Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Diocese welcomes new Association of the Faithful: ‘If you’re seeking truth, there’s nothing to be afraid of’
Story and photo by Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the July 5, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
The Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church, are a new Association of the Faithful. The Sisters returned to the Catholic Church from the traditionalist community at Mount St. Michael and will spend the next year in discernment at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, Spokane. (IR photo)
There are several paths within the journey that has brought 15 women Religious into communion with the Catholic Church.
Personal care, compassion, and interaction. Prayer, most certainly. Even technology played a part.
But one of the key turning points in the journey was the death of Pope John Paul II.
Two of the Sisters who have come back to the Catholic Church from Mount St. Michael discussed their road during an interview at their new home at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center (IHRC).
The “traditionalist” Catholics who form the schismatic community at Mount St. Michael, Spokane, believe in a theological position of “sedevacantism” – expressed simply, that because of heresy, the Chair of Peter has been vacant since Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958.
The Sisters who had been part of the Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI) at Mount St. Michael, individually, found themselves beginning to question that position in recent days.
“It wasn’t like we planned anything, or the Sisters came together to this conclusion,” said Mother Marie de Lourdes, the Sisters’ moderator. Rather, individuals began to reconsider the position, “and discovered others on a similar journey,” she said.
For Sister Francis Marie, a key point, for herself and others, was the death of Pope John Paul II. Sisters were able to watch the broadcasts of the funeral rites and found that experience “very moving and rich … we were moved by that loss,” she said.
She, and other teachers at the Mount with internet access, began to follow the story of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II’s successor.
“I noticed the good that he was doing,” she said. “I sat up and paid attention: We had a good man, a good pope.” That idea was almost impossible, according to the strictures of the sedevacantist position, she said. “But he seemed to be doing what a good pope would do.”
It built on prior experience. Sister Francis Marie and other Sisters had made a pilgrimage to Rome, in 2000. They saw “so much holiness in the Church. It made me, and others, start looking at the Church today.
“It was not what we had been told,” said Sister Francis Marie. “Every church was full. There was modesty. Confessions. Masses. We saw an extraordinary pilgrimage of holiness.”
Several of the Sisters began studying independently, beginning with Pope Benedict’s own teaching. “We found each other,” she said.
At its core, this theological exploration, with its deep emotional overtones, rests on the basic promises of Christ to his Church.
“We did this because of the promises of Christ to his Church: that it was founded on Peter, and that Christ would be with them for all days,” said Mother de Lourdes. “‘The Promises of Christ’: I could not get that out of my mind. Christ is eternal truth. Upon that rock (Peter) he built his Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail…. The Church has gone through so many stormy periods, but it cannot be destroyed, because Christ is with his Church.”
They had been taught that the Church had changed her doctrines. “That’s very troubling, when you’re told that truth is unchanging. Christ is the unchanging truth,” she said.
Father Darrin Connall, the rector of Bishop White Seminary, is one of the priests who have been working with the Sisters as they made their journey home to the Catholic Church.
At first, “I was kind of shocked” that the Sisters from the Mount were interested in talking to him, he said. Mother Mary Katrina, head of the community at that time, and one of the Sisters who has left the Mount, “explained to me that through studying the teachings of the Church, and listening to Catholic radio” – Sacred Heart Radio, operated in Spokane by the Poor Clare Sisters – several of the Sisters at the Mount realized that what they were reading and what they were hearing “sounded incredibly Catholic. They began to have questions about their theological position.”
Father Connall is convinced that a prime mover of this event was prayer.
When Bishop Skylstad invited the Missionaries of Charity to establish a house in Spokane, part of his request was based on the poverty of the area – not the depth of material poverty as found in Calcutta, or perhaps Tijuana, but spiritual poverty, particularly in regard to schismatic groups, such as the community at Mount St. Michael.
In October 2005, the Missionaries of Charity took the names of the Sisters at the Mount and began to pray for them, personally and individually, said Father Dan Barnett, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, where the Mount is located and where the Missionaries of Charity have their convent.
His parish also conducted “a stewardship of prayer campaign,” he said. “One of the stewardship intentions was reconciliation with Mount St. Michael. Some months later, I received word that some of the Sisters (at the Mount) were really questioning the validity of the sedevacantist position.”
The Sisters’ questioning was intensified with study. They found, contrary to what they had been taught, that the church in Rome has not deviated from its teaching, but that its doctrines remain the same today and throughout the ages. They sought out sources of information, not only through the Internet, but meeting with various individuals who could help guide them and answer their questions.
They visited with Father Connall at Bishop White; with Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, the president of Gonzaga University; with Father Barnett; with Bishop Skylstad. “What they began to see is that the Church is alive, and it is Catholic,” said Father Connall.
Some of the Sisters would attend conferences given to the Missionaries of Charity on Thursday evenings by Benedictine Abbot Adrian Parcher, now pastor of the parishes in Colfax and LaCrosse. At the Mount, the Sisters had been told “there were no more women Religious in the world, but they saw the Missionaries of Charity, in full habit, living a form of Religious life more radical even than theirs,” said Father Connall.
The meetings with Father Connall provided a catalyst, said Sister Francis Marie.
As the Sisters learned more, and asked more questions, they encountered nothing but patience, compassion, and understanding, said Mother de Lourdes.
As they dealt with Bishop Skylstad, “I thanked him,” said Mother de Lourdes. “He could have written us off, or made some public statement,” ordering Catholics to stay away, “but he didn’t. He didn’t condemn us. He patiently waited, understanding of our plight; supportive, prayerful – in a Christ-like spirit of love.”
