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In chosing next pope, will Holy Spirit ‘do her thing?’

Pope Benedict XVI is flanked by his private secretary Archbishop Georg Gansweas he arrives for his weekly general audience Paul

Pope Benedict XVI is flanked by his private secretary Archbishop Georg Ganswein as he arrives for his weekly general audience at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Wednesday Feb. 13, 2013. Thousands of people flooded the Vatican's main audience hall Wednesday for Pope Benedict XVI's first public appearance since his bombshell resignation announcement, taking advantage of his second-to-last public audience before retiring at the end of the month. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

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Updated: March 17, 2013 6:23PM

When I asked Sister Rita Mary Phalen what she thought about the sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI earlier this week, the first word out of her mouth was “shocked.” Then, just as quickly, she added, “I thought it took a lot of courage, don’t you?”

The fact this 73-year-old sister at Our Lady of Good Counsel Convent in Aurora even wanted my thoughts is why I love the women of the church so much. They genuinely care about what others think and feel; they are down to earth with both feet planted in the real world. And they are as willing to listen as they are to lead ... qualities often lacking in our secular and religious worlds today.

They are also not shy about revealing what’s on their minds — politely, respectfully — when it comes to the church and what some consider too much emphasis put on the hierarchy and its policy, and not enough on the people themselves.

Phalen, who has worked for three decades in religious education and is now in pastoral care, admits she was “not a fan” of Pope John Paul II’s “ultra conservative views.” And the long-time nun, who admits to “alternating between he and she” when praying to God, believes if more sermons were about kindness and less about abortions and homosexuality, the church would be better off.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” she said, “if the new pope, when he visited other countries, would meet with the common folks instead of its leaders. Do you know what that would mean to the church?”

Phalen says those feelings are shared by most of the people in her circle — lay as well as religious, men as well as women — who are actively involved in the church. Certainly her thoughts are echoed by Mary Jo Hazard of Naperville, an executive coach by profession who was in the convent for six years. Though she never took her final vows and has been married for over 30 years, Hazard has served as a long time associate with the Order of St. Joseph, “supporting their vision and mission.”

“It was a sad moment for me,” Hazard said, when Pope Benedict last April reprimanded the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group of sisters that makes up about 80 percent of U.S. congregations, for what he called an agenda of “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

It wasn’t that they were supporting abortion, euthanasia and same sex marriages, says Hazard, as they were simply not speaking up about these issues — choosing instead to focus on social justices. That public dressing down by the Vatican, however, turned out to be a positive thing, many say, because it focused attention on what this vital religious group was all about — bringing a groundswell of support worldwide and motivating its nuns to work even harder.

“The people are behind the sisters,” Phalen said. “They realize how many lives they touch in the real world.”

It’s that real world — where people are more educated and informed — they insist, that the church should be addressing. It should be less on the hierarchy and more on what Jesus would do.

The Rev. William Etheredge, principal of Aurora Central Catholic High School and another outstanding communicator, stays away from labels like conservative and liberal — but believes the next pope will be similar to his predecessors. And although the church is far from allowing married or female priests, he agrees it needs to “be inviting to everyone.”

You can’t share the message of the church without open-minded conversations, he added. “They need to listen as well as teach.”

That’s why Phalen describes these upcoming months after the pope’s resignation as “exciting times.” Likewise, Hazard views the news with “a glimmer of hope that the Holy Spirit will do her thing” — and that will lead to “putting people over policy.”

“What struck me about his resignation,” said Hazard, “is that Pope Benedict said he had to follow his conscience. And I thought, my goodness, that’s all we are doing, too.”

Both she and Phalen believe change needs to come from the bottom up — and that the women of the church have no intention of silencing their voices. “We don’t need to fight,” Hazard concludes. “Let’s dialogue, instead.”

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