial of them by the Holy Father and Propaganda.
Now, my lord, you were one of the bishops who has not only spoken but written what is most scandalous and calumnious of our beloved superior, and we have the evidence in your own handwriting.  You, with others, have helped to deprive the Catholic Church of the services, and to break the loving and tender heart of one of the truest and most devoted of God’s spouses.  
We understand that your lordship is advanced to a most distinguished position in the Catholic church of America, a position which places in your hands the future of the Catholic church of America.  As you will have the formation of the characters of the future priests, we suppose that you will teach them that justice to poor as well as to rich, and that reparation for wrong done, is as much the duty of the priest as the layman. 
I inclose a copy of your letter in which you have brought these scandalous charges against our superior.  Your present position makes it most important, both for yourself and for us, that they should be fully and publicly retracted.  I may add that the circulation of such scandals about our superior is also a grave injury to the Holy Father, as people naturally ask, how is it that this sister is spoken of by ecclesiastics when the Holy Father has granted to her the extraordinary favor of being foundress of our new order?  Why should an American bishop demand that ‘she should go back to her convent in Ireland,’ when the Holy Father has authorized her to leave it for a new and most important work? Why should she be treated with suspicion and contempt when Propaganda has officially declared that ‘she is worthy of trust and confidence of all who may place themselves under her guidance?’ The original of this document is in the possession of our English ecclesiastical superior, the Right Rev. G. W. Bagshawe of Nottingham.  What are her ‘many plans?’ We who have been her spiritual children for years, are aware of only one plan, it has been to work for God’s poor.  When and where has she ever failed in obedience to ecclesiastical authority?  It is easy to invent and circulate reports, but a time may come when something more than an assertion will be demanded from those who speak such reports.  Suppose that the whole miserable story of our Mother’s treatment by ecclesiastics in America were put before the public, and your lordship will be please to remember we have written proof, what would be said?  Are priests in this new Catholic university to be educated to be honest men, or as men who will not pay ordinary respect to truth and justice and to the decision of the Holy See? When did our Mother go ‘from one part of the world to another’ without permission of her bishop? Even this Fall, when several eminent doctors declared her life depended on her spending the winter in the South, it was with great difficulty that we could induce her to go, and it was only when our bishop said that he wished her to do so, that she consented.  
Your lordship would not have been troubled with this letter, but we feel that the time has come when it is our duty to claim recognition and respect for the Holy Father’s decision.  Why should your lordship or other American bishops refuse our mother ‘sympathy?’ Surely, you should have the deepest sympathy for one who has so long suffered in silence when she might, at any moment, clear herself of all blame by publishing the documents in her possession when she has refrained from doing so simply because the public discredit would fall, and fall justly, on those very ecclesiastics who have cared so little for her unmerited sufferings, and why should it not? Within the last two years we have been offered ten good foundations by priests in different parts of America, and their respective bishops have at once refused to allow our order to spread, influenced by false reports such as those in your letter.  Protestants are amazed when they find this to be the case.  Protestant institutions, seaside homes, etc, are being established all over the country for working girls, and even in the very places where we have been refused permission to establish homes blest by the Holy Father.  These homes are filled with and supported by Catholic girls, as we can prove.  
We are well aware that there is in America one ecclesiastic whose prejudices against our mother-general are so strong that even the benediction and authority of the Holy Father has no weight with him, and it would be amusing if it were not very sad to see how some Catholic authorities make so much of the least word from Rome when it is in their favor, and treat with utter contempt such as are against their prejudices, but is this truly loyalty to the Holy See? This ecclesiastic has, we know, considerable power over all the other bishops, but, my lord, surely each bishop has a conscience of his own and a duty of his own to the Holy See.  
We shall be most happy, with the permission of our bishop, to go to Washington and bring the original document of the Holy Father’s founding our order, for the information of the bishops assembled at the laying the foundation of the Catholic  University.  
We can, ourselves, or any other of our sisters who are long professed under our dear mother’s care, give personal evidence as to the good she has done for souls and the forbearance with which she has born persistent calumny.  
We trust for the sake of the Catholic faith, and for your lordship’s own easement of conscience, that you will obtain from all the bishops a public denial of the charges made against her.  I am, my lord,                                    
Yours very respectfully,                                           
Mother M. Evangelista, Mother Provincial 
Sister M. Ignatius, Local Superior

We read this letter reflectively today in our small group and sat together in contemplative silence to listen to what their spirited words say to us today.  In our sharing, we were struck both by the strong voice of our charism of peace in this letter, the respectful yet engaging tone, and the desire to be in right relationship with the Church hierarchy.  Most religious communities have stories such as these, struggles with the institutional church as they sought to follow their charismatic call to be of service to the Gospel and people who are poor.  We stand on such strong shoulders and carry their lives, their loves, their hopes, their dreams (and no doubt their sorrows) with us.  As the words of the prayer written for those who wish to pray in solidarity with LCWR these days so beautifully say:

May the holy ones who have gone
before us inspire us by their courage
and wisdom and affirm that we are
not alone.
Pray for us, our pioneer Sisters. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful with your love as we strive to be in right relationship and be Church for the sake of the Gospel.  Amen.

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