‘I’m following the call’

Winona Catholic church, led by a woman, celebrates 10th anniversary

Ten years ago, a Winona woman decided God’s calling was more important than being in good standing with her church.

She made a bold move. An illegal move as far as the Catholic Church as an institution was concerned.

She became a Catholic priest.

Kathy Redig, a hospital chaplain of 20 years at Winona Health, was ordained in 2008 by the Roman Catholic Women Priests.

She then established, with the help of her supporters, the All Are One Roman Catholic Church, which offers Mass on Sundays in the Lutheran Campus Center in the same building as Mugby Junction on Huff Street. Today it celebrated its 10-year anniversary as a church with a reception that’s open to the public from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. after Mass.

“It’s really humbling when I think of the good things that have happened in these 10 years,” Redig said. “It’s just a blessing.”

Redig is a valid priest, meaning she was ordained by a bishop who falls within the apostolic succession in the Roman Catholic Church — a church hierarchy that passes down priesthood after a candidate has gone through an extensive process.

But Redig’s existence as a priest is illegal, because the church’s law, Canon Law 1024, states only men can become priests — the Vatican last month again reemphasized that law.

“A lot of people thought we were going rogue,” Redig said. “But if one really truly believes and respects that we are all created equally then we should have the opportunity to serve.”

The Daily News reached out to Bishop John M. Quinn and the Diocese of Winona-Rochester multiple times in a variety of ways for comment but was unsuccessful.

“It’s really humbling when I think of the good things that have happened in these 10 years,” Redig said. “It’s just a blessing.”

Redig is a valid priest, meaning she was ordained by a bishop who falls within the apostolic succession in the Roman Catholic Church — a church hierarchy that passes down priesthood after a candidate has gone through an extensive process.

But Redig’s existence as a priest is illegal, because the church’s law, Canon Law 1024, states only men can become priests — the Vatican last month again reemphasized that law.

“A lot of people thought we were going rogue,” Redig said. “But if one really truly believes and respects that we are all created equally then we should have the opportunity to serve.”

The Daily News reached out to Bishop John M. Quinn and the Diocese of Winona-Rochester multiple times in a variety of ways for comment but was unsuccessful.

‘No one up there that looked like me’

A lifelong Catholic, Redig about 25 years ago began to feel a disconnect with some aspects of the Roman Catholic Church.

“As a woman I would look at the altar and there was no one up there that looked like me,” she said.

She would ask questions about it. The answers were always the same.

“The statement that always came down was that Jesus didn’t choose any women — which isn’t true — and that women do not image Jesus,” she explained. “Jesus did choose women. A woman was the first one to announce the resurrection.”

She also felt a disconnect with the male centered language used in church services. So again she asked.

“Well God is male — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” the priests would tell her. “So the language for God is going to be that.”

Now that Redig has studied more, she said that also isn’t true.

Bishop Patricia Fresen, left, presents Kathy Redig as a newly ordained priest during Mass at Winona State University in 2008.

Excommunicated but ordained

Redig began the process to be ordained through the Roman Catholic Women Priests — a group started by seven women in 2002 who were ordained by three valid and legal Bishops who were willing to put their reputation on the line to stand behind the women and their efforts.

Two weeks before being ordained, Redig went to speak to the then current bishop — Bishop Bernard J. Harrington — to ask if he would like to ordain her.

He said no.

Then he handed her a letter that would pull Redig’s certification to be a hospital chaplain.

And there was one more thing.

“He said, you know you’ll be excommunicated (from the Catholic Church),” Redig recalled.

She continued to step forward along the journey she felt pulled to and in May of 2008 she was ordained in Kryzsko Commons at Winona State University by Bishop Patricia Fresen.

The support surrounding her was immense, she said. Some of that support was public. And other support was behind private doors.

Shannon Hanzel, a parishioner at All Are One and a friend of Redig, said some people were scared to attend or support the church once it was established, because of possible repercussions. Some worried they would lose a job that was connected to the Catholic Church or catholic schools. Others were scared of being excommunicated.

“Fear was stopping people,” Redig said.

But it didn’t stop everyone.
“In the Old Testament, the spirit, Sophia, is spoken of,” Redig said. “The scriptures speak of God in feminine terms, but the men of church choose not to speak of that.”

