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A Celebration of Women Religious


SISTERS: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, by John J. Fialka. St. Martin's Press. 384 pp. $27.95.

Reviewed by MICHAEL J. DALEY, a writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. He recently co-edited, with William Madges, Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories, which is available through Twenty-Third Publications.

A LUNCH BOX I saw recently featured a nun in full habit, requisite ruler in hand, standing watch over a young girl writing the line, "I am personally responsible for the sins of the world," on the chalkboard. For sale at the cash register was "Nunzilla"—the fire-breathing nun. I couldn't help but think Catholic sisters not only have become an endangered species but also have entered the elite world of novelty items. No small feat!

In his book Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America, John J. Fialka, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, attempts to set the record straight and debunk some of the stereotypes about women religious in America.

The book had its origins in an article Fialka wrote several years back about the $2 billion shortfall then needed to meet the pension fund for Catholic sisters. For generations they were the backbone of the nation's Catholic schools and hospitals. Unfortunately, being paid next to nothing, compounded over the years, left many communities with no retirement savings.

Sisters should by no means be seen as a swan song for women religious, though. For the Sisters of Mercy-educated Fialka, it is a celebration.

He contends, "Their contributions to America are not small. They built the nation's largest private school and nonprofit hospital systems. They were the nation's first large network of female professionals in an age when the pervading sentiment was that a woman's place was in the home. They were America's first feminists, battling for the rights and opinions of women in a workplace where bishops sometimes regarded nuns as their subjects or, worse, part of their 'turf.'"

Given the impossibility of researching the nearly 400 women religious orders founded in America, Fialka generally follows "the adventures of the Sisters of Mercy, the group that became the largest and most pervasive of those that belong to the women of the Church." The book moves in chronological fashion and tells the story of the founding of the Sisters of Mercy by Catherine McAuley and her protégée, Frances Warde.

Briefly told, too, are the stories of other American-born religious communities—the Sisters of the Holy Child of Jesus by Cornelia Connelly, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament by Katharine Drexel and the Oblate Sisters of Providence by Elizabeth Lange.

In anecdotal style, Fialka relates how in some cities the sisters entered under cover of darkness so as not to arouse anti-Catholic bigotry.

We travel with them out West where one meets the outlaw Billy the Kid, while others minister to gamblers and prostitutes during the California gold rush. We see them risk their lives nursing soldiers on both sides during the Civil War.

And, of course, we enter the classroom and witness their love and devotion to countless generations of schoolchildren. Fialka illustrates how all of these religious sisters—known and unknown—were "spirited women."

The stories are all well told, but perhaps the most poignant one involves the question: What now? Fialka reports, "After more than a century of steady growth, between 1965 and 1980, 50,000 nuns—30 percent of the sisters in the United States—departed from religious life."

For those sisters who remained, issues of reform and identity prompted by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) brought forth excitement, challenge and tension. With depleted numbers, all the orders of women religious are asking how they can instill their mission and values in those who are taking over the institutions they once staffed and led.

Given their influential role in the making and shaping of America, it is regrettable that women religious now number around 78,000. Their median age is 69.

In charting the future for sisters (and the priesthood, for that matter), Fialka is not optimistic. At least Sisters shows us what we have gained as a faith community from these women and their varied contributions—and what may be lost.

You can order SISTERS: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America from St. Francis Bookshop.

A TEMPERED FAITH: Rediscovering Hope in the Ashes of Loss, by Jennifer Sands. The Olive Press/Peak Writing Press. 162 pp. $21.95.

Reviewed by MARIA KEMPER, a theology and literature undergraduate at Franciscan University and editorial intern with this magazine.

HER FAITH WAS REFINED in burning twin towers of violence and loss. On September 11, 2001, Jennifer Sands's husband was killed in the World Trade Center attack. In her book, A Tempered Faith: Rediscovering Hope in the Ashes of Loss, she recounts the spiritual battle fought learning to trust God's goodness in the midst of her grief.

On September 10, her cup of happiness overflowed. Her marriage to Jim was fairytale-perfect. She prayed for her husband's daily commute, that God might "get him to work safely, and bring him home safely, too." On September 11, God guided Jim safely to work, and then brought him safely home, but not back to his wife. When she received news that the towers fell, her world crashed with them.

Sands slipped into a deep depression and raged against her Creator, questioning how a loving God could take away her beloved husband. Her Catholic faith was shaken to its foundation as she questioned even God's existence.

It was through the thoughtfulness of strangers and the care of family and friends that she survived the first year, coming to terms with her grief. Her message is simple and encouraging: God is here. God does care. There is hope.

This book is poignant for those personally affected by 9/11, but also fitting for anyone who grieves. It is universal in portraying the endurance of the soul, offering a story of heartbreak and hope, of the drama of life and the will to keep living.

Sands wrote "to keep [Jim's] memory alive. To be not only his 'surviving spouse,' but his 'surviving spirit.'" Yet her book is not simply a tear-stained testimonial to her husband. Through her gut-wrenching honesty, Sands confirms the fidelity of God, which lasts even through pain.

