Sr. Sandra Schneiders on the Prophetic Religious Life

sandraschneidersA couple of months ago, New Testament scholar Sr. Sandra Scheiders published in the National Catholic Reporter her reflections (We’ve Given Birth To A New Form of Religious Life) on the Vatican investigation of American Catholic religious women. She hinted at a very important topic in the life of the American Catholic church (and, I would suggest, all dedicated Jesus-followers): How Christian ministry shapes the way one lives and engenders a prophetic stance within the society.

Now NCR will publish a five-part essay by Sr. Sandra Schneiders, who teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, on their site beginning Jan. 4 and running through Jan. 8. The essay, titled Religious Life as Prophetic Lifeform explores the meaning of religious life today. This is made more radical because it comes during a controversial three-year Vatican study of U.S. women religious congregations.

Below is NCR editor Tom Fox’s interview with Scheiders asking her about the purpose of her essay. Note: When she uses the word “religious” as a noun, she’s referring to Catholic nuns and sisters in “vowed religious life.”

I’ll try to publish excerpts from each of the five sections as they are released. I have a feeling that Schneiders’ essay will be a critical tool for conversation in Catholic communities in the days ahead. And her thinking serves not only Catholics, but beyond as well.

NCR: Why did you write this article, why now?

Schneiders: To begin with “why now,” because the Vatican investigation of U.S. women religious has created what the Chinese ideogram for “crisis” means, namely, a situation of danger and opportunity. Religious and their life are in danger from three directions.

* First, they do not know what the Vatican plans to do with whatever information it collects and, if those who suspect that the conclusions were reached before the investigation began are correct this danger is not illusory.

* Second, there is the danger that some religious will become so disgusted, discouraged, disheartened, even justifiably angered by this implied questioning of the integrity of their lives and the authenticity of their ministries, and by the clear signals that they are expected, if they want ecclesiastical approval, to get back “in the box” that defined their pre-conciliar lives, that they will simply give up, either on religious life itself or on their own vocations to it, or on a church which seems to be defined by a narrow, rigid, exclusively institutional ecclesiology.

* Third, there is the danger that generous younger women who are intelligent, courageous, motivated not by medieval romanticism or elitism but by love of the world for which Christ died, and who feel called to the following of Jesus in ministerial religious life will decide that they do not want to spend their lives and energy struggling with a patriarchal institution which denies their full human and Christian personhood.

I wrote this article in hopes of helping to counteract these dangers by helping religious seize the opportunity this situation offers to reflect deeply on the real meaning of religious life as a participation in the prophetic vocation and mission of Jesus and on our ministry as participation in his work of announcing Good News to the poor even unto the laying down of his life for those he loved. Part of seizing this opportunity is the deepening experience of solidarity among religious themselves within their congregations and across congregational lines, which fosters courage in the face of misunderstanding and persecution. I want to promote this sharing of experience and self-understanding.

NCR: What do you hope to achieve by the essay?

Schneiders: I want to do two things, to the extent that is possible in a short essay. First, I want to analyze the current situation of religious life under investigation as a “two level” event analogous to the “two level” opposition to Jesus that led to his rejection by the religious establishment of his day. Second, and on the basis of the understanding of our life as a reflection of Jesus’ own mission and ministry, I want to encourage the clear articulation and courageous claiming of our experience, which will encourage us to live the vocation to which we have been called, willingly living (not being passively overwhelmed by) whatever suffering that may involve.

The authorities of Jesus’ time thought they were protecting the religious establishment of Judaism by getting rid of a politically dangerous “messiah” figure who was upsetting the fragile religious status quo within which their power was guaranteed by Rome. But they “knew not what they were doing”, because their deeper opposition, of which they were undoubtedly unconscious, was to Jesus’ reinterpretation of the very meaning of God’s revelation, God’s work in the world. Jesus, God’s prophet whom the Spirit of God had anointed to proclaim “good news to the poor,” was announcing a “new world.” He was undoing the “old world” of salvation reserved for the pure and earned by scrupulous observance of law by the religious elites, and opening up the “new world” of God’s absolutely inclusive love and unconditional mercy to the unclean, the sinners and the outcasts. In that sense, he was announcing the end of their world to the religious authorities who had to get rid of him before what he announced became reality.

