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  • The holy mystery of why the Sisters are not in charge of the Church

The holy mystery of why the Sisters are not in charge of the Church


Sisters walkingThere were the Sisters who taught grades one through eight: Sisters Aimee, Beatrice, Dorita, Everard, Gratia, Mary Margaret, Mary Therese, Rose Margaret, and Spiritu.

The latter made it quite clear in the first minute of the first day of class that her name was not Spiritoo, or Spiritonto, or Spiritutu, or Sister Spiro Agnew, and any boy who muttered or jotted or scrawled a joke of that sort, and it was always a boy who did so, would regret that impulse for weeks afterward.

And if any boy here did not believe Sister as regards this matter, he need only refer to his older brothers, if any, or the older boys in his neighbourhood, of whom surely one or two remembered Sister Spiritu all too well, boys, all too well.

There were the Sisters who worked the convent: Sister Cook in the golden redolent kitchen, Sister Helen in the boiler room and garage and heating and cooling units, Sister Catherine in the office, Sister Blister the school nurse (real name: Sister Philomena), Sister Francine who ran the room in the convent to which women in the parish quietly came during the week and carried away bags of food and clothing and toys that had hardly been used at all and still mostly retained their sheen.

If you paid close attention on Saturdays you could see a quiet procession of men delivering bags of food, and mothers delivering bags of clothes and toys that had hardly been used, and occasionally a truck would pull up and unload whole gleaming crates of milk and cream. The driver was the dairyman himself, who was an inscrutable man; I asked him once about these deliveries to the convent and he said I do not know what you are talking about, which puzzled me.

There was Sister Eugenie, who dealt with the monsignor and the chancery, apparently as a sort of mediator or interlocutor; and Sister Teresa, who conducted site visits every four months, driving a 1959 Mercury Montclair four-door hardtop painted the colour of sunsets in southern Utah; and once, only once that we ever remember, there was the Mother Superior, who was called Mother by the other sisters, although she must once have been Sister Something, which no one called her anymore; you wondered if she missed being a Sister, and sometimes wore Mother uncomfortably, like a wool mantle on a suddenly warm day.

Not one of them ever raped a child. Not one of them ever moved rapists from one parish to another without alerting anyone to the horror. Not one of them ever excommunicated or censured or silenced another member of their church. Not one of them ever played havoc with the pension fund or the endowment or the weekly collection.

Not one of them ran off with a secretary. Not one of them ever instituted a formal investigation into the theological practice and beliefs of another. Not one of them publicly excoriated or insulted another member of their church for not believing exactly the accepted wisdom about ordination or contraception or the legitimacy of the Gospel of Thomas.

Not one of them had a driver for her car, or a mitre for her head, or a summer palace outside Rome. Not one of them ever showed the slightest inclination, that I noticed, to worldly power and money and status and influence and fame.

As far as I could tell each of them, on a daily basis, embraced hard work, and kindness, and humility, and the idea that the Christ was resident in every heart, and that He should therefore be witnessed and celebrated in every person, and that anything that diluted or detracted from that work was selfish and small.

As far as I could tell they were every bit as committed and dedicated to the ancient mission assigned by the Christ as any priest or brother or abbot or bishop or cardinal or pope, and, in general, collectively, less liable to ego, crime, scandal, and the hunger for secular power. So, I began to wonder as a boy, and still do, now more than ever before: why are they not in charge of the Church?

Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Sisters image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, religious life, Catholic Church, religion



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Existing comments

"why are they not in charge of the Church?" People in positions of power rarely give up their privileges willingly. Sometimes a revolution is needed.

Russell | 18 August 2015  

Looking for the Sisters? Ask the poor and they can direct you to the Sisters. Why? The Sisters work with poor and the poor are part of the Church. The Sisters lead the Church by example.

Ramesh Richards SJ | 18 August 2015  

Spot on Brian.

Mahdi | 18 August 2015  

This must be satire as it is impossible to take seriously. Magadelene laundries spring immediately to mind, the sisters of viciousness who ran them, the orphanages for child migrants where kids were routinely tortured and handed over to the rapist priests and whipped by the nuns.

Marilyn | 18 August 2015  

Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is not egalitarian. If the Sisters had equal power, I believe a lot of the disgusting sexual crimes that have occurred within the church, would not have occurred. The women (religious and non-religious) of the church are in larger numbers and are very much a major strength in the Church. Time to give them an equal say.

Cate | 18 August 2015  

As you say: "anything that diluted or detracted from the work was selfish and small."

RB Hizon | 19 August 2015  

"My" Brigidines were family , teachers , mentors, role models , friends piano teacher, even netball coaches. I owe them so much . I thank my parents for giving me the gift of a Brigidine education. I pray in gratitude for these saintly women . We used to joke and name one of them as the next pope when we were at school. Apparently Brian had similar sentiments too. Let's all acknowledge the great things of catholic education and in the gifts that flowed from it.

