Thursday, December 6, 2012

Today's 'singing nuns'

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

The 1960s movie “The Singing Nun” starring Debbie Reynolds was inspired by a real singing nun named Sr. Janine Deckers. The Dominican nun from Belgium popularized the French song “Dominique” and many other compositions. I had a book of her songs that came with piano scores, guitar chords and ink drawings. The semibiographical movie, with Reynolds playing Sister Ann, became a hit. It’s on YouTube.

(Let me just mention here that the real singing nun’s life would later take a downward spin and end in tragedy in 1981. I read this in Wikipedia.)

The movie’s timing was ideal. Vatican II had just ended and religious orders were headed for renewal, examining their original charisms and breaking doors open to let fresh air in. Real-life nuns toting guitars, proclaiming God’s love by singing in public and even in “The Ed Sullivan Show,” were no longer taboo. Atrocious religious habits were being shucked and simpler lifestyles were becoming the ideal. Things began going farther from there. It was also the era of anti-Vietnam War protests.

A little later, in other parts of the world like the Philippines, nuns would join protest movements against repression and wade into uncharted waters. Many were frontliners in the freedom movement, if not grassroots agents of change who left the comforts of the cloisters to heed the call of the marginalized.

These things came to my mind the other day, after I read an Inquirer front-page article titled “Nun answers Vatican rebuke with a song.” I knew what this rebuke was all about. Some months ago I did write about a big US organization of Catholic nuns’ showdown with the Vatican (the all-male Church hierarchy in Rome), which thought members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) were off the doctrinal line.

The Vatican had reportedly accused the LCWR of “corporate dissent” that veered away from the Church’s teachings against homosexuality. The group was said to be promoting “feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” and being “silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.” The nuns vehemently denied the accusations.

Other accusations: promoting “a distorted ecclesiological vision, and [having] scant regard for the role of the Magisterium as the guarantor of the authentic interpretation of the Church’s Faith.” The LCWR has been under Vatican “assessment” for three years. Also in hot water was moral theologian and noted author Sr. Margaret Farley of the Sisters of Mercy. She wrote the book “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.” Farley was supported by the Catholic Theological Society of America but was criticized by the Vatican.

Anyway, a groundswell of support for the LCWR and Farley has formed. But they have their share of detractors and hecklers.

Comes now Sr. Kathy Sherman of the Sisters of St. Joseph of La Grange, who has not stopped singing and composing since her student days when Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary were making hits with their protest songs. According to a New York Times News Service story carried by the Inquirer, Sherman, 60, responded to the harsh Vatican rebukes by doing what she knew best: writing a song. Her “Love Cannot be Silenced” has become some kind of anthem for the embattled nuns and their supporters.

I listened to the song on YouTube. It is just a stanza long but is sung over and over. “Love cannot be silenced/ It never has, it never will./ Let justice flow like a river/ from the oceans to the hills./ Rise up, sisters, rise up/ And stand with our heads held high. We are faithful, loving and wise/ Dancing along side by side./ With the gospel vision to lead us/ And the holy fire in our hearts.”

The Joan Baez style is evident in Sherman’s singing. Incidentally, Sherman belongs to the 650-strong women’s congregation to which Sr. Helen Prejean also belongs. The latter’s work among death row convicts inspired the movie “Dead Man Walking” starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen.

If I may dare say this, the Roman Catholic Church’s relevance in this day and age is partly due to the efforts of brave nuns who keep blazing trails and braving the wilds in order to reach out to the unreachable. Here in the Philippines they have shown their true mettle. I don’t know why a book on their experiences during the dark days of martial rule has not been done.

I have written many stories about their heroism. Some years back I did a 3-part series titled “The Passover of Sr. Victoria Miranda,” a nun who had worked in the anti-Marcos underground and who revealed what she had witnessed about comrades killing comrades. Sr. Victoria Miranda was a nom de guerre.

But it takes all kinds.

Interesting to watch is the 2012 Oscar-nominated docu on Mother Dolores Hart, OSB, titled “God is the Bigger Elvis.” Hart, in religious garb, was present at the latest Oscars. Hart was an American actress (Elvis Presley’s first kiss on screen) and Grace Kelly-lookalike who left Hollywood to join the contemplative Benedictines. (I have watched her last movie, “Come Fly with Me.”) Hart later became prioress of the monastery.

December 2012 marks the 100th year of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) presence in the Philippines. The musical play “A Flame of Fire,” staged twice at the AFP Theater last Friday, told the story of the FMMs from their arrival in 1912 up to the present. The FMMs and their supporters pulled out all the stops to mount the rousing “extravaganza” that made many, myself included, shed tears. Ah, the heroism amidst tragedies, the love poured out, the emptying… It was all there—in “the story, the spirit, the song.”