After years of questions and getting no satisfying answers, the moment came when she felt pulled to become a priest.

On a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, Redig was washing clothes and reflecting about church, the disconnection, and her love for God.

She turned to her husband and said, “I think the only way we’ll find a church that connects with us if we do it ourselves,” she recalled.

Her husband stopped what he was doing. He looked into her eyes. He agreed with her. They made the decision together that’s what they would do.

“After I made the decision there was a great deal of peace,” she said. “And peace is a sign of the Spirit.”

‘All are welcome in this place’

On a recent Sunday, the All Are One Roman Catholic Church was filled with about 20 parishioners who sang, recited and worshiped with Redig.

Dressed in a white robe, a white cord around her waist, and a single hair clip holding her hair from her face, Redig led the group in song. Drowning out the music in the coffee shop next door, a single phrase of their song rang throughout the room.

“All are welcome in this place,” they sang in harmony.

Among those singing, was Dick Dahl — a Catholic priest who attends the church and fills in Redig’s spot when she’s gone.

“She really exemplifies what being a priest is and what being a Christian is,” Dahl said. “I have such a respect for her and what she’s doing and what she stands for. I think of Martin Luther King when he marched in defiance of unjust laws and was put in jail.”

Hanzel agrees.

“Kathy is extremely pastoral,” Hanzel said. “Her story is really one of courage.”

The congregation gives 75 percent of the money collected — totaling about $3,500 a quarter — to charities and initiatives in the city, country and world including Doctors Without Borders, the Women’s Resource Center of Winona, Islamic Center of Winona and more. Also, each week the congregation collects food for the food shelf.

“This is a tremendously generous congregation and we try to use that to give back to the people who need it,” Hanzel said.

Parishioner Lou Guillou said Redig is inspirational is so many ways.

“She is a valuable priest,” he said.

Guillou added that, in some ways, he appreciates what women priests bring to the table more than their counterparts.

“In distributing communion, they always take it last, rather than taking it first and then giving everyone else,” Guillou said. “They serve everyone else and take last. It’s just a simple thing of bringing in the feminine aspect.”

Redig is a good person, Guillou said with conviction.

In talking about Redig, Hanzel said she hopes one day that women are openly accepted as priests by the Catholic Church.

“I don’t think I’ll see women be treated equally in my life, but I hope during my daughter’s life it will be a reality,” she said.

But in the meantime, Redig will continue to be a valid, yet illegal, Catholic priest.

“I am very much following the model of Jesus,” Redig said. “I’m following the call I’ve heard.”

Complete Article HERE!

Pope Francis’ cunning long game

By Damon Linker

Pope Francis’ stealth reform of the Roman Catholic Church shows no sign of slowing down — and may even be accelerating.

Stealth is key here. If the pope had declared earlier this month that henceforth the Roman Catholic Church would authoritatively teach that homosexuals should be happy being gay, that God made them homosexual, and that God himself (along with the pope) loves them just the way they are, it would have been a massive story in the history of Catholicism — and one that quite likely would have precipitated a major schism, with conservative bishops and priests (mainly in North America and Africa) formally breaking from Rome.

But because word of the pope saying these things comes to us second hand, in a report of a private conversation between Francis and a gay man named Juan Carlos Cruz who is also a victim of the clerical sex abuse crisis in Chile, the utterance will go down as just the latest example of the pope making unorthodox statements in settings in which he has plausible deniability and in which he can claim he was speaking as a pastor rather than as an expositor of the church’s official dogmas and doctrines.

Most popes view themselves as caretakers of the church’s authoritative teachings on faith and morals. When it comes to homosexuality, they would therefore be inclined to reaffirm the position laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which clearly states that homosexual desires are “intrinsically disordered” because they are not oriented to the end of procreation. (The same is true of masturbation and other non-procreative sex acts.)

If Pope Francis were a straightforward reformer, he would seek to change church doctrine regardless of the potentially dire consequences for church unity. But Francis is well aware of the limits of his power and the danger of pushing too far too fast. So he has set out on a different, and distinctive, path.

