Sister Marcia Allen & an extraordinary Vatican meeting


When Sister Marcia Allen went to Rome two years ago for an assembly of the Union of International Superiors General, she had an audience with the just-elected Pope Francis — but “audience” meant she was among 800 delegates and the pope spoke to them from an elevated “throne” in one of the Vatican’s major reception halls.

So when Sister Marcia, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, learned that her recent visit to Rome as president-elect of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious would again include an audience with the Pope, she expected a similar grand reception.

Instead, she explains from her office in Concordia, a Vatican usher gathered the four LCWR representatives and “led us through one throne room after another. Finally, when he opened a door, there was the Pope, reaching out to shake my hand.”

Sister Marcia Allen, fourth from left, and other LCWR representatives, meet with Pope Francis April 16 at the Vatican.
Sister Marcia Allen, fourth from left, and other LCWR representatives, meet with Pope Francis April 16 at the Vatican.

What followed was an extraordinary conversation among the four American Catholic sisters and the Jesuit pope, with the assistance of a translator. The 45-minute meeting that began with surprised handshakes and hurried introductions ended with warmth and what Sister Marcia called “abraços” — a Portuguese word that describes the Latin American embraces common in greetings and departures.

In that 2013 audience, Sister Marcia had seen Francis the Pope. But this time, she said, she experienced Francis the human being, the Jesuit, the simple man of God who is deeply concerned about humanity.

The LCWR representatives — Sister Marcia along with past president Sister Carol Zinn, executive director Sister Joan Marie Steadman and former executive director Sister Janet Mock — did not discuss with Francis their main reason for being in Rome: the abrupt end of the six-year long “doctrinal assessment” of the leadership group.

“It wasn’t that he was minimizing it or trivializing it,” Sister Marcia explained, “He was just putting it in its proper perspective; it just wasn’t important.”

Instead, the discussion was around “The Joy of the Gospel,” the small book Francis published in 2013. To the pope, it is an “apostolic exhortation,” while others have called it “a pep talk for Christians.”

For Sister Marcia, the conversation focused on “lived hope and joy; putting your faith into action for those in need.

“Living the ‘joy of the Gospel’ is living a life devoid of human egotism, a life of total self-giving,” she added. “And Francis is engaged and knowledgeable on all aspects of how that plays out in our lives.”

She noted that he was “conversant on major issues in the world, and willing to ask our opinions, and then listen to what we had to say.”

She is also sure that Francis was knowledgeable about the symbolism of this private meeting.

“Seeing us had an enormous symbolic value,” Sister Marcia said. “It was just us — not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, not Archbishop (J. Peter) Sartain. Just us. He wanted to talk about what is important to him, and to us as women religious.”

And Francis noticed that Sisters of St. Joseph had a heavy majority in this group of four.

At the beginning of the meeting as soon as everyone was seated, he had asked through the translator for each woman to introduce herself again, along with her religious community and where she was from:

  • Sister Marcia Allen, Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kansas.
  • Sister Carol Zinn, Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia
  • Sister Janet Mock, Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pennsylvania
  • Sister Joan Marie Steadman, Holy Cross Sisters of Notre Dame, Indiana

Francis looked at Sister Joan Marie with amused surprise and asked in English, “Three to one?”

The women quickly responded that Sisters of St. Joseph have an Ignatian spirituality, like him, and were founded by a Jesuit priest.

Without waiting for the translation, he looked at Sister Joan Marie and said, “Ah! Four to one.”

It was just one of the moments when his humanity and humor came through, Sister Marcia said.

Another came at the end of the conversation.

“As we got ready to leave, the Pope said, ‘They are going to ask you what we talked about. You should say the joy of the Gospel,’” Sister Marcia recalled. “Then he laughed and said, ‘We can say that without lying.’”

He gave each sister a red-bound copy of the exhortation and a rosary.

Three weeks later, Sister Marcia remained moved by the experience.

The takeaway for her was “the realization that he got it, he got what the LCWR is about, he valued us and respected what we had to say.

“The four of us have never talked about it, but that realization was just overwhelming, considering what we and LCWR had been through for six long years.

“This was much more a visit than an audience.”








2 thoughts on “Sister Marcia Allen & an extraordinary Vatican meeting

  • May 17, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    So pleased to read this. A group of us at our parish in Seattle, St. Mary’s, read The Joy of the Gospel with great discussions about the breath of fresh air our Francis brings to the Church.
    Thank you Sr. Marcia for all the work you do and will be doing with LCWR. I’m also so proud to be a graduate of Salina’s Sacred Heart High School and having had the opportunity to be influenced by the CSJs of Concordia.

  • May 15, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    How beautiful and how charismatic.

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