Dilatato Corde 3:2
July – December, 2013
Hand carved African walking sticks
Hand carved African walking sticks


This is an edited version of a talk given at the pre-chapter meeting of the Federation of Saint Scholastica, June 20-24, 2013, at which several sisters of the Federation spoke on different documents of Vatican II. Speakers were given three questions to address in their remarks: What, if anything has this document meant for you personally? What has it meant to us as Benedictine women? What could it mean for us in the future?
There are two responses to this articles, one by Bridget Dickason, the other by  Kathleen McNany.
The talk has also been published in the Fall/Winter issue of Benedictines.

Our community closed Saint Scholastica Academy in June, 2012. The class that would have been seniors in the fall were offered the possibility of completing their studies in a program called “Saint Scholastica Senior Academy” and then graduating with a Scholastica diploma. Twenty-six young women chose to do so, and I was their teacher this past year, my twenty-second year of teaching in the school.

On January 27, 2013, one of those students, Zanib Ahmad, and her grandmother died in a carbon monoxide accident in the apartment building where her family lived. Two days later most of our school community went to their funeral service at a Muslim Community Center in the city. Given the tragic and sudden nature of these deaths, you can imagine the crowds of people in attendance and the intensity of the grief. Since women and men pray separately at these services, and the women’s prayer area was already full, many of us waited in the corridor while the center leaders and the extended family scrambled to figure out where to put us.

One of those scrambling was Nayaab Ahmed (no relation to Zanib), a recent Academy grad, who was running cross-cultural interference between the big group of Scholasticans she knew and loved from school, and the big group of Muslims she knew and loved from home. Finally, somebody decided we could sit in the back of the men’s prayer area since we were just observing (defined as not reciting the traditional prayers in Arabic). As Nayaab explained this arrangement to us, she said, “You can sit there since you won’t be praying.” Then she leaned in closer and said in a lower voice, “I know you’ll be praying, too . . . but, you know.” In the middle of a really sad, really hard day, that moment was a transcendent one for me.

That moment of hope, of connection, of pride was made possible because of Nostra Aetate, the declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions, promulgated in 1965. Without Nostra ætate, I doubt that Muslim girls would have attended Saint Scholastica Academy. Without Nostra ætate our students, who learned about Islam formally in the classroom with their teachers, and informally at the lunch table with their friends, would not have had the conviction that it was important to honor Zanib’s Muslim faith by attending services with her community. And without Nostra ætate, all of us attending would not have had the chance to share the search for God and meaning together in a brutally meaningless event.

That introduction provides a good overview of what Nostra ætate has meant to me personally. Born in 1963, I grew up in a Church made possible by Vatican II. I have never been to a Latin mass, except in Rome. I do not remember celebrants not facing the congregation. Looking back, many of my elementary and secondary religion classes were aimed at promoting our “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy. However, all those teachings came to me through osmosis. In twelve years of Catholic education, I never studied the documents. When I was a student at the University of Illinois, I took a non-credit class through the Newman Center on the documents of Vatican II, but the only ones I remember talking about were Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium. I do not recall reading Nostra ætate until the mid-90s, and I did so then because of a recommendation in teacher’s manual for a theology textbook I was using

I vividly remember the experience of reading this document for the first time. I was sitting in my classroom late at night.  As anyone in my community can tell you, I am not a night person, but even though it was after nine in the evening, I got excited. I was proud to be part of a church that said things like “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” and “The Church rejects as foreign to the mind of Christ any discrimination against people or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.”

Though much in the Church’s history—not the least of which, its treatment of women—had always been a source of discomfort in conversations with friends and colleagues (and with myself . . . and this was just at the beginning of all the sexual scandals), here was something that I could point to and say, “Here. Here’s what I learned.” It was awesome.

The spirit of openness engendered by the document actively informed my teaching. The religious, ethnic, racial, and economic demographics of the student body at Saint Scholastica Academy during my tenure there mirrored that of the city of Chicago. Since the students in my theology classes came from different religious backgrounds, the texts for our weekly group lectio were taken from the Torah, the Qur’an, the Upanishads, and from other sacred texts, as well as from the New Testament. As we reflected together on those texts, it was evident that adolescent faith development—whether the adolescent is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or unchurched—is marked by many of the same struggles and breakthroughs.

What Nostra ætate made possible also enriched my life as a woman. A Catholic-Jewish education project sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago brought together Saint Scholastica Academy students and teens from a synagogue down the street for weekly explorations of values, rituals, practices, and beliefs. A by-product of that wonderful experience was that another sister and I studied Hebrew at that synagogue for several terms. The Jewish educator with whom I worked on that project became a good friend. I sat shiva with her for her father; she in turn, helped me bury my mother.

But these are just my experiences. I can also see in how many ways the teachings of Nostra ætate ave enriched the lives of the Benedictine Sisters I know best—the  Benedictine Sisters of Chicago. As I thought about what I knew of our community’s involvement with people of other religions, I also asked community members to respond for themselves. Before I indicate what specific things came up, let me just mention the religions that appeared in the responses I got: Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Muslim, American Indian, Zoroastrian, Baha’i, Jain, Sikh, Jewish, and ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). That would never have happened before Nostra ætate! As I went through their responses, they naturally fell into four categories, which I will call ministry, prayer, presence, and personal.

I’ll begin with the personal because, for the most part, that is where all growth begins. Some sisters described how the attitude of the Church post-Nostra ætate allowed them the freedom to nurture and develop friendships with people of non-Christian faiths. Others reflected on how their own sensitivity and concern about women and women’s issues had brought them into contact and dialogue with women from other traditions. Others indicated that the authors they read in this new culture of openness—Joseph Campbell and Thomas Merton were specifically mentioned—had broadened their horizons.