We first saw it early in his pontificate when the pope spoke to reporters about his views on homosexuality. In contrast to Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), who declared in a 1986 letter to the bishops of the church that same-sex desires aim toward an “intrinsic moral evil,” Francis told the press that “if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

It continued in September 2014 with a marriage ceremony over which Francis presided at St Peter’s. Some of the 20 couples involved had been previously married, while others had given birth to children out of wedlock or lived with their fiancées before marriage. That prior behavior placed them firmly out of step with the requirements of Catholic doctrine, and yet the pope participated and blessed the marriages.

And on it has gone, through the notorious footnote in the apostolic exhortation that was published at the conclusion of the 2015 Synod on the Family, seeming to give priests the pastoral leeway to offer the sacrament of communion to parishioners who have been divorced and remarried without receiving an annulment of their first marriages. It has made headlines most recently when an elderly Italian journalist asserted that in an interview with Francis the pope had denied the dogma of hell.

And now there is Francis’ apparent elaboration of his latitudinarian beliefs about homosexuality.

What unites all of these examples is a distinctive approach to church dogma and doctrine. Instead of acting as an expositor of these core teachings of the church, the pope selectively diverges from them in his actions and statements without deigning to change the teachings themselves. The implicit message is the same in every case: The pope himself thinks it’s possible to be a member of the church in good standing while failing to abide by all of the institution’s rules.

This is significantly different than the pope acknowledging that everyone is a sinner and will therefore break the rules from time to time. That standard view presumes that the divergence from the rule is a failing that requires repentance and reconciliation (the sacrament of confession), along with the intention on the part of the sinner to do better next time. Francis’ position is different — implying that the lack of conformity to church teaching is acceptable, requiring no change or improvement in behavior.

Juan Carlos Cruz is gay, that’s how God made him, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But of course church teaching contradicts this. Which puts Pope Francis in the position of effectively promulgating two truths — implicitly affirming the official, harsher doctrine while subtly undermining it with a less stringent pastoral teaching. Instead of seeking to change the underlying rules, which would risk divisiveness and even schism, he shows that it’s perfectly alright for a priest or layperson to diverge from or ignore the rule in the name of welcoming as many people as possible to Christ’s church.

Conservative Catholics like Ross Douthat (the author of a new book on this very topic) worry that Francis’ fudging of doctrinal truth will have bad consequences for the church because it simply defers a necessary debate about what the church actually believes. Better to have the argument sooner rather than later.

But I think the pope’s strategy for a longer game displays greater psychological acuity — and Machiavellian cunning. Francis may be betting that once the church stops preaching those doctrines that conflict most severely with modern moral norms, the number of people who uphold and revere them will decline rapidly (within a generation or two). Once that has happened, officially changing the doctrine will be much easier and much less likely to provoke a schism (or at least a major one) than it is in the present.

That’s the great advantage of pursuing a strategy of stealth reform: The seed planted now with a minimum of conflict bears fruits in the future with even less.

It’s never been more obvious that this is precisely what Pope Francis has in mind.

Complete Article HERE!

Wisconsin priest tells parishioners he’s gay, gets ovation

In this Dec. 19, 2017 photo provided by St. Bernadette Parish Rev. Gregory Greiten poses for a photo at the Parish in Milwaukee. The Roman Catholic priest was greeted with a standing ovation from parishioners when he told them of his sexual orientation. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Rev. Greiten came out as gay to the St. Bernadette Parish on Sunday, Dec. 17. He then came out in a column in the National Catholic Reporter on Monday. Greiten says he revealed his sexual orientation because he wants to be a role model for others.

A Roman Catholic priest in Milwaukee has come out as gay, writing that he will no longer live in the shadows of secrecy and plans to be authentic to his gay self.

The Rev. Gregory Greiten disclosed his sexual orientation on Sunday to the St. Bernadette Parish and was greeted with a standing ovation from his parishioners, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported . He also wrote a column that was published Monday in the National Catholic Reporter.

It’s rare for a priest to come out. Greiten said he revealed his sexual orientation because he wants to be a role model for others. He said he’s helping to break the silence of gay men in the clergy so he could reclaim his own voice.

“I will embrace the person that God created me to be,” Greiten wrote. “In my priestly life and ministry, I, too, will help you, whether you are gay or straight, bisexual or transgendered, to be your authentic self — to be fully alive living in your image and likeness of God.