She writes in a casual style, giving the impression that she is sitting down, pouring out her heart to her friends. The chapters are divided by snapshot-like reflections of life with her husband, giving insight into their characters and glimpses of their life together.

There are many books written on grief, but seldom does one who is grieving write them. This is a candid look at death and survival: detailing how Sands put up defenses against the "reality bricks" daily thrown at her head. She closes with the prayer journal she kept through 2002. It relates "the long journey...from a faith challenged to a faith confirmed, from weakness and despair to strength and resolve."

Jennifer Sands is not the woman she once was. After 9/11, her life was amputated by the death of her husband—a loss as tangible as losing a leg. And yet she sees God at work in her life, healing her broken heart and offering himself to lean on.

For those who are dealing with a tragedy, remembering how to survive after the death of a loved one or helping someone cope with loss, this book offers valuable encouragement. There is light at the end of the long tunnel; there is Christ, who says, "I am the Light."

You can order A TEMPERED FAITH: Rediscovering Hope in the Ashes of Loss from St. Francis Bookshop.

9/11: Meditations at the Center of the World, by Eugene Kennedy. Orbis Books. 110 pp. $10.

Reviewed by CHRISTINA JORDAN, audiobook and cassette editor for St. Anthony Messenger Press.

THIS LITTLE TREASURE, a compilation of 20 meditations, was released a year after the cataclysm of the Manhattan Twin Towers. Nothing prepared the countless victims for this twisted, tragic, terrorist act. Nothing can prepare the reader for Eugene Kennedy's gut-level analysis. Award-winning author, Loyola University of Chicago psychology professor emeritus and syndicated columnist Kennedy prophetically gleans a sacramental mystery where others see only wasted lives and bitter ashes.

By now, thousands of mourners have been offered the opportunity of time—two years—to process the loss, the absurdity and the overwhelming grief to struggle to find meaning. Some may be ready to appreciate the profound meaning offered here. Others who are still bitter may find a glimmer of sunlight.

If meaning can be found, it has had to come slowly. Each measured exploration reveals insights of infinite depth by facing words of mystery like: pain, death, love, existence, myth, sorrow, tears, loss, spirit, bad dreams, ghosts, ruin, terror, caves and healing.

For Kennedy, September 11 revealed as never before the simple goodness and love of American people who were faced with horror and a tragedy of unimaginable magnitude. These pages reveal our hearts and our losses as the heavens were rendered.

"Kennedy goes where our own hearts have led us since we first saw the pictures and heard the stories: to that place inside ourselves where anguish lodges and teaches us to treasure our own blessings" (Anna Quindlen, from the Foreword).

Many felt empathy in the aftermath of the attacks, but few have been able to put into words the explosion of emotions and depth of spiritual wounding as does Kennedy. He has a history of exploring the human soul, and in this assignment he has been stretched to the limit in finding the depth of goodness in the face of raw evil.

Kennedy states: "Manhattan has been washed in the blood of the lamb, and Ground Zero is sacred because its ruins are imbued with the mystery of the lives that were lived there. This is our century's Titanic, this shipwrecked vessel from whose passengers, crew and rescuers we learn more every day about what make anything sacred. How could we miss it? How can we not eat and drink of this profound sacrament?"

Like a major volcanic eruption, the ashes of the disintegrated towers have filled the global community. Like a tornado, the effects have plundered our psyches. Where we stand speechless, Kennedy finds the symbols, the language, the mystery to comprehend what cannot be understood, to face what cannot be fathomed and to come to peace with an event that is beyond terror.

You can order 9/11: Meditations at the Center of the World from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ALTAR: One Man's Life in the Catholic Priesthood, by Paul E. Dinter. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 237 pp. $23.

Reviewed by the REV. LAWRENCE M. VENTLINE, D.Min., a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit for 26 years, longtime religion writer for the Detroit News and a licensed psychotherapist.

CONTRASTING the reverence shown priests by their parishioners with treatment by the hierarchy, former priest Paul Dinter takes the reader inside the life of this Catholic chaplain at Columbia University a few decades ago. Telling his own story behind the Roman collar, Dinter hopes to awaken a revaluing of sexuality, claiming in his foreword to the book "that has thus far proved too daunting for most Catholic leaders."

This reader found his exploration of clerical privilege, perks and discounts interesting and true, even as such expectations seemed without challenge and critical thinking among the "Gents Club," as the author writes. This story of the undoing of a clerical culture is one man's effort in "fixing" the problem that has long gone unquestioned.

The book elicits honesty about a system that yearns for dialogue and deep study if the clerical world is to emerge renewed and transparent, as its leaders now claim they seek.

"Gents was coded speech meant only for other members of the in-group, cleverly formalizing aspects of the clerical culture that had long been operative. As Gents, men who became priests indulged their delight in their unwarranted social status even as they lived together in rectories like boys in a patriarchal household....As a result, Gents soaked up the social deference they received...and insisted on being treated reverently in public, but privately they reveled in irreverence and their secret sign was the knowing smirk."

Now married, Dinter directs Care for the Homeless in New York City. In a men's group shortly after leaving the priesthood, he tells of finding more candor than among fellow priests. Priests' lives are not worked from the "inside," Dinter complains.

