Vatican showdown the latest chapter in Sister Pat Farrell’s dramatic life

(RNS) Though she is at the center of one of the biggest crises in the Catholic Church today, Sister Pat Farrell is loath to talk about herself, and certainly not in any way that would make her a focus of the looming showdown between the Vatican and American nuns.

Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Photographed before the start of the LCWR national board meeting in Washington May 29, 2012.

Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Photographed before the start of the LCWR national board meeting in Washington May 29, 2012.

To be sure, Farrell has spoken publicly and with quiet clarity about why the organization she heads, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, rejects Rome’s plans to take control of the umbrella group that represents most of the 57,000 nuns in the U.S.

In announcing its proposed takeover last April, the Vatican accused the nuns of embracing a “radical feminism” that questions church teachings and focuses too much on social justice causes. Farrell says the American sisters are simply doing what the gospel requires, often speaking on behalf of so many in the church who have no one else to advocate for them.

The high-profile confrontation will reach another crucial pass next week (Aug. 7-10) when LCWR members gather in St. Louis to develop a formal response to the Vatican’s plans. Options run the gamut from complying with all of Rome’s directives (unlikely) to decertifying the group and re-establishing it outside of the pope’s control (a possibility).

Sister Pat Farrell (seated center right) as a senior novice during a family visit in 1967.

Sister Pat Farrell (seated center right) as a senior novice during a family visit in 1967.

But it is Farrell’s own life – a vocation that has taken her from the Iowa heartland to ministry in Pinochet’s Chile and war-ravaged El Salvador and back again to Iowa – that may be the best way to understand the root of Rome’s clash with the nuns, and why it may not be going away anytime soon, much as Farrell wishes it would.

“I’ve had a dramatic life, I really have. But the drama of it is not what’s important,” says Farrell, a soft-spoken, 65-year-old Franciscan who eventually, if hesitatingly, agreed to discuss her more than two decades in Latin America. “The best of what we do is not about high drama.”

Indeed, behind the drama is a story of service to the poor, advocacy for the marginalized, and a radical spirituality that has profoundly shaped Farrell and many nuns like her – as well as shaped the identity of the LCWR. Viewed in this context, the standoff is not a political struggle or power play as much as a contrast of complementary roles and experiences in the church.

Sister Pat Farrell as a high school teacher in Dyersville, Iowa (1972).

Sister Pat Farrell as a high school teacher in Dyersville, Iowa (1972).

While church officials often want to protect and emphasize doctrinal orthodoxies, sisters like Farrell often operate from a pastoral experience of faith in action that emphasizes a prophetic voice on behalf of the people they live with.

“The same courage Pat had in El Salvador is the same courage I see in her today” as head of the LCWR, says Sister Carol Besch, a Franciscan who spent years with Farrell in El Salvador and now works alongside her at the Franciscan motherhouse in Dubuque.

“I wanted to know God …”

Farrell’s familiarity with hardship began early on. She was born on an Iowa farm, the second of six children in a strong Catholic family. Her father was in failing health, and when she was still a toddler they moved to Waterloo so he could work at the John Deere tractor factory. He died at 48, leaving Pat’s mother, Rosella, to raise her brood by working hourly wage jobs as a store clerk and in a dress shop.

Following a “desire to know God,” Farrell left home at 14 to attend a boarding school in Dubuque run by the Sisters of St. Francis, the religious order that she would eventually join. It was a simple decision in retrospect.

“I wanted to know God, and I saw the sisters and I thought they did, and I thought they were happy.”

Her initial calling was followed by a lengthy and not unusual process of discernment that featured “lots of questions, lots of growing up” before she professed final vows at 29. Farrell had studied English and theology in college, and had worked at Iowa parishes and Catholic schools in her 20s. Now she was ready for a bigger challenge.

“I always had a restlessness,” she said. She didn’t know where she wanted to go, only that “I knew I needed to be with people who are poor.” The order obliged, and in the mid-1970s sent her to work in a downtrodden area in San Antonio.

When she crossed the Texas border to Mexico to improve her Spanish, Farrell had the epiphany that would set the course of her life. “When I saw the kind of church there, I fell in love with it.”

The culture and music and vitality of Mexican Catholicism, and in particular the warmth of Christian “base communities” – grass-roots groups of the faithful, usually peasants, that began flourishing in the 1960s in Latin America – enchanted the young nun.

She returned, telling her community that one day she wanted to go back to Latin America. Five years later, in January 1980, the order sent her to Chile.

