Mercy sister embraces leadership roles in many of order's ministries

Mercy Sr. Doris Gottemoeller

Mercy Sr. Doris Gottemoeller

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Mercy Sr. Doris Gottemoeller
Who she is: Vice chair, Partners in Catholic Health Ministries
Lives in: Cincinnati

Sr. Camille: On July 20, 1991, over 1,000 Sisters of Mercy who served in the United States and 11 countries in North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Guam, and the Philippines gathered in a Buffalo, N.Y., hotel waiting for the doors to open into a new assembly hall and a new relationship. That day, we became the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and we elected you our first president. How do you remember that momentous occasion?

Gottemoeller: Walking through those doors with 2,000 sisters singing and waving banners, into a new reality, was an experience I'll never forget. The reading of the decree from Rome and of our founding document -- the memory still gives me chills. Then the election as president a few days later was a deeply humbling experience. I felt like I belonged to every sister there and wanted to embrace them all.

What previous experiences prepared you for that daunting position?

I had the privilege of leading the Mercy Futures project from its inception in 1981. A small task force was appointed by the Federation of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and we led and guided the effort from its beginning through the final voting by every sister and by the chapter of every independent congregation and every province of the union. We made it up as we went along, gradually developing a rhythm of consultation and feedback that created credibility for what initially seemed like an impossible scheme. One of the advantages we had at that time was that we acted from strength. No congregation had fewer than 100 members, and none was in significant distress. But we looked ahead and saw that whatever the future held, we would be better together than separate. To date, we still represent the largest merger or reorganization of religious congregations ever achieved.

Did you have mentors or models as guides for this new journey?

I had the privilege of serving in leadership with two outstanding presidents of the Sisters of Mercy: Sisters Mary Concilia Moran and Theresa Kane. Concilia was our first post-Second Vatican Council leader. I believe a large part of her gift was hospitality to all. The generalate was transformed from a fortress to a bustling and welcoming home for all. Theresa is well known for her address to the pope, but in the day-to-day work, I admired her practical business skills. Each was a wonderful companion.

Where, with whom, and in what circumstances did you spend your childhood?

I was born and raised in Cleveland, the oldest of four daughters.

What schools did you attend?

Growing up, I attended St. Vincent de Paul parish grade school and then St. Joseph Academy. Later, as a Sister of Mercy, I earned my bachelor's degree from Edgecliff College, a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Notre Dame, and an master's and doctorate in theology from Fordham University.

What drew you to the Sisters of Mercy?

When I was a freshman in high school, we moved into a parish where the Sisters of Mercy taught in the grade school, so that was my first meeting with them. Two of my younger sisters attended the school. At the same time, there was a newly ordained parish priest who gathered some of the high school girls together biweekly for a "discussion club" on topics like prayer and the sacraments. From him and from that experience, I came to desire a life of prayer and deeper purpose. The choice of the Sisters of Mercy was based on the encouragement of the sisters in the parish and, especially, on my observation that they did a variety of ministries: teaching, health care, social work, and foreign missions. So my reasoning was that by joining them, God would choose the type of work I was meant to do.  

Would you please describe your experiences of community life?

I have lived in a variety of communities, large and small, but all of them have been life-giving. I have come to see that community living is the glue that binds together and gives shape to all of the other commitments we make as Sisters of Mercy: the vow of poverty includes sharing with others in very tangible and practical ways; the vow of celibacy includes finding some human comfort in the relationships with other members; the vow of obedience includes subjecting my will at times to the will of the group; and ministry is supported by the understanding and endorsement of the group. Furthermore, the presence of a community of sisters can be a public witness in and of itself.

Is there an aspect you find most challenging?

Maintaining meaningful presence to one another when we are all engaged in different ministries with conflicting schedules. This can be an enrichment as well, as we all share our particular experiences, but it does take a lot of goodwill on everyone's part.

Is there something that is particularly fulfilling?

It's as simple as sharing a meal together, which someone has made an effort to prepare; our common prayer; celebrating and walking with one another in joys and sorrows, e.g., the loss of a parent.

Where and with whom do you now live?

I live in what we call a "welcoming community," which includes a candidate for the Sisters of Mercy and a sister in temporary vows who is studying nursing, as well as four professed sisters. We sometimes welcome young women who are considering religious life for an evening or a weekend visit.  

In addition to your responsibility to the Mercy community, you also served as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. What demands and opportunities did that present?

The LCWR is a very collegial organization, so I worked with a national board of 15 regional leaders and other elected officers. A special privilege I had during my tenure was to serve as an auditor at the synod on consecrated life in November 1973. The meeting included countless presentations by the participating bishops and other auditors and the development of a position paper, all in the daily presence of John Paul II. He also invited each of us, in groups of 10 or so, to dine with him in his apartment. Not something you do every day! As a follow-up to the synod, I spoke at dozens of religious congregations, dioceses and professional organizations in the U.S. and beyond, sharing the results and implications of the synod.

Many consider you a bridge-builder. Can you respond to that?

One of the most satisfying experiences I have had was to serve as founding member of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, initiated by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. It grew out of a faith-sharing support group that had been meeting semiannually for a few years. We recognized that many of the painful issues that participants experienced in their church life grew out of a polarization among church members, an inability to see another's viewpoint, and an unwillingness to trust the other's goodwill. Coupled with this was the tendency at times to criticize one another's motives in the press and other public venues. Over the years (I am still on the advisory committee), we have sponsored many dialogues on contentious issues, trying to expand the breadth of mutual understanding. It is a small effort with limited funds, but one that I believe gets to the heart of what church should be.

