Category Archives: 50th Anniversary

Called to Action: NETWORK’s 50 Years of Political Ministry

“Called to Action: NETWORK’s 50 Years of Political Ministry” by Mara D. Rutten

Book Review

Review by Sr. Susan Rose Francois, CSJP

In her book, “Called to Action: NETWORK’s 50 Years of Political Ministry,” Mara D. Rutten offers a well-researched, engaging, and comprehensive history of the nation’s first Catholic Social Justice lobby. Through first-person interviews, archival documents, and narrative storytelling, Rutten documents the creative and faithful response of Catholic sisters to the call of the Second Vatican Council to read and respond to the signs of the times through the birth and development of this collaborative political ministry. In the process, she also weaves together a variety of seemingly disparate yet intersecting threads—the renewal of religious life, feminism, social concerns, single issue politics, church and state, and the role of the laity. The resulting work not only creatively tells the story of NETWORK, but also gives the reader an insightful perspective on the tapestry of social, political, and ecclesial life in the United States during the past half century.

No doubt, some readers may have lived through much of this history themselves, perhaps even as supporters and participants in NETWORK’s early efforts to seek systemic change and justice in the world through advocacy for economic justice, led by women religious who had personal experience accompanying people most impacted by unjust public policies. Rutten makes these early days come alive, managing the difficult task of painting a dynamic picture of organizing meetings and policy debates through the judicious use of first-person accounts and archival materials. As a relative late-comer to this movement inspired by Catholic sisters—I am the same age as NETWORK and was a Nun on the Bus in 2016—I found myself enthralled and invested in the narrative. Moreover, Rutten highlights a clear thread of intentionality and integrity throughout the journey, even amidst challenges and controversy in both political and ecclesial spheres.

Rutten begins her narrative later in the story, with the 2012 appearance of then Executive Director Simone Campbell, SSS on The Colbert Report, following the Vatican’s naming of NETWORK in the document announcing the doctrinal assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. While not explicit, when read in the larger context of the time, the Vatican officials’ concern seemed to be the focus of NETWORK’s advocacy—applying Catholic Social Teaching to issues of social and economic justice—as well as “promoting certain radical feminist themes.” Careful readers will see this as a reference to the reality that NETWORK was not actively advocating on the issue of abortion.

“Called to Action” gives critical context here, carefully outlining the initial and subsequent discernment by NETWORK founders and leaders to center their advocacy work on the “bottom drawer issues,” including hunger, housing, and militarism. The term refers to the discovery by founding NETWORK Director Carol Coston, OP that the top three and a half drawers of lateral files in the US Bishops Conference covered the issues of federal aid to parochial schools and abortion. All other social concerns were crowded together in the bottom half of the fourth drawer. This was where NETWORK felt called to focus their efforts. This had the result of avoiding duplication of efforts. It also led to criticism of NETWORK from various audiences over the years. Nevertheless, generations of NETWORK leaders and staffers held fast to this commitment to promote Catholic Social Teaching and highlight the critical bottom drawer issues affecting quality of life in service of the common good, taking the message from the halls of power to the highways and byways.

Another narrative theme is the application of the call to universal holiness and the dignity of all persons, particularly women, to NETWORK’s operations and advocacy. On the advocacy side, this led to lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment and health care access. Rutten’s storytelling here both lifts up the unique role of NETWORK in this work and describes some of the pitfalls, detours, and frustrations along the way. In terms of operations, from the beginning NETWORK sought to create an internal system of pay equity and shared collaborative leadership. Rutten carries this thread throughout the history, all the way to the current leadership model of lay women and men with a small number of women religious.

“Called to Action” is filled to the brim with a who’s who of courageous, creative, and faithful people who have carried out this innovative political ministry over the past fifty years—too many to name here. Built on a solid foundation, inspired by sister spirit and fueled by the call and response of the laity, NETWORK continues to focus on the bottom drawer issues in service of the Gospel. Here’s to the next 50 years!

“Called to Action: NETWORK’s 50 Years of Political Ministry” is available for purchase on Amazon for $14.99 and $6.49 on Kindle.

From the Archives: Called to Challenge the Treatment of Poverty

From the Archives: NETWORK’s Vision Comes to Life

Sr. Mara Rutten, RSM
July 20, 2022

Dear Friend,

This week, I am back again with another story about the people and events that made NETWORK the organization it is today. This time, we’ll fast-forward to the 1990s and explore a key project from NETWORK’s long history of advocating for economic justice.

Some of NETWORK’s most spirited organizing and lobbying in the 1990s came in response to President Bill Clinton’s “Welfare Reform.” As far as NETWORK was concerned, the “reform” was an affront to the dignity of the human person, in particular, low-income families. NETWORK made sure the President and Congress knew how unjust the proposed welfare legislation was.