Religious are under investigation, at one level, for upsetting the ecclesiastical status quo of the Church understood as a divine right absolute monarchy. They are resisting patriarchal control of their own lives which is a threat to hierarchical absolutism in general. They are perceived, correctly, as promoting the ecclesiology of Vatican II. But the real and deeper issue is that religious are participating in the prophetic ministry of Jesus, announcing the Good News of salvation by their preferential ministry to the outcasts of society and church. By declining to serve as enforcers of dogmatic and moral absolutism they are proclaiming salvation that comes not through blind submission of mind and will to laws and office-holders or helpless dependence on religious mechanisms that are put out of their reach, but through humble acceptance of the power and desire of an all-loving God to save even those who are “hopeless” in their own eyes or the eyes of authority.

I also want to encourage religious (myself first of all) to look within, individually and in community, to reclaim and articulate the prophetic vocation to which we responded at profession, perhaps without realizing even vaguely where that could and would lead because of the times in which we were born. In reclaiming that vocation we must recognize and accept that tension with institutional authority — defined by the latter as “disobedience” — is part of our commitment to true obedience to God not men. Obedience is practiced in prayerful attention to all the “voices of reality” of our times, to the “signs of the times” in which we live. This attention, at every moment, leads to careful discernment that facilitates the three-way encounter among God, God’s people, and the concrete historical situations in which God’s reign must be incarnated in this world.

NCR: How is this essay connected to the one you wrote last October [2]in NCR on “Ministerial Religious Life?”

Schneiders: The connection is in the close following of Jesus that constitutes religious life. In the first article I was trying to show how what I called the “lifestyle” of ministerial religious was that of Jesus and his original band of itinerant disciples. Because ministry is intrinsic to the life of these religious, as it was to the life of Jesus and first disciples, their lifestyle (dress, dwelling, prayer life, activities, etc.) is determined by their itinerancy, their availability to and their solidarity with (rather than separation and distinction from) those whom they serve, their understanding of common life in terms of economic interdependence rather than sociological structure, and so on. Religious live the “mixed life” of deep contemplation grounding urgent public action, as did Jesus, and their lifestyle reflects that reality.

In this essay I am going beyond the “lifestyle” to the “prophetic nature of the life” itself. I am suggesting that the very heart of ministerial religious life is its participation in the prophetic mission of Jesus. That mission, of proclaiming the Good News of salvation to the poor, is enacted in their interpretation of the Gospel into concrete historical situations of suffering. And this will inevitably lead to tension between the status quo of Church as hierarchical power structure enforcing doctrinal uniformity and moral subordination, and the Church as the Body of Christ in this world caring by preference for those on the margins, those who do not and cannot measure up, those who can only say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” even when they cannot promise to meet the standards.

Schneiders is the author of several books, including Written That You May Believe, Selling All, and Women and the Word.

Marina Silva: “Forest Time vs City Time”

marinasilva2When international climate negotiators meet in December in Copenhagen, Brazilian Catholic Amazonian activist Marina Silva will serve as the conference’s conscience. A native Amazonian who grew up in a community of rubber-tappers, Silva worked with murdered Catholic activist Chico Mendes, won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 1996, and served as Brazil’s minister of the environment under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from 2002 to 2008, when she resigned in protest.

Of her early faith, Silva writes: “One of my biggest problems during my childhood was to find out who God was and where He had come from. Even if I had never seen a Bible and had never entered church, I started a journey” (see Marina Silva: Defending Rainforest Communities in Brazil). She’s also known for her deeply held beliefs in nonviolence. “I have a great admiration for people who struggle in the way Gandhi did: at once activist and pacifist, ” she said in a 1995 interview.

Washington Post
‘s environment reporter Julie Eilperin interviewed Marina Silva when she was in town this month. Here’s an excerpt:

What inspired you to do environmental work?

It was a combination of things. First, the sensibility I gained from living with the forest, from being born there and taking my sustenance from it until I was 16 years old. Second was my contact with liberation theology, with people like Chico Mendes, a connection that raised social and political consciousness about the actions of the Amazonian rubber-tappers and Indians who were being driven out of their lands because the old rubber estates were being sold into cattle ranches. These encounters made me become engaged with the struggle in defense of the forest. Later, I discovered that this was about “the environment” and the protection of ecosystems. It was an ethical commitment that these natural resources could not be simply destroyed.

How does your Amazon upbringing affect the way you see the issues at stake?

Without doubt, the experience of living in one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions of the world has affected how I see the world. I see two time frames: forest time and city time. Forest time is slower; things have to be more fully processed; information takes a long time to get there, so people didn’t have access to new information. When a new idea arrived, you thought about it, elaborated on it, talked about it for a long time. So this way of thinking, reflecting on and developing ideas, helps me have a sense of the preservation of things, to not make rushed decisions.

