Mother Cabrini and Deaconesses – Crisis Magazine

I could not help thinking about the current state of the Church in America while watching the emotionally powerful movieCabrini, just released by Angel Studios. The archbishop she dealt with in New York seemed to me to be a caricature of the prelates who are lions within the flock and lambs outside of it. I am sure the lions appreciate the variation of style. You can browbeat the more conservative sections of the Churchad intrabut can be meek and mildad extrato the powers that be.

It is a consolation to me to think that while Catholics in America at least recognize the name of Mother Cabrini, not very many would be able to come up with the name of the bishop with whom she dueled. While I presume that there was some artistic license in the presentation of the drama of the first part of St. Francesca Cabrinis ministry in America, an elision of dates and figures, I would like to see the reaction of many of our prelates as they saw the film.

The screenplay has a symbolic gesture that reveals many layers of meaning. The corrupt mayor of New York berates a timid archbishop and then offers him a drink. His Grace is slow to drink it, and His Honor doubles down the insult and says, Youre an Irishman, bottoms up, or something to that effect. At that point another man might have been tempted to throw the drink at the mayor or just walk out; but the cowed archbishop meekly drinks up and then, with a frustrated, weak-mans bravado, slams the glass down on the mayors desk.

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When Mother Cabrini goes to the mayor after some ruffians attempt to burn down her hospital in the midst of its remodeling, His Honor is unable to make her afraid. He then offers her a drink, which she accepts and takes up without need of bullying. She had won the mayors respect, and the audiences, of course, by the confrontation. Her lack of reluctance quaffing the whiskey was a symbolic difference between how she operated and how her ordinary did.

Undeniably, Mother Cabrini was a forceful personality and was not inclined to docile acceptance of the course of least resistance. There is a clerical legend around Cleveland that our Archbishop Hoban (honorary archbishop), who knew the great woman from Chicago, had said that saints are supposed to be in Heaven because they are hell to live with on earth, or something to that effect. The lady had a way with clerics.

Archbishop Hoban, who knew the great woman from Chicago, had said that saints are supposed to be in Heaven because they are hell to live with on earth.Tweet This

The movie is like a lesson in the difference between what James MacGregor Burns called transformational and transactional leadership. Cabrini was a hero and by charismatic leadership achieved enormous goals that a transactional leader would not have dreamed of. The transactional leader is always afraid of rocking the proverbial boat and is always aware of the limitations of situations. Such a leader never says, Fiat justitia, ruat caelum; instead, they ask, How is this going to play? with the big boys. After the Dobbs decision, some dioceses didnt ring the bells and sing alleluia but were more concerned about protests at Mass and arson.

The episcopal dynamic in the movie was not the only thing that left me thinking. Just recently, we have heard that deaconesses are on the agenda for the next synod. I share the skepticism of those who see the study groups as a maneuver to push an agenda on what is supposed to be a consultation. We will give you what you want but also tell you what you want, which, ironically, is what we want.

I suppose the idea of reviving an ancient and ambiguous role to a formal ministry in the Church is, in part, an attempt to placate those who would like to see womens ordination. I think in that sense it is doomed to failure. Is this supposed to satisfy those who do not understand the sacramental issues involved in exclusive male ordination? By giving quasi-sacramental status to what is a pastoral ministry? It seems to invite rejection from both ends of the spectrum.

Did Mother Cabrini seek out recognition based on a top-down, lets-solve-a-public-image problem? Few before Mother Teresa did as much diakonia in the pristine sense of the word as care for the poor and oppressed by the distribution of the Churchs material means. In its biblical roots, diakonia is about serving table and almsgiving, about fairness and the differentiation of pastoral attention.

The biggest problem of the participation of women in the leadership of the Church today is frankly being ignored: the decline of active religious life. One theory of the decline had to do with the ideologies that had invaded the vocation. The famous study never finished which concentrated on some clearly mistaken paths to religious life took an intellectual approach and saw that theology had been replaced by ideology in some communities. Pope Francis promptly shut down this approach to analysis of the problem after his accession. But it is a crisis of enormous proportions.

Women religious were essential elements in Catholic primary and secondary education. They were also the support of health care as pastoral care through a network of hospitals across the country. Many communities are facing what must frankly be called extinction.

Is that because they are not called deaconesses? For centuries, women religious have served the Church precisely in diakonia. Is the lack of vocations to religious life part of Gods providence, or is the confusion of the Church mirrored in the chaos of communities who are obstacles not avenues of vocation? There are religious communities of women no longer accepting candidates for vows. They are building retirement complexes designed to be repurposed as senior condominiums. 

One sister I knew moved into such a place and asked, When are they going to serve the Kool-Aid? And then there were none is the title of an Agatha Christie novel, but it is also appropriate for the future bare, ruined, choirs that will mark the Churchs landscape. In ideological dustups we have lost valuable institutions.

Resurrecting deaconesses reminds me of Michael Crichtons Jurassic Park, where a mosquito in amber has the DNA of a Mesozoic reptile and the lab takes it from there to clone dinosaurs. The DNA in this regard is not an entire double helix. Build it and they will come, is a famous movie line. Create a new ministry and they will join seems to be the hope of the advocates of non-sacramental deaconesses.

What would Mother Cabrini think of that gambit? The world is in flames and does not know Christ. So we spend our energies on benevolent and patronizing beaux gestes and discussions of titles. 

  • Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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