Pope Francis affirms U.S. women religious

This story appears in the Francis in the United States feature series. View the full series.

On the second day of his U.S. journey, Pope Francis made his feelings about women religious abundantly clear and a cathedral packed cathedral of worshipers had a similar chance to send their feelings about the nuns to the pontiff.

Francis spoke inside the newly restored St. Patrick’s Cathedral after a wide grinning New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan had escorted him in.

Three-quarters the way through a 15-minute address, dressed in gold and green vestment and standing in the sanctuary behind a microphone and thin podium, Francis began to address the nation’s women religious.

As he spoke in his native Spanish, his text was being translated over the church’s speaker system into English.

“In a special way, I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States,” he said. He was then forced to stop as a spontaneous and sustained 30-second applause exploded inside the cathedral. He to read once again even as the applause continued. It quickly ended as he went on.  

“What would the church be without you?” he asked. “Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage, which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel — you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say ‘thank you.’”

Again loud applause began to roll through the cathedral, and the press pool's camera panned the audience. Tucked back about 30 rows, a group of some 15 women religious in identifiable habits were standing and applauding with the others. Another group of nuns, also in religious garb, were seen standing along midway back along a side aisle. The applause continued loudly. Francis smiled almost impishly.

This time the applause continued for 15 seconds and would have continued longer. However, the pontiff began reading again, looking down at his text. Raising his right arm and extending it to eye level as if to send his words forth, Francis said: “I want to tell you I love you very much!”

Yet again more applause, this time for 20 seconds. 

The camera at this point focused on a group of a dozen or more bishops sitting at the side of the sanctuary. Some sat emotionless, stone faced; other applauded politely. Some smiled. 

No other part of the Francis' address at this service received such loud and repeated ovations.

During Francis's tenure as pope two Vatican investigation had ended - investigations into life styles and beliefs. Allegations were that the nuns had left the church, lost their ways, were preaching false doctrine.  Like many other professional observers, I felt it was all about fear and putting the women "back in their place." 

It was never clear who precisely pushed for the investigations, but many reports traced the demeaning and wasteful processes back to US prelates living in Rome.

At no previous time during the five-year investigations of the women and their leadership organization, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had U.S. Catholics the opportunity to personally express their feelings of support for their nuns to a pope. This, then, became a historic first moment and the men and women who had gathered at St. Patricks were taking full advantage. 

And at no previous time had Pope Francis the opportunity to express directly his feelings of gratitude for the work U.S. sisters and he appeared eager to try to clean up the dirty air. 

"Thank you," he had said to the women, "thank you very much!"

His remarks were a clear repudiation of the Vatican investigations, which most U.S. Catholic and women religious felt had been tragicly misdirected and a horrible waste of resources and time.

[Thomas C. Fox is director of Global Sisters Report. His email address is tfox@ncronline.org and you can follow him on Twitter @NCRTomFox.]