The Sisters

Xavier is known for its Jesuits, but the order of priests have not been the only religious presence in the history of the University. Nuns have also had a place at Xavier, even though the Jesuits don’t have a corresponding order of women religious. While the nuns were mostly students and instructors in the early years, they have in later years become full-time faculty and members of the University’s administration.

The number of nuns on campus peaked in the early 1980s after Xavier bought Edgecliff College, which was run by the Sisters of Mercy. Those who came to Xavier with the merger have all retired. With their departure—paralleled by the overall decline in women entering religious orders—the number of nuns on campus has dwindled. The four who remain hold strategically important positions at Xavier—Nancy Linenkugel, chair of the Department of Health Services Administration; Jo Ann Recker, professor of modern languages; Rose Ann Fleming, special assistant to the president; and Rosie Miller, professor of theology. But they are all advancing in years and may be the last nuns at Xavier.nunsvideo

Xavier magazine sat down with the four nuns at a roundtable discussion and spoke with them about a wide range of topics, from their history to modern issues such as the Church’s investigation of American nuns and how their lead organization must now undergo a five-year reformation for not following the teachings of the Church. (Click on the image to the right to watch a video of the conversation.) Here are their thoughts on a few of those subjects.

 

Q: What has been the role of women religious at Xavier and what special gifts do you bring to the University and its students?

Rose Ann Fleming: “One of the gifts that women bring to the University campus is the gift of love and the gift of sharing and hopefully students in our classrooms have been able to find that gift in reality with us and enjoy their time with us as Xavier students because that gift.”

Jo Ann Recker: “I would add that it brings a balance because as where Pope Paul VI said, ‘Where’s the other half of humanity?’ The other half deserves a presence. And where I have seen women be helpful especially to women students is that sense of balance and advocacy for women’s issues.”

Rosie Miller: “I think another gift as a woman religious is bringing the feminine side of the Church into the classroom. It’s another window of how to read the text as a woman particularly as a woman who stands in the Church committed to church ministry.”

linenNancy Linenkugel: “I recall being a student here in 1971 shortly after women were allowed to take classes here—I had a habit on at the time—I was teaching at a school in Cincinnati and needed a bachelor’s degree. So I came here and there weren’t a lot of others like me around here at that time. There were very few women but hardly any other sisters. I didn’t think too much about it because I had a job to do. But today, now that I am back, I think there’s a powerful presence that women religious provide to this campus, and I would add I think I stand for something of value that our students maybe don’t think about all the time. I start every class with a prayer and when I let students take over and introduce a guest speaker they have to start with a prayer or reflection and only after the semester is over do they say that was really helpful. So I think we can stand for something higher in life for our students.”

 

Q: Do you think the trend toward fewer women entering orders will be reversed or reach a plateau? Or are you the last nuns at Xavier?

Nancy Linenkugel: “With the decline in religious women, I think we’re at new frontier moment. Today there are young women who say to me, ‘I don’t have to become a sister to do what you’re doing. I can teach, I can be nurse, a manager, make money, go off and pray and live how I wish to live in a holy manner. I don’t need to be a sister and give up everything.’ So where I see the next frontier for religious life is in about 25 years, I believe there will be one kind of religious life, and it will match the men’s orders such that women will have a choice of being ordained or being deacons or like the brother Jesuits. I believe this will be the next wave. What does the Church have to offer the rest of society, the women? I don’t think we’ll continue on with the type of religious life we have now. We might be close to the last of the current kind of sisters that everybody knows in society, but I don’t think we’re the last. I think there’s a bright future.”

flemingRose Ann Fleming: “I think our job is to help define what the future of religious life is going to be. A lot of that will come out of talking with women I have met on this campus who are extremely dedicated to the needs of the poor. As religious women, we have seen over time how our order has helped change cultures. The whole Catholic school system changed cultures, and if we can look in the future and harness some of the vision some of these women are coming out with, we’re going to be in very good shape as far as religious numbers are concerned.”

Jo Ann Recker: “That’s good. If you look at Jesus’ model, he formed his apostles and his spirit and then left because they were evangelized. That’s what we’re trying to do with our sponsorship ministries.”

