Statement of Sr. Christine Vladimiroff
Sr. Joan Chittister had been invited to be one of the main speakers at the international Conference in Dublin of Women's Ordination Worldwide, 29-31 June 2001. However, the Vatican Congregation for Religious began to exert pressure on her Superior General to prevent her from taking part in this important event. Here is the Superior’s reply.
Joan Chittister of the Benedictine Order in Erie, Pennsylvania, and honoured worldwide for her contributions to Spirituality and Theology, was officially warned by the Vatican not to attend this conference on the ordination of women. One hundred and thirty-five sisters of the Benedictine Order signed letters of support for the monastic practice of personal responsibility and Joan's decision to attend. Joan insists that the Benedictines do not adopt a hierarchical approach to obedience, but have a monastic charism that sees discernment and individual responsibility as the basis of an adult obedience." She received a huge standing ovation for her talk.
Below is the official response of the Prioress of her Abbey, Christine Vladimiroff, OSB:
Prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie & President, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, USA (2004)
For the past three months I have been in deliberations with Vatican officials regarding Sister Joan Chittister¹s participation in the Women¹s Ordination Worldwide Conference, June 29 to 31, Dublin, Ireland. The Vatican believed her participation to be in opposition to its decree (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) that priestly ordination will never be conferred on women in the Roman Catholic Church and must therefore not be discussed. The Vatican ordered me to prohibit Sister Joan from attending the conference where she is a main speaker.
I spent many hours discussing the issue with Sister Joan and traveled to Rome to dialogue about it with Vatican officials . I sought the advice of bishops, religious leaders, canonists, other prioresses, and most importantly with my religious community, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. I spent many hours in communal and personal prayer on this matter.
After much deliberation and prayer, I concluded that I would decline the request of the Vatican. It is out of the Benedictine , or monastic, tradition of obedience that I formed my decision. There is a fundamental difference in the understanding of obedience in the monastic tradition and that which is being used by the Vatican to exert power and control and prompt a false sense of unity inspired by fear. Benedictine authority and obedience are achieved through dialogue between a community member and her prioress in a spirit of co-responsibility. The role of the prioress in a Benedictine community is to be a guide in the seeking of God. While lived in community, it is the individual member who does the seeking.
Sister Joan Chittister, who has lived the monastic life with faith and fidelity for fifty years, must make her own decision based on her sense of Church, her monastic profession and her own personal integrity. I cannot be used by the Vatican to deliver an order of silencing.
I do not see her participation in this conference as a "source of scandal to the faithful" as the Vatican alleges. I think the faithful can be scandalized when honest attempts to discuss questions of import to the church are forbidden.
I presented my decision to the community and read the letter that I was sending to the Vatican. 127 members of the 128 eligible members of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie freely supported this decision by signing her name to that letter. Sister Joan addressed the Dublin conference with the blessing of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie.
My decision should in no way indicate a lack of communion with the Church. I am trying to remain faithful to the role of the 1500 -year-old monastic tradition within the larger Church. We trace our tradition to the early Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th century who lived on the margin of society in order to be a prayerful and questioning presence to both church and society. Benedictine communities of men and women were never intended to be part of the hierarchical or clerical status of the Church, but to stand apart from this structure and offer a different voice. Only if we do this can we live the gift that we are for the Church. Only in this way can we be faithful to the gift that women have within the Church.
- Sister Christine Vladimiroff, Prioress,
Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania
In the news:
Sister Christine Vladimiroff, Prioress,
Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania
Seven Who Make Their Voices Heard for All of Us
By Chris Lombardi
Friday, January 4, 2002
Author Gail Evans, Health Activist Jessica Halem, Organizer Elizabeth Martinez, Lobbyist Dina Merrill, Educator Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, Media Activist Wanda Rapaczynski, Religious Independent Christine Vladimiroff.
Sister Christine Vladimiroff speaks gently of her decision to stand her ground in deliberations with the Vatican--a course of action which could have led to expulsion from her order or ban her from participating in the rituals of her faith.
She did so, she says, because she was obeying a higher power than the pope--and a much older monastic tradition of obedience achieved through dialogue rather than hierarchical decree. Her decision also conforms with her lifelong mission as an educator, she says.
In March 2001, Vladimiroff, the prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pa., received a formal warning from the Vatican stating that a noted author in her community could not speak at a July 2001 Women's Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin, Ireland. The letter threatened unspecified "just penalties" if the warning was not obeyed. Instead of delivering it to the nun invited to speak, Vladimiroff met with all the members of her religious community and then with Vatican representatives. Vladimiroff even traveled to Rome in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Catholic authorities that the invitation to speak in Dublin should be honored.
Vladimiroff joined the convent at age 17 in her hometown of Erie because the nuns in her high school "were the most happy and competent women I had ever seen." She pursued college degrees with the order's support and earned a doctorate at the Universidad International in Mexico City. She has been a secretary of education for the Diocese of Cleveland, the second-largest Catholic school system in the country, a college professor and the executive director for 10 years of Second Harvest, the national network of food banks headquartered in Chicago. "I saw this as a way to educate people about hunger in the United States," she says.
She resigned in 1998 when her order in Erie elected her their prioress--the equivalent of Mother Superior but, in this 1,500-year-old order, not any sort of commander.
Decisions are made by consensus and the order prays not to the "Father, Son and the Holy Spirit," but to "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier." One of the order's most well-known members is Sister Joan Chittister, author of 20 books, including "Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men," and "Beyond Beijing," her journal from the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women. It was Chittister who was invited to address the ordination conference.
When Vladimiroff returned from Rome, she gathered all 135 members together and read them her response to the Vatican, in which she wrote that she could not, in good conscience, deliver the papal order to Chittister.
She was saying no to the Vatican. All but one of the members of her order added their signatures to the letter, which then made all of them subject to the same "just penalties."
Chittister spoke and the Vatican took no action. After the conference ended and hundreds of participants from four continents had departed, the Vatican's spokesman said that church authorities had "not taken--in this case--disciplinary measures into consideration."
Vladimiroff finds the statement heartening, she says, "because it indicates an openness to continue a dialogue."
"This was not about women's ordination," Vladimiroff says. "This was about silencing being wrong when dialogue brings truth."
Chris Lombardi is a freelance writer in New York. She coordinated Women's Enews' Fall 2000 election coverage and helped cover the Beijing + 5 conference on women. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine, The Progressive and Inside MS.
Intern Allison Steele assisted in the reporting and writing of these profiles. She has worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, the Kansas City Star and The New York Times. She hopes to apply her background in journalism to a career in social work and legal defense.