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Editorial: Disconnect between preaching, practice on LCWR is painful

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In his address to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square May 11, Pope Francis departed from his prepared text and told them to "knock at the doors" of their pastors, saying it would make them better bishops and priests. "Bother your pastors, disturb your pastors, all of us pastors, so that we will give you the milk of grace, of doctrine, and of guidance."

The very next day at morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta, Francis preached on Acts 11:1-18, in which Peter tells the church gathered in Jerusalem that Gentiles, too, had come to believe in Jesus. Francis said that Peter had opened the doors to the church for all. "Who are we to close doors?" Francis asked. "In the early church, even today, there is the ministry of the ostiary [usher]. And what did the ostiary do? He opened the door, received the people, and allowed them to pass. But it was never the ministry of the closed door, never."

Pope Francis, today we're here to bother you, to knock on your door until you open it.

We are knocking on behalf of faith-filled U.S. Catholics, who are among the millions worldwide whom you have inspired and encouraged in your mission to renew the church. And today we are specifically knocking on behalf of our hurting and misrepresented women religious whose visions of ministry they entrust in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. LCWR is the thinking head to the body of Catholic sister service.

Francis, we are not alone. Catholics across our nation are knocking at your door on behalf of these faithful, Christ-centered women. They are highly educated women, whose assemblies occur in a spirit of prayer and contemplation, and we feel they continue to be maligned by the characterizations we find in statements from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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LCWR's work should not be impeded or diminished. It needs to be encouraged and celebrated. We find a painful disconnect between how they are being treated and the church of encounter that you preach. We are knocking, waiting for your response.

We ask ourselves: What is the cause of this severe disconnection? The answer, we come to conclude, is fear. Fear of allowing women to sit at the table. Fear, perhaps, of what an inclusive church might look like. Does this stem from a fear of change? Is this fear generated by not spending time in collaboration with women? Our experience tells us that listening to their ideas, their perspectives, their insights would result in building a stronger, healthier church. Keeping them out diminishes us all.

Francis, nothing you have shown us since the first day of your pontificate indicates you are a fear-driven bishop. On the contrary, you appear whole and at peace with yourself. Your humble confidence says you trust in the Spirit. These are all healthy signs the Spirit is alive within you. Trust that Spirit. That trust will serve you well. It will lead you to open the doors of which you speak -- to all the faithful, including, no, starting with the LCWR leadership.

LCWR does not claim to be perfect. But the "mistakes" they might have made do not come out of a lack of faithfulness. Any mistake would have come out of a dedication to the very faithfulness you articulate in your vision of church: a prophetic vision that makes room for change and is fearless as it moves forward, taking risks on behalf of the needy of the world.

Francis, LCWR grew out of the Second Vatican Council, a council you hold dear in your heart. It came out of the vision of St. John XXIII. The council espoused renewal, collegiality, justice and service, the very principles out of which U.S. women religious congregations have operated since that council. These women need not be feared. They need, rather, to be embraced.

Francis, something is askew. Cardinal Gerhard Müller's sharp attack on LCWR is not justified. This is not just the opinion of this publication. It is the opinion of faithful Catholics throughout our nation, including theologians who are deeply involved in ecclesial matters.

The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asks aloud if LCWR's focus on new ideas robs it of the ability to "feel with the church." Francis, the opposite is true. It is because LCWR feels with the church that it is exploring these new ideas. Failure to explore what is new will cripple the church mission in the years ahead. Like it or not, change is the norm of contemporary society. Expressing changeless teachings requires new understandings and articulations.

Furthermore, the unyielding nature of Müller's comments are out of step with -- and far removed from -- the spirit of the church you are reimagining and trying to build.

Francis, listen to the knocking of your people. Open the doors to LCWR and break the impasse with the doctrinal congregation. Open the doors for all the people of God to pass through. We remain confident you will respond led by your Gospel instincts of mercy, love and inclusion.

How this impasse gets resolved -- or fails to get resolved -- in the weeks and months ahead will undoubtedly give clearer and sharper form to your pontificate.

This story appeared in the May 23-June 5, 2014 print issue under the headline: Francis, we are knocking at your door .

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