Rosie Miller: “I think we’re beyond reaching a plateau. I think we’re on the other side of the decline in the sense of our numbers. One of the ways I view that is that since Vatican II, we as religious women took very, very seriously reforming the Church and we moved onto that bridge. I always saw most of my ministry as a bridge between the laity, which I am member of as a religious woman, and that of the clerical side of the Church. In my early ministry, it was important to empower and train the laity, and I moved into jobs where I was paid very little, but then eventually parishes or communities who hire people were able to pay appropriate salaries for people who are raising a family. I think we are also still those bridge makers in the sense that for the increased role of the laity, the time is now.”

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Rose Ann FlemingRosie MillerNancy LinenkugelJo Ann Recker

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Q: How will this increased role of the laity affect Catholic education as a whole and Xavier in particular?

Nancy Linenkugel: “When it comes to Catholic schools and even Jesuit Catholic schools, the key to keeping them going is to pass on the mission to lay persons. Xavier does a wonderful job of that with AFMIX and other programs. It’s no different in Catholic elementary schools in that the lay leaders and the teachers all must understand why they’re there and the important legacy to hand on to the students. I attended a Catholic grade school and even back then lay teachers were extremely key to maintaining the school. That role has only increased. Priests and sisters have done their jobs if lay persons understand the school’s mission and take that forward.”

Rose Ann Fleming: “I think that the future of Catholic and Jesuit education is bright. It may have to be delivered through media with which the population is familiar. The decline of religious women in the schools has largely been offset by the rise of extremely well-educated laity who are willing to dedicate their lives to continuing the tradition of Catholic schools. The teaching of religious doctrine and religious values is worth the expense to date. The schools appear to be prospering.”

reckerJo Ann Recker: “Interestingly, I just came from a three-hour presidentially appointed committee meeting on what it is that makes Xavier a Jesuit Catholic university. We are charged with clearly articulating this. And it behooves most religious congregations to do something similar so as to educate and form the laity who will follow in maintaining our educational heritage and charisms. I think that if the heritage and charism are ‘owned’ and embodied in those who follow, we will be in good shape. Isn’t this what Jesus did when he entrusted his church to his followers?”

Q: Will all of this be impacted by the investigations into religious orders and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious?

Jo Ann Recker: “I do know that an early step taken by Pope Francis was to reaffirm the mandated reform of the LCWR. But as long as men cling to power in the Church, along with total responsibility for serious decision-making, and continue to see women religious [and women, in general] as holding ‘special’ [but not equal] roles, I don’t see this long history changing. The problems of the contemporary Church are many and well-documented, but women religious are not really among them. However, a focus on the LCWR is, from my perspective, but a diversionary tactic. It gets people talking about something other than the problems in the Church and the exodus of many from the Church.”

Rose Ann Fleming: “At this point, Pope Francis has indicated that he will not abandon the investigations into religious orders and into the LCWR. I volunteered as a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur to an interview. The sister with whom I met wanted to know about my work at Xavier with the student-athletes. Then she asked about vocations to the Sisters of Notre Dame. I responded that I knew they were plentiful in Africa where we have a large number of sisters, but that there were few in the United States. She asked if this was a concern and directed my attention to data that indicated factors that seem to attract vocations to certain orders and that distinguishing dress was one of these factors. When I asked her what she was suggesting, she simply said to look at the data.

“From what I can discern, the LCWR is anxious to work out with the Church perceived problems that could be cultural since women in the United States have much more freedom than women have in other parts of the world. Because our order is international in scope, the Church’s observations of our order may be misunderstood on a global basis. Such cultural issues are resolvable.”

millerRosie Miller: “It’s too quick to really know what Pope Francis feels and thinks about this. I read his whole speech [to the international group of superiors] and I think he was very astute using traditional Vatican language, but he keeps using the term ‘feel,’ that sisters should feel their way, so I think he was walking a delicate dance. I think as a new pope, you would not normally go in and change things immediately. I’m still hopeful he might review this.”

Nancy Linenkugel: “Pope Francis certainly seems to be a pastoral individual who is interested less in the traditional ‘pomp’ of the Papacy and more in being a servant-leader. There’s no shortage of serious issues with which he must deal—financial problems, human justice, ultra-conservatism movement within the Church, the issue of women being disenfranchised by the male-dominated Church. While I personally don’t feel called to the ordained priesthood, I think there are many women who do. What a wonderful ministry to Catholics that could be. Just think of how many parishes have closed due to the shortage of priests, which only brings heartbreak and further alienation. So if the parish is still viable financially, and a woman priest could step in, wouldn’t that be a win/win, especially for the parishioners?”