“It was a situation that just made me proud to be a Catholic.”

The country at that time was entering its darkest days under dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose regime would kill, torture or exile thousands of Chileans over the next decade.

Farrell was sent to work in the poor northern city of Arica, next to Peru and the Atacama Desert, known as the driest desert in the world. “It was a pretty isolated, abandoned area,” she recalled. But she loved it.

Sister Pat Farrell in the parish of Cristo Obrero in Arica, Chile about 1984.

Sister Pat Farrell in the parish of Cristo Obrero in Arica, Chile about 1984.

She worked there for most of the next six years, serving the parish and helping to provide basic services and organizing people to advocate for themselves. Her last year in Chile was spent in the capital, Santiago, where she became active in the nonviolent resistance movement, learning dialogue strategies that she uses to this day in discussions with Rome.

The Catholic Church in Chile those days, from the hierarchy to the laity, was a leading voice for human rights, standing “with the people on the margins,” she recalled. It made an indelible impression.

“It was far and away the most wonderful experience of church I’ve ever had,” Farrell said. “It was a situation that just made me proud to be a Catholic.”

But Farrell was restless again, and knew there was a great need in El Salvador – and great risk. If Chile was a repressive state in the 1980s, El Salvador was in open civil war, and Catholic priests and religious were on the front lines.

Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford was one of four Catholic missionary women who were tortured, raped and murdered by a Salvadoran military death squad in 1980. That happened just months after Ford had arrived in El Salvador from Chile. One of her last tasks before leaving Santiago was helping Farrell learn the ropes.

Sister Pat Farrell with Aymara Indians in the north of Chile about 1982.

Sister Pat Farrell with Aymara Indians in the north of Chile about 1982.

When word of Ford’s murder reached Farrell, she said she actually felt “strengthened.”

“I thought if she could be faithful to the end, giving her life, then maybe the rest of us, who are not too different from her, can be faithful to what is being asked of us,” Farrell recalled.

“We had some scary moments with the military …”

In 1986, Farrell landed in El Salvador and went to work in a church-run refugee camp that was the target of military raids. Then she went to Suchitoto, a war-zone city left virtually empty by the violence. The church was trying to resettle returning residents and Farrell worked with military leaders who controlled the city and guerrillas who controlled the countryside. And she had to reconcile and unite Salvadorans who were loyal to the many factions within the rebel movement.

“What she really helped to do was to get people to move beyond their own factions,” Besch said.

From the distance of years, it is hard to recall, or to overestimate, the peril that Farrell and others faced in those days. In 1989, six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were brutally executed by a military death squad at their residence in a Catholic university in the capital, San Salvador.

Sister Pat Farrell (far left) gathering a handful of newly arrived displaced people repopulating El Sitio, in the area of Suchitoto, El Salvador 1988.

Sister Pat Farrell (far left) gathering a handful of newly arrived displaced people repopulating El Sitio, in the area of Suchitoto, El Salvador 1988.

Still, Farrell is reluctant to play up that aspect of her life there. “Oh yeah, we had some scary moments with the military,” she said flatly, and without elaborating. “Everybody knew us, that’s for sure.”

Through it all, Farrell was sustained by the same deep Franciscan spirituality that remains at the core of her identity and vocation – an element that is often lost in the prevailing political narratives about the LCWR’s struggle with the hierarchy.

“This is coming from her spirituality,” said the Rev. Jim Barnett, a Dominican priest in St. Louis who worked with Farrell in El Salvador during the war. “This isn’t political. She’s a careful person. But she’s also very brave.”

“Spirituality and the work for justice are entirely inseparable …”

Properly speaking, “nuns” are cloistered women devoted to prayer and isolated work while “sisters” – like Farrell and most women who live in community under vows of chastity, poverty and obedience – work in the world as part of their ministry.

Yet sisters like Farrell are not just human rights advocates or hospital executives or social workers with a sacred gloss – a criticism that the Vatican investigators have directed at members of the LCWR, who they say are often insufficiently (or incorrectly) spiritual.

While in El Salvador, Farrell used a tin-roofed shack in a nearby field as a hermitage, spending five days a month alone for prayer, contemplation, and writing. It is a practice she still tries to maintain to this day, though few in the LCWR – or in Rome, it appears  – know about it. “It’s a little more difficult these days because she is tied to a Blackberry,” Besch said with a laugh.

