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Conscience Magazine

Spiritual Impasse: FILM DOCUMENTS IHM SISTERS’ FAITHFUL CONSCIENCE

By SEAN MCCREIGHT May 6, 2021
L.A.’s Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the head a march for social justice in the late 1960s.


“Where indiscriminate church authority and discerned communal autonomy collide, faithful conscience prevails.”


THE MOVEMENTS FOR SOCIAL justice saturating the backdrop of “Rebel Hearts,” a new documentary directed by Pedro Kos, easily could be taking place today. The year, however, isn’t 2021. It’s 1969. The Vietnam War rages; the National Organization for Women goes national; Fred Hampton is assassinated by police; Richard Nixon is inaugurated; the Stonewall riots begin in New York City; the American Indian Movement is taking off; Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers are striking across California; and Texas attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington assemble the case that will come to be known as Roe v. Wade.

As the documentary illustrates with interviews, incisive archival footage and Una Lorenze’s stunning animation, these tidal waves of justice rocked the Los Angeles Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. As they participate in these movements, they’re also discerning their response to the Vatican II decree on Appropriate Renewal of Religious Life, which encouraged religious orders to “experiment” with their dress, charism and prayer schedules amid the modernizing world. Yet, just as the IHM sisters discover new ways of responding to the times, they discover the extent to which Catholic Church leaders will mobilize their enormous institutional power to stifle any participation in internal and external movements for progress.

In this story of David and Goliath, the sisters in “Rebel Hearts” are led by a remarkably prescient team including Mother General Anita Caspary, IHM College President Helen Kelley, and the likes of visual art pioneer Corita Kent and civil rights activist Patrice Underwood. Cardinal James McInt yre appears in stark spiritual opposition as he is introduced to the Los Angeles Archdiocese, adorned in his clerical armor and ecclesial accoutrements. As Msgr. Clement Connolly, his once personal secretary states on camera, this man was “shaped, formed and anointed into a church that was authoritarian. Salvation came through a rigid obedience.” Cardinal McIntyre found the concept of experimentation encouraged at this time a threat to the established order. How might a group of sisters, exploring faith and conscience, engage a force hell-bent on wielding his institutional privilege over others? With art, prayerful discernment, and the spirit of revolution, of course!

“The Immaculate Heart College was alive with highly trained, very bright professionally ambitious women,” remarks Sister Kelley. A community of women, with more degrees among them than all the priests in the archdiocese, had decided it was critically important to reexamine their strictly regimented prayer practice, dress code (i.e., the habit), and participation in civil and social movements for justice.

Instead of buckling under threats and pressure, the IHMs persisted and in good conscience invited all vowed members of the community to reflect on and ask themselves: “Are we religious women in the Catholic Church comfortably isolated from protest? How might we more fully participate in the world?”

The film is clear these questions were not considered lightly. Through a year of personal experimentation and engagement with the outside world, they began asking more about their own labor, gender and religious rights, as well.

Mother Caspary eventually delivered to the cardinal the community’s message outlining their collective desire to make the habit optional, reduce parochial school class sizes from 80 to 40 children and allow flexibility in their lives of prayer and social engagement. Cardinal McIntyre responded furiously, forcing upon them the now alltoo- common practice of calling for a formal Vatican investigation into the religious congregat ion. This was intended as a message for women religious across the entire country: Do not challenge institutional power. Do not, under any circumstance, act in the discerned best interest of yourselves and your community.

This Vatican delegation fancied themselves “benevolent” peacekeepers, mediators between an old-school patriarch and this newly empowered group of sisters. They urged the IHMs to pretend: say they were wearing the habit but hang it in their closets; report to the cardinal that they all prayed together but individually do what they saw fit; organize the schools as they needed without asking for more support. “But, why should we lie?” they asked. “Why should we pretend something that wasn’t true to suggest those ways of going about it were fine?”

They could choose. Get in line, and remain part of the problem. Or, do what you like in secret, keep quiet and remain part of the problem. Neither option was suitable to the IHM sisters. Days after the delegation concluded its intervention, Mother Caspary wrote one of her final letters to Cardinal McIntyre. “We struggled to find a way in which your authority and our autonomy might be reconciled,” she wrote. They were, she added, was “a spiritual impasse.”

In the end, the IHMs held one more vote to decide their fate. The result is documented with the same brilliant joy the sisters exhibited throughout their lives. As Rosa Manriquez, an ordained woman priest, said over 50 years ago as a primary school student of the IHMs, “The sisters are a small part of a very large movement that has to take place, and is going to take place.”

As poignant and relevant as the IHM’s struggles might be for us today, they are part of a long continuum of justice that inspire and welcome the viewer. The real message is clear. As one of Corita Kent’s works hanging on our chapel wall states, boldly in the colorful text she became celebrated for, “If you want peace, work for justice.” For those of us who long for peace, we must take seriously the call to be honest and public about injustice. How might we, like the Immaculate Heart of Mary community, find the courage to choose God’s gift of conscience over the brute force of authority?


SEAN MCCREIGHT
SEAN MCCREIGHT

SEAN MCCREIGHT is an educator, father and co-founder, along with Karen Gargmelli- McCreight and James Hannigan, of Benincasa Community in New York City, a lay Catholic community named in honor of Catherine Benincasa of Siena and dedicated to the works of mercy and justice.