01 October 2014

Benedictine Sr. Christine Vladimiroff dies

While the focus in some parts of this fine article is on the refusal of Sister Christine to simply do as the Vatican ordered and thus seems to be on disobedience, the truth is more complicated and positive. Sisters Christine Vladimiroff and Joan Chittester were not exercising disobedience but rather obedience as understood and practiced within the Benedictine tradition. Namely, they prayed about the matter, listened profoundly not only to the Vatican's concerns but to each other, the Holy Spirit, and the signs of the times, discussed it with experts, canonists, and others in a way which was also part of discernment, and acted on their discernment. This deep form of hearkening, counting the cost and then making the necessary commitment despite difficulty, other commitments and relationships, etc, is the point of today's Gospel lection and it is the essence of the Benedictine vow of obedience!

Sister Christine's response to the Vatican is appended below the article by Tom Roberts.

by Tom Roberts

Vladimiroff, an accomplished woman who earned a doctorate from the Universidad Internacional in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and who did postgraduate studies at several U.S. universities, was a teacher and administrator at various points in her career at the elementary, secondary and college levels.

In the 1980s, she served first as multicultural coordinator and later as secretary of education for the Cleveland diocese. In 1991, she was appointed president and CEO of the Second Harvest National Food Bank Network in Chicago. She remained in that position until 1998, when she was elected prioress of the Erie community.

She became most widely known, however, for leading her community through a high-profile confrontation with the Vatican in 2001. In March of that year, she received an ominous communication from the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, ordering her to “forbid and prohibit” Sr. Joan Chittister from participating as a principal speaker at a conference on women’s ordination scheduled for late June in Dublin.

Vladimiroff was to deliver the prohibition “by way of a formal precept of obedience,” and the letter made clear that “failure to heed this command on the part of the religious will result in appropriate punishment.” Exactly what that punishment might entail was not explicitly detailed in the letter, but canonists said it could have entailed removal of Chittister from her order, removal of Vladimiroff as prioress, as well as sanctions on the community.

Vladimiroff spent a great deal of time and energy in the intervening months meeting with both canonists and Vatican officials. In the end, she wrote the Vatican a letter explaining that she could not, in good conscience, prohibit Chittister from going.

During an evening prayer service the day before Vladimiroff left for a May 28, 2001, meeting with members of the Vatican congregation, she read to the community the letter she had written explaining her decision and invited all 128 active nuns in the community to add their signatures to the letter. All but one – Chittister herself – signed the letter. “After that,” Vladimiroff told NCR at the time, “we had dinner together. That’s what families do.”

Chittister spoke at the conference, and afterward the Vatican appeared to soften its stance. The Vatican spokesman at the time told NCR that the congregation “believed that the participation of the two female religious in the women’s ordination conference would not be opportune without permission of their superior generals. The congregation has not taken – in this case – disciplinary measures into consideration.” The other woman religious was Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Myra Poole of London, one of the organizers of the conference.

Vladimiroff, a native of Erie, joined the Benedictine community in 1957 and pronounced her perpetual monastic vows in 1962.

Following completion of her second term of office as prioress, she became executive director of St. Benedict Education Center, a ministry of the community in Erie that teaches job and language skills, often to newly arrived refuges.

In addition to serving as prioress, Vladimiroff served as president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses; president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (2004-2005); and as delegate to the International Organization of Benedictine Women, Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum.

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is troberts@ncronline.org.]

From Sister Christine Vladimiroff, Prioress, Benedictine Sisters of Erie and President of the LCWR.

For the past three months I have been in deliberations with Vatican officials regarding Sister Joan Chittister¹s participation in the Women¹s Ordination Worldwide Conference, June 29 to 31, Dublin, Ireland. The Vatican believed her participation to be in opposition to its decree (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) that priestly ordination will never be conferred on women in the Roman Catholic Church and must therefore not be discussed. The Vatican ordered me to prohibit Sister Joan from attending the conference where she is a main speaker.

I spent many hours discussing the issue with Sister Joan and traveled to Rome to dialogue about it with Vatican officials . I sought the advice of bishops, religious leaders, canonists, other prioresses, and most importantly with my religious community, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. I spent many hours in communal and personal prayer on this matter.

After much deliberation and prayer, I concluded that I would decline the request of the Vatican. It is out of the Benedictine , or monastic, tradition of obedience that I formed my decision. There is a fundamental difference in the understanding of obedience in the monastic tradition and that which is being used by the Vatican to exert power and control and prompt a false sense of unity inspired by fear. Benedictine authority and obedience are achieved through dialogue between a community member and her prioress in a spirit of co-responsibility. The role of the prioress in a Benedictine community is to be a guide in the seeking of God. While lived in community, it is the individual member who does the seeking.

Sister Joan Chittister, who has lived the monastic life with faith and fidelity for fifty years, must make her own decision based on her sense of Church, her monastic profession and her own personal integrity. I cannot be used by the Vatican to deliver an order of silencing.

I do not see her participation in this conference as a "source of scandal to the faithful" as the Vatican alleges. I think the faithful can be scandalized when honest attempts to discuss questions of import to the church are forbidden.

I presented my decision to the community and read the letter that I was sending to the Vatican. 127 members of the 128 eligible members of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie freely supported this decision by signing her name to that letter. Sister Joan addressed the Dublin conference with the blessing of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie.

My decision should in no way indicate a lack of communion with the Church. I am trying to remain faithful to the role of the 1500 -year-old monastic tradition within the larger Church. We trace our tradition to the early Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th century who lived on the margin of society in order to be a prayerful and questioning presence to both church and society. Benedictine communities of men and women were never intended to be part of the hierarchical or clerical status of the Church, but to stand apart from this structure and offer a different voice. Only if we do this can we live the gift that we are for the Church. Only in this way can we be faithful to the gift that women have within the Church.

- Sister Christine Vladimiroff, Prioress,
Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania