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.
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.”
Nancy 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.”
Rose 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.”
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.”
Jo 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.”
Rosie 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?”