NETWORK's 1977 Legislative SeminarParticipants, 1970's

As President Clinton signed the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act into law, NETWORK staff, including Executive Director Sr. Kathy Thornton, RSM, marched in protest outside the White House gates.

By 1996, we were 20 years into lobbying and organizing and we knew what we had to do: form partnerships, lobby and testify before Congress, and rally at the White House. Of course, we surveyed those closest to the pain of poverty to find out what they actually needed from policy and how they’d be impacted by President Clinton’s new law.

NETWORK believed the measures supported by President Clinton would make life worse for the 35 million people who struggled with poverty. NETWORK wasn’t alone. The Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, the Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and Pax Christi USA joined us to form the Welfare Reform Watch Project.

Our strategy was long range and considered diverse geographical areas. The nationwide, multi-year project rigorously monitored the new legislation in order to evaluate both its effectiveness and its limitations. The first Welfare Reform Watch Project report, “Poverty Amid Plenty,” was released in April 1999.

This report was the focus of NETWORK’s 1999 Lobby Day on Welfare Reform. The day began with a policy seminar on Capitol Hill attended by nine members of Congress and staff from 66 Congressional offices! Then, 62 NETWORK members left to lobby more than 50 Congressional offices.

While the 1999 Lobby Day was quite successful on Capitol Hill (thanks to the 400 NETWORK members who wrote their Members of Congress inviting them to the policy seminar), there would be many more Lobby Days in the years to come. Our economic justice advocacy on the Hill continues to this day, and I look forward to many more successful lobbying efforts in the coming weeks, months, and years.

This essay is part of a collection shared by NETWORK historian, Dr. Mara D. Rutten, to celebrate our 50th anniversary. To read more from the archives, click the links below.

Read From the Archives: NETWORK’s Vision Comes to Life
Read From the Archives: Spirit at Work from the Beginning

NETWORK’s history in our Cool Timeline

Social Poet Award Winners | NETWORK Lobby Celebrates 50 years of Justice

Social Poets are Writing the Future

In Young Activists, NETWORK Sees What Pope Francis Sees

Don Clemmer
May 22, 2022
Social Poet Award Winners | NETWORK Lobby Celebrates 50 years of Justice

NETWORK’s 2022 Social Poet awardees at the 50th anniversary gala, Justice Ablaze.

On his 2015 trip to Bolivia, Pope Francis addressed social activists gathered there for the second World Meeting of Popular Movements. He told them that “popular movements play an essential role, not only by making demands and lodging protests, but even more basically by being creative. You are social poets: creators of work, builders of housing, producers of food, above all for people left behind by the world market.”

The following year, addressing these same groups gathered in Rome, he added that the popular movements “are sowers of change, promoters of a process involving millions of actions, great and small, creatively intertwined like words in a poem.” In his 2021 address to the same gathering, he began simply, “Dear social poets.”

Pope Francis’ messages to the Popular Movements have included some of the most striking rhetoric of his pontificate, decrying demagogues who exploit people’s anger and fear to demonize immigrants and other people pushed to the margins of society. In 2021, he said that protests following the murder of George Floyd most reminded him of the Good Samaritan in the world today.

NETWORK joins Pope Francis in centering the importance of young activists in the work of writing a better future for the world, one that dismantles systemic racism, roots the economy in solidarity, cultivates inclusive community, and transforms politics. So for NETWORK’s 50th anniversary, we honor four young activists as “Social Poets.” The four inaugural recipients of this award write with their lives the challenges and transformative potential that the decades ahead hold for those pursuing justice in the name of the Gospel.

Taylor McGee | Catholic Social Poet
Taylor McGee celebrates her social poets award with her mother at NETWORK's Justice Ablaze gala

Taylor celebrates her social poets award with her mother at NETWORK’s Justice Ablaze gala.

A faith-based justice-seeker studying at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Taylor McGee has a gift for convening people from different backgrounds in faith contexts and using the encounter to open up old or familiar ideas about God and the world in new ways. As a faith and culture leader for St. Edward’s campus ministry, McGee, 20, has led an Earth Day event featuring discussion of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’; a fish fry that invited local Black-owned businesses to campus and featured Black gospel music; and — her favorite — a virtual art exhibit, “Mirroring Mary,” which curated images of Mary from the various cultures represented on the St. Edward’s campus.

“I’ve been so blessed to have a great community given to me and understanding the similarities and differences within that community,” says McGee, adding, “If this is a community that I’m trying to serve, then I need to be in that community.” A Black woman and a cradle Catholic who has had to step back to see the eurocentrism of her own experience of church, she has majored in religious studies because, in part, “As a Black woman, you have to have that credibility.”

She credits Pope Francis for being explicit in his naming of problems in society, since working around problems without naming them leaves room for people to mute them. “I’m still in the South, and I know how things are,” she notes. But still she sees “Do everything in love” as what it is to be a social poet. This means “to be explicit in love and to not condemn and to not condemn people for their unlearning,” which can be challenging in activist spaces. But God invites everyone.

