The Journal Gazette
Saturday, July 09, 2016 10:02 pm

Prepare ye the way:

Anthony Henry

The renowned Sister Simone Campbell and 18 other Catholic sisters are on a 13-state tour that includes stops at both the Republican and Democratic conventions and a stop in our fair city. The nuns will be calling on elected officials and candidates to "Mend the Gaps" in income and wealth inequality in our nation. Their mission: to bring politics of inclusion to divided places.

The sisters will begin at Vincent Village, which provides shelter, affordable housing and support services for homeless families. From there, the sisters will journey to St. Mary’s Parish and the Ave Maria House, where about 1,000 servings of soup a day are provided, as well as hospitality, showers and laundry services for homeless people.

The "Nuns on the Bus" visitation excites me personally because of the enormous effect they have had on my life, and it excites me professionally because of the systemic changes they have made for fragile populations and communities across this country.

I had the priceless experience of spending several years under their pastoral care and instruction during my youth and young adulthood – such formative years they were. I recall The Most Precious Blood Sisters offering refuge to my family following a fire, which destroyed much our house in the late 1960s. A number of my siblings and I lived with these compassionate sisters in their convent while our home was being reconstructed. They were the definition of hospitality to those who are without a home.

Historically, nuns have been rooted in a perseverance to make this world a place where even the most disenfranchised can thrive. The first sisters arrived in New Orleans in 1727 from France. The sisters were immigrants who opened schools, orphanages and hospitals. The Sisters of The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ founded our own St. Joseph Hospital in 1869. Between 1866 and 1926, nearly 500 hospitals were under the guidance of Catholic sisters who also commandeered nursing schools that professionalized the nursing field. Access to quality health care has always been a priority for them.

The nuns created access to higher education. By the 1950s, there were more American women earning degrees from Catholic women’s colleges than from nondenominational or Protestant colleges. The University of Saint Francis was one of these Catholic women’s colleges founded by the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration whose order began in 1863. Nuns have always been leaders in access to affordable, quality education.

It is my prayerful hope that the vowed sisters coming to our city will enlighten and energize all of us to follow their example and advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

Let them awaken in us what we are to do about our homeless neighbors who live on our riverbanks and under bridges. What happens to them when our Riverfront development begins?

What role do we as community members need to play to address violent crime? This year alone, we have had 17 homicides – a number of them teenagers. How do we build safe neighborhoods of opportunity – not violence?

Safe and affordable housing? Access to food? These should be basic rights for everyone in our city. How do we as a faithful community address these issues beyond the charitable handout?

Family members are returning from incarceration to re-engage with their loved ones yet cannot find jobs or housing so they return to the life that is available to them. How can we help them get rid of this stigma so that they secure decent employment and be able to vote?

The anticipation of the nuns’ visit also invigorates me because I know that the kind of action I am hoping for does not come easily and will likely challenge us. I am reminded of a rift that surfaced between the church hierarchy and The U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

The Vatican reprimanded the sisters for their lack of adherence to church doctrine – for not speaking out on issues such as abortion and gay marriage and for advocating themes of feminism and liberation theology.

This alienation between the Vatican and the sisters became so intense that they were placed under the guidance of three U.S. bishops for five years to ensure fidelity to church teaching. But with conflict come growth and resolution. In the spring of last year, the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious reconciled.

In a profoundly moving presentation, Pope Francis, in the fall of 2015, addressed a religious sister from the Missionaries of Jesus who runs a welcome center at Sacred Heart Church in response to the surge of immigrants.

The Holy Father said to her: "I want to thank you, and through you to thank all the sisters of religious orders in the U.S. for the work that you have done and that you do in the United States, It’s great. I congratulate you. Be courageous. Move forward. Take the lead, always. I’ll tell you one other thing. Is it inappropriate for the Pope to say this? I love you all very much."

The rift is over, sisters! We welcome you to Fort Wayne. Enlighten us. Energize us to take the action to which we are all called.

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