Celia | 19 August 2015  

As a Catholic feminist I applaud your celebration of women in the church, Brian. However nothing is ever as simple as it seems and sadly nuns abused too. What drove me to give evidence to the Royal Commission was my sadness that other nuns who knew, didn't speak out. I support the concept of women priests and would love to see women take on more of a leadership role in the church but let's get real here please Brian. This issue is far more complex than your article indicates and it saddens me that Eureka Street doesn't understand that also. http://www.goodsams.org.au/good-oil/a-personal-story-of-child-sexual-abuse-in-the-church/

'Gayle' | 19 August 2015  

Yes, I experienced this attitude from the sisters who taught me. When I left school, I joined the order, because I was so impressed with them. However, My experience of the Order from within was eerily similar to that of Karen Armstrong in her English Convent. The amount of bullying I experienced personally and was witness to as being the experience of others left me with PTSD. When I left, many complaints were dismissed as trivial by Towards Healing as I and others were not sexually abused! In my book, abuse is abuse is abuse.

Judy Lawson | 19 August 2015  


Peter Goers | 19 August 2015  

Not all priests are rapists. Not all nuns are kind. Power corrupts - women and men alike.

Fiona | 19 August 2015  

I love it. Many thanks, Brian. Has anyone sent the Vatican a copy?!

Margaret | 19 August 2015  

Well said Fiona - as a woman, I say it actually flies in the face of modern feminism to paint a picture of women as some kind of celestial being, imbued with higher levels of virtue simply because of her gender. Sin is an equal opportunity investor! Women suffer from the same failings of character as do men - and the same potential for virtues.

CMD | 19 August 2015  

It's time for Brian Doyle to read submissions to Inquiries and Royal Commissions, e.g. in this country and in Ireland. Many nuns from a range of religious orders, committed vile acts of sexual and physical abuse on children and vulnerable adults. You may hold your utopian view, Mr Doyle, but don't extrapolate it to encompass all religious orders, or all children.

Kerry Bergin | 19 August 2015  

BUT they were daughters of Eve. The sons of Adam didn't seem to be so harshly judged. Jokes aside, let's thank God for the sisters, priests and lay people who did understand and keep their vows and provide us with good examples. Those who seem meek are often misjudged.

Margaret McDonald | 19 August 2015  

Have just seen the play " Death . of a Maiden". It highlighted the need to have someone listen to us in our own individual experiences., especially those experiences that have left us less than fulfilled or even damaged.. It is the right of all to be heard.That doesn't mean though that those of us who have had good experiences ought to refrain from stating the good things. As Geraldine Doogue mentioned recently, the bad actions of some church people do not represent the actions of the whole church. That applies to many aspects of secular and religious institutions today. By focussing on the good while at the same time aware of the grave injustices that have occurred to some people, helps us strive for the high ideals , the Christlike ideals that I witnessed in the wonderful sisters that I have met .

Celia | 19 August 2015  

Brian, your article was powerfully and effectively expressed. There's a real moral truth in it. However I have to agree with Marilyn, Fiona, Gayle and Judy Lawson - yours is an idealised portrayal without nuance, not a completely representative one.

SMK | 19 August 2015  

Fiona, I agree all Nuns are not perfect, but I don't know of any that are guilty of sexual assault.

Cate | 19 August 2015  

Thanks for all the close reads. I didn't say that all nuns are spotless; I didn't say that all nuns haven't or wouldn't sin and commit crimes; I was gently asking why women, who don't seem to be quite as greedy and power-hungry and rapacious as men in general, if I have read the last 10,000 years of history correctly, don't have more acknowledged and formal authority in my beloved church, which surely has more women than men in it, isn't that so?

Brian Doyle | 20 August 2015  

It's a pity your response to criticisms began with sarcasm, Brian. It diminished, not enhanced, your defence, I think. It's true you didn't say such things but for your article to have elicited the criticisms it did, it obviously did not convey your full intent. No-one should expect any opinion or point to be perfect, and in any case, you still raised a pertinent issue and said things that need to be reflected on.

smk | 20 August 2015  

Brian, The answer is simple the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church decided that woman should not be in leadership positions, regardless of their knowledge, expertise and experience.

Wayne J McMillan | 21 August 2015  

I've asked myself the same question a hundred times. I feel that the Church isn't ready to hand over, let alone share, their power with 'women'. It's all about male dominance.

Mary | 21 August 2015  

Mary was Jesus into male dominance when he ordained only men priests at the Last Supper.
Not forgetting Petrine Commission versus Peta [f] Omission?

Father John George | 21 August 2015  

Marilyn's comment is interesting. I carefully read the reports of two Irish inquiries into the Magdalene laundries and can find no support for her assertions. I'd also answer Brian's query about 'why they aren't leading the Church' by saying that if they were, they'd have been seduced by power too. We need both women and men in leadership positions, reflecting God more than either sex can do by itself.

Joan Seymour | 22 August 2015  

Why indeed? Brilliant article!

philip thomas | 24 August 2015  

Fathe JG, just because most gospel reports don't mention women being there, doesn't mean they weren't there! Obviously you don't read the online magazine Today's Christian Woman. http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2010/march/womenlastsupper.html

AURELIUS | 03 September 2015  

If the early Jesus Movement wasn't hijacked by the Roman Empire and the apocalyptic virginity cult, the church as we know it today probably wouldn't exist (for better or worse is open for debate) and there definitely wouldn't be the privileged form of priesthood or leadership hierarchy we see today.

AURELIUS | 03 September 2015  

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