Can you cite a particularly difficult aspect of your leadership experience?

Communication is always a challenge, particularly when you're reaching out to various stakeholder groups with different interests. In the Mercy Futures project, we had to consider the questions of local/regional leaders concerned about administrative details like finance and real estate, as well as the questions of sisters who wondered what was going to change in their daily lives. This challenged us to devise numerous processes to address each group.

With so many years in leadership, can you describe the ordinary activities that have kept you grounded?

I am an avid reader of theology, current events, professional journals and fiction. (One of the benefits of travel is that it gives you private time en route for reading.) I also try to work out at the gym two or three times a week. And coming home after a time away always restores me.

What do you consider your everyday challenges?

I am feeling my years!

What gives you the courage and wisdom to address that?

Pope Francis and I are the same age, so I look to him!

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

I suppose leading the Mercy Futures effort and serving as the institute's first president would be the expected answer. I also had a significant role in founding our health system, Mercy Health. I have served on countless boards of universities, health systems, hospitals, seminaries, high schools, etc. So I guess you could say I'm a generalist who cares about all of our Mercy ministries and appreciates the role of good governance in their success. One of my favorite lines in the Constitutions of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas is, "We sponsor institutions to witness to our enduring concerns." Sponsorship isn't a work of every religious institute, but it is characteristic of us. Leaders come and go, and ministry needs change, but an institution such as a school endures in order to serve succeeding generations.

Where do you worship?

I attend daily Mass at the cathedral with a group of people whom I've come to know over the years.

What is your favorite Scripture passage or Bible story?

This is impossible to say. How can you choose between the passion and poetry of the psalms, the theology of Paul, the amazing story of the Gospels? Each passage has its time. One of the greatest gifts of the Christian life is the liturgical cycle: feasts and seasons rolling on with different moods and emphases illustrated by the cycle of readings. A line from Pope Francis' letter, "The Joy of the Gospel," is "each word of Scripture is a gift before it is a demand." (142)

What is your image of God?

I think of God as the source of all love, embodied in Jesus and demonstrated in his words and works, but also revealed in the works of the Creator and in the breath of the Spirit. As St. Paul writes in Romans, "We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings" (Romans 8:26). When you think about it, that's a pretty reassuring passage.

Has it changed?        

Since Vatican II, we've had the benefit of expanded scriptural studies that have deepened my understanding of the revelation of Jesus to be found in the Bible. Scientific findings on the creation and extent of the universe have certainly enriched my appreciation of God's creative love.   

What about your faith is most meaningful to you?

Membership in the community called church is central to me. I think of "church" as "the life and work of Jesus Christ extended in time and place." That encompasses Eucharist and ministry from Jesus' time to today. One of the things that mean a great deal to me is the extension of the church all over the world, with liturgy celebrated and the Gospel preached in countless languages. People complain about how slow the church is to change, but I always think about how significant it is that change has to be translated into, and accepted by, every language and culture in order to preserve the unity of one body.

Do you see it in action?

In my lifetime, I have seen the reforms of Vatican II gradually adopted, with appropriate cultural adaptations, around the world. The council accelerated a process that had been going on for decades with the liturgical and ecumenical movements, for example. Even the changes in religious life mandated by the council had their origins in developments before the council.      

Who most influenced your belief system? Please explain.

My doctoral studies focused on the study of the church, that is, ecclesiology, and I wrote my dissertation on the topic of change and development in the church. I couldn't have foreseen how relevant that would continue to be! It is an area where the work of the Spirit is most evident.

How long have you been in religious life?

61 years.

What counsel would you offer a woman considering entering a community?

The first thing would be an invitation to "Come and see." The process of incorporation is designed to proceed in stages, allowing an inquirer to test her readiness and fit and the authenticity of her call over a number of years. As I indicated earlier, I live in a "welcoming community," which often hosts young women who are exploring the idea. But beyond the particulars, I would say that the life for me has been one of deep fulfillment, and that God, through the Sisters of Mercy, has offered me opportunities for growth that I could never have dreamed of.          

How do you pray?

Each morning, before breakfast and liturgy, I have 40 minutes or so of quiet time to pray with the psalms and readings assigned for the day in the prayer book of the Sisters of Mercy, to read the scriptural passages for that day's liturgy, and to spend the time as the Spirit leads me. I also pray the Office with my local community in the evening.

What in contemporary Catholicism encourages or distresses you?

I feel that there is a certain lack of creative leadership among the current American bishops; they are more characterized by what they are against than by what they are for. At the same time, there are a couple of generations of lay scholars capable of articulating the Gospel message for our time without departing from the authentic tradition.  

Is there anything you would change?

I think Pope Francis is taking care of this!

What causes you sorrow?

The attitude expressed in the phrase "I can be spiritual without being religious," heard so often. A spirituality without religious affiliation can be devoid of creed or liturgy or community. A sort of "make it up as you go" posture.

What causes you joy?

The sincerity of so many lay collaborators in ministry. For 13 years, I was the chief mission leader for a large health system, responsible for formation programs for employees throughout the system (over 30,000 people). From the CEO to the latest hire, there was almost always a grateful acceptance of what was offered, a desire to understand the church's teachings -- on the intrinsic dignity of every person, on the ethical consequences of that, and so much more. This shows me the hunger for the Gospel that is present in all of us.

What gives you hope?

The young women who are joining the Sisters of Mercy are a sign of hope for me. They are mature enough not to have an overly romanticized idea of religious life and are generous in their embrace of our charism.

Is there something you wish I had asked?

No way!

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Sr. Camille's column, Conversations with Sr. Camille, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert signup.

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