A New Approach

What’s the connection between theology and trauma? Between religion and recovery?

Professor of theology Gillian Ahlgren is searching for the answer and was awarded a $40,000 grant from the Louisville Institute to dig into the concept of theological and spiritual resources for trauma recovery. “Traumatic events involve a crisis of meaning,” says Ahlgren. “They can shake one’s confidence in the goodness of life and the goodness of humanity.” The answer could have a huge impact on returning veterans, survivors of rape, human trafficking, domestic violence and others, she says.

Studying Abroad Opens Students Eyes

In June, I studied abroad in Italy about the life of St. Francis of Assisi in an exhilarating course offered by Xavier University.

The pilgrimage began when our class converged in the Fiumicino Airport, just outside of Rome. We then took a bus to Greccio, a small town where St. Francis created the Nativity scene. Later we ate a terrific traditional dinner at San Francesco Bar and Ristorante in Assisi, the city we stayed in for most of our journey, where we conversed and learned a lot about the life of St. Francis, the beautiful city we were in and each other.

The following day we traveled to Perugia, the city Assisi was at war with when Francis was in the military and visited the area where he was held captive for a year. On Wednesday and Thursday, we stayed in Assisi to learn about Francis’ life and visited the shop his father once owned and the house he grew up in.

The main event that occurred during this two-day period was when we toured San Damiano, the church that St. Francis said God called him to rebuild after being in ruins for so many years. On Friday, we took a bus to La Verna, the site where St. Francis miraculously received his stigmata, which are identical wounds to those of Jesus after being nailed to the cross.

LaVerna was a nice and quiet area tucked away in the mountains of central Italy. We stayed there overnight and experienced firsthand what savory authentic Italian cooking is truly all about.

Sunday was our day to explore all that Assisi had to offer, which two classmates and I did by hiking to the top of the largest mountain in the area, Ali Subasio. The view from the peak of the mountain was spectacular and provided great photographic memories and an overwhelming sense of peace in nature.

On our last day in Italy, several classmates and I took the train to Rome. The architecture in Rome is beautiful and it was a humbling experience to be able to touch all of the magnificent buildings I had previously only seen in books and on television.

This experience in Italy, and Assisi in particular, opened my eyes to how immeasurable different parts of the world are and it sparked the explorer in me. I will never forget this journey, or our remarkable professor Dr. Gillian Ahlgren and her vast wisdom. I made a great many connections along the pilgrimage which I’m certain will be lifelong.

I hope to one day return to Assisi and revisit all the sites that I did as a 20-year old college student. It will forever be ingrained in my memory and I am so appreciate everyone that made this lifelong lesson possible.

Of God and Grizzly

We’re halfway up the hillside when we first see the footprints. Grizzly bear. The dirt around the edges of the prints is still loose, not compacted by the recent rain, meaning the tracks are fresh. Meaning the bear is here. Somewhere. Somewhere close.

Your senses tend to sharpen in the wilderness.  Your vision gets clearer.  You smell the pines, the mud, the decaying leaves.  You hear sounds that otherwise wouldn’t register. Your senses tend to sharpen even more when there’s a grizzly bear nearby.  Your heart also tends to beat just a little bit faster.

“The Forest Service says you should wear a bell or talk or make noise so a bear will hear you and run away,” says Leon Chartrand, our group’s leader. “That’s exactly what we’re not going to do.”

We continue up the hill, slowly, stopping frequently to search for other signs—broken twigs, snagged fur, scat. As we emerge from the woods into a clearing, Chartrand puts an end to the search. We have, he determines, reached our classroom. Priorities prevail.

[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/41.jpg”]41[/lightbox]Chartrand is a visiting professor of theology and is leading 12 of us—10 undergraduate and two graduate students—in a theology course through the wilds of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. The course’s focus is on experiencing nature as primary sacred and sacramental reality, something that isn’t going to happen sitting in Alter Hall.

