Pontiff is present for 100th birthday of College of Notre Dame of Maryland


Imagine you are Catholic and you are having a birthday party and you invite the pope. And he comes.

That is the happy coincidence -- some might say miracle -- that has occurred for the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, which is celebrating its 100th year as the oldest Roman Catholic college for women in the United States.

Pope John Paul II was scheduled to be in Baltimore last October, but fatigue and poor health caused him to put off his visit until now, when the streets around Notre Dame's north Baltimore campus are decorated with blue and white centennial banners.

What great timing.

Not only for the college and the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who will hear the pope praise their school and their vocation as teachers during a prayer service at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen today, but also for the Catholic women who have mixed feelings about this pope.

John Paul II, who has placed his rulings on the ordination of women beyond discussion, comes to town when one of the previous century's key women's causes -- their education -- is being celebrated. And it was a cause pioneered by nuns.

"The College of Notre Dame sits at the center of that revolution," says the college president, Sister Rosemarie Nassif. "It was established at a time when the higher education of women was considered skeptically, to say the least. The founder's vision was extraordinary."

Sister Mary Meletia Foley expanded the curriculum of the Institute of Notre Dame -- then a Catholic girls' high school -- to a full baccalaureate degree in 1895.

?3 But not simply because she thought women should

able to attend college. She had a more extraordinary goal. She felt Catholic University would soon open its graduate schools to women and they would need a place to earn an undergraduate degree in preparation.

"In my mind, that's even more amazing," says Sister Rosemarie.

There is some public perception that the young women who come to this intimate, single-sex Catholic college do so because they seek to be nurtured or protected.

But that is not the case.

The expectations of Sister Mary Meletia -- that CND would be a jumping-off point for greater achievement -- has telegraphed through the past 100 years to the present.

"If a woman is going to college for a social life or to complete someone else's expectations of her, then she is not the young woman we seek," said Sister Rosemarie.

"I believe the women who come here want to do more than the norm. Their world is much bigger because of the expectations we have for who they can be and what they can do."

Young women of all faiths attend CND, but it is the young Catholic women who often find themselves at odds with the writings of the pope.

In a July 10 letter to women, he praised them for their contributions as mothers, wives and workers. He demanded full social and economic equality for women and an end to violence against them. And he apologized for any role the Catholic Church may have had in their repression.

But apologies usually mean you won't do it again. To the contrary, the pope used the letter to repeat that women will never be ordained as priests.

The power of his letter as a healing gesture toward women was vacated by the estatement of his teaching that, in essence, if Jesus had wanted women apostles, he'd have picked some.

"The majority would have some conflict or disagreement with the church," Sister Rosemarie says of her women students. "But we have to get beyond the issues."

She is right. As long as this restorative pope is so sternly certain that women will not be ordained as priests, it seems senseless to pursue him on the matter.

It is more productive to work within the system, changing things by being in the room when decisions are made.

Sister Rosemarie has been one of those women. A Ph.D. in chemistry, a vicar of the church and a university president, her life as a religious woman is far from what she imagined when she turned down her disapproving father's offer of a red convertible to reconsider her decision to enter the convent.

"I was the co-vicar for religious in St. Louis for six years, a position very rarely held by a woman," says Sister Rosemarie. "I had direct access to the bishops and an opportunity to speak about issues in very sensitive places."

This is far from the stereotypical view of nuns as the servant class in the religious hierarchy.

Sister Rosemarie's example may be a more accurate one: religious women as insiders, free agents, allowed long ago to study disciplines and hold positions -- in the board rooms of hospitals, schools and universities -- closed to secular women.

"I believe in the Catholic Church in my soul, in my blood and I believe I do make a difference," Sister Rosemarie says.

This must be true. After all, she threw a birthday party, invited the pope. And he came.

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