Ivonne Ramirez | Catholic Social Poet

Ivonne Ramirez uses educIvonne Ramirez, Catholic Social Poet Award Winner | NETWORK Lobby Celebrates 50 years of Justiceation and advocacy in her efforts to change the hearts and minds of fellow Catholics regarding the plight of DACA recipients like herself living in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “If you are a devout Catholic, you should be with us, not against us,” Ramirez, 27, says of the need for the Church to be in solidarity with immigrants, especially young people who do not have documented status in the U.S. “These are your neighbors. … We need to teach people what is DACA and what it looks like in our parish.”

Ramirez is a catechist at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a predominantly Spanish speaking low to moderate income parish in Ferguson, Missouri, and also chaperones teen events and is a frequent speaker at parish teen retreats. Her mentor and role model is Sr. Cathy Doherty, SSND. “We’re starting a movement. We’re slowing and surely starting to see,”

Ramirez says of her efforts to educate priests and other church leaders to address immigration with their communities. This includes a recent meeting of several DACA recipients with St. Louis Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski to share their stories.

As DACA recipients can’t vote, she especially wants to communicate to people that they have power to help their neighbors and that who they elect matters. Ramirez also says the popular term for DACA recipients – “Dreamers” – is a misnomer. “We’re not dreaming. We’re actually working for something,” she says.

Marie Kenyon, director of peace and justice for the archdiocese, agrees: “Ivonne is a breath of hope to Hispanic youth in the parish, especially those without permanent legal status. Over the years she has found her voice in expressing and witnessing immigration issues to the church and the region. Her energy, creativity and ways of expressing her faith are just what is needed in our church today. … She is a true servant leader!”

Christian Soenen | Catholic Social Poet

Christian Soenen, Catholic Social Poet Award Winner | NETWORK Lobby Celebrates 50 years of JusticeChristian Soenen has learned the weight of what it means to accompany people on their immigration journey, most recently as an education and advocacy intern at the Kino Border Institute in Nogales, Arizona. “You think that you understand the kinds of things that people are going through,” says Soenen, 23. “I thought I knew what was going on, and then I got to the border. I personally felt very disarmed. … You get very invested in the present, in the people who are suffering presently.”

A graduate of University of Texas at Austin who has engaged in immigration advocacy since high school, Soenen’s experiences at the border confronted him with the crushing impact of a broken system. During his time at Kino, Sr. Tracey Horan, SP, served as a collaborator and guide. “He demonstrates a sincere humility in his awareness both of what he has to offer the movement toward dignified migration and that his efforts are part of something bigger that is beyond him. I have been particularly impressed by his growth in identifying and empowering migrant leadership,” Horan says of Soenen.

“The moment you step away [from the border] it is so easy to forget the weight of that,” Soenen says of the end of his time with Kino. “I don’t think we can allow ourselves to forget.” The border experience has shown him how many dehumanizing structures people acquiesce to on a daily basis, and he adds, “I don’t know how you break out that.”

Despite the hopelessness of the circumstances, Soenen does see the Gospel alive in the struggles of migrant people and those who serve them. “Liberation is the fundamental focus of everything that is prophetic and Gospel,” he says. And the life and death of Jesus shows where God identifies: “We have had the ultimate symbolic example, and we’re still waiting for the world to realize what that means.”

Jennifer Koo | Catholic Social Poet

Jennifer Poo, Catholic Social Poet | NETWORK Lobby Celebrates 50 years of JusticeJennifer Koo first learned about Jesus when she was 17, in a high school history class. Now the only Christian in her multi-faith family of Southeast Asian immigrants, Koo, 24, says her newfound faith “offered me some hope and comfort in trying to grapple with all the inequity and brokenness that I was seeing all around me.”

Koo grapples with human brokenness all the time through her work for RESULTS, an anti-poverty advocacy organization, which she serves from Connecticut. As Koo discovered grassroots advocacy as a young adult, she also discovered a vocabulary to describe the oppression she’d experienced growing up, which “reminded me that I’m not alone in this journey towards justice.”

But while she’s not alone, she recognizes that the journey is different for people of color, people with disabilities, and others. “The stakes of the work that we are involved in, it’s not the same for everyone,” she notes. “This work can be incredibly exhausting and painful and tiring, and it can be very exhausting to feel as though you are being tokenized in a movement.”

One of Koo’s numerous endeavors has been to create self-care resources for activists. “I take this approach of seeing the people inside the advocate. We are not advocacy tools. We are people with our own lives,” she says. Upon learning that she is one of four Social Poets honored by NETWORK, Koo’s first response was to learn about the organization, which led her to being “overjoyed to see that this kind of space exists.”

