APRIL 26, 2004





New book unveils nuns as spiritual mothers

Rwandan genocide – how could we let it happen?

Budget cuts will shred the state’s safety net


New book unveils nuns as
spiritual mothers

By Julie McCarty

Although I have personally known many nuns, I have never quite appreciated the wide variety of personalities, spiritual approaches, and ministries of religious sisters until reading Cheryl Reed’s “Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns” Berkley Books (Penguin), New York, 2004. Hardcover, 334 pp. $24.95. )

As a child raised in a fundamentalist Protestant home, Reed feared nuns. After all, they looked “so spooky in their long black cloaks and starched wimples that pulled their skin unnaturally from their faces.” As an adult, however, Reed encountered a nun whose gentle, graceful manner piqued her curiosity. She starts questioning her assumptions. Could it be that the “nun lifestyle” is really a “profound way of life”? What is “nun spirituality”? Could a woman really forsake money, a prestigious career, sex, and having children and still be happy?

Reed’s hunger for answers plunges her into a four-year quest involving 300 nuns from 50 orders. Rather than merely interview Sisters, she engages in what she calls “immersion journalism,” actually living with the nuns, “observing their daily lives, eating their food, rising in the middle of the night for silent worship, celebrating their saint’s days, mourning their deaths, witnessing their vow ceremonies.”

The result is a book that takes us deep into the heart of the concrete world of religious Sisters, be they cloistered contemplatives or social activists. We hear actual, living Sisters tell of their joys and struggles with the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We meet women who wrestle with finding the balance of work and prayer, how to live together peacefully, and how to relate to the institutional church.

The variety of personal callings and ministries within this “women’s subculture” is amazing. Franciscan Sisters teach students on an Indian reservation in Arizona, where many homes still have dirt floors, and some lack indoor plumbing. There are Los Angeles’ Sisters of Social Service who engage in pro-life ministry, and Minneapolis’ Sisters of St. Joseph who protest the manufacture of weapons. Passionist nuns in Missouri focus on the “devotion to and grateful remembrance of the passion and death of Jesus.” Sisters from various religious orders deliver babies at the Holy Family Birth Center in Texas, only eleven miles from the Mexican border, a place “where being poor or an illegal alien doesn’t dictate the kind of care women are given.” (A woman in her twenties delivering her seventh child enlists the author as an assistant birthing coach!)

Reed discovers that the traditional nun’s habit is a flashpoint among religious. Newer recruits and a few elderly nuns treasure the habit as their “wedding dress,” saying special prayers as they dress each morning. They view the habit as a sign of complete obedience, simplicity, and self-denial, proclaiming to all, as one nun puts it, that “you agree with the Holy Father 100 percent.” Other sisters, however believe that the habit promotes an unsound emphasis on mere externals and a “holier than thou” attitude. These nuns tend to view the habit as an “outrageous costume that draws attention to the person wearing it and not to God.”

Reed tells the stories of these nuns with a marvelous narrative that made me feel I was the one who had slipped behind the cloister wall. She asks questions most Catholics would wonder about, but might be too polite to ask. Rather than paint a fairy tale nun story, she tells the truth with transparency. After reading “Unveiled”, I realized how ridiculous our stereotypes of nuns are. Religious life must neither be over-romanticized nor undervalued.

“Unveiled” brought me a renewed sense of appreciation for religious Sisters and even a joy in being Catholic. These are flesh-and-blood women, who wrestle with issues like the rest of us, but nonetheless are so wildly in love with God that they abandon typical cultural norms to follow their heart’s desire. They are the spiritual mothers of the Church. Come this Mother’s Day, I plan to hug a nun.

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(Julie McCarty is a married woman and a syndicated columnist. You can reach her at

Rwandan genocide –
how could we let it happen?

By Ken Hackett

If the Kagera river could tell a story, we would no doubt hear 800,000 voices pouring from one of Africa’s smallest nations, where a genocide10 years ago this month unfolded to produce one of the greatest tragedies in recent history.

For many of us, the Rwandan genocide remains as vivid today as if it were yesterday. The images are etched in our conscience of a horror that dawned on the world 100 days too late, and brought an international community somberly and soberly to its knees. The unfathomable had taken place; we had allowed genocide to happen, again.

| The 1994 campaign of genocide by nationalist Hutus produced a mass murder of nearly one million Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus.

In just three months, three out of every four Tutsis in the country were hunted and killed. They fell to machetes in their homes, farms, schools and churches. They witnessed the extermination of their families. For survivors who had lived next door to their families’ killers, they were left to recover amid incomprehensible grief and crime.

The international community still struggles to answer the question of why this terrible slaughter happened and how the rest of the world was able to stand by and allow it to happen again.

For those of us who worked in Rwanda, the impact of the genocide was both personal and professional. Many of our friends, colleagues, and family members were killed.

At Catholic Relief Services, we were so shaken that we struggled painfully to reconnect with both our identity and our mission. How could we have been unaware and unprepared for this cataclysmic human tragedy, in a country where we had been working for more than 40 years? What might we have done to support healing, forgiveness and reconciliation before 1994?