If you have ever visited our monastery, you know that one of our gifts is being located in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, one of the most diverse in the city. That is something our community cherishes, and it has led to significant and rich connections with our neighbors. Day to day we rub elbows with people of all different faiths. Many of us have participated in different Jewish-Christian dialogues. Several have been part of the Interfaith Clergy group that is a long-standing Rogers Park tradition. Our monastery has been the site for interfaith education workshops, and we currently provide space for monthly Baha’i meetings. One sister even remarked on the ubiquity of Rumi poems. It made me laugh, but it is an indicator. If this were 1940, could you imagine seeing a poem by a Sufi mystic in a monastery restroom? I think not.

People from our neighborhood come to pray with us, and our tradition of hospitality ensures that people of all faiths are welcome in the monastery. But sisters also wrote about how our own prayer lives—both personal and communal—have been impacted by the spirit of Nostra Aetate. We have learned global prayer traditions and styles. Sisters spoke about forms of meditation, such as those introduced by people like Bede Griffiths and James Findley, which they now practice.

And that prayer has propelled us into ministry, as prayer is supposed to do. As I’ve already indicated, Saint Scholastica Academy was a school that welcomed students of many faiths, and as early as the 1970s, we provided space for Muslim students to pray together during the school day. We also taught World Religions—first as an elective, and then eventually as a required class. Those among us who are spiritual directors not only had directees of various faiths, but traveled to give workshops in predominantly non-Christian countries like Japan and Indonesia, where, as one sister said, she “learned much about a contemplative attitude from . . . people whose culture was deeply spiritual in so many ways.” Several of our sisters participated in the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1993, and one of them traveled to South Africa as a delegate to the subsequent Parliament. Our sisters have run social service agencies supported by people of many faiths. I am sure that all of you can tell similar stores about your communities.

The last questions that speakers were asked to respond to was this: “What could this document mean for us in the future?” When I think about moving into the future, I am reminded of how helpful a walking stick can be. I learned that experientially when I was on an AIM women’s commission trip to Uganda and Kenya in the summer of 2004. A walking stick can be used for all kinds of things, and to me, Nostra Aetate seems like a pretty solid and helpful walking stick to continue the journey that Vatican II called us to.

Just as one travelling through the bush can use a walking stick to reach across a stream or breach, Nostra Aetate can reach out and bridge divides and gaps. This document can encourage us in the ongoing dialogue between Church and culture. Though we may sometimes be overwhelmed by the enormity of the questions and issues, or made uncomfortable in the glare of the spotlight, the give and take between culture and Church can help us see things we didn’t see before, or get to new ideas that we would not have come up with on our own.

Nostra ætate can help us stand still so we can hear better. On a long walk, when legs weary, it is good to rest – and resting is aided by a good walking stick to lean on. Resting also allows us to hear what we otherwise would not have attended to. One of the criticisms of Nostra Aetate was that, while it expressed esteem and respect for Muslims, it did not call for dialogue with them. As Basil Pennington put it in Vatican II: We’ve Only Just Begun, “While [the council fathers] note that Muslims honor Jesus as a prophet and honor his virgin Mother, there is unfortunately no indication of any Christian reverence for their Prophet. Dialogue is not explicitly encouraged here, only human collaboration. There seems to be room for more growth in our response to the followers of Mohammad.” Given the post 9/11 world we live in, this observation seems particularly germane. Using our voices to ask our Muslim sisters and brothers about their experiences, hopes, and sorrows—and then listening to their answers, and ensuring that others do the same—could build strong communities for all of us.

Nostra ætate can help us clear the path and see things we could not see before. It can help us to expand our vision as we look for partners in mission and ministry. In re-reading the document and delving a little into its history, I was struck by the way the reactions of the media to rumors about the document intersected with the council’s deliberations. In What Happened at Vatican II, John O’Malley says, “Like no other document in the council, the declaration on the Jews became the focus of intense media attention and public scrutiny.” In A Concise Guide to the Documents of Vatican II, Edward Hahnenberg notes that “John Oesterreicher (one of the architects of the document) observed that the opposition faced by the text had a positive result: It forced the Council to consider entirely new horizons.” Though interfaith collaboration in the areas of social justice and spirituality is already taking place, there is more work to be done. The needs of our world seem only to grow bigger, and whatever partnerships we can forge in the interest of addressing them, whatever “new horizons” we can explore, are worthwhile.

Finally, Nostra ætate makes it possible for us to keep on walking. In 2008 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a document called “Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age.” This curriculum, an attempt at standardizing catechetical instruction, has been mandated in dioceses throughout the country and has drastically changed school curricula and textbook publishing. While many schools, at least in our Archdiocese, formerly taught World Religions in the senior year—a remarkable marriage of content and adolescent development—the doctrinal framework allows for its study only as an elective (the last in a long list) and only as an assessment of how “other systems of belief and practice differ from the Catholic faith.”

I went to one meeting where it was suggested, forcefully, that schools could still teach about World Religions, but as an anthropology unit in Social Studies, not as an exploration of faith issues. We need to continue and foster that exploration. As fewer and fewer of us are in classrooms, we need to look for new venues where faith sharing and growth—across traditions—is celebrated and encouraged. I am heartened on this sometimes steep road by the words of Nostra ætate  : “ . . . God does not repent of the gift [God] makes or of the call [God] issues.” Nor can we.

The English translation of Nostra ætate is “in our times.” How wonderfully elastic that phrase is! We can all make big lists of what has changed, in church and world, since 1965. But this call still challenges us today in 2013: “The Church, therefore, has this exhortation for her children: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness to Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods from among these people, as well as the values in their society and culture.” That acknowledgement, preservation, and promotion—in witness to our faith—is not complete. How will we continue it “in our times”?

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