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Buffalo women religious honored after Vatican's rebuke

Gloria McLaughlin called women religious the face of the Catholic Church.

Sheila McCarthy described how the lives of many Western New Yorkers "are a reflection of the sisters' work."

And the Rev. Fred Leising identified the nuns of the Diocese of Buffalo as the finest examples of Christ in the world.

A few months after the Vatican delivered a stinging rebuke of a national organization of Catholic sisters -- setting off a firestorm in the U.S. church -- local women religious received a warm embrace from the local community.

About 350 people participated in a special service of prayer and praise Sunday afternoon in Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Clarence.

Some of them wore buttons proclaiming "I Stand With The Sisters."

The event included hymns, prayers and remarks from a variety of speakers. And although the "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious was never overtly mentioned during the service, the Vatican report released in April was certainly a backdrop.

"There's a big distinction between the Vatican and the church. This is the church," McLaughlin said afterward, pointing to the people in the pews of Nativity.

"This service was occasioned by the actions of the Vatican," she added, "but not in response to it. We just used this as an opportunity to thank the women religious."

McLaughlin was one of several organizers from various Catholic parishes in the diocese.

The assessment, written by Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group of 1,500 or so leaders of religious communities of women across the country, of promoting "radical feminist themes" incompatible with Catholic faith and sponsoring talks that contradict Vatican teaching.

The document, while applauded by some Catholics who believe women religious have strayed from church doctrine in their lifestyles and ministries, provoked outrage among other parishioners who rushed to the defense of the stunned sisters.

Leising, who is pastor of Nativity Parish, fondly recalled the influence of a teaching nun, Sister Rosalind, from his days as a youngster at St. Mary School in Swormville.

"I'm probably here as a priest today because of a woman religious," he said.

As a young priest just finding his way in a West Seneca parish, it was the nuns who provided Leising with "a sense of home, a sense of family and a sense of commitment," he said, adding he saw early on how effective the sisters were at getting things done.

"I recognized fairly quickly who was really in charge and doing all the work," he said.

Barbara Shanahan remembered the convent as being the heart of parish life in the church where she grew up. Shanahan, director of the Catholic Biblical Program, said that many of the female characters in the Bible do courageous and prophetic things, without even being mentioned by name.

Similarly, area women religious have largely toiled in anonymity.

"Yet, when the story of the church is told," said Shanahan, "what they have done will be told in memory of them."

At one point in the service, McCarthy read off the names of 18 groups of women religious that currently serve in the Buffalo diocese, starting with the arrival of the Daughters of Charity in 1848.

Sister Edith Wyss, provincial minister of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance & Christian Charity and a local representative to the LCWR, thanked lay people for giving sisters the courage and energy to keep going in their work every day.

In an interview following the service, Wyss said she was not aware of what the next steps the LCWR will be.

The Vatican has appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to monitor the organization's activities for as long as five years.

The LCWR holds its next annual meeting in August.

"Whatever happens it won't change our commitment to ministry," said Wyss. "Nothing will be done in a hurried way."

Wyss also called the service on Sunday "very humbling."

"It was not anything that was political or anti-anything," she added.