This includes NETWORK’s commitment to growing as a multicultural, anti-racist organization that prioritizes looking at the person within the advocate. She also appreciates NETWORK giving her “help to contribute in making waves in this movement.” Each Social Poet is receiving $500 and will participate in the Advocates Training as part of NETWORK’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Don Clemmons is NETWORK’s content and editorial manager. This article originally appeared in Connection, NETWORK’s quarterly magazine (Second Quarter 2022 – “Celebrating Sister-Spirit: Our 50-Year Justice Journey”  *Special 50th Anniversary Edition*).

Catherine Pinkerton’s Sister-Spirt Legacy

Prophet of a Future

Julia Morris
May 15, 2022

Sr. Catherine Pinkerton’s Legacy Shapes NETWORK’s Justice Journey Today

Sister Catherine Pinkerton close upOne way to evaluate efforts in social justice is to look at the number of people impacted or helped. For Sr. Catherine Pinkerton, CSJ, this number is upwards of 13.6 million, or the growing number of people signed up for healthcare exchanges through the Affordable Care Act, a number that has reached record highs this year.

Wide-reaching, sweeping reform rarely happens without committed advocates. Guided by her faith and her congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph, Pinkerton diligently served at NETWORK as a lobbyist for 24 years, pushing for legislation that promoted the common good. Her legacy leaves a colossal imprint not only on NETWORK, but on Capitol Hill and federal policies that touch the lives of millions of people.

Radical Ministry

An early advocate for national comprehensive healthcare reform, Sr. Catherine Pinkerton lobbied the Clinton administration a decade before Barack Obama was even in the Senate. As the leader of her congregation, she had sought that every sick and elderly sister be cared for.

Her longtime friend Sr. Sallie Latkovich, CSJ recalls that Catherine’s early support of comprehensive healthcare legislation came from that experience, noting that Pinkerton would often warn her congregation that “healthcare programs would not always be available; that’s what jumpstarted her work to make them stronger.”

Sister Catherine Pinkerton at the ComputerIn 1984, Pinkerton joined NETWORK’s staff. She would say she saw Christ in the Gospels as a justice-seeker working against systems of inequality. In her ministry, she then turned to NETWORK aiming to model herself after Christ’s justice-seeking action by advocating and developing policies around the common good, especially working to ensure that all people living in the U.S. had access to healthcare and housing.

When efforts to craft comprehensive healthcare legislation faltered in the 1990s, Pinkerton became a passionate advocate for the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides health coverage for children in families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford health insurance. Her perseverance and lobbying for comprehensive healthcare reform paved the way for the Affordable Care Act.

Her work was and is cutting edge. In many of the news articles written about her, Pinkerton is regarded as “radical.” In the 1999 book on Pinkerton, “The Genesis and Gestation of a Justice Journey,” author Jacqueline Magness asked her how she might feel about this word.

Pinkerton “smiled and exclaimed, ‘Radical …yes … back to the root. I like it!’” Noted for her ability to analyze a policy issues with speed and precision, Sr. Ann Curtis, RSM described Pinkerton as a “woman of vision … led by a vision of what God desires of us —justice, truth, and a dignified life.”

Pinkerton herself attributed this ability to the process that her community calls “conversion”: “You see it is a three-part process: (a) intellectual contemplation ‘fed with new insights and ideas and challenges’; (b) reflective conversion, ‘the process of making the truth one’s own and changing attitudes and behavior to accord with new insights’; and (c) the conversion of action, ‘the going forth to create with others the structures, processes, and systems that are authentic for what is life-giving.’”

Sister-Spirit Personified

Grounded in the spiritual legacy of Sisters like Catherine Pinkerton, NETWORK pursues Gospel justice with joy, persistence, and a feisty spirit. Former NETWORK Director Sr. Kathy Thornton, RSM, described Pinkerton as someone who won the respect and friendship of the political powers of her time:

“[She has] the ably tease Bill Clinton, confer with Hillary Clinton, and chide Ted Kennedy, who,Pinkerton Lobbying with Sen. BernieSanders when he does not see Catherine for a while, admits to missing her.” Pinkerton’s longtime friend, Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur, who entered Congress the year before Pinkerton joined NETWORK, remembers her “infectious giggle and great sense of humor. She walked thousands of miles through the winding corridors of Congress, back and forth from House to Senate, a highly respected, indeed revered, lobbyist.”

“Even when she felt strongly about an issue, she always treated the other with respect,” notes Latkovich. “She treated them as a person first, not as their opinion.”

In 2008, Pinkerton delivered the benediction at the Democratic National Convention. In 2012, she left Washington and returned home to her community in Cleveland. Never one to be complacent, she stayed active and engaged with her many friends and anyone who might come to her for her guidance. Kaptur recalls, “She listened intently to the nightly news, laughed a lot, never missing a beat even when in her 90s. She remained a trusted counselor and beloved friend throughout her life.

