Catholics around the world are pondering what the newly elected pope will mean for their faith. Pope Francis became the first pontiff from South America Wednesday. Among the Catholics most concerned are sisters in the U.S. who have come under increasing scrutiny by the Vatican in recent years.
The sisters at St. Scholastica Monastery in Chicago gathered for prayer as Benedictine sisters have for centuries. On this day, their thoughts and prayers were with the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
"I’m very happy that he’s a person from Latin America," said Sister Patricia Crowley, the prioress of St. Scholastica. "My understanding is that he has lived a very simple lifestyle, and I think that’s a really good sign."
Sister Patricia spent years working with homeless women in Chicago at a shelter called Deborah’s Place. She sees hope in the fact that the new pope chose Saint Francis of Assisi, known for his humble lifestyle, as his namesake.
"I am interpreting it as he understands that working in poverty and those who are poor is very important," she said.
American sisters in particular have a vested stake in the man who wears the white miter. They have been the subject of two Vatican investigations that questioned whether some sisters promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” That crackdown resulted in widespread criticism of the all-male hierarchy by lay Catholics, both men and women.
"The ramifications of it have been tremendous alienation in this country of laity. People were trying to figure out, ‘Why do it to the sisters, the sisters of all people who seem to be most carrying out the gospel ?’ " said Sister Suzanne Zuercher. She has been a nun for 50 years at St. Scholastica, one of the women’s monasteries visited by Vatican investigators. She hopes the new pope will end the scrutiny.
"I would imagine we’ll not be at least not the first thing on his plate to deal with," she said.
Sister Suzanne has some strong ideas for the new pontiff:
" I think the church needs housecleaning. The new pope, if I were he, (laughs) I think I would look very carefully at the Vatican and kind of clean it out and put in some new people with some fresh ideas because it’s just become so stagnant."
She wishes the church would focus more on social justice issues such as ending torture and human trafficking and reforming immigration. Instead:
"The church seems to have an unusual emphasis on anything that has to do with sex," Sister Suzanne said. "Jesus didn’t talk much about those things at all, very little. If we’re going to follow Jesus, we should pay attention to the things he thought were worth talking about and working toward."
As the cardinals met in the Vatican to cast their final secret ballot for the new pope, in Chicago, Dominican Sister Donna Quinn stood on the steps of Holy Name Cathedral with a group of protesters, pleading for more openness in the church.
"After all of this secrecy and sexual abuse in the church and cover ups, we’re saying they should be doing cartwheels over in Rome to make the church more transparent," Sister Donna said. "I like to think that even what they had for breakfast would be up on a marquee."
The protesters sent up plumes of pink smoke in front of Holy Name, to call attention to the fact that Catholic women had no voice in selecting their church’s leader.
Sister Donna is careful to point out she doesn’t advocate ordination of women, which previous popes have said should not even be discussed, but she does want a greater voice for women.
"Have an equality to them, call in think tanks of women who have been placed outside the church for so long," she said.
And Sister Donna has some other advice for the new pontiff:
"I hope he forgets the Prada shoes or whatever kind of shoes they have to wear and that he will take off that robe that is both symbolic and real to walk with the people. I worked at a shelter for women and children for 25 years and never saw a bishop once, though we invited bishops to come and help and work with us there."
The sisters agree that with the recent scandals, lower attendance at Mass and declining numbers of priests and nuns, the new pope faces a critical time in church history. But none of the three, Sisters Donna, Patricia or Suzanne, think change will be forthcoming soon.
"If they want prayers from the people of God they have got to walk with the people of God. Woof, I think I’m gonna cry. I just feel this so much in my heart and it’s so much of a passion for me," Sister Donna said. "The people of God have to do the leading."
"I’m an eternal optimist personally," Sister Patricia said. "However I really believe that phrase from Teilhard de Chardin, I believe in the slow work of God, so I don’t know if this is the time when something’s really going to change.'
As for Sister Suzanne? "In our lifetime this is going to be a very crucial one because we’re losing more and more touch," she said. "I think the whole hierarchical model is beginning to implode and, well, will it or won’t it? I think we’re kind of asking that right now.
And perhaps so is Pope Francis.