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As Tough, Articulate and Compassionate as They Come

February 2, 2014

SisterFarrell She worked with war refugees for some 15 years in El Salvador. She witnessed the horrors that the accompanying violence of war inflicts on civilians, unfortunately frequently children and the elderly. But her next battle would prove to be fierce and protracted.

Meet Sister Pat Farrell, Past President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (founded in 1956) and Vice President of the Sisters of St. Francis in Dubuque, Iowa. Sister Farrell went head-to-head with the Vatican on the role of nuns in the Catholic Church. Part of my Leadership 2013: An All-Star Female Line Up!, she represents some 57,000 nuns in the U.S. (there were 165,000 nuns in the U.S. in 1965). Sister Ferrell took on Cardinal William Levada, who in 2012 was accused of ignoring priests who have been guilty of pedophilia and who marched in protest in San Francisco that same year against gay marriage.

Change comes hard, especially so in long-established, male-dominated institutions.

At issue was the accusation from Cardinal Levada that the organization that Farrell lead–Leadership Conference of Women Religious–was promoting “radical feminism” and ignoring the Vatican’s hard line on gay marriage and abortion rights. Levada wanted to rewrite their statute and introduce programs to re-educate nuns. The Leadership Conference replied that the Vatican’s doctrinal assessment was founded on “unsubstantiated accusations” which could undermine the ability of nuns to “fulfill their mission.”

Americans protested the Cardinal’s actions and submitted a petition. However, nuns, who take vows of chastity and poverty, were placed in a tough position. The 65 year-old Sister Farrell’s effort to resist the Vatican’s desire to take control of this organization faced a huge challenge. Yet the nun from an Iowan farm, second oldest of six children whose ailing father died at only age 48, and who left home at 14 to attend a boarding school run by the Sisters of St. Francis, persevered. As a nun, she learned Spanish in Mexico, was sent to Peru to help the poor in a remote area, and then went on to Santiago, Chile. From there it was on to El Salvador in 1986, which was in the midst of a civil war, and where four nuns were raped, tortured and beaten in 1980.

In a March 2013 interview with National Public Radio, Sister Farrell reflected on the recent selection of Pope Francis and her hopes for the future direction of the Catholic Church on the issues of social justice, charity and the role of women. For an additional perspective on the new Pope’s challenges and Sister Farrell’s ongoing fight for fairness, take a moment to watch this CBS 60 Minutes segment.

The struggle goes on within the Catholic Church on the role of nuns, and more broadly that of women and their contributions. Fortunately, there are extraordinary leaders such as Sister Pat Farrell who are intelligent, articulate and steadfastly focused on what she sees as a vitally important mission.

Rigid identities give rise to rigid organizations.

– Margaret Wheatley

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