Sr. Catherine was a trailblazer for faith-filled people, and surely women, for generations to come.” Pinkerton died in 2015, yet the impact of her work continues to grow touching lives across the country. A wellknown prayer ends with the line: “We are prophets of a future not our own.” Sr. Catherine Pinkerton truly lived this prayer

Julia Morris is a NETWORK Policy Communications Associate. This article originally appeared in Connection, NETWORK’s quarterly magazine (Second Quarter 2022 – “Celebrating Sister-Spirit: Our 50-Year Justice Journey”  *Special 50th Anniversary Edition*).

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur Celebrates NETWORK Lobby's 50th Anniversary

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur Celebrates NETWORK Lobby’s Legacy of Connecting the Common Good to Politics

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur
July 26, 2022

A Legacy of Connecting the Common Good to Politics is Cause for Thanksgiving

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur is a NETWORK SupporterWe are called to be a sacrificial people. Each person must imbue that call with meaning. The network of parishes, dear priests, Catholic school teachers and administrators, church societies and quarterly church events build community at the parish level. This becomes even more important as modern societies become more transient and often rootless. And that is why it is especially a blessing that, thanks to the vision of women religious – for the past 50 years – this connection has also been represented on Capitol Hill.

I recall well when I was first elected to Congress and sworn in, a dear, diminutive NETWORK Sister by the name of Sr. Bridget O’Malley made a concerted, warm effort to welcome me to Washington. Her kindness was a blessing in those early foundational years. I remember many conversations and lunches with her as she addressed serious topics — B-1 bombers, child hunger, and housing for families in need.

Together, I recall we attended a White House Holiday gathering. With our noses almost pressed against glass cabinets, we admired the White House china collection from all presidential administrations and, of course, the mammoth Christmas tree.

A few years later, a polite, take-charge NETWORK Sister dropped by our office and gingerly but authoritatively took a seat in our office waiting area. She wore sturdy leather shoes with thick soles to manage the miles she walked over her three decades as NETWORK’s top lobbyist. She generally staked out a position outside Members’ offices where she could be certain a Member would walk by. This is how I met the brilliant, indefatigable, good-humored Sister Catherine Pinkerton. A Sister of St. Joseph who left a legacy of education and human development wherever she served – Sr. Catherine was a high respected, indeed revered, lobbyist.

The Roman Catholic faith is a central pillar of my being, particularly as an American of Polish heritage. First, through the intergenerational history of our family, it was the Roman Catholic faith that offered our ancestors worth and hope — during times of bondage, repression, punishment, war, illness, and harrowing economic downturns. Our faith gives value to each human life and to the limitless possibilities of each person and family. This belief animated the tireless work of Sr. Catherine, and it remains with the people who carry on that legacy of advocacy today.

Even when Sr. Catherine retired and returned to live with her community in River’s Edge in Cleveland, she still offered hospitality and counsel to her visitors. When our Congressional district was stretched across Ohio to include Sister Catherine’s residence, she welcomed me to rest there when I was required to stay overnight. That was so extremely thoughtful and appreciated, as our lumbering coastal district requires a more than two-hour drive from one end to the other.

The Catholic Church’s teachings over 2,000 years of human experience provide anchors for values and promote understanding. The preferential option for people experiencing poverty, the enduring call to serve others, and litany of saints remain noble and timeless. It is a faith calling with discipline and love.

And just as faith without works is dead, we owe so much to the NETWORK Lobby for making our faith come alive in the halls of power. Their commitment to the common good has helped ensure that love and care for our neighbors finds expression in federal policy and are lived out more fully on the peripheries and throughout society.

Warmest congratulatory wishes to NETWORK and your faith-filled, devoted membership on your 50th anniversary! Bravo! Onward!

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur represents Ohio’s 9th Congressional District. She has served in Congress since 1983 and is the longest-serving woman in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives. This essay originally appeared in Connection, Second Quarter 2022 – “Networked for Faith and Love: A Legacy of Connecting the Common Good to Politics is Cause for Thanksgiving ”  *Special 50th Anniversary Edition*).

NETWORK Lobby Advocates Training Resources – April 2022

Resources for Your Advocacy

Please use these resources from NETWORK’s 50th Anniversary Advocates Training to help in your Catholic Social Justice journey. The Grassroots Mobilization is also available to help. Contact us if you have any questions.

2022 Advocates Handbook

Your guide to effective social justice organizing and advocacy.

Plenary Session Videos

Joan Neal, Deputy Dir.; Mary Novak, Executive Dir., Gov’t Relations Team, Meg Olson

Racial Justice Plenary

Luke Frederick, Georgetown University & Kara Gotsch, The Sentencing Project

Policy Briefing: Sentencing Reform Legislation

Minister Christian Watkins and Meg Olson

Group Trainings & Breakout Workshops


Reflecting on out time together

Erin’s Good-bye Video

A video of the time we spent together

Sr. Simone receives Medal of Freedom from President Biden

Watch Sr. Simone receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Watch Sister Simone receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom  

Mary J. Novak
July 7, 2022

On July 7, 2022, President Joe Biden awarded Sister Simone Campbell, SSS and 16 other extraordinary Americans with our country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. While leading NETWORK from 2004 to 2021, Sister Simone propelled NETWORK’s mission of political ministry into the national spotlight with her committed advocacy for justice.   

