Updated: April 18, 2013 6:36AM
Sister Mercedes Moore is 98. Her eyes no longer see. But her mind is sharp. And her fingers fly as she crochets multi-colored afghans for anyone who might need or want one.
For centuries, Sr. Mercedes and women like her have been the backbone of the Roman Catholic Church.
Entering the convent in 1933 when long, black woolen habits and starched wimples shrouded all but her face, Sr. Mercedes embraced the changes brought by Vatican II allowing nuns to wear more breathable, washable, colorful clothes.
“Christianity is so exciting and joyous!” she declared. “Why would you want to wear black?”
We met Wednesday at the Benedictine Monastery on the campus of St. Scholastica Academy in Chicago where she taught for years. While I was there, white smoke floated over Rome as a new pope was named. A leading contender had been Cardinal Sean O’Malley, an old friend of hers.
“Sean calls a couple of times a year,” she told me.
Would she have still have called him Sean had he become pope?
“I sure would!” she said.
Reverence is reserved for the Almighty in Sr. Mercedes’ world.
But respect is quite another thing. And in the Roman Curia, respect has been for far too long a one-way street when it comes to women religious who are expected to speak only when spoken to.
Notre Dame’s Kathleen Cummings, who directs the study of American Catholicism, was struck by the farewell address of Pope Benedict. “He referred to the College of Cardinals as an orchestra,” she told me, “that in its diversity created a harmony.”
But diversity is the last word she and I would use for the 115 cardinals who picked the new pope. Mother superiors of religious orders had no voice, no role in this or any other conclave.
With this new pope, Francis, comes some genuine hope. First of all, he’s lived like a nun: in a simple apartment, taking public transportation and eschewing the gilded trappings of a cardinal. And, like nuns, his work has focused on the poor and marginalized.
Sadly, he’s not expected to advance the cause of women’s ordination. But short of that, he could do a lot.
“A lot of things that the church could do in leadership, in the universal church, don’t require sacramental ministry,” said Dr. Cummings. “Women are ready and eager to help the new pope clean up the Curia.”
Administratively, she means, not by dusting the altar.
“The church has squandered a lot of talent. Women who actually work for the church,” she said. “Foreground” nuns.
Put them in critical leadership roles. Listen to them. Remember it was not they who caused all the scandals. Stop calling them radicals.
“Radical feminist?” said Sr. Mercedes. “I never met one. All the sisters are trying to do is what they’re called to do. And to please God.”
It is indeed a time for social justice.
For the women of this church.