LI nuns hope new pope expands women's role

Sister Dolores Wisniewski, president of the Congregation of Sister Dolores Wisniewski, president of the Congregation of the Infant Jesus in Rockville Centre. (March 4, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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The selection of a humble figure and a champion of the poor to lead the world's more than 1 billion Roman Catholics has Long Island nuns hopeful the new pontiff will usher in an era of reform including an increased role for women.

Under the fresh leadership of Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Long Island nuns said his grassroots approach could translate into a more inclusive role for women at Mass and even as papal advisers.

"He considers everyone to be people of God," said Sister Dolores Wisniewski of the Congregation of the Infant Jesus in Rockville Centre. "I think he's someone who will build bridges."

That would include a greater recognition of the role women play in the church, said Sister Mary Hughes, prioress of the Dominican Sisters in Amityville.

"So much of the volunteer work is being done by women," she said. "There are so many women who teach religious education."

The new pope has long been regarded as a traditionalist, and it's too early to know whether he would be inclined to revamp church doctrine now that he has the power to do so.

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Still, what little the nuns have heard or read about the new pope has impressed them and raised the prospect that he'll energize, reinvigorate and reform the church that has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals and financial mismanagement.

Immediately after he was chosen as the 266th pope, Bergoglio's humility was on display. He bowed before the people who assembled in St. Peter's Square and asked the crowd to pray for him. The nuns said they were touched to learn that as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio washed the feet of patients afflicted with AIDS.

Sister Wisniewski would love it if Pope Francis called for a new Vatican Council to address the church's relationship to the modern world. The last time that happened was in 1962 when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, which updated the liturgy and expanded the role of lay Catholics.

Young people today, the nuns said, don't attend church services and they don't identify with a religious organization. Perhaps the church, they said, may consider opening the priesthood to a wider range, including women and married congregants.

"What's going to happen when we don't have enough priests or women who want to enter religious life?" Sister Wisniewski asked.

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The number of nuns across the nation has shrunk from 179,954 in 1965 to 54,018 in 2012; the decline on Long Island mirrors that trend. The number of priests nationwide has dropped from 58,632 to 38,694 for the same period.

Sister Catherine Talia of the Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk hopes Pope Francis would be open to having a conversation about the possibility of letting women become ordained priests. The omission of women in the priesthood, she said, deprives churchgoers of the talent and skill women have to offer.

"It means you have a much narrower pool of leadership," Sister Talia said.

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