Read the whole interview here.

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Day!

DDay film

Very nice article in St. Louis Today celebrating Dorothy Day’s Nov. 8 birthday titled Dorothy Day: Giving Proof that the Gospel Can Be Lived.

Author Sharon Autenrieth works with the Church of the Nazarene’s Good Samaritan Ministries in East St. Louis. She writes, “There are now over 185 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, including three in St. Louis, and it all started with soup and coffee in Dorothy’s kitchen.”

Here’s an excerpt from Autenreith’s article:

Dorothy Day never abandoned her anarchism or pacifism.  Her politics were a scandal to Christians who felt the church should serve as chaplain to the state and maintain the status quo.  Her religion was incomprehensible to the anarchists, Socialists and Communists with whom she’d spent her youth.  But Dorothy continued to reach out to both sides, seeing herself as a faithful daughter of the church, and yet a radical called to disturb the comfortable – even when the comfortable were in the pews, or the prelate’s office.  And so she often found herself, as she once wrote in her column “On Pilgrimage”, talking “economics to the rich and Jesus to the anarchists.”  It wasn’t an easy path.

Read Sharon Autenrieth’s whole article here.

Sunni, Shia, and Me: Marie Dennis on Traveling in Iraq

Karen's 49th Birthday at Mayorga 006My friend – and hero in the faith – Marie Dennis recently returned from a trip to Iraq. She was a member of a religious peace delegation meeting with Iraqi leaders to hear first-hand “facts on the ground” for civilians in the war-shattered country.

If, as people of faith, we want to be about “the things that make for peace” then we need to spend time with the voices and perspectives of those in situations of violence. This often involves personal risk – but what else are these lives for unless for living them joyfully and laying them down in the service of others. Marie is someone who lives this in a daily way. Whether she’s meeting with world leaders, sitting with women in a village in Sudan, making bread for her Christian community, or “mothering” her 6 grown children, Marie Dennis is “my kinda Christian.”

Here’s a portion of her story:

Thanks to repeated kidnappings and numerous killings, fear palpably gripped many communities we met in Iraq. Msgr. Louis Sako, Catholic archbishop of Kirkuk, who welcomed our small Pax Christi International delegation in mid-September 2009 with warm and generous hospitality, moved deliberately into the fear: “Christians are a target of violence,” he said publicly, following the recent kidnapping of a Christian nurse. “Everybody knows that Christians are citizens of this country and this city and no one has any doubts about their devotion to their country or their sincerity.” He spoke of “a culture of humiliation that we reject with force” and called on “government authorities, the decent people of Iraq and Kirkuk, to do everything to protect all citizens, whoever they are.”

A prophetic figure who has exemplified his own call for “dialogue and sincere cooperation,” Msgr. Sako insists that the cooperation he regularly facilitates with both Sunni and Shiite religious leaders in Kirkuk is an essential element of peace-building in Iraq. Like many other Iraqis, he asserts that there is no military solution to the present violent chaos in Iraq, but that the United States, having started a dreadfully destructive war there, has to be held accountable for healing and reconstruction.

The challenge to overcome fear and plant seeds of peace in Iraq is a huge one; fear is pervasive – and with good reason. We did not see many U.S. troops while we were there, but one Iraqi priest described to us a typical encounter with the U.S. military, which previously happened frequently. Iraqis were required to stay at least one kilometer from any U.S. vehicle. If they wandered any closer than that, they could be shot. He told us about one family he knew that apparently crossed the invisible one kilometer line; mother, father and children were all killed. He described his own fright when he realized, as he was driving along, that he was “marked” on his forehead with an infrared beam and could be killed if he didn’t immediately stop or when he suddenly came upon U.S. soldiers with weapons pointed at
his heart. He was terrified; so were the U.S. soldiers on the other end of the gun.

Fear, fear of the “other.” Anyone could be a suicide bomber intent on attacking foreign troops. Anyone could be a kidnapper intent on abducting a well-known Christian. Anyone could be an assassin. Fear in all directions. Yet, Msgr. Sako, like so many others we met as we travelled across the north of Iraq from Kirkuk to Erbil to Mosul and Dohuk, was fully engaged in creating a new Iraq in spite of deep and tragic damage from the most recent U.S. war there. Cooperation and friendship among religious leaders in Kirkuk; coeducational, interreligious schools and an open university that bring together Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, Yezidie and Turkmen to provide a base of human values and an introduction to human rights; the commitment of the Dominican sisters of Mosul to peace education at a primary level; dedicated health care professionals in Kirkuk who serve Muslims and Christians alike; and LaOnf, the Iraqi nonviolence network, left a lasting impression on our delegation.