They never enter other people's lives and especially their own, he claims.

Dinter takes the reader into his own struggles and soul with a passion not often revealed. He moans that bishops hardly ever asked him how he was doing, let alone endeared themselves to the priests in the trenches day in and day out.

He leaves hope for the readers, reminding them of resources available to begin again. Dinter points to the Book of Genesis as a fresh beginning for the Church to "refashion its vision and to rebuild its trust." Grace abounds in the final chapter where the author invites dialogue, conversation and another look at what matters most among priests and parishioners.

The Other Side of the Altar needs to be taken seriously.

You can order THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ALTAR: One Man's Life in the Catholic Priesthood from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE REBIRTH OF ORTHODOXY: Signs of New Life in Christianity, by Thomas C. Oden. HarperSanFrancisco. 224 pp. $24.95, U.S.; $38.95, Canada.

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST, who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.

"THE CRISIS of the new millennium," writes Drew University theologian Thomas C. Oden, "is not political but rather spiritual and moral. It is a crisis of courage and more profoundly, a crisis of faith." To deal effectively with this challenge, Oden proposes we go back to the future.

With all the world problems today, "None of these crises is more decisive than the crisis of meaning."

Rejecting both liberal and fundamentalist solutions, Oden believes that answers are to be found in the classic teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. "This...is a fitting moment to ponder who we are in relation to our human past," he says.

Before the rise of modern science a little more than two centuries ago, human cultures were oriented toward maintaining and enhancing traditional wisdom. Then, with the shift in emphasis to deductive reasoning, doubts arose over whether any wisdom of any past was worth salvaging. Science and technology, and even critical thinking in the churches, made us cynical. We discounted almost everything old.

Now many people are having sober, second thoughts. The modernist worldview, with its once-optimistic certitudes and focus on individualism, narcissism, naturalism and moral relativism, is losing its grip as a philosophy of life for growing numbers, especially the young. "We have come to the end of the modern way of knowing," says Oden.

"Everywhere we see the brightest of the emerging generation turning from the empty larders of secularism to find an inexhaustible store of nourishment in ancient Jewish and Christian wisdom." It can be found through reading the prophets, the evangelists, the Talmudic scholars and the early Church Fathers.

We seem to be rediscovering that what we thought was modern is really not so new. External circumstances may change. Human nature and the human condition do not. God hasn't changed either. Ancient spiritual sages who sought to understand and describe the ways of God have untapped insight to offer us.

In his new book, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, Oden reveals the deep meaning and spirited dynamics of a newly emerging ecumenical movement to recover a classic religious heritage.

His vision is both interchurch and interfaith. Orthodox, Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians can find common ground ecumenically with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews.

Christians need Jews to tell them the story of their election and to remind them of the persistence of God's love for Israel. Jews need Christians to take the story of Israel to the gentiles, to retell the history of the salvation of Israel and of all people through Israel.

Oden believes that relativism in Church doctrine and ethics has run its course.

Therefore, there is a place for both polemics (humble argument) and irenics (respectful debate) as people dialogue concerning the truth.

Conciliar ecumenism of the kind that has dominated religious circles for half a century is aging and even showing signs of decline. Oden (an American United Methodist with respectable mainline Protestant credentials) is critical of the ecumenism that many Christians and Jews believed was the gift of Vatican II and the World Council of Churches. This reviewer, a witness to both of these dynamic renewal movements occurring in the second half of the 20th century, cannot readily accept all that Oden has to say.

But he does write engagingly, passionately and eloquently. He reflects a desire for truth and an ecumenical spirit that is more inclusive and historically grounded than what we had in the past.

For that reason alone, this book is worth taking seriously.

You can order THE REBIRTH OF ORTHODOXY: Signs of New Life in Christianity from St. Francis Bookshop.

 

 

Book Briefs

New biographies of Catholics famous as writers, social commentators and politicians make for inspiring reading.

• OLD THUNDER: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, by Joseph Pearce (Ignatius Press, 318 pp., $24.95). This wonderful new biography of one of the major defenders of Catholicism of the early 20th century draws on previously unpublished letters and photographs. This study captures a romantic and wit who could pen, "Where'er the Catholic sun doth shine, there's always laughter and good red wine."

• G.K. CHESTERTON: The Apostle of Common Sense, by Dale Alquist (Ignatius Press, 183 pp., $13.95), presents another man who needs to be reintroduced to a new generation of Catholics. Chesterton was a journalist who wrote philosophical and biographical works; his short stories feature a Catholic priest (the Father Brown mysteries). Alquist guides us through 12 of his most famous works, including his eminently readable St. Francis of Assisi.

• CHARLES CARROLL OF CARROLLTON: Faithful Revolutionary, by Scott McDermott (Scepter Books, 352 pp., $24.95). The only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll lived 95 years (1737-1832) in the most formative period of American history. His cousin John was the first bishop of the new United States. Charles took on the anti-Catholicism of the time, then considered a fixture of colonial life, and turned it into a crusade against tyranny.


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.


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