Greiten wrote that has decided to stand with the “few courageous priests who have taken the risk to come out of the shadows and have chosen to live in truth and authenticity.”

The church’s silent stance on gay priests perpetuates toxic shaming and systematic secrecy, Greiten wrote. The church needs healthy role models for priests who are struggling to come to terms with their sexual orientation, he said.

Greiten met with Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki before coming out, according to an archdiocese spokeswoman.

“We support Father Greiten in his own personal journey and telling his story of coming to understand and live with his sexual orientation,” Listecki said in a statement Monday. “As the Church teaches, those with same-sex attraction must be treated with understanding and compassion.”

Complete Article HERE!

Coming Out and Faith: A Catholic Queer Woman Latches on to Hope

This month LGBT Americans observed National Coming Out Day, which serves as a call to be out and proud and a recognition that showcasing your identity is an empowering act that can also help change anti-LGBT attitudes. But one’s religious beliefs can sometimes complicate coming out. The Advocate has interviewed people from a variety of faiths about how their religion affected their coming-out and vice versa. In the first in this series, we speak to a graduate student at a Roman Catholic college.

By Trudy Ring

Elizabeth Sextro realizes the Roman Catholic Church probably won’t change its teachings on homosexuality in her lifetime — but that doesn’t keep the 20-something theology graduate student from identifying both as a queer woman and a faithful Catholic.

Reconciling these two identities was “definitely a difficult process,” says Sextro, who’s working on a master’s degree in theological studies at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. Nevertheless, she says, “it’s who I am.”

Sextro, a self-described “cradle Catholic” originally from St. Louis, came out as queer in 2012, when she was an undergraduate at Loyola University in Chicago. “Coming out at college was really easy,” she says. “I had a lot of supportive friends.”

She was able to resolve any conflict between her queer and Catholic identities, she says, through her studies and through talking with those supportive friends who had been through similar experiences.

It also helped that Loyola, like Boston College, is run by the Jesuits, a Catholic religious order known for scholarship and progressive ideology. She studied queer theology, which rejects the idea that LGBT people are abnormal or disordered, as the Catholic Church has long held, and she had a faculty mentor, a straight layman, who encouraged her.

Coming out to her parents was more problematic. They aren’t quite at a place of acceptance even now, she says, but they have advanced to the point that she can bring her female partner home. “We still have work to do,” Sextro says of her family relationship.

There is certainly still work to do in the church, where, she says, the faithful are far ahead of the hierarchy. “I see gay people everywhere” when she attends Catholic services, says Sextro, who divides her time between a couple of congregations in Boston.

The church deems same-sex relationships sinful, and it expects Catholics with same-sex attractions to avoid acting on them. The catechism — a summary of church doctrine — holds that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” Pope Francis, while more conciliatory toward LGBT people than his predecessors were, has held to traditional doctrine. But many in the church are rejecting anti-LGBT teachings and recognizing that the language in the catechism is harmful, Sextro notes.

“It’s going to be baby steps from here on out,” she says of the process of changing the church. It may even have women priests before it discards anti-LGBT doctrine. “It’s not going to happen in my lifetime, but hopefully it will,” says Sextro, who expects to finish her master’s degree in the spring, then aims to eventually get a Ph.D. and teach at the university level.

One of the main reasons she stays in the church, she said, is to help that change along. “I stay because there is more work to be done in the church and because I feel committed and responsible as an aspiring theologian myself to offer a critical perspective to the Catholic Church,” she says. “That’s not to say that I have not considered leaving — I certainly have. That would be a heck of a lot easier. But I borrow from one of my professors at the [School of Theology and Ministry] in saying this: If you are looking for a perfect church in this life, you will be looking forever. No church is perfect, and I stay because I can offer something to the church as a queer woman and theologian that may bring the church a little bit closer to working toward justice. I wouldn’t stay if I didn’t have hope.”

For LGBT Catholics to be out and proud can contribute to change, she says, but she recognizes that coming out is an individual decision. “Coming out is really difficult,” she says. “No one should feel pressure to come out in order to advance a certain cause.”