“For me, that spirituality and the work for justice are entirely inseparable,” Farrell said, her voice rising with the passion of her convictions. “If either one is authentic, it leads to the other.”

Farrell returned to the U.S. in 2005, and a few years later was elected head of the LCWR. It was not a position she sought, but she accepted it. At every turn, when asked about how she faces difficulties and challenges, Farrell recalls her experiences in Latin America – the privilege, she says, of serving there and witnessing great grace amid great tragedy.

“That experience,” she said, “has certainly developed in me a deep knowing that pain and oppression do not have the last word.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • To say that this is one of the “biggest crises of the day” is a gross over-exaggeration and displays an ignorance of some of the major issues in the broader universal Church. While it is an issue, this displays the American-centric mentality that is all too pervasive. The Church exists outside how it affects Americans.

  • Francis X: I’m not sure it’s a “gross exaggeration,” or even an exaggeration. By saying “one of the” one covers a lot of territory. But I would defend my characterization for a few reasons.

    One, the story has gotten a lot of play, and not just here.

    Two, and more substantively, the issues at stake seem to be really existential questions for the church — about the role of authority, about the role of pastoral work and its primacy — or not, about experience as evangelization, about the importance of orthodoxy to undergirding evangelization, and about dialogue and polarization in the church, and of course about the place for raising questions and debates.

    Those are all pretty fundamental issues it seems to me, and they go well beyond the borders of the U.S. Indeed, I think the American church can be blinkered about its own issues. But there are many overarching issues at stake here, I’d say.

  • Thank you, Dave for this excellent article and for exposing the beauty and heroism of the woman you wrote about. Oh, yes, these issues go right to the heart of what the Church is in American or anywhere.

  • Adding to David Gibson’s points, Sister Pat Farrell’s story needs to be held in the context of Catholic news these days: coming down on Girl Scouts; financial shenanigans at the Vatican (along with some nasty power struggles among the hierarchs); rebellious priests and dictatorial bishops in Europe; civil judgments for predatory behavior all over the world, year after year, followed now by a criminal judgment re mandated reporting; blowing an opportunity to support medical care for the poorest in the U.S. because of a theological position most of its own members don’t take seriously; complaining that ‘Catholic’ definitions of religious liberty aren’t sacrosanct; continuing homophobic and anti-feminist campaigns, but conciliation with Opus Dei … In the midst of these dispiriting, tragic stories, Sister Farrell stands out heroically, a beacon of hope and spiritual authenticity. A great good news story, David Gibson. Thank you for sharing the details of her remarkable record. I hope it gets lots of attention.

  • Anytime an author writes about this issue and says that the Vatican claims the LCWR focuses too much on social justice causes is either being disingenuous or hasn’t bothered to read what the Vatican has actually written. The Vatican never said that! In fact the Vatican praised the sister’s social justice work. Saying that the sisters need to spend more time on various moral issues does not mean they spend too much time on social justice as if the two are somehow in opposition to one another, or it’s some kind of zero sum game.

  • I cannot help but think that Jesus was more real and present 5 days a month in that tin shack in Latin America than any day of the year in the brocade curtained, servant ridden Vatican. More’s the pity.

  • Thank you, David Gibson, for sharing the story of this good women. May God continue to give her the courage that she needs to lead the LCWR through these difficult times.

  • I fail to see anything in this article that proves “Spirituality and the work for justice are entirely inseparable …” The articlce describes a person who acts on her beliefs but doesn’t provide any reason why those beliefs are in any way exceptional, or why they should they should be held up as a model. What am I missing?

  • Now knowing something of the career of Sr. Farrell, and having a passing knowledge of that of Bp. Blair, that the latter should criticize the former makes me want to retch.

  • This whole discussion is actually absurd. The communities that are represented by the LCWR are dying communities. They have had virtually no vocations in the last two decades. The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious represents those communities of women religious that are growing and are faithful to the teaching of the Church. They represent the future of Religious Life for women in the USA. The LCWR represents the dying past. It is sad to say but it is true.

  • David, stop repeating the canard that the Vatican is saying that the sisters concentrate “too much” on social justice. The problem is that their definition of social justice is often not Catholic and instead is modeled on leftist politics. Remember the Dominican sister who was an abortion clinic escort? No amount of puff-pieces about sisters that gloss over their dissent from basic Catholic teaching is going to change matters.

  • Good to know where all the rabblerousing American ‘religious’ ended up after they finished turning over the furniture in Latin America: at the Vatican, throwing tantrums.