He pulls the group together and explains the day’s lesson, then sends us out to private spots in the area to craft a daily reflection paper. In more Jesuit terms, we are trying to find God in all things, and for the moment, at least for me, that thing remains the grizzly bear.

After a few minutes of trying to focus on the day’s lesson, my eyes and mind begin to wander up the still-uncharted hillside to the top of a ridge, where the bear is. I have to know what’s beyond it, so that’s where I go. I put down my notebook, pick up my backpack and begin walking up the hill.

The ridge, I discover, opens up to a large, open field dotted with patches of trees. Fresh bear scat litters the ground. Nothing stands between me and the woods that continue about 100 yards to the north. I stand there at the edge of the field, alone. I feel open, exposed, vulnerable. I look around but can’t see anything. But I can sense it. The bear is here. Somewhere. Watching. Watching me.

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Grizzly bears have a notoriously ruthless and arguably unfair reputation. They tolerate wolves (and are mutually tolerated) but otherwise have no real enemies except for man. Mostly, they are solitary creatures that avoid contact with humans. The occasions where bears attack people are almost always for defensive purposes, either of themselves, their cubs or food. Our failed relationship came about not because bears started infringing upon our territory, but because we infiltrated theirs.

In the early 1900s, nearly 100,000 grizzly bears roamed the lower 48 states. Today, the number is reduced to less than 1,000.  The 2.6-million acre Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park corridor in Wyoming’s northwest corner is as far south as the bear now roams. The numbers are higher and healthier in Alaska and the mountainous areas of  Western Canada, but even those numbers—estimated at 30,000—are only a fraction of what they once were.

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Seeking solitude or pursuing profit, we started building homes in the woods or at the edges of mountains, which brought with it an open invitation for unwelcome encounters. And encounters have happened. Chartrand can bear witness to that. While researching his doctoral dissertation, he served as bear biologist for five years for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, trapping, relocating or—in the case of those bears who became conditioned to believe that food could be found near humans—euthanizing them.

At one point, as we drove through Grand Teton National Park, he pointed out a home that a bear broke into and caused extensive damage as it rummaged for food. Among its take, he says, was a bowl of Jolly Rancher candy. After trapping the bear, the homeowners started feeling remorse, knowing the animal was facing death. They started questioning if it was the right bear, hoping Chartrand would relocate it instead of kill it. Knowing bears don’t change their habits and can be dangerous if they no longer fear humans, Chartrand had to wait another 12 hours until the bear emptied its bowels, at which point he positively identified it by the undigested plastic candy wrappers in its scat. The proof was in the pooping.

For those like Chartrand, though, the bear isn’t something to be feared, but to be respected and, in some ways, awed. That’s how he felt after his first encounter with a bear while backpacking in Glacier National Park. There was no confrontation, just a revelation. “Things made sense to me,” he says. “My place in the world. My sense of connectedness to the land. The sense that the world is much bigger than my ability to understand. It was a transformative moment.”

Now, his goal is to share that same feeling with others, to show the correlation between ecology and theology. So he teaches.

“To put it into a theological perspective, consider that we’ve long identified the notion of The Holy,” he says. “Two characteristics associated with The Holy are fear and fascination. Interestingly, there’s a correlation between the fact that people are drawn toward bears because of fear and fascination.”

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While my classmates continue to spend their time reflecting, I stand silently, still searching for the bear. There’s something inexplicable about its presence that has captured me, beyond, even, all of the other experiences the course has brought.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins back in 1918. To most, the phrase is a piece of poetry. To the Jesuits, it is a mantra. To those of us trekking through the Tetons and wilds of Yellowstone, it is a self-evident truth.

Throughout the week we paused for times of meaning and reflection alongside rushing rivers, at the shores of glacier-fed lakes and atop mountains. We encountered bald eagles, bison and blue heron. We watched carefully as a coyote strode past just a few feet away. We examined the skeletal remains of two young elk that offered a reminder that peril and beauty live side by side in nature. We saw towering waterfalls and boiling mud pits and snow-covered woods.