Fear always sees “the other” as a potential enemy. Fear demands control and often turns us into enemies ourselves. Fear, even well grounded fear, can be paralyzing. Excessive fear can keep whole societies from avoiding or moving beyond violent conflict. War itself always deepens fear, yet war too often finds its roots and rationale in fear. Instead of calming fears about potential terrorist attacks, U.S. political leaders orchestrated fear to garner support for war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What I saw in the early days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and what I saw in Iraq a few weeks ago was fear exacerbating fear. Genuine security cannot be built on a foundation of fear. Many wise Iraqis, including Bishop Sako and his Muslim friends in Kirkuk, know that well. They are witnesses to the power of cooperation, even across vast cultural, religious, political and social differences. The Obama administration claims to understand that international cooperation and dialogue toward inclusive global security would be a more fruitful route to peace than unilateralism and war. We will continue to pray and work to ensure that the administration will demonstrate that belief in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.— Marie Dennis

Marie Dennis is director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns and co-president of Pax Christi International.

‘We Will Continue to Sing’: Civil Rights Leader Ruby Sales on the Life of Ted Kennedy

ruby-salesIn 2002, I interviewed civil rights leader Ruby Sales for Sojourners magazine (see Long Train Runnin’.) Ruby is one of my heroes in the faith. She’s a courageous, funny, generous, fiercely committed sister in the struggle for justice. She now directs the SpiritHouse Project in Columbus, Georgia.

I was very touched by her reflection on the life of Ted Kennedy, set in the historical context of the fight for justice. She asks: What is it about a White upper class senator’s life that touches me as a Southern Black woman who grew up during segregation and economic exploitation …? Read her answer below. Ruby Sales is My Kinda Christian.

A Generational Narrative by a Black Woman on the Life and Legacy of Senator Edward Kennedy–by Ruby Nell Sales

This morning I awakened to the sound of news reporters telling the world that Ted Kennedy died just as the night turned into morning.  As I heard Senator Edward Kennedy’s voice booming from the television the words “For those whose cares have been our concern… The Hope Still Lives, The Dream Shall Never Die…” when he lost his bid for president in 1980 – my eyes filled with tears that carried with them the hopes and dreams of a generation and community of people of all colors who imagined a new day in America and worked hard to achieve it.   As I thought about this man who lived a life committed to “making a better world,” it touched the grief and celebration that run throughout the lives of my generation who rode and still rides a long train towards justice. In many ways, his life reflects the hills and valleys of our lives… our “victories and our defeats.”


This morning in a very special way, I remembered my young brothers and sisters in the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee and local communities throughout the South who worked unrelentingly to advance democracy during the heat and violence of White supremacy without thinking of money or benefits. We lived and worked from freedom houses that lacked hot water, inside bathrooms and sturdy foundations to protect us from the violence and terror of White night riders. Most of us were young.  We were idealistic.   We were Black, White and Brown. We were determined.  Despite generations of America’s broken promises of democracy, we still passionately believed in the dreams of our mothers and fathers: that America was large enough for everyone regardless of race, sex, class, color or creed.

Believing this, we put our youth on the line to make real their dream.   We were wounded at the core of our young selves under the weight of White lies, White racism and White violence.  America’s bad faith, violence and oppression fractured us into tiny unclaimed bits which lay on the road from Mississippi to Alabama to Washington to New York to Los Angeles.  Yet, like Ted Kennedy, many of us did not die or lose our will to struggle. We kept on believing, working, and struggling despite hearts that were broken by White men who killed our relatives and murdered our friends.  I admit that sometimes we did not always carry our grief well or wisely.  However unlike the Trumpet blowers of White Supremacy and injustice, we harmed ourselves more often than we did others.  Unlike them, love rather than hate stirred our passions and ignited our imaginations.  Even as we watched right wing communities vigorously and intentionally roll back the gains of the Southern Freedom /Civil Rights Movement, like Senator Edward Kennedy, we “kept the faith” and found it over and over again despite the hopeless despair that the right wing communities spread throughout America like a dirty blanket. Because their language and ideals lacked hope, moral authority and meaning, they stole our freedom language. They called death squads in Nicaragua freedom fighters. Even in the midst of this grand theft, we knew like Senator Edward Kennedy that they might steal our language and images, but they could not kill this dream that still burns in us. Continue reading “‘We Will Continue to Sing’: Civil Rights Leader Ruby Sales on the Life of Ted Kennedy”