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Nuns say prayer has been nonstop for 137 years at Wisconsin convent

Flooding, snowstorms, a flu outbreak, even a fire — any of those might have slowed a group of Wisconsin nuns who say none of it has kept their order from praying nonstop for hundreds of thousands of people over the last 137 years.

The La Crosse-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration claim to have been praying night and day for the ill and the suffering longer than anyone in the United States — since 11 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1878.

When I walk into the chapel I can feel this tangible presence kind of hit (me),” said Sister Sarah Hennessey, who helps coordinate the prayers.

The tradition of perpetual Eucharistic adoration — uninterrupted praying before what is believed to be the body of Christ — ates to 1226 in France, according to Sister Marlene Weisenbeck. Catholic orders around the world have done it since then. It grew in popularity in 19th century and again under Pope John Paul II, said Father Steven Avella, a history professor at Marquette University.

In La Crosse, the nuns estimate they’ve prayed for hundreds of thousands of people, including 150,000 in the last decade.

“Sometimes it’s overwhelming with the pain that people have and the illnesses that they are suffering,” said Donna Benden, who is among 180 lay people known as “prayer partners” who help the 100 sisters. Benden prays from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. every Wednesday before going to work.

The order started asking for community help in 1997, when the number of nuns began dwindling. Nowadays, the sisters usually take night shifts and lay people cover the day, according to Sister Maria Friedman, who schedules two people for every hour. “Even the sisters go away frequently or take on other tasks, it’s the complexity of modern life,” she said.

She said she’s constantly trying to find ways to make it easier, like getting a bed on campus where lay people can sleep. If necessary, the sisters will find more creative solutions. “We will make it work,” she said.

Other U.S. orders also pray 24 hours, seven days a week, like the 16 nuns who take two-hour shifts at Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland, Ohio. Their order has done so in the U.S. since 1921, a carryover from an effort that began in 1856 in France, according to that order’s Sister Mary Thomas. One or two nuns are there at all times, with no help from lay people. Some orders, though, have scaled back to part-time because of aging nuns or other reasons.

Since the La Crosse nuns began, they’ve prayed through a fire in an adjacent building in 1923, a flood in La Crosse in 1965, the flu and many storms. Sister Hennessey compiles the requests for each day from paper slips people leave in person, phone calls, emails and online forms.

On the list recently was Laura Huber, 52, a principal of two La Crosse-area schools, who was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 months ago. A school board member requested the prayers for her, she said.

“The prayer sustained me in ways I haven’t been able to articulate,” she said, adding, “I felt warm and loved and cared about by strangers and that’s an incredible feeling.”

Sister Friedman says she never has problems finding people to help. She has a list of substitutes, but the prayer partners and nuns often take extra hours.

“If it’s 11 o’clock at night and it’s my hour and another sister doesn’t show up, I can’t just go to bed,” said Sister Hennessey. “You’re like, `It’s 137 years ± I have to stay awake.”’

Vatican unexpectedly ends crackdown against U.S. nuns

The Vatican has unexpectedly ended its controversial overhaul of the main umbrella group of U.S. nuns, cementing a shift in tone and treatment of the U.S. sisters under the social justice-minded Pope Francis.

The Vatican said on April 16 it had accepted a final report on its investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and declared the “implementation of the mandate has been accomplished” nearly two years ahead of schedule. The umbrella group for women’s religious orders had been accused of straying from church teaching.

The brief report stated the organization would have to ensure its publications have a “sound doctrinal foundation,” and said steps were being taken for “safeguarding the theological integrity” of programs. But no major changes were announced and the direct Vatican oversight that the sisters considered a threat to their mission was over.

“I think there are still some questions about how this is going to play out, but that it concluded early was an overwhelming affirmation of what the sisters do,” said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College.