On our first day we paused in a clearing littered by the still-charred trunks of lodgepole pines felled by a forest fire in 1988. Lodgepole pines are an interesting species. Their seeds can only be opened by extreme heat, meaning the only way the trees regenerate is if the previous generation is destroyed by fire. Its life, in other words, can only be revealed through death. Grandeur, indeed.[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/25.jpg”]25[/lightbox]

Consider the tree, we were told as we sat among the pines. What do you see when you look at a tree? Its leaves, its branches, its bark. What don’t you see? Its roots, the nutrients flowing through its trunk, the fact that it takes in carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen. Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there or not vital to its existence.

Cannot the same argument be made for the existence of God?

To be conscious about something is to be aware of it, no matter if it’s the inner workings of a tree, the fragility of the wildflowers or, really, the existence of God. Must we always see to believe? Might being in the presence of something be sacred enough?

[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/10.jpg”]10[/lightbox] Thomas Berry, a Passionate priest and one of the most brilliant minds in the field of eco-theology, once wrote about a similar revelation he had about nature and religion—not with the mountains or woods of  Yellowstone but of a simple Midwestern meadow. “Religion, it seems to me, takes its origin here in the deep mystery of this setting,” he says. “The more a person thinks of the infinite number of interrelated activities that take place here, the more mysterious it all becomes. The more meaning a person finds in the Maytime blooming of the lilies, the more awestruck a person might be in simply looking out over this little patch of meadowland.”

The problem, he says, is that we are cast into our urban jungles where towering buildings create concrete canyons. We are overwhelmed by eye pollution generated by neon signs, by ear pollution caused by screaming cars and by nose pollution caused by the belching smokestacks of industry. We live in many different worlds and, unfortunately, none of them teach us how to read the book of nature. It’s become a lost skill.[lightbox link=”http://xtra.xavier.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/46.jpg”]46[/lightbox]

“We live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order, a cultural tradition, a Disney dreamland,” Berry says. “We live in cities, in a world of concrete and steel, of wheels and wires, a world of unending work. We seldom see the stars at night or the planets or the moon. Even in the day we do not experience the sun in any immediate or meaningful manner.

“We have silenced too many of those wonderful voices of the universe that spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence. We no longer hear the voices of the rivers, the mountains or the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. The world about us has become an ‘it’ rather than a ‘thou.’”

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Time is turning and the sun isn’t far from setting. Dusk and dawn are the two most active times for bears, and despite our previous disregard for Forest Service recommendations about making noise, leading a group of college students down the side of a mountain after dark with bears in the area is fraught with too many liabilities. Wiser heads prevail.

As the others start back down the hill and onto the next lesson, I turn back one last time, giving the area a final scan, hoping—praying—that I might see the bear. Still, nothing. Disappointed and perhaps a little disheartened, I slowly rejoin the group and head back down the hill as well.

One of the funny things about life that I’ve learned, though, is that the obvious isn’t always obvious at the moment. Often time is needed to reveal what isn’t seen in the moment. Sometimes reflection. Perhaps prayer.

As the night comes upon us and the next day dawns, the openness of the field and the presence of the bear keeps replaying in my mind. Where was the bear? Why didn’t it reveal itself?

Then the revelation hits:  The time spent tracking the bear up the hillside and searching for it in the open field wasn’t at all a disappointment. In fact, it was just the opposite. It was perhaps the most meaningful and educationally enlightening part of the entire journey. It pulled together all the elements of the class—man and nature, fear and fascination, God and grizzly. Nothing, in fact, could have been more theological.

Like the bear, God leaves his footprints everywhere for us to follow. It’s up to us to awaken our senses, to look for the signs, to see them. And they always lead us to a place where He is. But, like with the bear, that doesn’t always mean we will recognize the encounter or receive our visual desire. We can stand there, open, exposed, looking—praying—that we will see God. But, all too often, nothing. So, disappointed and perhaps a little disheartened, we move on, missing the mystery and meaning of the moment. That God is there. Somewhere. Watching. Watching us.

New in Theology

The Department of Theology is expanding its offerings by two this year, with a new course on The Religious Thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and a course on African Religions.

In the King course, the life and legacy of King is examined, as well as the intellectual influences on his life and theology from such religious and theological thinkers as Gandhi, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and others. The course stresses how students can use King’s legacy to promote activism on campus and in impoverished communities.

The African Religions course begins by exploring the religion of ancient Egypt and ends by discussing contemporary African religions such as Yoruba and Vodun. It also addresses the religious sensibilities of indigenous African cultures throughout the world.