Got news? New old-fashioned nun gets promotion

From time to time, your GetReligionistas have joined with the general public in moaning about the degree to which mainstream journalists are obsessed with matters of political “process” and that whole “inside baseball” school of news coverage in which reporters pounce on tiny changes in process or personnel as alleged evidence of earthquakes in national or world affairs.

You know what we’re talking about: If President Barack Obama praises Secretary of State Hillary Clinton twice as often as he does Vice President Joe Biden in speeches during visits to swing states that take place when the moon is full, this means X, Y or Z will happen this fall.

Lord knows we don’t need even more of that political process stuff on the religion beat. That’s why the world needs, oh, essential insider sites such as Whispers in the Loggia and Episcopal Cafe.

People have to cover some of the alleged behind-the-curtain stuff. I get that. But you know that old saying: What do you call a man who is the frontrunner to be pope? You call him a cardinal, because that’s what he will remain.

All of that said, several readers have dropped me notes about an interesting news release that came out a few days ago from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops about an interesting and timely appointment to a symbolic post. The release says, in part:

WASHINGTON – Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, a member of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee, has been named executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Sister Fleming currently is principal of St. Dominic School, Bolingbrook, Illinois. …

Msgr. Ronny Jenkins, USCCB general secretary, announced the appointment May 29.

“I am delighted that Sister John Mary will soon join the USCCB and am grateful to her religious community for allowing her to accept this appointment,” Msgr. Jenkins said. “Both she and her religious community have shown a commitment to Catholic education that resonates with our conference and which has been a hallmark of the Catholic church in this country.” …

Sister Fleming holds a licentiate in canon law from The Catholic University of America, a master’s degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, a master of education degree in educational leadership and supervision from the University of Southern Mississippi and a bachelor’s degree in education from Belmont University, Nashville.

So what is timely about this?

Well, as any dedicated NPR listener knows, the St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville is not just any modern order of sisters — it is the poster child for the young and rapidly growing circle of orders that can be called the new old traditionalists. She is part of an order, in other words, that is not part of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — the large, but rapidly aging, organization that represents orders that contain about 80 percent of America’s nuns and sisters. It is the leadership of the LCWR who are – as everyone knows – currently facing discipline and-or reorganization by the Vatican.

Catholic insiders would have noticed this piece of that salute in the press release: “Both she and her religious community have shown a commitment to Catholic education that resonates with our conference. …”

Also, as reader Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz noted in our comment pages:

There are certain details here that, for LCWR leadership, probably feel like salt being rubbed into the wounds. She’s a canon lawyer (nasty creatures, them), a graduate of Franciscan University (that bastion of orthodoxy), led the charge on the much-needed expansion of their motherhouse (because they have so many women entering their convent), is on the board of an independent (i.e., not owned by the archdiocese or any religious order) Catholic academy, and she was called on by the former Bishop of Steubenville, now the Bishop of Joliet (the former See city of the one who’s investigating the LCWR), to develop that program for the Year of Faith. Oh, yes — and she wears her habit.

I would add that if she is a graduate of Belmont University, a left of center Baptist school, she may even be a convert to Catholicism. Oh my.

All of this is, of course, rather “inside baseball.” However, you may have noticed that the mainstream press has paid a tiny bit of attention to the whole nuns vs. the Vatican story. This stuff is in the news, right now. You think?

Thus, I am sure that the appointment of Sister John Mary Fleming will — eventually — draw mainstream coverage.

Well, maybe when she moves to Washington, D.C.? The mainstream press just loves these “process” stories about powerful organizations.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • R.S.Newark

    Yet again, as your blog says; they just don’t get it, rather more to the point is the press dosen’t want to get it…bad faith of which the press is happy. Isn’t this called the “poison pill”?

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I am sort of surprised the MSM hasn’t gotten a story wrapped around the “tired old backward men hire tired old backward woman” meme.

  • bglm

    My children are educated by the Nashville Dominicans. Those Sisters are amazing, holy, smart, savvy, orthodox, joyful-in-their-vocations servants of the Lord and His Church. Their order is bulging with vocations and many, many of them are quite young. No, they are not the lapel-pin-sensible-shoe-wearing, rapidly aging sort currenlty living in many empty, echoing convents affiliated with the LCWR. We celebrated wildly when we learned of Sr. John Mary’s appointment by the USCCB. This gives us great, great hope!

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    tmatt, thanks for adding that detail about Belmont, something which I did not know. But that very fact indicates that there is more to Sister John Mary Fleming than meets the eye.

    And even if, on the surface, it is “inside baseball,” it really isn’t. I would think that it should not be too hard for someone — anyone — in the MSM to figure this out. This is going to effect all aspects of Catholic education, from elementary to university. And it’s probably going to help bring back a certain aspect that’s been missing for a couple of generations — nuns in habits. But I guess that hasn’t caught anyone’s attention — yet.

  • Bill and Marilyn

    The Nashville Dominicans have been chosen by God for this moment. They are everything that bglm said.
    Their JOY is contagious!
    The detail about Sister John Mary attending Belmont…all the Sisters just attended there at that time. Now, they have their own college for the young Sisters…Aquinas College!
    Congratulations, dear Sister John Mary!

  • Cissy Rampino

    Congratulations Sister John Mary! What a blessing these Sisters are to our diocese and to all of us who encounter them on a daily basis. The Sisters truly are the “jewels” of this diocese. These beautiful brides of Christ are our inspiration to live a life of obedience to God and His Vicar on Earth. Their humility can only strike awe within those they meet.

  • Lynn

    Since this story is “inside baseball,” we will probably need to rely on the Catholic news sources to cover it in any depth. What does it meant to be executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? What are her responsibilities and scope of influence?

    Sister John Mary Fleming was interviewed by the Tennessee Register, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville. During the interview, she indicated a number of issues she considers to be priorities in Catholic education. Portions of the interview were quoted by the Catholic News Service on May 30th, but original text of interview hasn’t yet been published by the Tennessee Register.

    Of course, her selection for this post is exciting, and holds promise for change. But I wonder how easily changes can be made?

    Sr. John Mary attended Catholic schools while growing up, and entered religious life immediately upon graduating from high school. So I am guessing she was raised Catholic, and isn’t a convert. Here is a 2004 article about her when she was the new principal of an Illinois school.

  • GhaleonQ

    Fascinating! This is why I visit GetReligion. It seems like there’s much of interest to non-Catholics who use Catholic schools and education wonks, specifically. If that’s not a hook for journalists, well…