President Biden said that Sister Simone and her fellow medal recipients “embody the soul of the nation — hard work, perseverance, and faith,” and I strongly agree. It is people like Sister Simone and each of you — advocates for justice, participating in politics to dismantle systemic racism and advance the common good — who give me hope.  

As we witness rising tension and growing threats to our democracy, it is more important than ever to lobby for federal policies that dismantle systemic racism and create a country where all people can thrive. 

From the Archives: Called to Challenge the Treatment of Poverty

From the Archives: Centering Encounter for 50 Years

Sr. Mara Rutten, RSM
April 7, 2022

Dear Friend,

As we get ready for our 50th Anniversary Advocates Training and Gala next week, I invite you to reflect on the words of Sr. Jan Cebula, OSF:

“Yes, we face some critical choices as we decide
what kind of a people-a country-we want to be. It’s OUR choice
and we all have decisions to make at this pivotal time. Are
we going to choose: to remain isolated or recognize the strength
of community? To be fearful or reach out with compassion and love?”

~ Sister Jan Cebula, OSF, Nuns on the Bus 2016

In recent years, NETWORK continued to build on the legacy set by the lobbyists and organizers who came before, harnessing the power of community to advocate for federal policy change.

From 2012 up through a virtual campaign in 2020, NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus NETWORK's Nuns on the Bustrips encouraged communities across the country to share their stories of how national policy issues of immigration, health care, and federal budgets are not just statistics, but have real impact on their personal experiences.

NETWORK lobbyists and organizers worked with people in the communities the Bus visited to meet with Members of Congress and advocate for policies that better serve their families and communities.

Throughout 2019 and in early 2020, NETWORK Lobby Raises Rural Voiceswe hosted roundtable discussions listening to diverse groups of more than 250 people living in rural communities all across the United States. NETWORK published a report titled “Raising Rural Voices,” lifting up their hopes and hardships, to help guide federal policy decisions in Washington.

“This report reflects the ‘active listening’ that doesn’t occur frequently enough within states or with policymakers in Washington. Too many decisions are made without understanding the perspective of rural residents or acknowledging the values of shared obligations.”

~ Kathleen Sebelius, Former Kansas Governor and Secretary of Health and Human Services, Forward to “Raising Rural Voices”

And friend, over the last year the NETWORK community has continued to prioritize encounter in our organizing. NETWORK's Title 42 White House ProtestJust last December, more than 80 Catholic Sisters and their advocacy partners rallied outside the White House to bear witness to their experiences serving migrants at the Southern Border and protest the inhumane misuse of Title 42 and call for its end. While strides forward have been made, there is still much to do in order to build a humane and just asylum system.

As we celebrate NETWORK’s 50th Anniversary, we recommit to centering encounter in our advocacy. This important work can only happen in community, and we are grateful to count you as part of our NETWORK community.

I have enjoyed sharing my stories with you over the past few weeks. Through the many changes in technology and shifts in politics over the years, NETWORK has remained steadfast in our political ministry. Together, we will continue to work for economic and social transformation for many years to come.

Read From the Archives: NETWORK’s Vision Comes to Life
Read From the Archives: Spirit at Work from the Beginning
Read From the Archives: Called to Challenge the Treatment of Poverty

The Weight of Something Precious

The Weight of Something Precious

In NETWORK, Catholics Sisters Have Built a True Legacy

We seldom end up where we expect in life. We think we have a clear vision of where we’re going, but the Spirit blows where it will, and our God is one of surprises. As I transition into the role of NETWORK’s first Chief of Staff, this rings true for my journey — from a social worker, to an Ursuline Sister of Cleveland, teacher, and school administrator. And now here I am, unexpectedly receiving a legacy shaped and handed down by the women religious who have come before me. As a Catholic Sister, I approach this moment with a deep awareness of its gravity.

You know something is well constructed and even valuable when it’s heavy. And that is definitely the case with NETWORK. In Catholic spaces, we throw around a word like tradition, forgetting that it has real weight. Fifty years ago, 47 women religious came together to discern, pray, and ultimately build on a vision for a better church and world by founding NETWORK. Emboldened by the spirit of their visionary founders and foundresses, these women heeded the call of the Second Vatican Council to breathe new life into their community charisms.

These dynamic and visionary women were grounded in a common call – to dismantle systems of racism, oppression, and inequality. This call was rooted in first-hand encounter and accompaniment of men, women and children who were suffering extreme poverty with limited access to healthcare and housing. I imagine the passion and resolve of these women came from their hearts being broken open by the suffering of those they loved and served. You might say these women had hearts ablaze for what they knew was possible — a way forward for the common good.