Part of being a person of faith, she adds, is “putting trust in something outside of yourself” and realizing that some things are out of your control. That approach is also helpful when thinking about progress in the church — knowing she can make a contribution, but she can’t make it all happen, she says. And then there is what Emily Dickinson called “the thing with feathers — that perches in the soul … and never stops.”

“I’ve really latched on to hope,” Sextro says. “And I think hope is huge.”

Complete Article HERE!

The hidden world of addiction and recovery among women religious

When Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Ellen Merrick was struggling with alcohol addiction in the late 1970s, there weren’t a lot of options for Catholic women religious.

“There was nothing for sisters,” Merrick said.

The then-28-year-old middle school teacher spent three months at Alina Lodge, a treatment center in Blairstown, New Jersey.

“People didn’t expect me to have issues with God or issues as a woman,” said Merrick, now executive director of the women’s program at Guest House, a residential treatment facility in Lake Orion, Michigan, for priests and religious.

She was hesitant to share her innermost thoughts with the laywomen in the program at Alina Lodge.

“It did help me, but there were areas like my spirituality and my sexuality that I didn’t feel comfortable mentioning because no one expected me to need to discuss these areas,” Merrick said.

Public accounts of mental health disorders and addictions among women religious have been rare, as have details of treatment and recovery. That may in part be because of the pervasive shame those illnesses can elicit, as well as a historical tendency for those who struggle with them to be directed only to spend more time in solitary prayer.

That is changing as knowledge and attitudes about mental illness evolve. Though difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship, it’s become clearer over time that addiction and mental health disorders are pegged to a combination of factors, including chemical imbalances and possibly brain abnormalities. Some individuals have also experienced grief and depression as they watch their communities cope with declining numbers and aging membership.

There’s “still such a strong stigma in mental health,” said Franciscan Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, CEO at Southdown, a treatment center in Holland Landing, Ontario, that now is open to men and women in Christian ministry. “It’s in part the belief system that ‘If I’m helping people, I can’t be weak.’ It’s embarrassment and probably shame.”

For a time, she said, “most of our facilities, us included, kept a low profile to protect the people we have. [But] more and more of us are saying that doesn’t counteract the stigma.”

Overlooked and underserved

This newer sensibility has led to a quiet revolution in mental health care tailored to the needs of women.

“When we started our program, it was clear that women religious tend to be underserved by the medical community,” said  Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a priest and psychologist who headed the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, and now teaches at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Women were trained not to take care of their own needs, not to complain and to look after everyone else … especially women religious.”

Changes in how the church now approaches mental health issues among its own can be traced back about 70 years (though well before the clergy sex abuse crisis became public knowledge), when Catholic religious congregations became more rigorous in the way they approached vocational discernment.

“Others supported Ripley’s pursuit but eventually favored a center that would serve ‘all professionals,’ ” Gardner said. “Ripley’s insistence on a priests-only facility removed him from the venture, but he continued to pursue his mission to open a Guest House for alcoholic priests.”

The Guest House program for clergy and men religious was launched in the 1950s, and a program for women on the Lake Orion campus opened in the 1990s. (Hazelden, founded in 1949 and with 17 locations in the country, was an early resource for women religious and other people of faith.)

Sister Frances (not her real name), then a schoolteacher, arrived at Guest House more than a decade ago because her provincial leader told her she needed to get help. Frances is now part of a different community.

During her nine months at Guest House, Frances said, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Previously treated for depression and part of a 12-step program, Frances said that when she arrived, she was “not very far from drinking again because of the difficulties I was having, whether they were my moods or my relationships. That confused me: Why was I being sent to a treatment center?”

Franciscan Sr. Dorothy Heiderscheit, right, with staff at Southdown

Part of the reason Frances spent such a long time at Guest House was the challenge of weaning her off the medications she’d been prescribed and finding a new treatment baseline, said Merrick, head of the women’s program there who has stayed in touch with Frances.

At the end of her treatment, Frances had discovered, as she grew to trust the staff and her companions, that “I was lovable. I’m able to love and be loved because I’m Frances.”

Mental health screening for candidates considering religious life wasn’t generally practiced before the 1960s, says Georgetown University medical ethicist and research scholar Daniel Sulmasy, who spent more than 25 years as a Franciscan friar. “People who were very quiet and talked about seeing angels were considered mystics and moved along in the system. Only after taking vows were they considered mentally ill and sent to places like state mental hospitals.”