Part of the reconciliation flows directly from Vatican II, and true ecumenism, said Father Connall.
“We didn’t compromise our principles as Catholics,” he said. “We made certain demands of them in light of our Faith. They fulfilled those requirements. We approached our separated brethren through honey, rather than vinegar. We aren’t changing our teaching; we’re changing our approach.”
As the Sisters’ grew in their knowledge of the Faith, it became clear that they could no longer remain within the community at the Mount. Many of them were teachers in the school there. “We wanted to finish the school year, so as not to cause difficulty to the community,” said Mother de Lourdes. Nevertheless, school was concluded three days early.
June 22 was the day of the “big move,” said Mother de Lourdes, from the Mount to IHRC. June 23 was the first day they were all together.
Fourteen of the Sisters now live on the second floor and basement level of Rosage Hall, one wing of IHRC. A 15th Sister also left the Mount, but has remained with her family for the time being, discerning her future direction.
Of the 14, one is a novice; one is in her second year of formation, and has taken temporary vows. The others have made final profession.
At present, Bishop Skylstad has approved their statutes, erecting The Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church as a private association of the faithful, a carefully defined term under Church law. The Association is recognized by the diocese for three years.
The first year has been provided for as a period of discernment, prayer, and study, said Mother de Lourdes – “seeking God’s will for the future.”
What the Sisters’ main work will be has yet to be determined. At the Mount, many of the Sisters were teachers. They do know that they want to continue living traditional Religious life, and discern whether they are meant to continue on together and form a single Religious community.
For now, they will rest and settle in to their new lives. They will pray, work, and study as a community. A donor has stepped forward to pay for their housing and food; another donor has funded their formation resources – books, workshops, copies of Church documents, and so on. Parishioners from St. Charles and St. Patrick provided the muscle to move the Sisters from the Mount to IHRC. Grass-roots contributions flowed in – household goods, cash donations. The Sisters have been “overwhelmed, almost, with kindness, with the charity of people,” said Mother de Lourdes. “The support, the prayer, the gifts, the encouragement – it’s incredible.”
The staff at IHRC has been warm and welcoming, they said. “Please think of this as your home,” they were told by Deacon John Ruscheinsky, IHRC’s director.
The transition so far has been “in God’s time,” said Sister Francis, “when it was best for all of us.”
Bishop Skylstad has named Father Connall the liaison between the Association and the diocese. Father Gene Tracy, pastor of St. Charles Parish, has helped them with their tax exempt status, with both civil and canonical protections.
The Sisters have been publicly noticeable for their mostly blue, full habits worn as members at the Mount. They are now considering designs for a new habit of their own, and will return the present habits to the community at the Mount.
The new design will reflect “our Marian spirit,” said Sister Francis. A rosary will remain as a prominent part of the design. The new habits will be sewn by the Sisters themselves, although a seamstress has offered her assistance with the project.
The Association’s name, “Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church,” includes their devotion to the Blessed Mother, but also their desire to be in communion with the Catholic Church.
“I feel great joy in knowing I’m a part of the Church,” said Mother de Lourdes. “I was not willfully outside.” But there is joy, too, in knowing that she is “part of the universal, Catholic Church – this worldwide unity of my spiritual brothers and sisters, the Mystical Body.”
On June 23, the Sisters made their Profession of Faith: the Nicene Creed, with the addition of a sentence from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults:
“I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”
Father Connall and other priests of the diocese concele-brated Mass for them June 24.
“I am convinced that God has been behind all of this,” said Father Connall. “When there are problems in the Church, do we reform from within or from without? We reform from within.”
The Sisters’ return to the Catholic Church is “historic,” he said. Just as the diocese emerges from bankruptcy, the Sisters’ return is “a springtime, a time of life and growth.”
“I think the Church needs a variety of witnesses to Religious life – ways to live Religious life,” he said. “I’ve been edified by the support of other orders” of women Religious.
With their dedication and their witness, “These women, and women Religious in general, other Sisters, too, make me want to be a better person,” said Father Connall.
“As a diocese, we welcome the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church to our Catholic family here in Eastern Washington,” said Bishop Skylstad. “Their discernment, which has led them back to the Church, their courage, and their deep faith have truly been inspiring to me personally. I ask all of us in the diocese to pray for them as they pray for us. Most of all, we can thank God for the gift of faith which constantly calls us to conversion and a deeper sense of unity and community with one another. We have truly been blessed!”
Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos of Colombia is the president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei which, according to Catholic News Service, was established by Pope John Paul II to ensure pastoral care to former followers of the late traditionalist Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated in 1988 after ordaining bishops without papal approval. He had rejected the liturgical reforms and concepts of religious freedom and ecumenism as formulated by the council.
Although the Sisters from the Mount had not been part of Archbishop Lefebvre’s movement, Cardinal Castrillón wrote them a letter of welcome.
“I am delighted to learn ... you have had the grace to return to full communion with the Catholic Church,” he wrote.
He called their return to the Church a “courageous step.”
“I will be happy to receive news of your growth and development,” wrote the cardinal.
The coming year will be a time of preparation for the next segment of their pilgrimage. It will be a continuation of what has not been an easy journey, said Mother de Lourdes.
“We want the truth of Christ,” she said, “not just what I think the truth is. It was definitely a journey, and it is still a journey.”
Any change can be difficult. Radical change can be frightening.
Said Mother de Lourdes, “After having thought one way, for so long – to step outside that, to feel, ‘I can do this’” – she paused, and then said, “but if you’re seeking the truth, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”