Catholic laity playing bigger roles


September 20, 1994|By Frank P.L. Somerville | Frank P.L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Sister Marie Cecilia Irwin, president of St. Joseph Hospital in Towson since 1975, became part of a trend this summer -- the transfer of much of the work of the Roman Catholic Church from a dwindling number of priests and sisters to a dedicated laity.

She was succeeded by John S. Prout, the first lay person in the medical center's 130 years to hold its chief executive position.

Forty nuns were assigned to the hospital when Sister Marie Cecilia took over its management. Now, fewer than half that number are among the 2,381 employees at St. Joseph, one of 12 medical centers in the nation sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

The order's membership was 1,790 at its peak in 1968. Now the total is 1,031. Just as significant as the drop in numbers is the rise of the median age of the nuns to about 68, said Sister Marie Cecilia, who will be 64 tomorrow.

Q: Is there likely to be an upswing in the number of young sisters?

A: I don't think so. Calling men and women to the service of the church is difficult now, because they have so many opportunities to serve their fellow man and woman within society without having to commit fully to a religious life. The laity are called to serve the needs. The dwindling number of sisters is the reality.

Q: Do you see a loss in this?

A: I feel sad about it. The religious is an unbelievably wonderful life in its relationship to the Lord and to people. I am so enriched. One of my goals, as I make my transition to some other service in my congregation, is to inspire young women to see the value of the religious life.

Q: Can temporary commitments, committing to the life of a Catholic sister for a limited period of time, play a role?

A: That's working. It's called the Associate Program. It's almost like the Lord said, "Come and see." Come and do good work to enrich a part of your life. Young women today are very much called to care for the poor, to serve the underprivileged. Women can come to live with our sisters, perhaps to teach in a school or work in a hospital, and determine if they can live this life, see if it is enriching.

In the Sisters of St. Francis, the program is called Companions in Ministry. We have six women who have made this limited commitment as associate sisters. There may be some hope for an upswing in our numbers if the associates who join us are inspired by us and by the life.

Q: Do many sisters want to be ordained as priests?

A: What's happening to younger women in the religious life is that they are experiencing a call to full service in the church. I do not desire ordination for myself. It could be because of where I sit, my age and my experience.

I do believe the religious woman has a profound influence on the church and its work -- not as an alternative, as a co-server. From her nature, woman brings a gift to the church that is singular and unique.

Q: Will the Catholic Church ever ordain women?

A: If and when there is the need, it will happen. The spirit of the church today is for the continuance of the male priesthood. But need will dictate. In Alaska, for example, they just don't have the priests, and the sisters are the spiritual leaders.

Q: What made you decide to become a sister?

A: I truly believe that it is a mystery, why God calls people to do his work. The religious life is an affair of the heart, a relationship with the Lord.

But role models inspire. My models were the Sisters of St. Francis in grammar school [in Trenton, N.J.] and the Sisters of Mercy in high school. My mother used to say I was brainwashed by the sisters, but it was who they were and what they did more than what they said.

I made my decision when I was 18. My mother was not the greatest encourager. She thought I was too young. But I wanted to work with children. I'm sure it's that maternal instinct.

When I was still in high school, in the late '40s, I used to help the sisters with the children in an orphanage, 250 children.

Q: What distinguishes a Catholic hospital from others?

A: Our decisions are driven by the values that we profess. The reason we exist is service to the sick and injured and underserved. Advocacy is very important. Our service is support of life. Our maternity department is important to us.

Q: Is the abortion issue a problem for St. Joseph Hospital?

A: As long as our country will provide us with freedom of conscience -- we have that freedom-of-conscience clause -- and not force physicians or staff or agencies to perform abortions, we're OK.

If they force us to do abortions, we [the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia] will definitely withdraw our sponsorship. I don't think the church will let that happen.

Abortion is a tough issue, but I think our value of life is part of our promise of eternity.

Q: How big a factor in the rapid growth and present profitability of St. Joseph Hospital was the move in 1965 from East Baltimore to Towson?

A: We grew like Topsy in a burgeoning community, from 200 beds downtown to 300-plus in Towson -- and now we're 460. But the biggest change is in advancing technology, such as diagnostic work and the radical change in surgery, with development of noninvasive procedures. Our whole hospital family focuses on quality of care.

I can't discount the hospital location. Many people have the resources to pay for their care. We are really blessed. We're in an affluent area, but that doesn't mean we are not taking care of the poor. We have nearly 400 volunteers. There's a tremendous trend of men and women retiring with a lot of energy and financial resources and the desire to serve.

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