Vatican II: questioning convention

The reforms that came in the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s were a watershed moment for Catholic sisters. They modified their dress, pursued professional degrees, went out to eat, and applied for their own credit cards. But for those who might have a mental disorder or a suppressed addiction problem, the new freedoms brought potential danger as well as opportunity.

It was a time when many who had embraced religious vocations in a top-down, highly controlled structure actually became adults, says Southdown’s Heiderscheit. Some left religious life to get married or because they determined it wasn’t for them.

Many stayed, but some struggled with the transition, she said: “People who had entered religious life at a very young age in communities with a controlling, authoritative style didn’t trust their judgment as adults.”

While this story focuses on women, men religious and clergy grapple with the same issues.

“When you look at the pathology rate around the world, including the United States, we see that women and men are similar, but they also have psychological and spiritual differences,” Rossetti said.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, a 1988 graduate of the Guest House program, is candid about his sobriety — but he doesn’t parade it. That’s because of his belief, he said, that the journey away from addiction “isn’t my recovery, and isn’t my achievement. It’s a gift from God. I’m gratefully testifying to what I’ve been given. But I also think that AA and other 12-step programs have a very healthy suspicion of [self-] promotion.”

Rates of depression are higher for women, who are more likely to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, Rossetti said, while men have higher rates of sociopathy and malignant narcissism.

Treatment protocols for women also differ, he said. When the women’s program at St. Luke began three decades ago, Rossetti turned to the women in management, both members of religious orders and laypeople, for help. “It was very different, with a greater emphasis on group work and treating pathologies more prevalent in women as well as time for communal prayer and Scripture.”

While women were very supportive of each other, sometimes they needed to be able to challenge one another and learn to use their anger in a positive way, he said. The St. Luke program integrates single- and mixed-gender sessions, Rossetti said.

A network for addicted sisters

Sr. Mary Gene Kinney, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, co-directs the Inter-Congregational Addictions Program, which helps congregations in 31 states and the province of Ontario intervene, find treatment resources and support aftercare for chemically dependent sisters.

A piano teacher and, later, a music therapist, Kinney, who would use the money she made to buy booze for herself, recalled that parishioners at the time were “delighted to give you a bottle” of liquor as a gift.

In the early 1970s, when Kinney was seeking help for her addiction to alcohol, “it was treated in the mental health field and not as the brain disease it is,” she said.

Though she saw mental health professionals, she didn’t make progress. Instead, she became hooked on medication. While a stint at Hazelden was helpful, she said, “I couldn’t sustain it. I was too intellectual for AA. I couldn’t picture myself in it. I didn’t want anyone to know I had this awful disease.”

Kinney applauds the creation of specialized programs for women, saying they do better in community-based settings. When she and program co-founder Sr. Letitia Close began their work in the 1970s, the main addictions for sisters were alcohol and prescription drugs. Eventually, their network expanded to include eating disorders.

Left: Srs. Letitia Close and Mary Gene McKinney, co-founders of the Inter-Congregational Addictions Program. Right: Sr. Mary Gene McKinney gives a presentation.

Now, sisters in the support system are grappling with shopping, spending, gambling and hoarding. Looking ahead, Kinney said, “We haven’t yet seen the full-blown effect of the internet on the brain.”

She said she and Close launched their network in part to counter the isolation that can come with fighting an addiction. They gave their first workshop in a convent infirmary, concerned that older sisters would think their subject matter was scandalous. As it turned out, she said, most of their seniors knew someone who had died of alcoholism.

“Like anything else, the more a substance becomes accessible, the more the addiction shows up, but it’s still always there.” She tells of a contemplative sister she knows who said she never bought alcohol for herself — but fermented it in her cell.

While they didn’t focus specifically on mental health, many women’s congregations have long emphasized a proactive approach to overall wellness, Heiderscheit said.

A battery of psychological tests has been a pre-entrance requirement for more than 40 years among the Adrian Dominicans, says Sr. Patricia Siemen, the congregational prioress. In the year she’s been in leadership, she’s taken part in two mental-health-related interventions in her 641-woman community.