The report’s tone stood in stark contrast to the 2012 Vatican reform mandate, which said the nuns’ group was in a “grave” doctrinal crisis. Vatican officials said the Leadership Conference had over-emphasized social justice issues when they should have also been fighting abortion, had undermined church teaching on homosexuality and the priesthood, and had promoted “radical feminist” themes in their publications and choice of speakers. The nuns’ group called the allegations “flawed.” But Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle was appointed to conduct a top to bottom overhaul of the conference.

Just last year, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, sharply rebuked the nuns’ group for its “regrettable” attitude and behavior during the process. He accused the LCWR of being in “open provocation” with the Holy See and U.S. bishops because they planned to honor a theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, whose work had drawn sharp criticism from the U.S. bishops.

But this week, leaders of the umbrella organization and the Vatican officials in charge of the overhaul released statements of mutual respect, and the sisters met in Rome for nearly an hour with Pope Francis. The Vatican released a photo of the nuns sitting across a table from a warmly smiling Francis.

The turnabout suggested possible papal intervention to end the standoff on amicable grounds before Francis’ high-profile trip to the United States in September. The investigation, and a separate but parallel review of all women’s religious orders, prompted an outpouring of support from the public for the sisters, who oversee the lion’s share of social service programs for the church.

The review of the Leadership Conference emerged from decades of tensions within the church over the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Many religious sisters shed their habits and traditional roles, taking on higher-level professional work in hospitals and schools, with sisters increasingly focused on social justice issues. Theological conservatives grew concerned that the sisters were becoming too secular and too political, instead of focusing on traditional prayer life and faith. The tensions worsened as the number of American nuns dwindled from about 160,000 in 1970, to less than 50,000 today, and church leaders searched for a way to stem the losses.

Conservative-minded Catholics argued a return to tradition would help.

The investigation of the sisters’ group began about seven years ago under Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, a German theologian who spent a quarter century as the Vatican’s doctrine watchdog, after complaints from conservative U.S. bishops and influential Catholics about the organization’s doctrinal soundness.

The first sign of a different outcome for the nuns’ group came in December, when the Vatican’s investigation of all women’s religious orders ended with sweeping praise for the sisters for their selfless work caring for the poor.

On Thursday, Mueller said in a statement he was confident that the LCWR is now clear in its mission of showing its members a Christ-centered vision of religious life that is “rooted in the tradition of the church.” Sister Sharon Holland, president of the nuns’ group, said in a statement the process had been “long and challenging” but “we learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”

The Vatican asked the sisters and church officials not to comment on the report for a month.

“Given the current moment in the church, with Francis emphasizing mercy and not judging and trying to see the best of what people are doing, they had to find a quiet way out of this,” said Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire sociologist specializing in the Catholic Church. “What you’d love to hear directly from LCWR leaders is what exactly this oversight means. Who decides what’s really the authentic doctrine?”

Let it go — please!

Have you heard about the religious nuts condemning the Disney blockbuster Frozen because it supposedly promotes lesbianism and the “gay agenda”?

The rub seems to be that Frozen is a story of female empowerment, which is always dangerous territory for fundamentalist zealots. Frozen focuses on the sad separation and redeeming devotion shared by two sisters, Anna and Elsa, neither of whom walks into the sunset with some brawny lug. Instead, our heroines joyously ice skate together into their future!

Idina Menzel has cemented her rep as the go-to balladeer of girl power by adding Elsa’s Oscar-winning anthem “Let It Go” to Elphaba’s unforgettable “Defying Gravity” from Wicked. Internet tributes and parodies abound. I’ve written my own grumpy ode to the new earworm: “Turn it off! Turn it off! Don’t play it for me anymore.”

Lesbian subtexts can be detected in many books and movies. No one has been more avid in digging them out than we lesbians ourselves, who until the last few decades have been deprived of depictions of our lives. Frozen includes themes of isolation, misunderstanding and passionate attachment that have been explored in lesbian literature. It hardly makes the film a propaganda vehicle, however, as those themes have appeared in a wide range of story-telling over the centuries. 

The zealots’ imputation of lesbianism in Frozen is not grounded in a search for clarity or connection. It is rooted in the worst fears of women-loving women as secretive, sinister and sick. 

