This article was published in the October 2021
According to Maryanne Loughry, a Sister of Mercy, professor at Boston College, consultant to Jesuit Refugee Service and other Catholic migration agencies, “In the sisters’ relationships with their employers, there has been a blurring of what I call boundaries. It’s an issue we need to address”.
How should these boundaries be redefined?
With transparency and knowledge of one's rights based where possible on written agreements. Now, it can happen that duties change, that a sister finds herself having to work late at night, or on weekends, with no time for herself or her congregation. However, neither she nor the superior has a written text to refer to. Agreements with the various partner ministries on salaries, schedules, duties and contact persons would help.
Is that not easy to arrange?
It can be in European and Western Countries where we are familiar with these agreements and contracts. However, there are people or congregations that are still taken advantage of when there are no such written agreements. This can lead to situations where one or more sisters no longer work for the diocese or the parish priest and as a result lose their housing, become almost homeless without warning. There are other cases in which the sister is more answerable to her employer than to the congregation, where the ecclesiastical authorities tell her she must do this or that, without regard to her obligations to her community. Then, when the two come into conflict, it is as if she had two bosses. In the Church there are many things that are taken for granted, for example, that we are very generous, that we go the extra mile if there is something special to be done. I do not want to give up that trait, but I sometimes think this gets exploited. Then there is a bigger issue.
What is that?
That of accountability. In the area of caring for children and vulnerable people, for example, we need very clear roles, written in such a way that people are called to take responsibility for their own behavior. The culture of rights goes two ways. We sisters must adhere to what is asked of us, otherwise bad things can happen. Unfortunately, there have been cases where sisters have not done the right thing. We have to be honest and take responsibility for that. Codes of conduct signed in these cases can help.
Where do we need to start?
From our congregations. Both we sisters and our congregation need to know what our duties are, our living allowance, our recreation time, our vacation allowance, whether or not we can use a car, how we can get a permit. Uncertainty does not help create good behavior. If you misbehave, or have extra needs, with a written agreement the superior knows how to respond to these requests with our partners: pastors, dioceses, schools, etc. In some Countries, like Australia, we have these written agreements, but elsewhere we do not. Moreover, sisters can be more vulnerable: if you do not know what your rights are, or have them taken away, you live in uncertainty.
Who is supposed to deal with that?
I do not believe in rules dropped from above without consultation. From the International Union of Superiors General, examples of these policies, ministerial agreements, codes of conduct, ways of living all together can be suggested. It is up to local leaders to share best practices and develop them from the bottom up. For this, asking sisters who work in Nepal or Sri Lanka, rather than Boston or Rome would work. In addition, certain policies need to be revised, because some of us are living as we did a hundred years ago, but times are changing.
What is driving the need to be more transparent?
Unfortunately, sexual, financial, and physical abuse - the Church has been brought face to face with accountability for its bad behavior.
How complicated is it to stay on top of everything?
Part of the problem is that we now have many older sisters and not as many younger ones. Young people have a new way of thinking, they see the world even via social media, and they want to have more time for recreation. It takes an open mind to deal with this. We live in a world of gender awareness. However, in the Church, there is the issue of clericalism and the control over parishioners and women religious is becoming a source of tension in some areas. We are called to work but not always to leadership. Movements like #Me Too and Black Lives Matter have brought about a great sign of equality to the world. Instead, our Church is very hierarchical; someone recently used the term “gender blind”. It is hard to appreciate our contribution and how we feel when we go unrecognized or unheard. There are many women leaders in world politics, but the Church will not survive if she does not adapt.
Would better working conditions be a starting point?
I know sisters who go to work, then come back to the congregation and have to take care of the older sisters, cooking for them, and have no private life or time off. If we do not take care of ourselves, even with psychological help, we cannot take care of the people around us with the necessary energy. It is not easy, because religious people think they only have to take care of others. However, if you do not take care of yourself, we can end up in burnout, angry, depressed. If we say aloud that there is a problem that we need help cooking, everyone knows there is a problem. If you hold it in, maybe we do everything, you are more upset, and it does not come out right.
by FEDERICA RE DAVID