NETWORK has been blessed with an incredible legacy of women religious leaders who read the signs of the times and responded accordingly — Carol Coston, Maureen Kelleher, Nancy Sylvester, Catherine Pinkerton, Kathy Thornton, Simone Campbell — each sister receiving the torch from the sister and staff who served before her. I believe these women were called to serve for a particular moment in history and were blessed with the “grace of the office.”

But even these Sisters didn’t end up exactly where they expected. On issues including equal rights for women, universal health care, voting rights, and essential reforms of our immigration and criminal legal systems, the better future envisioned by NETWORK remains just that. This too is the weight of tradition, that we faithfully and persistently do our part, in cooperation with the Spirit, but also leave much for those who will follow us.

There is no question that the ministry of educating, organizing and advocating can be daunting at times. However, when a network comes together to support each other and the work; good things happen. I believe every generation is called to embrace and claim their moment in history. I too have had my heart broken open by the people I have encountered in my ministry. It has transformed me within, and as a woman religious, I know that interior transformation must precede work for social and economic transformation.

I am proud to take my place among the holy men and women who make the work possible, who keep alive NETWORK’s hope and vision for a more just and inclusive society. Thank you for your faithfulness to NETWORK these past 50 years. I look forward to serving with each of you as we carry the mission long into the future.

Erin Zubal, OSU, is an Ursuline Sister of Cleveland and NETWORK’s first Chief of Staff. She previously participated in NETWORK’s “Nuns on the Bus” campaigns and served as Chair of the NETWORK Advocates Board. This article originally appeared in Connection, NETWORK’s quarterly magazine (Second Quarter 2022 – “Celebrating Sister-Spirit: Our 50-Year Justice Journey”  *Special 50th Anniversary Edition*).

Action of the Spirit

Action of the Spirit

Sr. Mara Rutten, RSM
May 2, 2022

Sisters Answered the Call of the Times in Founding NETWORK

When journalist Ruth Dean of the Washington Star News visited the offices of NETWORK in 1974, she was surprised to find the staff of Catholic Sisters —“not in uniform” — busy planning their third legislative seminar focusing on taxes, criminal justice, and campaign reform. After two years, the sisters’ engagement in “political ministry” was still newsworthy.

It had been less than It had been less than 10 years since American sisters had,in response to the Second Vatican Council’s call for renewal, shed their distinctive dress and entered into new ministries. This brought them into close contact with the social sins of racism, sexism, and indifference, and showed them the need for systemic change.

The founding of NETWORK sought to address these systemic injustices directly in a political ministry of lobbying at the federal level. Its spark stemmed directly from the movements flowing through the church in the council’s wake, and the sisters who participated in the founding still recall the power of that moment.

Hearing the call
Action of the Spirit Trinity Washington University, the site of the December 1971 meeting, when NETWORK was founded, and many Legislative Seminars in subsequent years.

Trinity Washington University, the site of the December 1971 meeting, when NETWORK was founded, and many Legislative Seminars in subsequent years.

When Pope Paul VI issued “A Call to Action” and the Synod of Bishops released “Justice in the World” in 1971, stating that “politics are a demanding manner … of living the Christian commitment to the service of others,” and that “action on behalf of justice” was “a constituitive dimension of preaching the Gospel,” the sisters heard it as their own call to action.

Activist Sr. Marjorie Tuite, OP, who trained organizers at the National Urban Training Center in Chicago, seized the moment. Tuite, who believed that there was “no way to do political work unless you are networked to others doing the same,” raised the possibility of organizing women religious at a Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry (CCUM) meeting in October of that year.

She discussed the issue with Sr. Mary Reilly, RSM, Sr. Claire Dugan, SSJ, and Msgr. Geno Baroni. Baroni, who served in the U.S. Catholic Conference’s urban task force, had tried to organize a lobby of priests but had gotten nowhere. They decided to sponsor a three-day workshop at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. on the subject that December.

Sr. Carol Coston, OP, First Executive Director, NETWORK Lobby Endowment Fund Celebrates 50 years of Justice

Sr. Carol Coston, OP

The invitation went out to known activist sisters, but news of the meeting spread, and most of the attendees found their way through word of mouth. Sr. Carol Coston, OP, who would go on to be NETWORK’s first director, did not receive an invitation but tagged along from Florida with Sr. Kathy Gannon, OP.

Student Sr. Elizabeth Morancy, RSM, went because she was told that “you’d like this meeting. They’re going to talk about ‘Call to Action’.”

Sr. Teresina Grasso, SP, and Sr. Peggy Neal lucked into invitations when Tuite stopped by each of their ministries. “She cast a wide net, and I got caught in the net,” Neal remembered. “So I put out the word that I had a car and a few others joined me,” though “no one with good sense leaves Kansas in a car in December.”