After meeting Merrick at a conference last year, Siemen attended one of the Guest House “Walking with the Wounded” seminars for sisters in leadership.

“One of the things we hope to do as congregational leaders is to open up the topic of addiction and educate our women. It could happen to any of us, depending on our DNA,” she said.

Merrick and other Guest House staff work closely with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, attend professional meetings to publicize their work, and are invited to give workshops around the country.

At Guest House, many female residents are treated for addictions like alcohol or overeating. Men are more likely to be abusing drugs such as heroin and cocaine or becoming enmeshed in sex addiction, Merrick said.

The treatment center and congregation jointly work out ways to make care possible.

“We run $2 million in the hole each year,” Merrick said. “We take care of it by doing fundraisers and through donations. Somehow, God provides.”

A typical Guest House stay includes individual therapy once a week, group meetings four times weekly, and a spirituality group, as well as informal time with other sisters.

“I look for balance being restored in a person’s life,” Merrick said. “Some of the best therapy happens after the staff goes home.”

Facilities for the Guest House female clients include private suites, a dining hall and their own chapel.

Sr. Mary Ellen Merrick sits at the Guest House exhibit booth at the 2017 Leadership Conference of Women Religious assembly, held Aug. 8-11 in Orlando, Florida.

When a sister is ready to return home, a Guest House staff member helps reintegrate her back into her community by doing a workshop focused on the disorder or addiction, Merrick said. Sisters may return to the center every three to six months for a week’s refresher.

Now provincial superior for the Sisters of Notre Dame, Sr. Mary Anncarla Costello was the vicar for religious for the Los Angeles Archdiocese when she heard about the Guest House program. When she became leader of her community, she attended an introductory seminar with other team members and has referred sisters to the treatment center.

“One of the unique things about Guest House is that it provides care and support with an understanding of the religious life,” including prayer and access to the daily liturgy, Costello said. “We talk about being holy sisters, brothers and priests, but we also want to be whole.”

The long view

Religious communities can face a more general mental-health challenge as vocations ebb and friends, many advanced in age, get sick or die. Since she became congregational prioress last year, Siemen said, 41 members of her order have died.

“Women’s congregations are dealing with a tremendous amount of loss,” she said, including the end of a ministry, death or departure of sister colleagues and friends, and depletion of energy. If they aren’t doing the necessary work of grieving or are doing it alone, their depression is liable to increase, she said. “We know that grief is better accomplished together and not as a solitary.”

Heiderscheit says the sadness runs deep and has myriad causes.

“There’s always a debate over whether it’s depression or anger that we have shoved underground into depression about our future,” she said.

But somehow, the work will continue, she said. “The charism will be passed on to somebody else. We need to be gracious and gentle women and let it go.”

While loss may cast a shadow on their lives, women religious continue to rely on spiritual and communal resources, mining the latest insights from science.

Levo now consults on well-being and how to promote it, within both congregations and individuals. “What does that look like across the board: physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally? This is a personal journey, but it’s also a social and a communal journey.”

Tobin takes the long view. It’s worth remembering, he said, that priests and religious are emerging from an “anomalous” period in religious life in the United States — one that in the 19th and 20th centuries saw a surge of vocations. A sense of loss (he said he feels it sometimes himself when he visits fellow religious in a medical center and sees the “great men of my generation so weak and feeble”) can lead to diminishment and depression, or it can result in a greater sense of divine care and providence.

Though there has been an “ebb and flow, religious life will always be a part of the church,” he said.

Others who have spent decades as counselors, administrators and researchers also see reason to be encouraged.

The use of psychological testing and other screenings, as well as extensive time in formation before taking vows, has resulted in priests and sisters who are often healthier than the general population, Rossetti said. Living in community, helping others and embracing the discipline of spiritual practice all promote sound living, he said.

“As women move toward equal standing [in society], then they can be more proactive about dealing with their mental health. People are beginning to realize that women have a right to be helped when they need it.”

Heiderscheit said she sees a positive trend in the work that goes on at Southdown.

“A lot of what’s turning the tide are the new things we are learning about addiction and mental health,” she said.

“My part is to help other women religious be healthy and well; then I think I’m doing what God wants me to do in this part of my life.”

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