Sister of Charity Louise Lears, forced out of all church ministerial roles by Saint Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, is described by friends and colleagues in near saintly terms.
They call her a bright, energetic, compassionate and faith-filled woman. They see her as a creative, generous and selfless person, a highly effective parish minister. They say she is first rate teacher and preacher. They view her as a person guided by the gospels including an unwavering commitment to justice and the local poor.
These seemingly universal accolades, however, were not enough to save Lears from a severe interdict by Burke who banished her from all Saint Louis church ministries last week.
He also banned her from receiving any of the Sacraments in the archdiocese.
It was her belief that all church ministries, including women’s ordination, should be open to women. Curiously, this seems to have been only one of many of her passions and, perhaps, not her central passion, which seems to have been parish work.
Lears was shocked twice last week. First, she learned that Burke had judged her guilty of three grave canonical offenses against faith and church teachings; then, the next day, she learned that her accuser and judge he had been elevated to a new Vatican post, prefect of the church’s highest canonical court in Rome.
She was out; then so was he, at least from Saint Louis.
Lears, 58, for the past three years has been a member of the pastoral team at Saint Cronan’s parish in South St. Louis, and a coordinator of religious education in the archdiocese.
Lears is not speaking to the media, but issued as statement saying she was “deeply saddened” by the judgment.
“I love the church. I would never give scandal to the People of God. As a faith-filled woman, I root my life and ministry in scripture, Eucharist, and Jesus’ gospel message of nonviolence and justice. As a Sister of Charity, I vow my life to God with whom I walk in humility, simplicity, and charity.”
While Lears’ primary identification is that of a member of the Saint Cronan pastoral team, she is or has recently been a member of a number of other organizations. She is past president of the board of the Center for Survivors of Torture and War Trauma in St. Louis, a board and finance committee member for the Family Care Health Centers in St. Louis, a member of Winter Outreach to Homeless there, also a member of the W’EARTH Housing Coalition, a coalition led by low-wealth women in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood in St. Louis.
She is also an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University specializing in medical ethics and spirituality nonviolence.
Mark Chmiel, also an adjunct professor in the department, had this to say about his colleague:
“Sister Louise Lears has made availability and accompaniment a way of life. I have seen how much thoughtful attention and encouragement she gives to her students at Saint Louis University in her popular course, Spirituality of Nonviolence. Several times our community in Saint Louis traveled to the annual School of Americas vigil in mid-November, and I was always touched by Louise's calm and compassionate presence over those long weekends.
She also participated in our direct-action efforts to raise awareness and provoke responsible action about the U.S. government use of torture in Iraq and at Guantanamo. In such wise, wherever she is, she continually nurtures a community of conscience as naturally as she breathes.”
Gina Meyer, a former student in Lears' class, Spirituality of Nonviolence, said, "The class completely reoriented my view of human relationships. We learned about Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus of Nazareth, and many other peacemakers. Beyond that, though, Sister Louise showed us exercises and gave us challenges in our daily lives that made me realize how much my own language and behavior affect those around me.
Nonviolence is a true way of life and I learned if from Sr. Louise. She taught me how to be a more loving and peaceful Christian, and I am so happy that I was able to learn from her."
NCR contacted a number of her other colleagues who spoke with a mixture of outrage and mourning, anger at what they called the injustice of the action taken against Lears and sadness as they pondered the loss of her talents to the archdiocese.
Sister of Saint Joseph of Carondelet Jean Abbott recalled the time Lears arrived to help her set up a center to receive victims of torture coming from Guatemala. Abbott had found an old tavern, but it was Lears who imagined how it could be transformed into a vibrant center and set the wheels in motion. “I had very little money,” Abbott said. “Louise had an eye for organization. She brought the place to life.”
“She has a keen sense of justice,” Abbott said.
The Saint Cronan parish council last week seemed equally vexed and saddened. The council issued a statement criticizing Burke’s action while defending Lears' pastoral work “wholeheartedly.” “(We have) been edified by her depth of caring for the people of this parish, our children, the children of our neighbors, and the men and women who call the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood of St. Louis home.”
The statement added that Lears “has been a model of compassion and of non-violent resolution of conflict. She has encouraged us to live more fully the Gospel of Jesus. It saddens us deeply that she has been singled-out for prosecution in a church court.”
Echoing these expressions, Abbott said, “I feel tremendous compassion for Louise and I’m extremely sad for the church.”
Jerry King, a member of the parish and member of the Center for Theology and Social Analysis in Saint Louis, an organization he and Lears belong to, found irony in the Burke censure. “Louise was not spoiling for a fight; she really did not want a fight; she wanted resolution.” He said she just wanted to be a pastor – “and has been very good at it, very active in her commitments” to the parish, which he described as a “last stop” for people disaffected from the church.
King and others now worry the disaffected are now going to drop out altogether.
Ellen Rehg, another member of the parish, disagrees. She called Lears a “nonviolent saint” adding, “I don’t say that lightly.”
“She will continue to live nonviolently, maintaining her integrity. You know I’ve hardly ever heard of canon law until recently. She’s going to make it. So will we. She’s taught us to trust in the gospels.”