    I’m sure Jennifer Harbury and ‘Sister’ Diana Ortiz are also in this picture.

  • The article was very enlightening. I have known sisters, religious brothers and priests who have had similiar experiences and they are a gift to humanity and the Church. In this present conflict let us pray that both sides will make their valid points and come to some agreements (which will probablly call for change) and we can all profit from the outcome.

  • James:
    Please explain why, in referring to Sister Dianna Ortiz, you put quotation marks around the word “Sister.” She’s a member in good standing of her Ursuline community.

  • It seems that the nuns are all too happy to question the Vatican but are not at all happy when it is they who are being questioned.
    Also, Rome is not seeking to take control of the nuns. They are “licensed”, if you will, by the Vatican, and there are certain requirements that go along with getting the imprimatur of Rome. Otherwise, anyone could say they are nuns.

    Would Sr. Farrell like it if a group of lay women started calling themselves religious nuns, particularly Franciscan nuns without having anything to do with St. Francis? I doubt it.
    Please be more objective, David, or you’ll lose your cred.

  • I was recently in the Philippines and other parts of Asia, and I can assure you that Catholic religious women there are following the showdown with the LCWR very closely, and rooting for their U.S. sisters. This story is much bigger than something strictly “America-centric.”

  • lczaplys: You wrote: “The articlce describes a person who acts on her beliefs but doesn’t provide any reason why those beliefs are in any way exceptional, or why they should they should be held up as a model. What am I missing?”

    Sr. Pat was very eloquent about how her foundational beliefs in Christ’s death and resurrection informed her work, and spoke repeatedly about what she saw of in Latin America as an example of the Paschal mystery. I wish I included more of that, but I hope it was self-evident that she acts out of her Catholic beliefs and a very Franciscan spirituality.

    James, I would also like to know how you could disparage a sister like Dianna Ortiz. Here is something about her and the torture she went through in Guatemala:

    If she espouses a position you disagree with, state your case. But an ad hominem attack is always unwelcome here, and especially against someone who has suffered as she has and coming from someone who I suspect has not. But I am willing to be enlightened.

  • I agree that it is not just an American-centric situation. It is a concern for all Christians – as politics and special interest groups have entered into it all over the past decades and literally “muddied the waters.” The result is a present and dangerous polarization within the US Catholic Church (a situation that has also entered into other denominations). Ironically – if anyone noticed – the Epistle we all hopefully read and heard for Sat-Sunday in most Christian denominations – was about the need for Christian unity in the world. Just as the RCC does not still officially belong to the World Council of Churches headquartered in Geneva – we all as Christians need to stop being so polarized and learn to understand each other first within parishes and dioceses and then overall within our denominations and with each other as Christian denominations. The world is not just watching the US Catholics of late on this situation – it is watching all Christians as to how we behave and “live/act out” the Commandments – especially the first two.

  • Believing that the Church teaching about the sanctity of life and the right ordering of our sexual and other desires are somehow in conflict with feeding the poor and tending the sick does not make sense to me. The Church manages to help so many on so many levels because of its organization, not in spite of it. Obedience has always been strongly connected to humility. If the nuns think they know better, and want to go it on their own, that is what they should do. Perhaps they could join the Episcopal Church which is losing membership at a drastic rate. Then everyone can exist happily and peacefully.

  • Christine, your comment sums up my thoughts perfectly. I will add this, the sisters have done a lot of good here and around the world and that is seen by so many, Catholic and non Catholic alike. I was the latter until the late 90’s. As a convert to the Catholic Church I thought all priest, nuns, sisters, were genuine in their obedience to Rome. Was I mistaken. When those mentioned are defiante that makes for a very serious problem for the church internally and externally. They are the real problem and what the outside world sees is division. Sinners we are, yes, but when it is committed in the name of the church then nothing good will come of it.

  • I think and feel that the controversy is largely about gender. These and many male cleric hierarchs are not about to cede discretionary action to church women. Never were and never will, unless they, the clerics and their sexist allies, experience a gender consciousness metanoia. The other conflicts are presenting issues. God blesses Pat Ferrell and other women who see their pastoral responsibilities as emanating from a Higher Power.

  • I pray that the Holy Father and the magisterium and the women of L.C.W.R. will find a way to negotiate a peaceful end to this ungodly fight – a fight that I wish the Vatican hadn’t started. This was so predictable – it happened in 1968 to the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles. There was no winner then, there won’t be now, only losers.