Critics suggest that Anna and Elsa’s love is a little too intense. They jump to the conclusion that Disney is using Frozen to recruit child viewers to become gay and to — horror of horrors! — be tolerant toward others. They seem most threatened by the profound empathy Frozen elicits from viewers, especially their kids.

A related irritant is what they perceive as the disobedience and independence of the sisters. Elsa exuberantly declaring, “No right or wrong, no rules for me — I’m free!,” must be very disturbing to anyone with a conservative mindset. What I gather (from reading way too many of their comments) is they fear the independence of their own children, of losing them to what seem to be alien values. 

All these factors show a level of fear and paranoia that is as damaging as it is pathetic. How insecure must you be in your own family and relationships that you see only subversion in an animated, heartfelt tale of love and self-sacrifice between sisters? You need to let it go, folks, please.

I hope the criticisms of Frozen are the isolated rants of a few cranks whose attitudes are fading. I’d like to think the recent death of Fred Phelps, “pastor” of the infamous “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptist Church, signals the end of an era.

Meanwhile, audiences have spoken. Frozen has made over $1 billion at the box office and is selling briskly on DVD. Its success, along with that of other female-centered films like The Hunger Games, may usher in a new era of women-oriented movies. 

Who knew we’d get a new Disney classic with feminist impact? Who doesn’t love Anna and Elsa and the adorable Olaf? Who hasn’t shed a few tears or found themselves singing along with Idina Menzel? Don’t fight it. Let it go!

Editor’s Note: With ticket sales for Disney’s Frozen breaking the billion dollar mark the weekend of March 26, it has become the highest-grossing animated film of all time and one of the top 10 moneymakers for all categories.

Nuns question Catholic opposition to Affordable Care Act

The National Coalition of American Nuns, in an open letter released on Jan. 27, questioned why Catholic institutions are challenging the federal Affordable Care Act.

In the letter, the group expressed dismay at opposition to the health care law from the Little Sisters of the Poor-Colorado, the University of Notre Dame and other Catholic organizations.

The nuns, in the statement, said, “Spurred on by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, these organizations are attempting to hold hostage all women by refusing insurance to them for contraceptives.”

The letter went on to state, NCAN strongly supports Reproductive Justice which includes a woman’s right to choose what is best for her body including contraceptives.

“In its endorsement of the Affordable Care Act, NCAN believes that women should not be singled out by any organization or group through its refusal to insure a woman’s reproductive needs. This violates the equality given to all men and women who embrace this country’s laws, which are passed to preserve this very equality.”

The group said, “We support women as moral agents able to make the right choices for their own bodies. We also know that women do not have full membership in churches and societies that keep women and our daughters poor and separated because of their gender. A society or church that disregards a person because of her gender does this to all of its members.”

NCAN’s stated goal is “to study, work and speak out on issues of justice in society and church.” The group was founded in 1969 and it has more than 2,000 members.

On the Web …

http://www.ncan.us

Mary Cheney: Sister is ‘dead wrong’ on gay marriage

Sisters Mary and Liz Cheney are taking opposing sides on marriage equality, with younger sister Mary Cheney saying Liz is “dead wrong” for saying equality for gay couples should be decided by referendum.

Mary Cheney, the youngest daughter of former VP Dick Cheney, married her longtime partner Heather Poe in 2012.

Liz Cheney is running for the Republican Party nomination for the U.S. Senate in Wyoming.

In late August, Liz Cheney said she is “not pro-gay marriage.” She was seeking to counter what she described as a “dishonest push poll” that suggested she supports women’s reproductive choice and aggressively supports marriage equality.

She is not for abortion rights and also said in a statement, “I believe the issue of marriage must be decided by the states, and by the people in the states, not by judges and not even by legislators, but by the people themselves.”

Responding, Mary Cheney posted on Facebook, “For the record, I love my sister, but she is dead wrong on the issue of marriage.”