Sr. Cartona Phelan, the provincial of the Clinton Franciscans, gave Sr. Marilyn Huegerich permission because she thought it would be a good idea for the young sister to see
Washington, then decided to join her, making her one of four provincials attending the meeting. “Everyone thought she brought me along,” Huegerich recounted. “But she came with me!”

Eventually 47 sisters from 21 states arrived at Trinity.Among them were social workers, teachers, students, congregational leaders, and advocates for civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-poverty programs. For some of the younger sisters, it was their first exposure to the work.

Sr. Angela Fitzpatrick, OSU, was “in awe. I was only 25 years old and not too involved yet, but I was aware that these women were very serious about what they were about.” Huegerich concurred. “I was so impressed with the women, how competent and diverse their experiences. My eyes were opened, being from Iowa.”

Getting organized

The organizers wasted no time. Neal remembered her worldview shifting as she listened to Baroni’s emotional opening speech about the need to affect change through political involvement.“He put the human element in what I heard on the news…I got a kick in the seat,” recalled Grasso. She remembers them discussing “how many lobbied for their own issues, like big business, and there was no voice for the poor, or justice issues
in general, or working people whose voices went unheard.”

Tuite urged them on, declaring that it was “time for sisters to move from service to change…out of the convents and into the streets and the halls of Congress!”

To be effective, however, the sisters needed to know about more than just the issues; they needed to understand how to do political work. On Saturday, they went to Capitol Hill to learn about the legislative process with Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s staff, then about the “Black agenda” for the 1970s with James Gibson of the Potomac Institute.

That afternoon, a number of speakers went deeper into how to affect change in the federal government. All of this was very inspiring to the newly-initiated; Neal remembered the only woman who came to speak, Anona Teska, of the League of Women Voters, in particular.

“I wanted to join!” she said. “And I did!”

By Sunday morning, the sisters were enthusiastic about the idea of political ministry but had trouble coming to a consensus.Then Sr. Audrey Miller, CDP, made a suggestion which not only impacted the direction of the meeting, but of the organization that would be born of it. For two days, she had been sensitizing the other sisters to the fact that the conference facilitators, as well as most of the speakers, were men.

“I wonder what others feel, talking about organizing women religious,” she said, “when the only leadership thus far has come from white males.”

Jerry Ernst, who worked with Baroni and had been facilitating, handed her the chalk. “Come on up and take over,” he said.

Becoming a force

Immediately, the tone of the meeting changed, and a mood of confidence emerged. “Her intervention became a galvanizing event and helped us find our collective voice,” Coston later wrote. “Once the women took over the meeting, we said, what is it that we really want to do? It seemed clear to me that a consensus was building that we should go ahead and take the step toward a national network.”

Coston offered a motion to “form a political action network of information and communication.” The motion passed.

Miller then appointed a steering committee to meet in January to set up a network, establish contacts with existing organizations, explore possibilities of types of political action, plan a weekend and summer workshop to involve other sisters in political activity, and, in order to accomplish any of those things, identify and screen people for permanent staff.

Answering the call, taking the lead and relying on action of the spirit, NETWORK Foundresses (left to right) Liz Morancy, Sr. Carol Coston, OP, and Sr. Mary Hayes, SSNDdeN founded NETWORK

NETWORK Foundresses (left to right) Liz Morancy, Sr. Carol Coston, OP, and Sr. Mary Hayes, SSNDdeN gathered at “Spark of the Spirit,” December 2021.

“As I recall,” Coston later wrote, “the main criterion for serving on the committee, besides interest, was having the finances to get back to Washington.” Finances were no small concern for a group who held a vow of poverty in common. Phelan, who had “tagged along” with Huegerich, suggested they take up a collection, which yielded $147. Each sister then pledged to raise $50 for the cause, and were creative about it: Upon their return home, Mercy Sisters Liz Morancy and Mary Reilly worked at a local department store for the rest of the Christmas season to raise their share.

They had answered the call to action. These women who, less than a decade earlier, wore habits and ministered in congregational or diocesan ministries had come together and formed the nation’s first Catholic social justice lobby. In the years to come, the sisters of NETWORK and the clergy, brothers, and lay men and women who would join their ranks as members, interns, associates, and staff would continue to take “action on behalf of justice” by educating, organizing, and lobbying.

Sr. Angela Fitzpatrick, reflecting back on the last 50 years, gave voice to the spirit of that 1971 meeting and the work still being done today. “If we really became united,” she said, “we could be a dangerous force. We could really affect change, and change the world.”

Mara D. Rutten PhD is a candidate with the Sisters of Mercy and NETWORK’s historian. This article originally appeared in Connection, NETWORK’s quarterly magazine (Second Quarter 2022 – “Celebrating Sister-Spirit: Our 50-Year Justice Journey”  *Special 50th Anniversary Edition*).