It’s been a tough couple of years for nuns in the U.S.
In 2012 the Vatican essentially ordered three male bishops to oversee the group representing 80 percent of American nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, saying the LCWR promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
So when a new pope came in exactly a year ago, many in this group wondered what it might mean for them and a range of women’s issues from the Vatican investigation of nuns, to birth control, to women’s ordination.
“All I had was some hope, not a great deal for anything new or different,” said Sister Suzanne Zuercher, a Benedictine at St. Scholastica Monastery on Chicago’s North Side.
“Now that a year has passed, I can’t believe who it is that that conclave elected,” Sister Suzanne said, adding that she was surprised and even amazed by how much Pope Francis has accomplished in a year. She pointed to how he had begun reforming the Curia (essentially the Vatican’s top dogs) and cleaning house at the scandal-ridden Vatican bank.
Sister Suzanne said she appreciated how the Pope had changed the focus of the church from doctrinal to pastoral.
“The church has so often appeared, and been, grim. That is so different with this man,” she said. “He’s not grim at all, he is relaxed, he’s joyous, and he says without being joyful, what do we have to offer people?”
Sister Suzanne and her Prioress, Sister Patricia Crowley, both said the Pope’s popularity and symbolic acts like openly refusing to judge gay priests are creating a new image of the papacy and the church.
And while they acknowledge he’s had a busy first year, they are waiting for him to take on women’s issues in the church.
The Pope previously said he has a “vivid hope” women will play a “more capillary and incisive” role in the church. In an interview with Latin American nuns, he told them if they got a letter announcing an investigation similar to U.S. nuns, not to worry.
Sister Patricia is cautiously optimistic this could translate to action. Someday, she said, she even hopes to see women’s ordination. But she admits the church moves slowly.
“I think it’s gradual,” she said. “But basically, I’d like to see that women are equal to men within the church because the first witness to the resurrection was a woman, and I think that’s a pretty clear gospel message that indeed women are equal to men.”
In the meantime, Pope Frances still hasn’t lifted oversight from many U.S. nuns. That doesn’t surprise Charles Reid, a Catholic blogger and professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
“When he renewed that investigation, he was brand new on the job. He wasn’t going to upset apple carts that quickly,” Reid said. “I do not think he will do what (Pope) Benedict was doing, and that is relentlessly pursue nuns.”
Reid explained that Pope Francis – who’s a Jesuit – comes from a tradition that values spirited academic debate.
“Will he open doors to the ordination of women? No,” Reid said. “Will he open the doors to scholarship that could lead there in 20 years? Maybe, maybe.”
That day can’t come soon enough for Sister Donna Quinn, a local activist nun. She wants women to have an equal voice and vote in the church.
“I really don’t see any action,” Sister Donna said. “I see this nice wonderfulness of words and the media. Why doesn’t the media pick up on the fact that the church is all men? All men are in power.”
But Sister Donna sees one hopeful sign in the Pope’s more humble lifestyle, including his decision to ditch those fancy red shoes.
“If he has taken off those expensive shoes and the garb and walked with the people, he is taking that first wonderful step,” she said. “There’s a lot more to follow, hopefully.”
Lynette Kalsnes is a producer/reporter covering religion, culture and science for WBEZ. Follow her @LynetteKalsnes.