She also wrote, according to The New York Times, “Freedom means freedom for everyone. That means all families – regardless of how they look or how they are made – all families are entitled to the same rights, privileges and protections as every other.”

The youngest sister said equality shouldn’t be decided “by a show of hands.”

Vatican denies internal split on crackdown against liberal U.S. nuns

The Vatican this week denied there were any internal divisions over its crackdown on the largest umbrella group of U.S. nuns after a top Vatican official complained that he had been sidelined by the reform project.

The head of the Vatican’s office for religious orders, Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, was quoted as saying his office wasn’t consulted or even advised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about its decision to overhaul the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 80 percent of American sisters. He said the crackdown had caused him “much pain.”

The Congregation last year placed the Leadership Conference under the authority of a U.S. bishop after determining that the sisters took positions that undermined Catholic teaching on the priesthood and homosexuality while promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

Braz de Aviz was quoted by the National Catholic Reporter as telling an international gathering of sisters in Rome that he only learned of the Congregation’s crackdown after its report had been completed. He said he told the then-prefect of the Congregation, U.S. Cardinal William Levada, that the issue should have been discussed with his office but wasn’t.

Braz de Aviz was quoted as saying he hadn’t spoken out publicly before about the lack of consultation because he “didn’t have the courage to speak.”

Earlier this week, the Vatican said Braz de Aviz’s words were misinterpreted.

“The prefects of these two congregations work closely together according to their specific responsibilities and have collaborated throughout the process,” the statement said.

It said Braz de Aviz and the current prefect of the Congregation, Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, met and reaffirmed their commitment to renewing religious life in the U.S. as well as to the Vatican’s reform plan for the Leadership Conference. It stressed that Pope Francis approved of the plan.

The Vatican’s crackdown unleashed a wave of popular support for the sisters, including a U.S. congressional resolution commending the sisters for their service to the country. It also cost Braz de Aviz’s deputy his job: Archbishop Joseph Tobin was removed after he spoke publicly about the need for the Vatican to mend fences with American sisters. Tobin is now archbishop of Indianapolis.

The sisters’ hopes for a change in approach with the arrival of Pope Francis – a Jesuit dedicated to the poor – were dashed last month when Mueller said he had discussed the crackdown with Francis and that the pontiff had reaffirmed the original findings and reform plan.

As part of its imposed reforms, the Vatican appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain and two other bishops to oversee a rewriting of the conference’s statutes, to review its plans and programs, approve speakers and ensure the group properly follows Catholic prayer and ritual.

The conference represents about 57,000 sisters. It has argued that the Vatican reached “flawed” conclusions based on “unsubstantiated accusations.”

Late last week, the head of the nuns’ conference addressed the Rome meeting of the International Union of Superiors General – the gathering of all the heads of women’s religious orders – and provided the most extensive criticism to date about the three year process that led to the Vatican takeover.

Among other complaints, Franciscan Sister Florence Deacon said the Vatican took the conference to task for matters that were completely beyond its authority and purpose, such as criticizing it for not having programs dealing with homosexuality.

In a transcript of her speech posted on the National Catholic Reporter website, Deacon said the Vatican should have directed its concerns to individual religious orders, since they are responsible for such training programs, not the conference.

“LCWR has no authority over the formation programs of an individual congregation,” she said. “Our goal is not set up as an organization to teach church teaching.”

She concluded that the Vatican’s assessment showed “there is serious misunderstanding between officials of the Vatican and women religious, and the need for prayer, discernment and deep listening.”

While remarkably blunt and forthcoming, Braz de Aviz’s revelations about the internal divisions sown by the stealth nature of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are not new.

In 2009, the Congregation announced it had created a new church structure to make it easier for Anglicans upset over the progressive trends in their church to convert to Catholicism. The Vatican’s office for relations with Anglicans and other Christians wasn’t consulted, much less advised, about the initiative.

The retired head of that office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, has since become one of the most vocal proponents for a reform of the Vatican bureaucracy so that its departments actually work together rather than against one another.