These questions were the start of a complicated, painful recovery for Rwandans as well as for the international community.

As Rwandans struggle to move forward with faint, fragile trust, painfully aware of the burial grounds that make the countryside, the world’s international actors have had to face recovery and memories of their own.

As a result, the U.S. government, the United Nations and key international humanitarian actors have been forced to look closely and evaluate how the world could have so failed to respond to such a clear call to justice.

Acknowledgements, reflections, and even apologies are a good first step from those who were informed but who, in the end, decided to not intervene. But many of us are left wanting more.

If we have learned anything from the Rwandan genocide, then we must examine our response to today’s calls for justice. We must look at ourselves, at our own government and at the international community at large to determine if we are collectively doing enough to respond to humanitarian crises in places like Sudan, where reports indicate ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region.

We must ensure that we do not allow it to happen again. And we must pledge our continued commitment to societies long after pressing conflicts have subsided.

Peace and rehabilitation in a post-genocide society are painful and difficult, and we have a responsibility to be sensitive and realistic about the psychological impact on a community that has survived genocide.

Consequently, at a time when no answer is simple, in places where the foundation of justice is scarred, CRS values the lessons of remembrance. We have rebuilt our development efforts worldwide so that we address justice and civil society issues while fostering peaceful relations and human dignity. We encourage governmental and private relief organizations to do the same. Above all, we listen.

(Ken Hackett is president of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. church’s global aid program.)


Budget cuts will shred
the state’s safety net

By Rick Mockler

In his budget for 2004-05, Governor Schwarzenegger proposes to cut food assistance, health care and other safety net services to the working poor and their children. It’s indicative of the corner that our elected leaders have backed themselves into in recent years. After all the rhetoric about “cutting waste,” he is in fact proposing to cut sustenance for tens of thousands of families.

When Finance Director Donna Arduin outlines budget “solutions” that include cuts in child care for mothers in welfare-to-work programs, or reducing services to the homebound, she is shredding safety net services that have proven to be valuable and efficient. At Catholic Charities, we’re terribly concerned about the impact on struggling families, but we’re also concerned about the dubious reasoning that underlies these proposals.

Fundamentally, the governor and a number of legislators from both parties misdiagnose the cause of California’s fiscal woes. They lay the blame with state spending and neglect to acknowledge the role of tax cuts in creating the deficit. Since 1998-99, the state has enacted $5.6 billion in tax breaks. Since 1991 the state has enacted tax cuts costing $9 billion. Since 1981, corporate income taxes have fallen 46 percent.

This doesn’t even include federal tax cuts that affect state tax collections. By comparison, state spending has not kept pace with the growth in personal income.

Catholic social teaching has long upheld a positive view of government. Contrary to a libertarian view, we don’t believe that government is by its nature wasteful. On the contrary, our tradition holds that government has a number of valuable roles, including education, police and protection of the poor and vulnerable. We believe that as a society we have a duty and responsibility to one another, which is mediated in part through government.

Moving from the philosophical to the practical level, however, many of the governor’s cuts to the safety net are further ill-advised and not simply because of the harm they will cause the poor. In the case of food stamps, the governor’s proposal will mean losing major federal funding – money that most other states gladly claim.

Most of the 100,000 people that would be cut off of assistance under the governor’s plan are receiving food stamps from the federal government. Specifically, the proposed $4 million cut in state administration will translate into a $202 million loss in federal program funds. Aside from the families that need the aid, this is also a major loss to California grocers, distributors and farmers. It eventually ripples back to the state, in the form of diminished tax revenue.

I’m not an accountant and don’t claim to be expert in fiscal policy. But we at Catholic Charities know a lot about serving the poor and can tell you that the governor’s plan will increase waste, not reduce it, because food stamps are actually a very efficient way of distributing food.

In contrast to collecting and transporting canned goods and assembling them into boxes for distribution, or cooking and serving meals at soup kitchens, food stamps allow a family to select exactly what they need, when they need it. Most food stamp recipients have minimum wage jobs (often more than one job), and although they need assistance, they can’t easily afford the time to find and secure a box of donated food.

Every Catholic has a stake in this discussion. Over the past two decades, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in the number of hungry people coming to parish doors – a reflection of a changing economy and of federal cuts. As a consequence, we at Catholic Charities have had to divert resources from job training and counseling in order to handle emergency food and shelter services. We’d rather be spending our time promoting long-term self-sufficiency, but our first obligation is the immediate health and survival of the poor.

As people of faith, we need to confront rhetoric that glibly equates assistance to the poor with waste. Over the next several months in Sacramento, this will be a central issue as the governor and Legislature attempt to develop a state budget. Let’s encourage our representatives to seriously take into account the needs of the poor.

(Rick Mockler is the executive director of Catholic Charities of California. He can be reached at





Official newspaper of the Roman Catholic
Diocese of Oakland, California encompassing all of
Alameda &
Contra Costa counties.