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Nuns who won’t be bullied

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Popemobile surrounded by Vatican gendarmes after his audience group renewal spirit Saint Peter's Square Vatican May

Pope Benedict XVI leaves on the Popemobile surrounded by Vatican gendarmes after his audience to the group renewal in the spirit in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican on May 26, 2012. Vatican police arrested a man the day before, reportedly the pope's butler, on allegations of having leaked confidential documents and letters from the pontiff's private study to newspapers. The man was caught in possession of secret documents, the Vatican said, but it would not confirm the suspect's identity, age, or when he had been arrested. AFP PHOTO/ FILIPPO MONTEFORTEFILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/GettyImages

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Updated: July 11, 2012 10:19AM

Nuns representing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious travel to Rome Sunday to meet their Vatican accusers. The bishops recently excoriated them for being too concerned about social justice rather than battling abortion and gay marriage. This seems the right time to remember Sister Margaret Traxler.

Forgive me if I call her “Margaret” rather than “Sister,” but she was a good friend.

In 1965, when she was 41 years old, Margaret and her fellow sisters stood front and center on an explosive issue the bishops of the Catholic Church would only later embrace. That year, dressed in full habit, they marched in Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. under a hot Selma sun protesting restrictions on black voting rights.

In a violent, dangerous time, the nuns were a stunning sight. For Margaret, it was transformational.

She sent an open letter to a Catholic magazine titled “After Selma Sister, You Can’t Stay Home Again!”

She wrote:

“Selma is a point of no return. An old woman there said to me with tears in her eyes, ‘I never knew the Catholic Church cared so much for poor people like us.’ We can never again forget the cry of the poor.

“It takes moral courage to do what is right even though it be unpopular. . . . Sisters cannot bear witness at future Selmas if they are sealed into enclosures and if they never re-evaluate their work.”

Margaret, a School Sister of Notre Dame, entered the convent in 1941 at age 18. As a young nun, she was cloistered and restricted. Not even allowed to travel to see her dying father.

But by the time of Selma, colossal forces were intersecting. Vatican II and Vietnam. Civil rights and women’s rights.

And nuns were becoming more educated. No longer limited to teaching and nursing, they became lawyers, doctors, hospital administrators, social workers and theologians.

As Margaret put it, the toothpaste was never going to be put back in the tube.

Now today, as a much more conservative hierarchy seeks to turn back the clock to a more traditional Church, it is in denial. It ignores the fact that the Church cannot survive without the gifts of religious and laywomen. They are the work force that keeps its vast network of Catholic hospitals, schools, immigrant and social service agencies afloat. Not to mention its parishes.

Sister Margaret Traxler, faithful to God and the Gospel, didn’t believe in abortion but worked enough with women who were raped, poor, in prison or coping with other forces in their lives to ultimately conclude that abortion was a woman’s decision to make.

In 1984, Margaret was one of 97 Catholics, including 24 nuns, who signed a letter published in the New York Times asking the Church for dialogue on this issue. Rome was furious and demanded she recant. She never did.

Until her death in 2002 at age 77, she gave her life to many other “Selmas,” working with abused women and the homeless.

Like the embattled nuns of LCWR do now, Margaret heard the cries of the world.

And, like LCWR, she answered.

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