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Leading nun tells Utah Catholics that Pope Francis gives her hope

Published January 27, 2014 11:53 am

Religion • Women, lay people may be more involved, she said.
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Pope Francis represents a "paradigm shift" that may help the Catholic Church realize one of the Second Vatican Council's visions: to fully involve lay people — particularly women — in the life of the church, a leading nun said Sunday.

Sister Florence Deacon, who is in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, was the guest speaker for this year's Aquinas Lecture at St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center. The church serves the University of Utah community.

Deacon declined to weigh in on the ordination of women as priests, telling one questioner: "I'm not here to talk about that."

And she told another that she wouldn't discuss specifics of the ongoing Vatican-ordered scrutiny of the LCWR by three American bishops.

But she spoke at length about why Pope Francis gives her hope.

The pope, she said, is preaching and writing about many of the same issues that have come to the fore since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 2012, issued its doctrinal assessment of the LCWR and mandated that it report to Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle and two others.

The LCWR's members are the leaders of religious orders that represent 80 percent of the 57,000 American nuns.

"We have begun to see this moment in our history in a much wider context," she said. "It has become increasingly clear the mandate ... was not just about us but it reflected larger questions of the church."

Catholics throughout the world are questioning the implementation of Second Vatican Council reforms 50 years later, debating the ecclesiastical roles of lay people and of nuns, and raising questions about obedience, faithful dissent, and authority, she said.

"After just 10 months in office, Pope Francis has addressed many of these issues," she said.

Not only is he urging priests to spend more time with "bruised, hurting, dirty" people — becoming shepherds who "smell like the sheep" — he's urging bishops to consult families about their concerns and says he wants to appoint bishops who have been pastors, not just administrators.

On Holy Thursday, he washed the feet of women as well as men, which contradicted a liturgical norm, she said.

"He certainly is showing us a new way of being church," she said, noting the new pope often quotes documents of the Second Vatican Council.

Deacon also quoted extensively from two other popes who have urged reform in women's roles — Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.

Sister Cecilia Van Zandt, a member of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, said Deacon's remarks on Sunday — and her own experience — give her hope that change can happen. "If you have patience and humility to keep working ... eventually change is going to happen," said Van Zandt, who is 86.

Erin Dickson, a doctoral student in biochemistry at the U., said she liked how Deacon framed feminism.

It has moved beyond thinking of women as victims of male oppression and toward an acknowledgement that women's experiences and perspectives are different, but equally valid, Deacon said, and Dickson agreed.

"I appreciate her condemning the anger. Nothing is going to come from that," Dickson said.

kmoulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KristenMoulton